Trouble with the /R/ Sound (Rhotacism)? Read This Guide

Trouble with the /R/ Sound (Rhotacism)? Read This Guide

Many children and adults experience problems pronouncing the /r/ sound and are unsure of whether they can fix it or if speech therapy is needed? The /r/ sound is one of the most difficult consonants in the English language to master, so in this article, we cover some important information about the speech issue called rhotacism.


One of the most frequent speech errors that children make as their speech develops is the /r/ sound. It is also one of the most difficult to learn and master. Yet your child can achieve success with good direction, and enough practice, and repetition.


Why is Saying the /r/ Sound so Hard?


There are various reasons that make mastering the /r/ sound so difficult. Here are some reasons why:


  • Vowel Placement: when the /r/ sound comes before a vowel or after vowel, it affects the pronunciation of the /r/ sound. Say the combinations “ar” “air” “ear” “er” “or” and “ire” and notice how each one affects the sound differently
  • Position in a Word: the vowel combinations above are also affected by their position in the word. The sound can be in the beginning, middle, or final position.
  • Combinations with Consonants: /r/ also becomes more difficult to produce when it is in a combination with a consonant such as “tr,” “br,” “str.”
  • How it is Produced: since the /r/ sound is made exclusively by the position of the tongue, it is significantly more difficult to picture than other sounds. Other sounds are easier to model and visualize for children. For example the /p/ or /th/ sounds are easy to show a child. The placement of the lips or tongue are easy to demonstrate and help a child produce accurately.


The /r/ sound has more variations than just about any other sound in the English language. Yet rhotacism is still possible to remedy and produce correctly.


At What Age Do Children Say the /r/ Sound Correctly?


While children learn to correctly produce different sounds at different ages, each sound in the English language has a certain age at which it is mastered.


Around the age of 6, a child should be able to produce the /r/ sound accurately in everyday conversational speech.


Yet it may be right to start working on decreasing rhotacism even earlier than age 6. Why? Because the longer one waits, the harder the sound is to fix. In addition, children who have difficulty with the  /r/ sound may sometimes seem less mature than their classmates.


If you see that your child is making improvements on their own over time, this is great. Yet sometimes correct production plateaus and more complex production remains difficult. If around age 6 rhotacism is still an issue, speaking with a speech therapist may be a good idea.


Is there a Cause for Rhotacism?


There is no definitive cause for trouble with the /r/ sound. Sometimes, a child with a tongue-tie (ankyloglossia) may have more trouble since it limits the movement of the tongue, which is critical for correct speech production.


Another potential reason is that a child has a speech sound disorder which affects placement of the oral structures. Lastely, there may be more severe disorders such as apraxia of speech. Yet those would affect many more sounds than just the /r/ sound.


No matter the cause, speech therapy can help a child who has rhotacism.


Typical Errors in /r/ Sound Production


When a young child tries to say words with the /r/ sound, they may end up making a few common errors.


The /r/ sound is usually substituted for the /w/ sound. For example, the word “run” may sound like “wun” or “cherry” can sound like “che-wy.”


Words that end with the /r/ sound may be produced differently. For example, the word “mother” may be pronounced as “muthuh,” or the word “bear” may be pronounced as “be-uh.”


When is a Child Ready to Practice the /r/ Sound?


There are a few ways for parents to tell if a child is ready to work on the /r/ sound:


  • Imitation: One method is to see if a child can correctly imitate the sound  /r/ by itself (in isolation), even with some assistance. If a child needs a lot of cueing or modeling, they might not be ready to practice yet.
  • Can they tell the difference between correct vs. incorrect production: Can they distinguish between the correct and incorrect production of the /r/ sound in a word? If not, it is important to start by working on their ability to discriminate the correct /r/ sound before moving ahead with practice.
  • Age: When a child is very young, it is worth giving them some more time, and to monitor their production. If they are approaching the age of 6 and still have trouble, it may be time to get some help from a speech therapist.

Correct Tongue Positions for /r/ Production


There are two alternative tongue positions that might be employed when producing the /r/ sound. They are called the “bunched position” and the “retroflexed position.” Here they are described:


  • Bunched Tongue Position: there is a lot of tension in the tongue and it should be pulled back and bunched up in a mound.
  • Retroflexed Position: For this version, the tongue curls and points back towards the throat.


(Delattre & Freeman 1968)


Tips for Practicing the /r/ Sound


If you would like to help your child work on their /r/ sound production at home, here are some tips:


  • Giving your child visual cues: this can be beneficial in helping produce the /r/ correctly. This can be done with a mirror to show them where to place their lips or tongue.
  • Use other materials and toys: other visuals to model the correct shape of the tongue. Use play-doh or shape your hand in to mimic the correct shape of the tongue. Use a visual to better explain tongue position, such as demonstrating with your hand to show the shape of the tongue, or make your own visual of the tongue shape (play-doh works great!). You can also try to model the /r/ tongue position for your child, opening your mouth slightly and pointing.
  • Remind them to tense their tongue: If your child’s /r/ sound still doesn’t sound right after a lot of practice, remind them to keep their tongue “tight.” Tongue tension is needed for proper pronunciation.
  • Remind them to touch the back of their mouth: Remind your child to maintain their tongue high enough in their mouth and use their tongue to touch the inside of their upper rear molars on the back side.
  • Practice ten minutes every day: it’s very easy to slide back into old patterns. You child will need to practice often to learn to reposition their tongue and keep it there for production during speech.

Ways to Practice the /r/ Sound at Home


Here are some fun ways to practice the /r/ should at home with your child:


  • Read books and catch the /r/ sound: Have your child point out each /r/ sound that they read or hear you pronounce when you read books with them. They can also catch you saying it correctly or incorrectly.
  • Talk about anatomy: Talk to your child about how the tongue is a muscle that needs to be “tight and powerful.” You can show them how they can tighten their fists or biceps to note how it feels when a muscle is tight and relaxed. Your child can better grasp how to produce work on speech skills by practicing it in other activities.
  • Make a play-doh model: Make model tongues out of play-doh and place them in the bunched or retroflexed position, depending on your child’s preference. This can help visual learners.
  • Integrate practice into other games: Play a turn-taking game with your child to practice the target /r/ sounds. You can play a card or board game and have them say the /r/ sound three times before each turn.

How to Help at Home When Your Child Improves


The ultimate objective of all speech practice is for children to be able to use their newly acquired speech skills in everyday speaking situations. Here are some ideas for working on the /r/ sound when your child has progressed beyond words and needs to practice in conversation.


  • Talk about their day: When your child likes to talk, tell them you’ll pay attention to their correct /r/ sound. Talk about anything for 5-10 minutes and note how they are making their /r/ sound. Do they self-correct when they make an error?
  • Story retell: have your child retell a favorite story. If they mispronounce a word, give a visual cue that they need to correct like raising your hand.
  • Rhyming Poems/Tongue Twisters: You can say these for an extra laugh and if your child is ok with making a mistake sometimes. Repeat rhymed poems (such as “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”) and try a tongue twister like “I scream, you scream, we all scream, for ice cream.”

Speech Therapy Online for Rhotacism


Online articulation therapy for improving the /r/ sound is a great way to allow the therapist and child to practice speech.


A formal evaluation by the treating speech therapist is the first step in treating the /r/ sound. This assessment helps the speech therapist to determine which sorts of /r/ sounds a child is having trouble with, as well as whether other speech sounds need to be addressed. Therapy goals are developed in light of the results of the evaluation.


During subsequent sessions, the speech therapist will work with a child on these specific goals. In order to elicit regular practice of the /r/ sound, they will most likely use a variety of games and activities that are age appropriate and the child enjoys. The speech therapist will also provide suggestions for homework that the parent/caregiver and child can do throughout the week. The more practice and repetition, the faster a child will achieve their communication goals and learn the /r/ sound at the conversational level.


When Will a Child Graduate from Speech Therapy for Rhotacism?


The time it takes to fix /r/ productions varies depending on the child. Some factors that influence the total length of speech therapy include:


  • How old the child is
  • Is the child starting speech therapy aware that there is an issue to work on?
  • Is the child able to quickly learn the /r/ sound in isolation
  • The amount of different types of /r/ sounds needed to work on
  • Is the child motivated to improve
  • How often does the child practice at home aside from speech therapy sessions


Therapy Works Together – Online Speech Therapy for Children and Adults


We care about every child and adult achieving their speech, language and communication goals. You can start speech therapy online now with a certified speech language therapist. We’ll discuss your personal needs, develop an individualized treatment plan, and schedule affordable online therapy sessions online at your convenience.

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