What is the proper sound for r?

Posted by Brainspring on 7th Jan 2016

Hi everyone,

Anyone out there ever wondered if they are pronouncing r properly when teaching phonics? I know I have. And I know many of you have as well because it is something I get asked in every training I instruct. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who gets that question. Stephanie, a fellow Phonics First instructor, recently received an email asking that very thing. She was kind enough to share the question and her answer with us.

Jill S asked,

“I currently teach the Phonics First program to a second grade class.  I took a training for this program about 2 years ago and have found great

success with it.  I have only one concern.   When I took the training, the

instructor told us that when we review the letter r, we are to teach the students that the letter r says /rah/ and not /er/.  Is this correct?  I am getting different opinions on this matter throughout the building.  Can this be clarified?


Stephanie HeadshotStephanie replied:

Thanks for sending us your question.  We have been asked this question numerous times over the years.  I have even witnessed a classroom full of teachers arguing passionately about this very subject.  The truth of the matter is that neither pronunciation, /rah/ nor /er/, is technically correct.   For example, we would never say “rah – abbit” nor “er–abbit”; we don’t say “rah – ed” or “er-ed” for “red”.  The pure sound for “r” is incredibly hard to pronounce in isolation, which is why we tend to choose /er/ or /rah/.

Choosing one of the two pronunciations may depend on the skill you are working on with your students.   For example, many speech and language pathologists tend to choose /er/, because it’s easier to pronounce.  Many young children struggle to pronounce the sound for r, so you may choose the /er/ pronunciation for them.

The /rah/ pronunciation has more to do with spelling skills which is why most Orton-Gillingham based programs like Phonics First use that pronunciation.  The students eventually learn that “er”, “ir”, and “ur” are pronounced /er/; so to differentiate between the consonant r and the R-Control (Bossy R) pattern, we pronounce the two differently.  /Rah/ is used for the letter r and /er/ is used for “er”, “ir”, and “ur”.

This is also particularly helpful when teaching consonant blends with r, such as “br” and “dr” which should be pronounced /brah/ and /drah/.  If you pronounce these blends as “ber” and “der” students can easily confuse words with Bossy-R, such as “remember” and “remainder”.

Making the change from one pronunciation to the other can be difficult for some teachers, but consistency is key. It may cause confusion in students if different pronunciations are used by different teachers.  I am often asked by Kindergarten or first grade teachers if it’s okay to just use the /er/ pronunciation, because that is what they are used to teaching.  I ask them what will happen down the road, when he/she or another teacher starts to teach Bossy-R (er, ir, ur) and the same sound is being used for the consonant r.  It could result in further confusion, and even a step backwards. So our recommendation is that if most of your students can say both pronunciations correctly, to use the /rah/ pronunciation for “r” to create a clearer distinction from the sound of Bossy R.

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Thanks for sharing Stephanie and Jill!

We love getting your questions so please keep sending them. You’re always welcome to send an email or leave a comment. Your question is probably on the minds of other teachers as well. Share the questions and we all get to learn from the answers!


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