The Sound of R

The American English R-sound is different from the R-sound of most languages in the world. Many students of English feel that it is more like a vowel than a consonant, and there is good reason for this. R is different from the other consonants of English because there is no point of contact – the tip of the tongue does touch the top of the mouth. The tongue is actually used in a vowel-like way to produce the R-sound.

How to make the R-sound

Different native speakers seem to make the R-sound in slightly different ways, so you may see different kinds of explanations in different ESL or pronunciation books. However, there are a few basic features that are always the same:
1. R is more similar to pronouncing a vowel than a consonant.
2. The tip of the tongue should NOT touch the roof of the mouth.
3. There is a lot of tension in the tongue.
4. The lips are slightly rounded.

So, here is how I coach students to make the R-sound:

Step 1. The tongue should start out low in the mouth, like saying “ah”
Step 2. While keeping the tongue down, pull the front part of the tongue back a bit. The tongue should be quite tense, tightly contracted. (But try to keep your jaw relaxed!)
Step 3. Also round the lips a little bit – about half as much as for the O-sound.

Some other points:
If the sides of your tongue touch the back upper teeth – that’s ok.
Or, if the tip of your tongue seems to be turned back – that’s also ok.

Have fun with R!


The Power of R

R is an unusual letter. Normally it is a consonant. Sometimes it acts as a vowel. But something even more amazing is that it sometimes has the power to change the sound of a vowel in front of it.


In words such as “run”, “carrot” or “free” R is a consonant.


In some words, the R takes the place of the vowel. That is, the vowel before the R becomes silent, because the R dominates — it takes away, or covers up the vowel sound.

Here are some examples: earth, chirp, curve, govern, her, iceberg, term, third, shirt, surf, verse, work, worst. This is a short list of examples — there are quite a few words like this.

The loss of the vowel sound also happens with -er and -or at the ends of words, as in “other” and “actor”.


R can sometimes change the sound of a vowel, instead of covering it up.

A changing to O
This happens when an “a” is trapped between a “w” or “u” and an “r”. For example, the word “war” sounds like the word “wore” — they are homonyms. “Warn” and “worn” are also homonyms. However, “warm” and “worm” do not sound the same, because “worm” has R as a vowel.

Other words in which the “a” sounds like “o” are: award, dwarf, quart, quarter, quartz, thwart, ward, warm, warp, wart, wharf.

Why does this happen? The “w” or “u” sound and the American “r” sound are all made with rounded lips. So an “a” trapped between these sounds also gets pronounced with rounded lips — native speakers don’t unround their lips just for the “a” in between. An “a” with rounded lips ends up sounding like “o”.

E changing to A
This happens in a few words that have an “e” before an “r”. To make an “r” sound, the tongue needs to be very tense, and this tension affects the “e”, making it sound more like an “a”.

Here are some common words:
where (this is a homonym with “ware”)
merry (this is a homonym with “marry”)
very (this is a homonym with “vary”)

So, two good things to keep in mind when dealing with R are: First, don’t be surprised if you find some words that are pronounced with an unexpected vowel sound when R follows. Second, listen closely when R is involved, so that you can hear how to pronounce those words correctly.

The Most Frequently Used Words

It is a good idea to check yourself to make sure that you are saying the most frequently used words correctly because many of them are needed every time you speak in English, and the most frequently used words of English have the highest percentage of irregular spelling patterns, so if you learned to say them by looking at the letters, you may be saying some of them wrong! Or perhaps, when you first learned some of these words, you did not know how to say them correctly, and now you have a habit of saying some of them incorrectly.

Here is a list of the 150 most frequent words: MostFrequentWordsEnglish150

Here are some ideas for different ways you can use the list with the audio files to check yourself and practice these words:

  • listen to the audio files before you look at the list, write down the words as you hear them, then look at the list to check yourself.
  • pause the audio after each word and say the next word aloud before you hear it, to see if you think you said it correctly.
  • listen and repeat each word, trying imitate the pronunciation on the audio, to see if it is different from the way you are accustomed to saying the word.
  • record yourself and then compare your recording to these audio files.

Words 1-50
Words 51-100
Words 101-150