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Why is "R" so hard

Written by Jessica Hawkins, MA, CCC-SLP

It's the question I hear often. Whether from a distressed parent or a curious professional, such as doctors and dentists....everyone wants to know: "Why is "R" so hard?" As a speech-language pathologist, it is my job to "fix" "R" difficulties, but, the truth is, it's a challenge for me too! There are several reasons why "R" is so difficult for SLP's to teach and for kids to learn to produce.

Unlike sounds such as "T,F,M, and B," there is not a "one size fits all" placement for producing "R." Some people produce the sound with their tongues bunched up and elevated in the back of their mouths while others elevate and curl their tongue tips to form a backward "C." It is key for your SLP to help your child figure out how they naturally produce "R" and to work through placement activities to find the optimal position for their individual production.

Additionally, "R" is not just one sound. Not only does "R" occur as a consonant at the beginning of words, such as "red," but it also occurs after vowels (vocalic "R"). When "R" is vocalic, there are several variations of "R" depending on the vowel (ar, air, ear, ire, or, er). Because each vowel is produced differently, these vowels influence the way "R" is produced. These combinations can be produced in the initial "airplane", medial (fairy), and final (fair) positions of words and may be influenced by the other sounds within the words. Furthermore, "R" is also produced in difficult "rl" combinations (girl) as well as consonant blends (cr, br, dr, etc). When you take all of this into account, there are over 30 forms of "R"!

Further complicating issues is the fact that "R" is not a visible sound, meaning it is difficult to see what movements are necessary to make the sound correctly. When you look in the mirror, it is easy to see that to say "F" you need to position your upper teeth on your lower lip or that to make a "B" you put your lips together. When making an "R" sound, however, it is a variety of external cues such as diagrams, model mouths, tactile prompts (e.g., touch cues, lollipops, tongue depressors) and kinesthetic cues to help their clients visualize and feel how and where "R" should be produced. They also do their best to verbally describe placement and give specific feedback during practice. While these are helpful tools, they are still not a replacement for being able to clearly see placement.

When it comes to articulation, "R" is one of, if not the most, complex sounds to teach and learn. Given the above information, it is no wonder that many children make this common articulation error and need to work to remediate it. As with all articulation errors, consistent therapy is key to success. Once initial placement is accomplished, children gain a sense of confidence and control. It is important to emphasize repetition and incorporate ongoing feedback to help establish the motor pattern to correctly produce "R" in a variety of contexts. It is also crucial to ask your SLP for activities you can use at home to facilitate generalization of skills. To you and your child, "R" therapy may seem like a long and winding road; however, hard work and diligence (and maybe a few lollipops along the way) will lead to success!

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