True, this topic is a little more speech oriented than language, but as I was recently working with a relatively new speech-language pathologist (SLP) on trying to align our “R” sound judgments with several kids, the overall implications for learning just struck one of my chords.

Working with the “R” sound is hard because we’re not sure exactly why its so hard.

First, an extremely brief overview:  a lot of SLPs, new and old alike, hate working with the “R” sound.  Why?  The reasons given vary in similar ways.  Generally, they revolve around a lack of experience, and as time makes this reasoning more difficult, the resulting rationales rotate from a lack of new techniques, to a lack of motivation (from both kids and clinicians), to the frequently heard, “I don’t know why.  It’s just hard.”  In its extreme honesty, this last reason probably actually hits the nail on the head as much as anything.  Working with the “R” sound is hard because we’re not sure exactly why its so hard.

So, let me try and come up with a few reasons.  The first ones aren’t mine, but unfortunately I can’t remember to whom to give the attribution.  There is one key one though, that I haven’t heard before, which I’ll save for last.

One of the commonly heard reasons this sound gives such unique fits:  You just can’t see it.  As it requires tongue elevation in the rear of the mouth, this sound’s lack of visual cues requires us to develop an ear for discriminating what the tongue is doing that we can’t verify with our eyes.  (I’ll have to ignore an alternative method for teaching the “R” sound, called the retro-flex “R,” since its controversial nature involves more digression than I’m willing to give in this space.)

Another reason:  SLP university programs don’t do a good job of preparing us for this problem despite its affect on so many kids.  This ties into the previous reason.  You can’t expect someone to just get handed a handful of “R” kids on their first caseload, and expect them to be immediately prepared.  You have to develop the “R ear,” which is only done by hearing a lot of good ones, a lot of bad ones, and especially, a lot of in between ones, while simultaneously learning to discern the difference.  There’s no substitute for the experience itself which speech clinicians are almost always expected to get on the job, and often with little help.

This brings me to the one reason then that I believe may be unique to this post, although it still has its claws tied into the previous two.  SLPs are taught one main system for tracking data – the good ole plus/minus system.  If it’s right, it gets a plus (+), and a (-) otherwise.  This usually works well enough for most sounds, but for the “R” it carries major drawbacks; the main one being that almost all of the kids working on this sound produce many more “in between” productions than ones that are either purely good or purely bad.  So when we, as clinicians, are forced to pigeon hole productions it causes major confusion, both with the kids, and with ourselves.

The diversity of productions these kids come up with should be matched by an equally diverse range of feedback.

A better way seems to be one where we provide feedback that includes what exactly is going on.  Phrases, such as “I heard some tongue movement there,” or “That’s better!” or “That one had less tongue lift,” seem more actually descriptive, and thus, actually useful, than a method that relies on matching a particular production to one of only two possibilities.  The diversity of productions these kids come up with should be matched by an equally diverse range of feedback.  This could include statements like, “That was good at first, and then it sounded like your tongue slipped,” or “It sounded like your tongue moved a little, but then you rounded your lips instead.”  And quite often, especially with this sound, even those of us with tons of experience must sometimes say things like, “I’m just not sure about that one.  Can you do it again?”

In the past I’ve suggested something that thinking about it now increases my need to more strongly advise it from now on.  Multiple productions.  Have the kids say the target three or five times, which does two things.  One is that you can compare productions with each other, giving you more of an opportunity yourself to judge than you can get when having the kid say just one at a time.  And the other is that you can give more visual and more immediate feedback, such as questioning expressions exactly as they’re losing tongue elevation, or excitedly open eyes as they’re spontaneously improving.

The “R” is tricky, no doubt about it.  As with anything else involving learning, the trip down the road towards mastery must begin with figuring out where to place the first step.