R and L in Toddlers: Encouraging the Correct Developmental Path

By Pam Marshalla

Toddlers Speech TherapyQ: Do you have any tips for promoting good /r/ and /l/ in toddlers? Not to correct the phonemes directly, but to set the child up for future success by doing certain oral activities?

Most would agree that we do not have to correct R and L in toddlers, but the idea that we can set them on the right development path is right on.

This is what I do to set a child on the right developmental path for eventual acquisition of R and L––

  1. I teach the jaw, lips, and tongue to move to their fullest capacity by stimulating for a wide range of oral movement.
  2. I teach the client to move the lips and tongue independently from the jaw by stabilizing the jaw as he engages in lip and tongue movement activities.
  3. I teach the client to make the following sounds–– Blubbing, Blalling, Dlelling, Lerring, and Lateral Lerring.  These are terms I made up for very specific pre-speech sounds that I hear all the time in babies and toddlers but that I have never seen discussed in the literature.  They have been overlooked but I have found them to be very important for the development of tongue movement in speech.

Here is an excerpt from a chapter on stimulating tongue movement that will be in my next book to be called The Marshalla Guide (available in 2014)––


The child pokes the tongue forward and then brings it back into the mouth while vocalizing.  The mouth is not open very much, therefore, the tongue’s upper surface rubs gently forward-and-back against the alveolar ridge, the upper anterior gum ridge, and the upper lip.  The result is a primitive/b/-like sound as the tongue passes by the lips, and a primitive /l/-like sound as the tongue brushes against the alveolar ridge.  The vowel /uh/ dominates throughout.  The result is “bluh” as the tongue moves forward, and “lub” as the tongue moves back in.  Thus “blubbing” is the name of the sound.


The child sticks his tongue out and down as far as possible against the lower lip and chin while vocalizing.  The child is seeking to discover just how far out and down his tongue will stretch.  On its way out of the mouth, the tongue brushes against the lips causing a /b/-like sound, it brushes against the alveolar ridge causing an /l/-like sound, and the mouth opens to its full extent causing the vowel /ah/ to dominate.  The result is a sound that combines primitive forms of /b/, /l/, and /ah/.  Thus “blalling” is the name of the sound.  Once fully extended, an infant often will rub the under surface of the tongue against the lower lip and chin, causing the tongue to move left and right as he “blalls.”


Sometime between four-and-six months of age, the anterior teeth begin to emerge, and a baby will use the tip of his tongue to explore them.  He rubs the tongue-tip forward-and-back against the lower surface of the emerging upper central incisors while vocalizing.  The result is a primitive /d/-like sound, a primitive /l/-like sound, and a primitive /e/.  Thus “dlelling” is the name of the sound.


Sometime during the first year of life, while he is learning to poke his fingers into a variety of holes, an infant will begin to explore the depths of his oral cavity.  He does so with his fingers, his toys, and with his tongue.  He is discovering the length and breadth of his oral cavity.  The tongue stretches to the back of the oral cavity by curling its tip up and back all the way to the soft palate.  In the process, the infant will feel the entire length of the hard and soft palates with his tongue-tip.  If he does this while vocalizing, the result will be a primitive /l/-like sound when the tip is at the alveolus, a primitive /r/-like sound when the tip is at the velum, and a primitive /e/ throughout the process.  Thus “lerring” is the name of the sound.  Babies do this at both a fast and a slow pace.

Lateral Lerring

Infants also learn how to move their tongues left-to-right across the midline.  They do this both inside and outside the mouth.  Lateralizing the tongue left-and-right while vocalizing results in a primitive /l/-like sound that shifts in acoustic quality as the tongue-tip sweeps left and right.  The sound is called “lateral lerring” as a result.  Babies do this both fast and slow.  Many therapists have questioned the advisability of teaching clients to wag the tongue back-and-forth, asking, “What does this have to do with speech?”  Babies figure out how to move the tongue laterally as they are learning their full range of tongue movements.  This is an early step in learning to separate tongue movements from jaw movements, and it helps the tongue move in a gross manner so that it can learn to move in a small manner later. 


3 thoughts on “R and L in Toddlers: Encouraging the Correct Developmental Path”

  1. Hi Pam
    I attended a workshop of yours and recall the recommendation to have the student brush the sides of the tongue – to elicit /r/ sounds

    I can’t find the recommendation/handout….. which resource was it in?

    1. I don’t want readers to read this and think that I have recommended that brushing the sides of the tongue will automatically cause an R to appear. Brushing the sides of the tongue simple awakens the tactile system there. That is all it does. Once awakened, the tongue is then taught to move in the right direction. The way I teach the tongue position for R is with the Butterfly Position. Look at your handout about that.

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