What’s So Hard About the “R” Sound?

Corie Viscomi
Nov 1, 2018 · 3 min read

The “r” sound is widely considered to be the most difficult sounds in the English language.

Misarticulations can vary widely, but the most common “r” errors involve “w” substitutions (such as “wed” for “red”) or distortions (such as “teachuh” for “teacher”). So, what’s so hard about the “r” sound?

There’s More Than One “R”?!

There are over 30 different “r” sounds in English. Consonants and vowels before and after the “r” influence the way we move our mouths, thereby changing the way that the sound is pronounced. Furthermore, “r” is affected by its placement at the beginning, middle or end of a word. So, an “r” before a vowel (such as in “ring”) is produced differently than an “r” after a vowel (like in “teacher”), and an “r” after a consonant (such as in “frog”). This means that a child may have difficulty saying one or more types of “r”, but not necessarily all of them.

How Is It Made?

Aside from the several different “r” sounds that we use in English, there are two different ways to make an “r”. The most common way is a bunched “r”, which is made by pulling the tongue up and back. It stays relatively horizontal and ends up in a tight bunch at the back of the mouth, where the sides of the tongue touch the insides of the back molars and the middle of the tongue creates a basket. The other kind of “r” is called retroflexed. The method also requires the tongue to move up and back. Additionally, the tip of the tongue curls backwards.

Why Else Is It Tricky?

The “r” sound can be difficult for kids to master because it is not visible on the mouth. With no visual cues to help them, they have to rely on their ability to take verbal cues from a speech-language pathologist. Other sounds, such as “th” or “b” are easy to see and simple to explain: children understand “put the tip of your tongue between your teeth” to make a “th” and “put your lips together” to make a “b”. However, it is very difficult to see what the tongue is doing while making an “r”, as the tongue elevation is in the rear of the mouth.

When Should Kids Say It Correctly?

Some children can produce a correct “r” sound by the time they are three years old, and most children have mastered the sound by five and a half years old. However, it is still considered typical for children to have trouble saying “r” up until age seven. At that point, if your child is not producing a proper “r”, you should consult with a licensed and certified speech-language pathologist.

Why Should We Fix It?

“R” is important because it is a high frequency sound, meaning that it occurs more often in the English language than many other sounds (according to one study, only “n” and “t” occur more frequently). So, a child who has difficulty producing the “r” sound can be difficult to understand and may sound immature to his or her peers. This may cause embarrassment, leading to reduced self-esteem in social situations or when speaking in groups. Some studies have shown that atypical sound production is linked to a decreased ability to negotiate bullying and teasing, as well as a reluctance to speak to adults (especially those in authority). Academics can also be affected if the incorrect sound production impacts sound-letter correspondence, spelling skills, or oral presentations. Further, children whose misarticulations persist into adulthood may limit their career choices to those that require only a minimum amount of verbal communication.

What Do We Do Now?

If you’re concerned about your child’s “r” sound, seek professional help. A licensed and certified speech-language pathologist can evaluate your child’s sound production and create an individualized treatment plan. For more information check out our website or call (914) 893–2223.