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Phonologic Strategy for /r/ Remediation

Vol. 12 •Issue 39 • Page 21
Phonologic Strategy for /r/ Remediation

The phoneme /r/ is one of the most difficult phonemes to master in the English language. Conversations with hundred of clinicians that work with all grade levels of articulation students confirm that remediating /r/ can be one of the most frustrating of all of the speech-language pathology tasks.

Why does /r/ cause such consternation? There are two reasons. First, the phoneme itself can be so difficult for students because of its extremely flexible nature. Its gliding nature tends to make it difficult to predict and pronounce. Adding to the complex nature of /r/ is the fact that /r/-controlled vowels are really comprised of two sounds, the vowel plus /r/. Thus, students attempting to master /r/ are faced with the difficult task of remembering to pronounce the vowel and making the correct pronunciation for that particular /r/ in need.

Secondly, the lack of a clear strategy or methodology for therapists to follow limits therapeutic success while increasing frustration levels for both the instructor and the student. Based on discussions and input from hundreds of therapists across the country as well as my own hands-on experiences, I've developed a straightforward phonological approach to /r/ remediation that is efficient, comprehensive and effective.

Phonetically, /r/ consists of eight variations: /ar/, /er/, /or/, /air/, /ear/, /ire/, /rl/, and prevocalic or initial /r/. Each variation has a distinct intonation and requires slightly different oral-motor abilities to produce the correct sound.

To illustrate the complexity of /r/, consider how the phoneme /r/ in the word "car" is pronounced differently from the word "for" or the word "butter." "Car" is an /ar/ word in the final word position, whereas "for" and "butter" are /or/ and /er/ final words, respectively. Consider how mouth positioning for the preceding vowel differs for each sound. Spelling, however, is not necessarily a definitive clue to pronunciation. Consider how the final /r/ phoneme in the word "anchor" is pronounced the same as the /r/ phoneme in the word "butter." Phonetically, they are both /er/ final words despite the spelling differences.

If you go one step further and break down the eight variations into initial, medial and final word positions and take into account some word limitations, it is revealed that there are a total of 21 types of /r/. (See box.)

This separation of the different types of /r/ is the cornerstone of the phonological strategy to remediate /r/. Since /r/ can be difficult to master, this strategy simplifies and targets only the pronunciation of affected areas for the student.

The phonetic strategy is based on several key principles:

• a proper baseline evaluation;

• targeting only the /r/ phonemes and word position in need of improvement;

• targeting the phonemes and word position in a logical order (easiest to most difficult, visual to non-visual); and

• repetition of a single targeted phoneme and word position until mastered.

Applying the phonetic methodology of breaking down /r/ by vowel combinations and targeting the vowel combination in need with perfect practice brings order and more certainty into the remediation process. Frustrations are reduced, and success is increased. This process is analogous to weight training, where a particular muscle group is targeted with a specific exercise in order to strengthen a targeted area of the body. That exercise is repeated until desired results are achieved. It's the same with the phonological approach–focus on a specific type of /r/ and word position, target with an exact exercise, and repeat until the desired results are achieved.

The first step of the phonological remediation strategy is a comprehensive evaluation. It is important to test and assess the student's ability to say all 21 types of /r/. Isolate each particular phoneme and word position by using representative words. Instruct the student to say each word and note problem sounds.

Once a baseline has been established, an effective treatment plan can be accomplished by targeting only the erred /r/ sounds. Understanding the 21 types of /r/ and organizing a personalized remediation strategy is the key.

Communicate to the client, teachers and parents that there are more than one type of /r/, and explain that each variation requires different abilities. Some variations can be more difficult to pronounce than others, thus progress will be made one step at time. Use the baseline as a guide to formulate goals and chart student progress.

One of the peculiarities of /r/ is that some of the sounds are more visual than others and thus more easily to replicate. Consider the mouth positioning for words like "art," "orange" and "iron." Compare it to words such as "earth" and "girl." The former words contain visual vowels (/ar/, /or/ and /ire/); and the latter are non-visual (/er/ and /rl/). Just as babies most frequently acquire the visual phonemes /p/, /b/ and /m/ first, focusing on the visual /r/ vowels first before progressing to more difficult non-visual vowels has proved to be a successful tool for /r/ remediation. To take full advantage of this approach, instruct your client to mimic your mouth positioning and use a mirror for client self-correction.

For treatment I have found it effective to address the easiest /r/ visual sounds first. Create success with the client and develop confidence and motivation. That confidence will create more success as each sound is mastered. Working on only one of the 21 sounds and word positions at a time also is helpful to the remediation process. Develop a word list or use materials of only the targeted phoneme. I recommended that you don't mix in other non-target phoneme-specific words because the goal is "perfect pure practice."

Start your students at the isolation or word level for each sound. Once each level is mastered (at least 80 percent accuracy), move to the next level to increase difficulty. If necessary, instruct your students to slow their speed of pronunciation. Increase the rate of production as you work toward conversational speech. A hierarchy for articulation therapy is as follows: isolation, word level, phrase level, sentence level, reading a story, structured conversation and conversational speech.

A sample word list for /ar/ initial might be "art," "Argentina," "army," "arcade," "armadillo," "arm," "Arkansas," "artifact," "arch" and "architect." Stick to only /ar/ initial words. Take care not to let spelling influence your word list. I recommend not working on any other phonemes or word positions while treating /ar/ initial sound/variation. Working on more difficult words will only cause frustration, and working on words that already can be pronounced wastes precious therapy time.

Once the student masters the /ar/ initial word list with an 80 percent accuracy ability, move onto the activities at the phrase level (two to three words). A sample of /ar/ initial phrases includes "art is nice," "Argentina is south," "army tank;" "Arcade games;" "the small Armadillo," etc.

Once mastery is attained, move on to the sentence-level activities. If possible, combine words to increase complexity, such as: "the Army in Argentina went to the arcade." Only move on to other sounds when 80 percent mastery at the sentence level is achieved for the particular /r/-controlled vowel being remediated.

For example, after achieving 80 percent accuracy for /ar/ initial words, move on to /ar/ final words ("car," "jar," "guitar," "caviar," "star") before moving on to /or/ initial words ("orange," "organ," "organize," "Oregon"). Move on to other words in that phoneme first before changing to other phonemes. For example, after achieving 80 percent accuracy for /ar/ initial, move on to /ar/ final words before moving on to /or/ initial words.

For advanced activities, structured and spontaneous conversational speech are more creative with your students. However, continue to target the specific phonemes. Create activities that will emphasize success already gained and get them to the ultimate goal of conversational speech. Ideas include developing or using phoneme-specific stories for reading and dialogue and playing games such as Go Fish or Concentration.

Beyond the sentence level, it's acceptable and desirable to mix and match other /r/ variations. Monitor to make sure progress is being made, and retreat back to more basic levels as necessary. Introduce new, targeted sounds at the word level. Attain success and work them into your advanced activities.

Employing a phonological strategy to target specific /r/ variations organizes the evaluation and treatment of /r/ phoneme articulation errors. Perfect practice leads to the quickest and most comprehensive correction results. The combination of an organized methodology coupled with faster remediation success reduces the frustration for speech-language pathologists and achieves better results for our students.

Christine Ristuccia is the founder and president of Say It Right™ in Carlsbad, CA. She can be reached at (760) 613-6760 or by e-mail at


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