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Do you do a Back-up /r/ or a Retroflex /r/ in your own speech? 

The easiest way to figure it out is to observe your front-tongue.  Grab a mirror if you have one handy, or, just close your eyes; think, feel, and send a proprioceptive spy down to your tongue. 

If your tongue bunches and retracts, you’re a Back-up /r/ user.  When you look into a mirror, you’ll see a bunchy tongue.  You’ll also see the top part of your tongue (that contains the papilla), as well as the soft mucosa on the underneath part of your tongue. 

On the other hand, if you’re a Retroflex /r/ user, you’ll feel your front-tongue curl back, and when you look in the mirror you’ll see just the underside of your tongue (the soft mucosa). 

Both /r/-types contain three oral components that are initiated almost simultaneously: 

  1. Placement:Both types anchor on the retromolar pads (read last week’s Therapy Matters on R-Remediation
  1. Lingual Tension:Tension is sustained throughout the production; tongue bunches for a Back-up /r/; tongue retro-flexes back for a retroflex /r/; (/r/ requires the greatest amount of lingual tension of any consonant sound), and 
  1. A Resonance Chamber:The resonance space is in the pharynx for The Back-up /r/; the resonance space is within the oral cavity for The Retroflex /r/. 

Both /r/s require the back-tongue to elevate and stabilize on the retromolar pads.  We covered the first component last week:  Placement (click here to read Part 1).  In Part 2, we’ll discuss Lingual Tension and the Resonance Chamber, why they are essential, and how to generate them in therapy. 

Which one should you teach first? I would recommend The Back-up /r/.  There are more people that do a Back-up /r/, than Retroflex /r/ by about 70% to 25%.  Some individuals do both depending on context.  

Lingual Tension 

Tongue-tension is an often overlooked piece in the generation of a good /r/.  Notice your own /r/ lingual tension: 

  • Say a good isolated /r/ out loud (either a Back-up or a Retroflex). Sustain it, and notice your tongue’s tension; it’s probably fairly taut. 
  • This time, do two sounds. Make the first one a good /r/ and, again, notice your lingual tension.  For the second sound, maintain your tongue in its good /r/ placement, but as you continue to sustain the sound, relax your tongue and listen to the result.  Your acoustic result may sound vaguely like your r-distortion kids.  
  • The important takeaway: No lingual tension, no /r/. 

The lingual tension piece is connected to the resonance chamber piece, where the sound-of-the-sound is made.  There must be tension within the walls of the resonance chamber to influence the sound.  Unlike other speech sounds, placement for /r/ is not enough; there must also be simultaneous lingual tension.  

If you want to go for the whole R-enchilada, here is the operative phrase:  

“Tighten your tongue (keep it tight), pull it back, lift it up to the retromolar pads, and hold; add a little air (respiration) and some sound (phonation).” 

The creation of /r/ is multi-layered.  Some (not all) children need to take it one layer at a time, then accumulate.  Some (not all) children/teens have the capability to tighten their tongue on request.  Every oral system and its capability is unique. 

  • If he/she can tighten their tongue, practice tightening, hold, and relax. Do for several times (whatever they are capable of doing prior to fatigue), for several days. 
  • If he/she can tighten their tongue, practice tightening, hold, and retract. Do several times (whatever they are capable of doing prior to fatigue), for several days.  Next would be tighten, hold, retract, anchor on the retromolar pads. 
  • If he/she can’t tighten their tongue on request, take a tongue depressor and stroke the sides of the tongue, back to front, several times. That may help to contract the tongue. 

If the tongue is obviously hypotonic, you may need to do some toning tasks.  Toning muscles take time (think thighs!), and is done with repetitive resistance tasks.  (Complete coverage of muscle toning work is outside the scope of this Therapy Matters; I’ll detail it in another post.) 

The Resonance Chamber for The Back-up /r/ and The Retroflex /r/ 

A resonance chamber is a space where air accumulates and reverberates (bounces around!). 

There are two appropriate locations within the mouth to formulate a resonance chamber for /r/: 

  • Within the pharynx for a Back-up /r/ (partially enclosed via back-tongue elevation).  When the back-tongue retracts and is placed correctly on the retromolar pads, and the tongue contracts and bunches, the oral environment is physiologically fashioned for a good /r/ sound to emerge, along with the help of the respiratory and phonatory sub-systems. 
  • Within the oral cavity for a Retroflex /r/ (a partially encapsulated space contoured by front-tongue retroflexion, back-tongue elevation and the roof of the mouth).  Basically, two maneuvers differ from the Back-up /r/:  the front-tongue curls (instead of bunches), and the tongue contours a resonance chamber intra-orally rather than pharyngeally.  The back-tongue elevation and stabilization remains the same. 

A resonance chamber is not the easiest thing to describe to children.  Therefore in therapy, I emphasize tongue placement then describe how they are “creating a space” for air to bounce around in.  The /r/ sound is created within that air-space (either in the throat/pharynx, or within the mouth/oral cavity). 

Well, are you more aware of your own /r/?  Let’s hope that ability translates over to your r-kids! 

Next week, is Part 3.  We’ll talk about the consonantal /r/, the vocalic /r/, and a bit about how to establish the /r/ in connected speech.  

Have a great, and successful week!


The Easy R:  Click Here!


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