Teaching Pronunciation: Practical Activities

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

I recently wrote a post about some of the characteristics of English pronunciation and what teaching it might entail. If you missed it, you can find it here. In this second instalment, there are several practical ideas and resources for teachers to use that can help students improve their pronunciation in a range of ways. Feel free to leave comments below with your favorite tips and activities!

Focusing on the Physicality of Sounds

It’s easy to forget that learning a foreign language is a physical task that requires conscious (at least at first) movement of your tongue, throat, and lips. Here are some quick and easy ways to increase your students’ awareness of how sounds are formed:

"Eiffel Tower" as a pronunciation exercise
Ask students to focus on the vowel length in “Eiffel Tower”
  1. The teacher mouths a sound silently and the students try to guess what the sound is
  2. The students look in a mirror to see their own lip and tongue positions for certain sounds
  3. Have students physically touch their lips and tongue to feel the locations of each while forming different sounds
  4. To focus on vowel length, give a visual demonstration with your arms (eeeeeeee in “eat” has wide arms, /i/ in “it” has shorter arm movement)
  5. Draw a cross-section diagram of the mouth with tongue and lip placements to highlight front of mouth vs. back of mouth production
  6. Students alternate between sounds to become aware of lip and tongue position (eeee – oooo – eeee – oooo – eeee)
  7. Have students touch their throats to highlight voiced and unvoiced sounds
  8. To highlight the place of consonant formation, have students stop air before producing a sound. This puts pressure on the place where the consonant is formed (try with /k/ and /g/, /t/ and /d/, /p/ and /b/)

Minimal Pairs in Context

"Ship" vs. "Sheep" as a pronunciation exercise
Ship or sheep?

Minimal pairs are two words that differ in only one phoneme (or sound). Students of different language backgrounds will tend to struggle with pairs of sounds that are interchangeable in their own language or when one of the sounds doesn’t exist in their language. English can also be challenging because it tends to have spelling rules that don’t seem to follow any pattern. Here is an example of an exercise that can be used to highlight /ei/ versus /ai/.

Give this as a handout to each student:

  1. She thinks she’s going ____________. (A) today (B) to die
  2. I don’t want ____________. (A) to pay (B) a pie
  3. I’d like a ____________, please. (A) tray (B) try
  4. My house is at the end of the  ____________. (A) lane (B) line
  5. The workers were very unhappy in the  ____________. (A) main (B) mine
  6. I didn’t like the ____________. (A) wait (B) white
  7. I wasn’t certain that it was ____________. (A) tame (B) time
  8. It covers a big area, ____________ Washington. (A) lake (B) like

Read these sentences and have students choose the correct answer (A or B)

  1. She thinks she’s going today.
  2. I don’t want to pay.
  3. I’d like a try, please.
  4. My house is at the end of the lane.
  5. The workers were very unhappy in the mine.
  6. I didn’t like the wait.
  7. I wasn’t certain that it was time.
  8. It covers a big area, Lake Washington.

Then students work in pairs and practice reading the sentences out loud. This activity can be adapted for a wide variety of minimal pairs (/i/ vs. /i:/, /l/ vs. /r/)

– Adapted from Hewings, Pronunciation Practice Activities, CUP, 2004

Raising Awareness of Sentence Stress

Stress and rhythm is essential to communicating in spoken English, and a lot of meaning can be conveyed depending on which word(s) the speaker chooses to stress. “Contrastive stress” is a phenomenon where the speaker over-stresses a word to convey that their interlocutor was incorrect about some information. For example, a dog owner may respond to the question, “Do you have a cat?” with “No, I have a DOG.” with an over-emphasis on the final word. To highlight and practice this with students, them to decide what question would result in the following answers:

  1. No, I went to PARis last summer.
  2. No, I went to Paris LAST summer.
  3. No, I went to Paris last SUMMer.

Possible answers would be: “Did you go to London last summer?” / “Are you going to London this summer?” / “Did you go to Paris last winter?”

Intonation and Meaning

Conversational exercises can be a good way to teach intonation and meaning to English students
So many types of conversations to choose from

As with stress, intonation can convey a lot of meaning. Consider the phrasal verb “come on”. This can have a number of meanings (e.g. “hurry up”, “are you kidding?”, or “please win!!”) depending on the intonation used. This can be a fun area to explore with students, especially those whose languages don’t use tone in the same way that English does. You can give each pair of students a situation or relationship and they recite a dialogue using intonation to give clues to context. The other students guess what the relationship is. Possible relationships include: ex-lovers meeting on the street, two people having an illicit affair, Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, two elderly people who are hard of hearing, good friends who haven’t seen each other in a few weeks…the list goes on forever! Here is an example dialogue, but it can be adapted in any number of ways:

a. Hey, how are you?
b. Oh, you know, the same. And you?
a. I got a new job.
b. Oh? Tell me about it.
a. It’s downtown. I start on Monday.
b. Well, good for you!

Scenario 1: A & B are friends who have both been unemployed for over a year.

Scenario 2: B has a huge crush on A, who doesn’t really like B.  

– British Council seminar on Drama in the Classroom (Bogota, 2012)

Connected Speech

Learning English doesn't have to be boring, jokes can also be a great learning tool
Teach the importance of sound while having a laugh

Connected speech is split up into four main categories: linking, where a consonant at the end of a word connects to the initial vowel sound of a following word (e.g. “meet up” sounds like “mee_tup”); elision, where sounds are dropped (e.g. “comfortable” only has three syllables); intrusion, when there is a /w/, /r/, or /j/ sound that appears between two vowel sounds (e.g. “blue eyes” sounds like “blue wise”); and assimilation, when two sounds merge to create a new sound (e.g. “ten points” becomes “tem points”)

“Knock Knock” jokes can be a fun way to introduce and highlight these patterns in English, which are so natural to native speakers that they can hardly pick up on them, but may create serious barriers to communication for English learners.

Write the following on the board as an example:

a. Knock knock.
b. Who’s there?
a. Willy.
b. Willy who?
a. Willy love me forever?

Perform the joke with the students. You may need to explain the dialogue pattern first depending on if your students are familiar or not. Give each student a knock knock joke and have them mingle (walk around the room) telling each other their jokes. Follow up by explicitly highlighting the connected speech pattern in each punchline and doing some additional drilling.

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Scott.
  • Scott who?
  • Scott nothing to do with you.

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Juno.
  • Juno who?
  • Juno what time it is?

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Dozen.
  • Dozen who?
  • Dozen anyone want to let me in?

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Adam.
  • Adam who?
  • Adam up and tell me the total.

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Freeze.
  • Freeze who?
  • Freeze a jolly good fellow.

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Bingo.
  • Bingo who?
  • Bingo in to come and see you for ages.

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Felix.
  • Felix who?
  • Felix my ice cream, I’ll lick his.

  • Knock knock.
  • Who’s there?
  • Wooden shoe.
  • Wooden shoe who?
  • Wooden shoe like to know.

– Adapted from Hewings, Pronunciation Practice Activities, CUP, 2004

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