Finding the elusive vocalic R sounds

I must have been drunk with pain the night my son was born and I agreed to name him Tyler. What speech-language pathologist in her right mind would give her precious, wailing bundle of joy a name that ends in a vocalic R?

As it turned out, Tyler had chronic ear infections and struggled to produce many sounds through toddlerhood and the preschool years. With a lot of hard work, he could produce all phonemes, with the exception of /r/ and its vowels, by the time he started kindergarten. So his name was “Tyluh” and he was “luhning to wead.” Reading was relatively simple for him, but talking was still a struggle. You never realize how many words contain R until you spend your child’s lifetime without hearing them.

Eventually, Tyler acquired initial /r/ and was able to joke about “roosters laying eggs on roofs,” but vowelized R continued to be elusive. Even though intelligibility was fairly good, I refused to allow my son to be content with the “British accent” his friends thought he had.

There is nothing like a mother’s love (or desperation) to help generate therapy techniques. After endless hours of my own tongue placing, gliding, lifting, retroflexing, not retroflexing, searching for upper teeth with lateral edges, etc., I discovered two things:

• It is easier to produce /. ./ when it is preceded by /j/. The /j/ places the tongue high in the mouth, making the transition to /. ./ easier.

• /. ./ is much easier to produce when followed by a releasing /r/ ( /r/ initiating a syllable).

The trick was coming up with practice words that met these criteria.

About that time my husband began flying mail into the remote, little town of Eureka, CA. “Eureka” is an ancient Greek verb meaning “I have found it.” Eureka! I’d found the word that met my two criteria! In addition, this word is one that children don’t typically use and haven’t had years of saying incorrectly. Suddenly, Tyler and I were shouting “Eureka!” on an hourly basis.

Next came what I dubbed the “Eureka! Drills”: You’re right! You’re racing! You’re reading! You’re running! Your radio! Notice the exclamation marks. They signify the excitement that produced the increased volume and tension Tyler needed to say the drills correctly.

Once that became easy, we dropped the initial /j/ requirement and went on to “Tyler Drills”: Tyler runs! Tyler races! Tyler reads! Tyler remembers! When production was consistent, we replaced “Tyler” with any person that ended in schwa R, such as Jennifer, Conner, sister, mother, etc. This was then applied to the other vocalic R sounds.

It took daily practice, consistency, and lots of positive reinforcements (as well as a few threats), but it worked!

I recently attended an excellent workshop by Robert Hull, Jr., PhD, associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, GA. He proposed similar drills with nonsense phrases, including “brother radio,” “taller run,” “other red,” etc. I have started using these in conjunction with the Tyler Drills as I work with schoolchildren and find them to be very useful.

When I consider all of the time and energy required for my son to acquire R and its vowels, I’m no longer surprised at how many elementary and middle school students come to me with similar problems. Many of my students have either struggled with R their whole life or given up along the way. As a busy speech-language pathologist with a crushing caseload, I’ve found myself so focused on my severe students that it is tempting to rush through that fourth grader with “just an R problem.” Then I think of Tyler and remember that the R student needs and deserves my experience, energy, concern and time.

Steps to Vocalic R

1. Establish initial /r/.

2. Drill the word ‘eureka!’ with excitement and loudness until the child produces 19/20 correct over three consecutive trials. Some students have benefited by saying “eureka!” as a martial artist would in the midst of a karate chop. Depend ing on the age of the child, numerous hide-and-seek games can be played to elicit this word. Don’t move on until this is firmly established. Remember, intensity is the key.

3. Start the Eureka! Drills, which are phrases made up of “you’re” or “your” immediately followed by a word initiated by /r/, e.g., “You’re ready!” and “Your radio!” Maintain increased volume and tension. Drill until the child produces 19/20 correct over three consecutive trials.

4. Start the Tyler Drills, using any names ending in vocalic R that are significant to the student, e.g., “Heather runs!” and “Mother races!” Drilling with nonsense phrases may be necessary as well, such as “brother radio” and “taller run.” Continue until the child produces 19/20 correct over three consecutive trials.

5. Praise the child every step of the way. If this method doesn’t work, don’t give up! Get busy finding something that will!

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