Have you found it difficult to teach the R sound to your English students? Or perhaps you’ve had students who avoid working on their pronunciation?
The R sound in English is a particularly hard one to teach and something that many students (and teachers!) seem to avoid for fear of overwhelm or discouragement.
Many students will find the R sound complicated at first, with its three types—initial, middle, and final—and six vocalic variations—/ar/, /air/, /ear/, /ire/, /or/, and /er/—but with a good lesson structure and effective drilling, they’ll get the hang of it in no time.
In this article, we’ll explore how you can use the effective ESA method to make teaching the R sound a breeze. And don’t worry if you don’t use the ESA method, there’s still a load of useful information you and your students can benefit from!
How to Teach the R Sound in North American English
The ESA method—engage, study, activate— is just one of many and by no means the best method out there. It’s simply one that’s worked well for me and my students. Be sure to tailor your method and material to your student’s needs and goals.
Engage: open with a warmer activity to engage your students
Some English topics just aren’t that fun to learn compared to others, and that’s fine. But, any good English teacher knows that warming up your students with something engaging first has a huge impact on the rest of the class.
The focus of this stage is about getting students eager to learn so don’t worry too much about how effective the material is. As long as it primes their minds with the R sound, it’s doing its job.
The American /R/ sound is difficult to make and a source of stress for many students. Especially those whose native language doesn’t have a similar sound at all.
Try showing a couple of silly or funny phrases that contain the different R sounds. Even better if they’re tongue twisters! The idea isn’t that the student understands and pronounces the phrase perfectly straight away, rather, that it just gets them thinking about the R sounds and saying them out loud.
You could also show some words and say them out loud in both British and American accents and get the students to identify which is American. It’s a simple but effective way to exercise the part of the brain responsible for language learning.
Some other warmers you can try:
Particularly good for the R sound as the minimal pairs R+L and R+W pose a problem for some students.
Everyone’s favorite vocabulary game! I honestly haven’t met a student that doesn’t like stop. It’s challenging and deep down we’re all competitive.
Put similar words into groups of three or more, with one sound being different but similar.
Ask the students individually to read through the word groups and pick which words have different sounds. Alternatively, ask them to discuss the groups of words with a partner and decide which one is odd.
For more warmer ideas, check out this FluentU article on 10 ESL activities to teach perfect pronunciation and get mouths moving.
Study: explain the three types of R and its eight sounds
It’s beneficial to get the students thinking about the three types of R and its eight sound variants from the start, starting with Initial R.
Be careful not to over-explain with images and diagrams here. You don’t want to give your student the chance to overthink and become confused.
The focus here is on comprehension of the target language.
The main points to cover here are:
- A vowel always follows initial R.
- It’s almost certainly not pronounced as it is in their native language.
- Highest energy and difficulty, so it’s normal if they have trouble with it.
- It’s all about the air moving around the tongue.
Here are a couple of sample phrases you can repeat a few times, then get the students to try:
- Ralph listens to rock-n-roll while he paints a raccoon holding a rose.
- You should recycle that tennis racket or repair it.
- I really wanted to rent that apartment but they refused my application.
Middle R/blend R
The main points to emphasize here are:
- Middle R always has a consonant before it.
- Its pronunciation is influenced slightly by whatever consonant that is.
- It’s considerably “softer” than initial R– and softer means harder to hear and analyze.
Some phrases to drill the middle R sound:
- My brother cries when he sees green broccoli.
- The train driver tried to slow down but the brakes were broken.
- I’ll probably travel to Croatia next year.
The main points to cover here are:
- Also known as the vocalic R.
- It always has a vowel before it.
- Final R takes the schwa sound– sounds like ‘uh.’
- It’s more important to get the vowel sound correct than the schwa.
- The six vocalic R sounds– ER, OR, AIR, EAR, AR, and IRE.
Here are some phrases to emphasize the vocalic R:
- /AR/ – When you live on a farm, you get up when it’s still dark. The alarm goes off at 4 a.m.
- /AIR/ – It’s not fair that we never have pears. My parents don’t like them.
- /EAR/ – We need to steer clear of that town because it’s weird.
- /ER/ – I love learning new experiments with my favorite teacher.
- /OR/ – She was bored with the story so she went to buy popcorn during a storm.
- /IRE/ – When we went to Ireland, we sang around a campfire with a choir.
Are you already incorporating videos into your English classes to captivate your students? Check out Creativa’s deep-dive course Mastering North American Pronunciation for a wealth of ideas on how to teach native-level pronunciation for every sound in English. There’s even an entire video episode on the R sound with worksheets and step-by-step instructions! Click here for a free video from the course.
Emphasize correct mouth and tongue positioning
The mouth and tongue positioning is typically what’s most difficult for students to grasp, especially if they’re native speakers of French, Spanish, or an Asian language, where the R’s are rolled or the sound doesn’t exist at all.
After explaining the types of R to students, you can now emphasize the mouth movement using complementary visuals.
Use a sample phrase to explain the following with exaggeration:
- Raise the back of the tongue so it lightly touches the back teeth.
- The tip of the tongue should be floating.
- Keep tongue tense and lips rounded in O shape.
- Now exaggerate the “errr” sound then roll into R word, like “errrrREADY!”
Teaching Students to Distinguish Between R and L and W
Many students will have issues differentiating R, L, and W sounds. This is particularly evident in children but it’s also present with adults that haven’t had adequate explanation of the correct mouth movement.
It helps to drill with a phrase or minimal pairs that contain /W/ and /L/ sounds so the students can get used to the differences.
R vs. W
The R can be so soft at times that it sounds like /W/.
Points to emphasize:
- /W/ is pronounced with your lips rounded, like the /U/ sound in Blue.
- /R/ is pronounced with lips in O shape.
- /W/ should sound like ‘wuh’ with the schwa sound.
- The tongue is relaxed with W, not with R.
Some minimal pairs to practice the differences:
- I wonder which Rolls Royse belongs to that rich lady.
- It’s a real pleasure to practice the pottery wheel for the first time.
- We were in the rear section earlier and now we’re backstage, which is rare.
R vs. L
Again, confusing /R/ and /L/ sounds is mainly present with children and speakers from Asian countries, as some Asian languages have a somewhat combined /L/ and /R/ sound, or no /R/ at all.
Points to emphasize here:
- /L/ is pronounced with a flap of the tongue, almost like a flick.
- You can exaggerate it by saying “el-uh” and flicking the tongue, then dropping the ‘uh’.
- The beginning of the /L/s sound is with the mouth open and relaxed
Some minimal pair phrases to practice the differences:
- I felt so alive after I arrived at the concert.
- You must collect the mushrooms in the correct manner or they’ll damage.
- She uses a brush to apply her blush.
Give a verbal exercise or a worksheet to drill all of this information
All of this can be a lot of information for the student to take in, depending on how you approach the class. So, it’s essential to drill the information, so it sticks.
And no ‘study’ portion of an ESA class is complete without, well, studying the information!
Consider giving the students a verbal quiz or worksheet that challenges them to correctly identify the /R/ sound’s rules and mouth movements.
You can also get students to work in pairs or groups with word games or word search worksheets that require them to identify and vocalize different R sounds.
Activate: Putting the R Sound to Work
Remember to dedicate enough time to this portion of the class! Around 20-25 minutes is perfect. This part of the class helps solidify concepts so students can take what they’ve learned to the real world, sooner.
The focus of this stage is on communication and fluency.
Verbal exercises like reading out a text out loud or tongue twisters can help to solidify the theory that you’ve taught your students. The quicker they grasp the idea of the correct mouth movements for pronunciation, the better.
Try integrating these common activities with emphasis on the R sound:
- Email exchanges (that they read out loud)
- Designing an advert
Important Takeaways for Students
Sometimes it’s important to leave the students with some important “takeaway” ideas that don’t necessarily need too much class time, or it’s simply better left until the end to avoid confusing the student.
Clarify RR and WR spellings
This doesn’t require too much explanation or practice. Show some words that feature RR and WR and explain that they’re simply the same pronunciation.
Some example words:
Reiterate what to listen for with British vs. American pronunciation
In British (UK, Australian, Caribbean, etc.) English, the R is only pronounced at the start of a word or when followed by a vowel, like in courage.
The final R just sounds like an extension of the vowel sound before it.
- Car sounds like “cah”.
- Beer sounds like “beeh”.
- Teacher sounds like “tee-chah”.
- Stir sounds like “sterh”.
- Stairs sounds like “stehs”.
In a nutshell, the success of your lesson teaching R pronunciation lies in your students being able to grasp the right mouth movements early on. But don’t stress if they don’t. After all, each student is different and how quickly they pick up new pronunciations is not an indication of how well they’ll speak English overall.
Be sure to drill correct pronunciation as much as possible, while being reasonable, during the class and make sure your students leave with at least a solid understanding of the correct mouth movement and sound. The correct pronunciation will eventually stick as they revisit the topic and practice.
Consider leaving your students with activities or worksheets that they can revisit at home and help solidify the important takeaway points they learned during class.
Revisiting after a short pause is always an effective way to make new information stick!