In my last post, I wrote about how various technology – from free and cheap apps to expensive high-tech equipment – can be used to help students improve their articulation of vocalic /r/. But that’s not all I use. There are lots of useful, hands-on ways to increase a student’s awareness of position and tension, some as old as our profession itself.
The first tools I always use – and ones we revisit time and time again – are the trusty flashlight and mirror. Looking inside the mouth becomes a lesson about the “speech helpers.” Kids love exploring the structures and tongue movements, laying a solid foundation for all future instruction. We talk about how the lips, tongue, and jaw move for each speech sound, then work on motor imitation skills, beginning with obvious movements, such as popping one’s lips for /p/, then to more difficult and subtle movements, like raising a wide tongue up to the back molars. We explore the contexts of /k/ and /ee/ as a way to get to /er/. Tongue Elevators (raising the tongue from low, mid, high) and Train Tracks (elevating the tongue, then sliding back on the molars) are part of the drills I’ve developed in my /r/ packet, and exercises that we use as warm-ups at every session. All of this is done with the flashlight and mirror. Old school still works.
Once we’ve gotten good visual information about the articulators and their expected position/movement/tension for /r/, we do all of the above….but with our eyes closed. This allows the students to really focus on proprioceptive feedback as I lead them through a variety of speech sounds and tongue movements. “Where’s your tongue? What do you feel?” This “moment of Zen” is invaluable in increasing their focus on and awareness of what their tongue is actually doing. This is a technique we revisit often. It’s amazing to see how much information the students get and can convey when their eyes are closed.
Sometimes we need to “wake up” the tongue. The Speech Gizmo (really, a dental flosser) can be used for this. We rub-rub-rub on margin of the tongue, then the other, then lift the tongue to the molars. This is a useful strategy to start each session. The Speech Gizmo can also be used to gently guide the tongue up and back for /er/, as described in a previous post. I send these home with students and ask that they use them 10 times, each time they brush their teeth.
To further increase awareness of tongue shape and position, we make tongues out of Silly Putty. I use them in mouth molds from the dentist. This opens up discussion and awareness of wide/skinny, high/low, front/back. See my previous post about this.
Tension is critical for /er/, so we do tense/relax exercises with hands, arms, shoulders, jaw, tongue. We explore all of the vowels, again with eyes closed – which are tense, which are relaxed? Where do you feel the tension? When working on /er/, I often give the students stress balls to squeeze. This is especially helpful for students who have low tone. Standing up also helps increase tension.
And, in an activity that is both instructive and fun, we take a whole body approach as each student “becomes a tongue.” One by one, they step into the mouth (the doorway to the speech room), spread their arms and press hard against the molars (the sides of the door jamb). We notice how far away the tip of the tongue (their head) is from the front teeth (top of the door jamb). Again, words like “wide, back, tense” are used. As the student presses against the door jamb, he tries to replicate this with his tongue, making his best /er/. With this experience fresh in their minds, we return to the mirror and flashlight to see if our real tongues can do what the “student tongues” just did
Of course, there are many other tried-and-true techniques that might be needed: pressing up with the thumb at the root of the tongue, lying backwards over a therapy ball to let gravity help, working in contexts they can do to get to once they can’t, etc. As mentioned in a previous post, Char Boshart’sChar Boshart’s seminars, video presentations, and publications are a wealth of information about how to get inside the mouth and tame the tongue for /r/. Be sure to visit her site for /r/ and other invaluable information. I learn something new every time I visit! What tricks work for you? Please leave a comment so we can all benefit from your experience!