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Speech in the Schools

Spelling /r/

Published May 4, 2016 8:09 AM by Teresa Roberts
How do you say, “Squirrel”? Does your pronunciation truly match the spelling of “squirrel”?

A bright student and I were practicing the postvocalic /r/ sound in “first”. I re-spelled the word (incorrectly) as “ferr—st” to show how it’s pronounced with an emphasis on the underlying vowel and a prolongation of the /r/. “Even though it has an ‘i’ in it, we say, ‘er’, like in ‘her’, or ‘fur’.” We began to generate a list of others words that had the “er” sound, which led to an interesting discussion about /r/ and spelling.

This student has been working on the vowel /r/ sound for “er” for a little while. The “er” sound is often difficult for clients to produce because the underlying vowel is “uh”, like the two vowel sounds in the word “above”. This “uh” vowel, like in “duh”, is produced with the articulators (lips, tongue, and jaw) in a relatively neutral position – almost like your mouth at rest. If you just open your mouth slightly and make a sound, you’ll probably get “uh”. To make “er”, we have to add /r/ to a relaxed mouth position.

We started a list of words that rhyme with “er” and were astonished at the spelling variations.

•    “er” sound with “ir”: stir, girl, chirp, first, etc.
•    “er” sound with “er”: her, paper, dinner, etc.
•    “er” sound with “ere”: were
•    “er” sound with “ear”: pearl, earth, heard, etc.
•    “er” sound with “or”: worst, worry, world, doctor, etc.
•    “er” sound with “our”: journey, courage, etc.
•    “er” sound with “ur”: fur, nurse, purse, turn, etc.

If clients rely on spelling, it may be difficult for them to determine the underlying vowel for postvocalic /r/ words. Our orthographical system does not directly correspond to our phonological system. Approximately 44 phonemes (sounds) are represented with 26 graphemes (letters) combined in various ways.

Sometimes there are letters that we don’t even say. We tried the word, “February”.

“Do you know that most people don’t say ‘brew’ in the middle of ‘February’? They just say, ‘you’.” I explained. We then re-spelled “February” as “feb—u—air—ree”.

Articulation therapy may benefit from a focused exploration of sound-letter correspondence for /r/ and /r/ influenced vowels. We know that we don’t produce a /w/ sound for “write”. For conscientious, older students who are strong readers, their ability to use spelling to help them produce /r/ words may be highly misleading. Our spelling system does not consistently indicate which one of the underlying /r/ vowel sounds will be used. Generally, we have six /r/ influenced vowels: fear, fair, fur, far, four, fire. The “er” sound alone can be represented with seven different spelling combinations.

The student told me that “squirrel” is hard for him to say. We re-spelled the word as “sk—werr—ul”.

“I wish it was spelled that way,” he said.

“So do I,” I concurred.

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About this Blog

    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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