Teaching the L and R sound to children as speech therapy or to Japanese, Koreans, or other nationalities where the sound doesn’t exist can seem like a tumultuous path, but with persistence and a few trusted techniques can make all the difference.
Phonetically speaking, the Japanese and Korean languages don’t have either the [r] or [l] sound. In their home countries, the students are told to make the sound which is similar to both. Once the students try to speak English to a native speaker, they sometimes sound like they are using the opposite sound or, just as likely, completely incoherent.
The sound that Japanese and Koreans confuse with the [r] sound is actually a type of avleor flap. That is, it is produced similar to how Americans or Australians pronounce the t sounds in the word “little”. In certain situations, this avleor flap sounds like a [d], [r], or [l], but it still sounds strange and confusing to native speakers (or sound hilarious, like “I would like to order a bowl of lice.”) This confusion makes the [l] and [r] sounds the first two sounds taught in ESL schools around the world. It is incredibly important and must be enforced with great intensity using techniques that may be unusual in any other setting.
For children, the [l] and [r] sounds are two of the later sounds that develop. It is normal for children as old as seven to still have some difficulty in producing the sounds. This is due to the position and movement of the tongue along with the vibration needed to produce the sounds accurately.
So, how do we teach students the [l] and [r] sounds?
Teaching the [l] Sound
It is important to teach only one sound at a time. Generally, the [l] sound is taught first since it is a touching sound.
Step 1) Make the [l] sound for the student to hear. Ask the student what it sounds like and have them attempt to create the sound. Write it on a board or paper for the student to see. Ask them what it sounds like to them and why they think the sound is difficult to create.
Step 2) Describe how to produce the sound to the student. For [l], it is describe as touching the tip of your tongue to hard palate of your mouth (the hard part behind your teeth and gums) and holding it there until the sound is finished.
Models are helpful when describing tongue placement and movement. Try to draw the tongue placement, use your hands, or use clay to create a visual model.
Step 3) Attempt to create the sound using words. For example, like, telling, tall. The examples should include beginning, middle, and end of words.
The beginning and middle are usually the first to be picked up.
If students still have problems, tell them to stick their tongue between their teeth like a “th” sound. Then, have them move their tongue quickly inside their mouth while they are making the “th” sound. Tell them to continue the sound as they move their tongue inside. This should produce the [l] sound using the correct position of the tongue. Have them practice this several times to understand where the tongue placement should be.
Step 4) Have them attempt to say tongue twisters, like “Lucky Lucy licked her lollipop.” Or “The regional leader rallied around the royal rulers.”
Start the tongue twister slowly and then go faster as the student becomes confident of making the sounds.
Step 5) Create a cued dialogue which will allow the student to use the [l] sound. The easiest way to go about this is to use a Q&A dialogue format. For example, “What type of movies do you like?”. The answer the student provides should be a complete sentence (i.e., “I like…”)
Step 6) Have the student tell a story. For example, have the student tell about their best memory from childhood. When doing so, pay attention to the [l] sounds (there are usually many!).
Teaching the [r] Sound
Like the [l] sound, Koreans, Japanese, and some children may find it difficult to replicate it especially for the American version of the sound, which occurs in the middle and end of syllables (car, for example).
The [r] at the beginning of syllables is easily produced and taught after teaching the [l] sound, as it is the same position of the tongue but not touching the roof of the mouth and with vibration. You can have them practice by making the [m] sound and then opening their lips.
However, the [r] sound at the end of words shouldn’t be produced in the same manner, as it will create slower speech. This is why Englishmen and Aussies do not speak the [r] at the end or middle of syllables the same way Americans do, they are two completely different sounds.
Step 1) Create the [r] sound and then the [l] sound. Ask the student if they can tell the difference between the two and what the difference sounds like. Where do they think the tongue position is and how does it differ.
Step 2) Describe how the sound is produced. It is created by raising the back of your tongue in the similar position as the [g] or [k] sound and the tip of the tongue should be slightly raised as well, but not much.
Students can practice making the sound [grrr] like a growling dog.
Step 3) Attempt to create the sound using words, like rear, gear, pear, dare, share.
If the student still has difficulty, have them make the [g] sound and pay attention to the location of where the tongue touches in the back of their mouth. Have them focus on putting the tongue in that location. It isn’t too important to focus on the tongue tip, as the tip will not cause any differentiation in sound.
Be sure to have your students vibrate! They can tell if their throat is vibrating by placing their hand against their neck.
Step 4) Use a tongue twister, like “The writer read his light verse to his loyal readers.” In order for the students to use both the [l] and [r] sound together with both [r] sounds. Go through it word by word at first and then speed it up.
Step 5) Use the information gap strategy in order for students to select the correct letter to be used in the sentence. For example, “I would _ike to go to the sto_e.”
This strategy allows the student to think about the sound and why it is important to the sentence. It will make them want to study harder.
Step 6) Develop a simple role-play together between a referee and a baseball player arguing about balls and strikes.
These two sounds are incredibly difficult for second-language learners and native speaking children. However, with the use of proper instruction and communication between the student and the teacher, the sounds can be made easily and quickly.