Misarticulation of the phoneme /r/ is a common error. It is one of the last sounds to develop. According to the charts, accurate production of /r/ should be achieved by age 7. That doesn’t mean that if your 5 year old says “wabbit” for “rabbit” or “caw” for “car” you shouldn’t begin to address the error. In my experience, it is rare that a child will learn to self-correct this sound on their own after age 5. Most of the time, you will need intervention from a speech-language pathologist to correct the sound. But, there are things that you as a parent can do too. The speech mechanism (tongue, lips, cheeks, jaw, palate) is a muscle group and often difficulty with /r/ (and other sounds for that matter) is due to muscle weakness. In my practice, I take a muscle-based approach to articulation. Working on the muscles along with lots of repetitive practice is what makes change.
So, here goes….
Stop reading right now and make a long /r/. Hold it and feel where your tongue is. It should be squished in the back with the sides of it touching or resting on your molars. The tongue tip may be up or down. Your lips are in a neutral position. This is the position your child needs to achieve for accurate production. It is typical that children who cannot say /r/ also cannot pull their tongue back into that retracted position.
Now, move from /r/ to /w/….what happens? Your tongue flattens and moves forward. Your lips round. Chances are, this is the position that your child is using for /r/.
So, the task becomes teaching correct placement (tongue retracted, lips neutral) and building the muscular strength to maintain that position. Then, through lots of practice you build muscle memory so that your child can accurately produce the sound all the time without having to think about it. For me, teaching placement is easy….attaining muscle memory is hard.
When teaching this for the first time, use this trick. Tell your child to pretend he has peanut butter stuck to the roof of his mouth. Starting at his teeth, have him lick that peanut butter from his mouth. Lick all the way back. When his tongue is as far back as he can get it, tell him to freeze and make a sound. This should sound like an /r/. Talk about how the tongue is squished in the back, touching the big teeth in the back. Relax, and then try it again.
Next, practice a pirate /arrr/ sound or a bear (or dinosaur or tiger or whatever) growling sound. Starting with an open mouth and quickly moving into the /r/.
If the sound comes out like a /w/, then he is using his lips. When this happens, I have kids practice these movements while smiling. That keeps them from rounding (puckering) their lips.
Sucking and blowing through straws strengthens the muscles in the back of the tongue which are necessary for producing /r/. Try it….put a straw in front of your teeth and close your lips around it. Suck and blow through the straw and you will find your tongue in the retracted position. I suggest that children start using a straw all the time. Start with a hard plastic straw and progress to curly straws (crazy straws). The smaller the diameter of the straw and the more loops it has, the more challenging it will be. Drinking thicker liquids such as smoothies and milkshakes give a good work out. Blowing through a straw achieves the same purpose. Have your child blow bubbles, shredded paper or ping pong balls through a straw. It is important that the straw stay in front of the teeth. If your child bites the straw, they will use a tongue-forward nursing pattern with his non-therapeutic.
Using /r/ in Speech
Draw a road on a piece of paper. Have your child use his finger or a toy car to drive along the road saying /r/. At the end of the road, place a card (or a post-it….one of my favorite things!) with a vowel. Practice saying /r/ plus the vowel. Do this with all of the vowels (ray, ra, ree, ro, etc.). When this task becomes easy and is accurate, introduce simple words and gradually add longer words, then phrases (big rug, my rope, blue ribbon).
Next, create a target list with words that have /r/ in the middle or at the end. These will be vocalic /r/ patterns (er, air, ar, or, ear). I start with patterns that the child can produce successfully and gradually add more patterns. At this point, practice practice practice practice to establish muscle memory.
It typically takes 4 months to achieve correct production of /r/. Starting with adequate muscle strength and tongue movement and then daily practice are essential for success.
Good luck with helping your child accurately produce /r/…..One Word At A Time.