Anyone who has spent any time around little kids knows that it’s common for them to say “twuck” instead of “truck” and to struggle mightily with pronouncing the word “purple.” But what is it about the “R” sound that makes it so challenging? And how do you know whether this common speech issue will resolve itself, or when you need the help of a professional?
The formal name for difficulty with the “R” sound is “rhoticism,” and is so common among children partly because it’s hard for children to observe how the adults in their lives make that particular sound. When adults make other common sounds, such as “s” or “th,” babies can easily observe the position of their lips and tongue and mimic them. When we make “R” sounds, nothing about our mouth changes. That makes it a more challenging process of trial and error for young children to learn to make the proper sound.
According to Christine Ristuccia, a certified speech-language pathologist and the president of the organization Say it Right, it’s common for children to fail to master the “R” sound until kindergarten or after. She suggests that parents look at the “R” sound in the broader context of their child’s speech. A three-year-old who substitutes the “W” sound where the “R” is not cause for concern if his speech is mostly intelligible; a three-year-old whose speech is unintelligible to anyone but his parents likely needs early intervention. By second grade, when they’re between 7 and 8 years old, children should have mastered the sound. Ristuccia notes that children who are still struggling with the sound in second grade may have other adverse effects if they don’t get help. She writes that these children “may become more self-conscious of their speech, spelling may be affected adversely (notice all the second-grade spelling lists with R-controlled vowels?), and they may be open to teasing, resulting in a withdrawal from participation in discussions and activities.”
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