If you are working on /r/ in speech therapy, there are two ways to shape this sound: retroflex r and bunched r
SLPs know that working on the /r/ sound in speech therapy can be pretty frustrating. However, this is an area I have studied extensively, and have found great success with. Treating ‘r’ doesn’t need to be so stressful! I have decided to do a series of blog posts discussing ‘all things R‘. Hopefully, you will find this helpful.
There are two ways to produce /r/: retroflex /r/ and bunched /r/.
Which one should you teach your students in speech therapy?
Seriously. Just do what works best for your student.
I will tell you that I have personally found the highest success level with teaching the bunched /r/, but what really matters is what works best for the student. This involves trial and error.
I will also caution you that I never expect my students to learn this sound right away. In fact, it routinely takes my students up to two months to be able to say the “er” sound in isolation- but that’s a whole different blog post.
My point? Just do what works for your student. Either tongue shape is fine.
And also. Patience is key.
Now, let’s dig into the techniques for eliciting R!
Teaching R in Speech Therapy (Bunched R or Retroflex R)
Before You Begin Teaching R
Before I even begin trying to teach R, I always explain to my speech therapy students that their tongue is a muscle.
They can control it, shape it, and move it to where they need it to go.
It will just take practice and lots of patience!
It Doesn’t Matter if You Teach Bunched R or Retroflex R…
Your student still needs to be able to demonstrate lingual-mandibular differentiation. Lingual-mandibular differentiation involves the ability to move the articulators independently, instead of as a grouped unit.
In other words, your student NEEDS to be able to say R without moving the chin. The tongue movement needs to occur by itself.
If your student shifts the jaw side-to-side, or juts their chin forward, when trying to say R in isolation- you’ve got problems. You need to immediately draw this to their attention.
I do this using a mirror. Have your students place their hands on their cheeks to feel the movement.
You can also use your hands to show the movement.
Finally, you might be able to use bite blocks, or stacked tongue depressors, as a way to teach lingual-mandibular differentiation. You can use these while teaching R (“er”) in isolation. You can slowly fade this support as your student learns to say the R sound without moving the chin.
What is Retroflex R?
I basically think of the retroflex ‘r’ as a “backwards c”.
The tongue tip is raised and angled up towards the alveolar ridge, or back towards the throat in a “bowl” shape.
I wouldn’t say it’s “bent”- it is really more of a “curl“.
There is an easy way to know if someone uses the retroflex R tongue shape.
If someone uses the retroflex /r/ tongue shape, you should see the bottom of their tongue when they say /r/.
If you aren’t seeing the bottom of the tongue during R production, that person likely uses the bunched R tongue positioning.
Teaching Retroflex R: Tip 1
Instruct your speech therapy student to say the “AHHHHHHH” vowel and hold it for a long time.
Next, your student will slowly take the tip of his or her tongue and curl it backwards towards the throat.
This should result in an R sound.
To provide some extra assistance, try using your hands as a visual.
While your student says “Ahhhh”, lay your hand out flat, with your palm facing upwards.
Curl the tips of your fingers upwards, and your speech therapy student should use this as a cue to curl his or her tongue tip upwards.
Teaching Retroflex R: Tip 2
Need another way to try to elicit the retroflex r?
Try starting with /l/ sound! Hold the /l/, then slowly slide the tongue back towards the throat. I didn’t make this up- this technique has been around for a very long time.
Teaching Retroflex R : Tip 3
A typodont provides a great visual to show lingual palatal contact.
You can pair this with the tip above (the /l/ tip).
Use your finger to show where the tongue tip should be raised towards when saying the retroflex R. In reality, the tongue tip does not really TOUCH the palate when producing the retroflex R. It is “hanging out in space”. However, this can be a confusing concept to speech therapy students, so giving them a location to aim for is very helpful.
The bunched r is complicated to describe, but it’s the way a lot of the population produces /r/.
First, be aware of your upper back molars. My husband is a dentist, and he would correct me and say “upper posterior molars“. Depends on how fancy you are ;-).
Anyways, the sides of the back part of your tongue will elevate, or lift, and touch the upper back… I mean, upper posterior… molars. The tongue itself is bunched up, and the tip of the tongue is literally retracted, or pulled in, towards the throat.
So, the bunched /r/ involves the ability to spread the tongue and lift the sides, while pushing up against the teeth.
How do I get my students to produce this sound? Let me go over a few techniques to elicit the bunched R.
How to Teach Bunched R – Tip 1
My go-to method: use a tongue depressor.
I have them smile, with their teeth slightly apart, and we “lift up and back”, with a very special focus on lifting the sides of the tongue to touch the molars. We then say “er” while the tongue depressor is in place. Slowly, we fade the use of the tongue depressor.
How to Teach Bunched R – Tip 2
You can teach bunched r using your arms!
I hold my arms out in front of me, with my hands clasped together in front. This makes a “tongue”.
I use my lifted elbows as a reminder of lifting the sides of the tongue while saying “er”.
If my student says “uh”, I let them know they have dropped the sides of the tongue. I show them this by dropping my elbows.
How to Teach Bunched R in Speech Therapy- Tip 3
You can teach bunched R using your hand!
Earlier, I explained how I use my hand as a visual to teach the retroflexed R tongue position in speech therapy.
I use my hand to show the bunched r tongue position as well.
Lay your hand out flat, but this time, your palm should be facing downwards.
Pull your grouped fingers backward, as if you were making a question mark with your hand. This provides a visual for teaching your speech therapy student to lift the tongue up and back to elicit the bunched R position.
How to Teach Bunched R in Speech Therapy – Tip 4
My final tip? Use a typodont paired with highlighter tape!
I found an inexpensive typodont on Amazon. It has pros and cons, but it gets the job done.
Grab some highlighter tape- or dough if you’d prefer.
Use the highlighter tape along the sides of the gums and the upper back teeth – to show where lingual palatal contact occurs when teaching the bunched R. This provides an excellent visual reminder to your speech therapy student to lift the tongue up and back so that the sides are touching the upper back teeth.
Teaching R in Speech Therapy Takes Time
As I said- this can take up to two months.
Yes, you heard me, and I will say it again.
It has taken me up to two months just to teach the “ER” sound in isolation to my speech therapy students!
There is nothing wrong with this. It takes intense focus, practice, and motivation.
Don’t be alarmed if your student isn’t saying R in your first session. It likely won’t happen.
Continue to focus on the basics, reminding your speech therapy student along the way: your tongue is a muscle. You can control it, shape it, and move it where it needs to go.
Need some more support for teaching R in speech therapy?
I wanted to draw your attention to this Youtube Video I created about teaching R in speech therapy.
You can use these tips and tricks immediately, or pair them with my Correct that R resource.
In summary, it is fine if your speech therapy student prefers either tongue shape: bunched /r/ or retroflex /r/.
No matter how you personally produce it, just be prepared to teach either tongue shape.
Also, I will say it one more time: patience is key. I expect to spend months working on vocalic /er/ in isolation. Sometimes, it only takes a few sessions, but I don’t count on this. So, just know that if it isn’t happening right away- give it time.
If you are looking for an in-depth program for correcting vocalic /r/, please check out my Correct that R packet on TpT.