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Teaching the R Sound in Speech Therapy

Teaching the R sound in speech therapy can be stressful for a speech therapist. Children with speech sound disorders may have difficulty with saying r words. In this blog post, I’m sharing a simple, 5-step strategy SLPs can use to teach the r sound successfully and without frustration. Many students with articulation disorders have difficulty producing the R sound. Older students who have been in speech therapy for years may be feeling frustrated. Luckily, there are many elicitation techniques that can be successfully used to treat R sound errors in speech therapy! Speech pathologists interested in teaching the R sound should make sure to bookmark this post for future reference. Trying different things can really change this game when treating this tricky sound!

how to teach the r sound speech therapy

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Different Types of R

When Speech Pathologists are working on the “R” sound, specific errors need to be identified. There are many different positions of a word that R can occur in. R can occur in the initial position, medial position, and final positions of words. R can be influenced by vowels, and are known as “vocalic R” sounds (examples: art, orange, car). It can also occur in blends (r blend examples include princess, friend, and grape). It is helpful to figure out specifically which R the student can and cannot say. Christine Ristuccia has developed a very helpful screening form, The Entire World of R. This is a great way to gather baseline information.

Common R Sound Errors

Many students with articulation disorders have a hard time producing a correct R sound. R sound errors can occur for initial r, medial r, and final r sounds. These sound errors can occur in isolation, at the word level, in phrases, at the sentence level, and in conversation. It isn’t uncommon that R and vocalic R sounds are the last sounds left to target in speech therapy.

Perhaps that’s why the R sound has the bad reputation of being a “pesky sound”.

  1. Oftentimes in younger children, the w sound is substituted for the R sound. An example might be “wabbit” for “rabbit”. Minimal pairs might be useful in this situation.
  2. Occasionally, students might substitute l for r (for example, “light” for “right”).
  3. R might also be substituted by a “y” sound (an example would be “ram” vs “yam”).
  4. Other R speech sounds might lose their “R” quality and sound more like a vowel sound. “ER” might be placed by a neutral schwa, for example.

A licensed speech-language pathologist can listen carefully to distinguish which r sound errors a student might be making.

References: Bauman-Waengler, J.A. Articulatory and Phonological Impairments: A Clinical Focus. Third ed., Pearson Education Limited, 2013. 

Additionally, students may have difficulty with r blends. For example, in the word “frog”, a w might be substituted for an r (fwog).

Proper Tongue Placement

There are different ways to produce R. This is why it is helpful to establish what type of R sound a student will be most successful with during articulation therapy.

When teaching tongue position, it is helpful to use a visual cue paired with a tactile cue.

The retracted r is also called the bunched r. The tip of the tongue is retracted and the tongue is “bunched” and “lifted” toward the pharynx. In simplified language, it is “bunched up” and “pulled back”.

A retroflex R involves the tip of the tongue being raised to the roof of the mouth, specifically to the alveolar region. The rest of the tongue is essentially flattened.

bunched r vs retroflex r

Research, Videos, and CEU Courses

A speech language pathologist often reviews research-based articles and takes continuing education. Here are some recommended articles, videos, and CEU courses:

  1. R Techniques and Intervention to Correct R- Seven Steps, From Basics to Habituation– a CEU course by Sandra Holtzman, M.S., CCC-SLP, COM, QOM
  2. Successful R Therapy– a CEU course by Pam Marshalla
  3. How To Treat R– this is a youtube video I created to share my favorite tips and tricks!

Recommended R Materials for SLPs

There are some materials I like to have on hand when teaching the R sound. Here is a short list:

  1. Tongue depressor: a tongue depressor is a wonderful way to assist with tongue placement and positioning.
  2. A mirror: the use of a mirror allows my students to make sure they are not moving their jaw too much while producing the R sound.
  3. Comprehensive R Program

Some SLPs have found success using speech buddies. These include placement guides for producing sounds like R and S.

5 Simple Steps for Teaching the R Sound in Speech Therapy

Teaching the R sound in speech therapy doesn’t need to be so frustrating! Following this 5-step strategic process, which utilizes the foundational skills of orofacial myology, has been an absolute game-changer for me. I know it will be for you, too.

  1. Consider Lingual- Mandibular Differentiation When Teaching R in Speech Therapy

    I always explain to my students the importance of being able to move the tongue without moving the jaw (or lips). These are orofacial myology basics. We need precise, controlled motor movements of the articulators. One thing I have noticed time and time again with my R students is the lateral shifting of the jaw when they try to say “er” in isolation. Others tend to jut the chin forward. Use a mirror and bite blocks to draw awareness to this. With a bite block or stacked tongue depressors, we work on tasks such as moving the tongue tip from one corner of the lips to the other, while focusing on only moving the tongue.

  2. To teach R in speech therapy, start with “er” in isolation

    The first place I start is establishing the “er” sound in isolation. This is based off of Sandra’s Holtzman’s R: Techniques and Interventions ceu course, which was a game-changer for me. If you’re looking to take an amazing CEU course for treating R, look no further. You can establish “er” using either a bunched r or a retroflexed r tongue shape.

    How To Teach Bunched R (Retracted R):
    For a bunched R, I like to use my arms to explain the spread and lift of the tongue. When my student says “uh” instead of “er”, I say, “Try that again. You dropped the sides of the tongue.” I hold my arms out in front of me (hands clasped together), and visually show them “raised sides” vs “flat sides” using my elbows.

    You can also use a tongue depressor to facilitate tongue movement and gently lift the tongue up and back. It may take a few tries, but this can also help elicit the correct production of er.

    Finally, I will also use my hand as a reminder to lift and pull the back of the tongue for the bunched R.

    How to Teach The Retroflex R
    I like to use my hand as a visual cue to teach the retroflex R, with the palm flat and upward, and the tips of my fingers pointing up.

    An older approach you might try is starting from the L sound, then having the student trace the tongue back along the roof of their mouth. This can assist with sound production for ER.

  3. Pair “ER” with other sounds and blends

    After your student can successfully say ER in isolation, you can move on to the next step! This involves practicing the “er” sound in lots of sounds and blend combinations (in both real and nonsense words). This step ensures that your student understands how to control, shape, and place the tongue, in a variety of contexts. For example, you would pair “er” with bilabial sounds (erber) in nonsense word combinations. Later, you would cycle back and practice bilabials again in the final position of words (Decem…ber).

  4. Use “ER” to shape other vocalic r sounds

    You can use a strong foundation in “ER” to shape the other vocalic r sounds when working on R in speech therapy. You will slowly blend “er” into the other vowels or sounds, then try it again at a faster pace. For example, to say “RL” as in “girl”, we say “ER + L” (errrrrr…..L). To say “AR” as in art, we say “AH + ER”. ER is the foundation for all other R sounds.

  5. Use “ER” to shape prevocalic R in speech therapy

    And finally, to elicit the initial R, we can use our “ER” sound (“ERrrrrain…. rain).

    If you would like a great resource with ready-to-go worksheets and words that utilize this approach for treating R in your speech therapy sessions, be sure to check out my Correct that R resource on TpT.

Other things to consider when treating R in speech therapy

There are some other considerations to keep in mind when working on R.

Some of your students may have been in speech therapy for a long time. Trying a fresh new approach might be just what your student needs to see success. This R program incorporates foundational orofacial myology techniques and has allowed me to be highly successful with correcting R sound errors in speech therapy.

A speech pathologist can try wording things differently to describe how the parts of the tongue move and position while producing the target sound.

Also, remember that patience is key. When working on R in speech, I have spent up to two months trying to get “ER” in isolation. It takes focus and a lot of hard work!

Remind your students that their tongue is a muscle. That means they can control it, shape it, and move it.

Try using auditory discrimination. Read R word lists that target a specific sound to your R kids! It can help a little bit to learn to not only say the difference but also to hear the difference.

Some students need to consider lip placement. Sometimes retracting the lips (smiling!) while saying R can help eliminate W in the initial position of words (i.e. “wabbit” for “rabbit”).

Go-To Resources to Teach the R Sound in Speech Therapy

Need a go-to resource that will help you teach the R sound?

Although R can make SLPs feel frustrated to teach, there is good news. Hundreds of speech-language pathologists have trusted this R program, which is based on research, and have seen huge results. It involves a systematic, comprehensive approach that ensures success. It provides several visual supports, and ready-to-go worksheets and activities.

r activity for speech therapy

Jessica G, SLP, said, “I’m so grateful for this resource!!!! Targeting “r” was like my worst nightmare and when students weren’t making progress I felt so discouraged and did not know what else I could do to improve accuracy. Thanks to Karen and this amazing resource, I actually get excited to treat “r” now. The approach used actually works and my students finally seem to understand tongue positioning better (and maybe I do too!). This is definitely worth buying! Thank you!”

Watch this youtube video to learn even more about how to use this resource and approach to treating R.


In summary, it is very possible to successfully teach the R sound in speech therapy! You- and your student- can have great success with this sound! SLPs can teach either the bunched R or retroflex R in therapy. Starting with vocalic ER in isolation is useful before attempting to try to teach other vocalic R sounds.

  1. My go-to resource for teaching the R sound
  2. Try a new way of treat R- check out my favorite CEU course
  3. Here are my favorite tools for helping to teach the R sound: tongue depressors and a mirror

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