Mastering Vocalic R

By Pam Marshalla

5715550321_39193dca27_mQ: What is the secret for vocalic R? I have students who can produce prevocalic R very well yet when it comes to Ar, Or, and Ir, and so forth, they flounder. Any tips for this?

The key to mastery of vocalic R first is to realize that tongue position for prevocalic R and postvocalic R are exactly the same. The difference is in the transitions movements.

Transitions Movements

When we produce a prevocalic R at the beginning of a word, the tongue goes into position IN SILENCE. Then R is produced as the tongue transitions out from that position to the succeeding vowel. For some reason it is easier to do this than the opposite.

The opposite is to produce a vocalic R at the end of a syllable or word. In this case the client has to form the tongue into the vowel position first, and then he has to transition from the vowel position to the R position. For some reason this is harder—like the client cannot figure out how to get from here to there.

Think of it like this: Have you ever found yourself on a road and simply had no idea how to get to your destination from your present location? Have you ever had to drive for a while until you recognized something familiar, and then you said, “Oh now I know where I am… I can get there from here.”

It helps to think like this: The client knows how to make R; he just does not know how to get there from his present location—the preceding vowel.

It also helps an SLP to think in these terms: Prevocalic R and Postvocalic R. One R occurs before a vocal and the other occurs after a vowel. The client can do one type of transition but not the other.

Sometimes this is so specific that the client can get to R position from some vowels but not all of them. For example, the client may be able to say “car” and “jar” but not “store” and “door” because he can get from Ah to R, but he cannot get from O to R.


  1. The first key to treatment is to work on the vowels and make sure they are correct. This is incredibly important because some of these clients change their vowels, too. For example, they might pronounce “door” as “day.” They are neglecting to achieve R position, but they also are failing to achieve the vowel position. In therapy, take words that end in R and remove the R to focus on the vowel. Ask the client, “How would we say the word “Door” if there was no R on the end?” You will be amazed at some of the answers you get… “Day,” “Dow,” “Doy” and so forth. So make sure he hears that the vowel is “Oh” and make sure he says the word that way. “Door” is pronounced “Doh” without an R, and “Store” is pronounced “Stoh” without an R. This exercise uncouples the co-articulation that naturally occurs across the vowels and R.
  1. The second key to treatment is to add R back into his productions very slowly with assistance. The easiest way to do this is to pair words together. Since he can do a prevocalic R, we pair a word with prevocalic R after the target word with vocalic R. Thus we practice “Door-run” and “Store-rat” and “Bore-Robot.” BUT it is critical to remove the “Bad R.” Have the client say “Doh-run” and “Stoh-rat” and “Boh-robot.” That way the client is learning to transition from the vowel to the R. He is learning the movements he needs to gets from the vowel position to the R position, and this is exactly what he needs to learn to make a vocalic R.
  1. Over time, shorten the transition time so the transition movements occur more quickly, and remove the rest of the additional word. In essence, practice the following sequence over time:
    • Practice “Doh” for “Door”
    • Practice “Doh” (Pause) “Run” with a distinct pause between the words
    • Practice “DohhhhhhRun” with no pause and a long transition
    • Practice “DohRun” with a shorter transition
    • Practice “DohR” with the rest of the second word omitted or spoken silently.
    • Practice “Door”

(Read the above material slowly and carefully so that you understand the purpose of each step.)


In sum, stop working on R and begin to work on transition movements into R. That is the essence of your client’s problem when he can do a prevocalic R but he cannot do a postvocalic R 🙂


12 thoughts on “Mastering Vocalic R”

  1. Hi,
    I have a student who sees the /or/ in work and so says the or sound instead of /er/ sound. Any advice as to break this pattern? He can say a medial unstresssed /er/ in butterfly. He can say the /er/ in curly but the /or/ spelling is throwing him off!

  2. Thanks, this is very helpful! Also, it will help students to take their minds off of the dreaded “R” drills for they have become burnt-out too! lol

  3. This was so very very helpful. I have tried so many things that I have lost count with a student who used a dipthong for the /o/ prior to /r/. She was successful today in making a real /or/ in single words!!! thank you!

  4. This was so helpful! Now I am having trouble with a student adding a ‘er’ or the vocalic ‘or’ such as ‘doheor’ Any suggestions on how to rid this extra sound?

  5. I have a student 10th grade student who came to me last year with a long history of therapy for the /r/ sound. Using the retroflexed tongue position, she can now articulate initial /r/, /r/ in blends, and /air, ear, ire, or/ in words, sentences, and slow multi-paragraph reading, but pronounces /er/ as /or/ at every level. We have studied the difference in terms of comparing all of the vowel /r/ sounds, lip positioning, transition movements and number of movements for each, discriminating between productions of each, trying different sound contexts before and after the sound, pairing an initial /r/ word after the /or/ and /er/, audio recording…. What else can I try? Thanks.

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