A /t/ is a /t/ and a /k/ is a /k/. But, oh, that vocalic /r/ – the most complicated phoneme in the English language! Volumes have been written about how to fix an /r/ distortion. My go-to bag of tricks includes Char Boshart’s “The Easy R Therapy Program” and “The Entire World of R” books and cards. I’ve learned so much from Char’s books and presentations about how to facilitate tongue movement and tension; her website is a treasure-trove of great information, including free materials, videos, books, and blog posts. Char Boshart’s “The Easy R Therapy Program” comes in hardcopy and digital versions, and there is even a condensed version for quick reference. From “The Entire World of R” I learned that there are more than 20 allophones of /r/, each depending on the vowel context and position in the word, and that students can have some of these /r/ sounds perfected, while others remain stubbornly distorted. Indeed, as part of my own /r/ remediation packet, I developed “Hit the Mark with /r/,” a quick screener to help me determine the vowels and positions in which the student can produce a good vocalic /r/ and those in which production breaks down. “Hit the Mark with /r/” presents three words for each of the vocalic /r/ sounds (initial, medial, final) and a rating scale that breaks down production into 3 categories: “vowel and /r/ are distorted,” “vowel is OK but the /r/ is distorted,” and “acceptable vowel and /r/.” I follow this up with more in-depth probes, using Artic-U-Checks, which uses a similar rating scale of “incorrect,” “close,” and “acceptable.” A pattern I see over and over in my students: most initial and medial vocalic /r/ sounds are acceptable, but /er/ in all contexts is distorted, and so are all final /r/ sounds.
So, once I have assessed the type, place, and severity of a student’s /r/ distortion, therapy begins. In my experience, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to /r/ that will work for every student. Therefore, I am constantly expanding my bag of tricks, searching for that one cue, one technique that will flip the switch for each student. Multimodality instruction is key.
Because vowel context is so critical to producing acceptable /r/ sounds, my favorite app is Vowel Viz Pro by Complete Speech. This awesome app analyzes vowel production in real time. As the student produces words with vocalic /r/, the spaceship zooms to and hovers over high, middle, or low planets, representing the various vowels. The visual feedback is very reinforcing to the students and is definitely a motivator. The effort I’ve seen students expend in achieving the goal with this app is amazing – far more than I could ever get with flashcards or word lists. You can read more about Vowel Viz Pro in my blog post, “Apps for Vocalic /r/.” If you use an iPad in therapy, you definitely want this app. Another app from Complete Speech that you might find useful is “Speech Racer.”
Another very useful piece of technology, also by Complete Speech, is a palatometer, called the SmartPalate System. A custom-built mouthpiece shows students exactly where their tongue is touching the palate (or not). I wrote about my experience with the palatometer in my post, “Watch that Tongue: A Trial with a Palatometer.” This tool is not only very useful for /r/, but was also great for lateral and frontal distortions of /s, z, sh, ch, j/. The downsides for school use: (1) the software is expensive, and (2) each student has to have a mouth mold made by a dentist, then a custom-built palate with sensors – also expensive. The best approach is to see the students every day for short periods of time. Research done by Complete Speech indicates that 20 sessions is the average for fixing a speech sound error. Imagine cycling students through 4 weeks of intense therapy with the palatometer, and it could actually mean a cost-savings or break-even, compared to traditional weekly therapy that could go on for months or years. Still, it could be a tough sell to most school districts. A new product by CompleteSpeech is the TargetPalate: a custom-made plastic palate that has bumps where the tongue should be touching for sounds that the student is making in error. I haven’t yet tried this with my students, but imagine the tactile feedback could be very helpful. Please leave a comment if you have already had experience with the TargetPalate.
Students can get good information from seeing and hearing themselves on video, using a free program like PhotoBooth on my Mac. I just had a fourth grade boy who was convinced his /er/ was pretty good, until he heard the playback on PhotoBooth. The look on his face when he heard the distortion reflected an important “aha” moment for him. Another student with a wicked /r/ distortion heard the app, “Talking Tom,” repeating the /r/ words spoken by him and other, more advanced, students. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on his face when he asked, “Why is Tom saying their words correctly and my words wrong?” (Note: Talking Tom apps are available for iOS and Android, but I caution their use as they have gotten to be a bit raunchy for school use).
In my next post, I’ll share my no-tech tricks for working on /r/. By combining these “tried and true” old school techniques with new technology, students remain motivated and make measurable progress.