Why R is So Hard
The /r/ sound is difficult for many children and adults to pronounce and spell because there are many types of /r/ sounds within the English language. There are at least eight variations of the /r/ sound, and they show up in many places within words!
Dialects also affect the perception and pronunciation of these sounds within words. The difference between the sounds /r/ as in red and /er/ as in her is challenging for many children to pronounce. We often hear that children and their educators have difficulty pronouncing the two sounds differently in isolation; however, they can hear the difference in words.
Although the phonograms r and er are pronounced similarly, they have many differences. Read on to learn about r and er.
- The /r/ sound at the beginning of words like red, rose, and rice is called prevocalic r because it comes before the vowel. It is also in the middle of words like walrus, where it is the initial sound of the second syllable.
- The phonogram r is a consonant and cannot form a syllable on its own.
- We make a prevocalic /r/, such as in the word red, with our tongue tip pointed up and slightly back in the mouth or with the tongue bunched in either the middle or front of the mouth.
To pronounce /r/ by itself:
- Pick a few words such as red or rainbow, and practice isolating or saying each sound in those words as if you are segmenting the words.
- Imagine saying each word but only pronouncing the /r/ sound. Begin saying the word but stop at the /r/ sound. For example, pretend you are going to say red, but stop after the /r/.
- Say the r in a normal or loud voice and then whisper the rest. For example, in the word red, you would say /r/ in a loud voice and then whisper /ed/.
- When an /r/ follows a vowel, it is considered vocalic. The vocalic /r/ sounds may also be referred to as bossy r, vocalic r, or r-controlled vowels. These include:
- er in her, flower
- ar as in car and heart
- air as in airplane and care
- ear as in hear and deer
- or as in more and floor
- ire as in fire
- The /er/ sound is stressed in words like her and unstressed in words such as brother, flower, and cover.
- Because it contains a vowel, the phonogram er forms a syllable.
- The /er/ sound is also heard in the phonograms ir as in bird, ur as in hurt, and ear as in search.
- When we say /r/ in its vocalic form, such as in the /er/ sound, lip rounding becomes more pronounced than the pre-vocalic /r/ due to coarticulation or the influence of the vowel sound.
- Our mouths are open wider for /ar/ sound as in car than for the /r/ in red or the /er/ flower.
- Our lips are rounder for /or/ as in more than for /er/ as in her.
To pronounce /er/ by itself:
- Pick a few words such as early or bird, and practice isolating or saying each sound in those words as if you are segmenting the words.
- If saying the sounds by themselves is tricky, imagine saying each word but only pronouncing the /er/ sound. Begin saying the word and stop after the /er/. For example, in the word early, you would stop after /er/.
- Imagine saying each word but only pronouncing the /r/ specific sound. Begin saying the word but stop at the /r/ sound. For example, pretend you are going to say red, but stop after the /r/.
- Say/er/ in the word in a normal or loud voice and then whisper the rest. For example, in the word early, you would say /er/ in a loud voice and then whisper /ly/
Spelling with R and ER
We recommend focusing on which sound to use when reading and writing instead of hearing or saying them perfectly in isolation. Figuring out which one to use when writing actual words is more important. Help your student know which sound to use by:
- Pronouncing the phonogram r with as little sound before or after it as possible using the techniques listed so that it does not get confused with vocalic r sounds.
- Cueing with say-to-spell if the word is spelled differently than you pronounce it. You may need to slow down and exaggerate the pronunciation of the individual sounds to help you pronounce them with the target sound. For example, in the word bear, you may need to exaggerate the /ā/ followed by a short, "clipped" r as in red.
- Cue your student with the phonogram when there is more than one option, such as the sounds of /er/. In the word third, you would cue your student by saying, "use the er of bird."
- Help your student pay attention to whether the sound is forming a syllable in the word or not - in other words, whether it is functioning as a consonant or as a vowel.