Do you find yourself nagging your students about their incorrect pronunciation?
That’s okay—ESL students with a great grasp on English pronunciation are hard to come by.
They usually walk in the classroom already at an advanced level, having lived abroad or having an English-speaking parent.
As for the rest, English pronunciation can be a tough area to master.
Do you get tired of trying to correct them, and just let them keep saying it wrong because it’s too much trouble? (After all, maybe it’s just part of their almost cute “accent.”) You might bypass pronunciation mistakes so you can focus on vocabulary or grammar instead. You might even think that too much pronunciation correction could be disheartening when your students are trying so hard.
How to Solve ESL Student Pronunciation Problems
There are some sounds in English that can be difficult for any learner, and there are also distinctions between sounds that some students find confusing because there is no such distinction in their mother tongue. When all, or at least several, of your students are struggling with the same problem, it is definitely worthwhile doing some activities to target specific areas.
- First, they need to be able to hear the difference between the incorrect and the correct sound.
- Then they need to learn how to make the correct sound.
- Finally, they also need to be able to recognize (when reading, for example) when and how to make the correct sound.
What Are Minimal Pairs and How Can They Help Your Students?
Maybe you’ve already been noticing particular words or sounds some of your students are having trouble with.
At any rate, it’s worth doing a little bit of research to find out where your students are most likely to need help based on their first language(s). This PDF document will help you to know which problems relate to specific first languages.
Then you can look for appropriate minimal pairs—words that are exactly the same except for one different sound. These can can help you target the sounds that your students need to focus on. A simple example would be:
“ship” and “sheep”
The sounds “i” and “ee” in these two words are significant because they’re the only difference between two words which have different meanings, but for many ESL students the two sounds aren’t distinct in their mother tongue.
By learning to recognize and reproduce the difference in these words’ sounds and meanings, students can start heading towards pronunciation mastery.
There are many websites that provide lists of minimal pairs. For example, this one is particularly extensive.
Try to choose pairs of words that not only contain your required minimal pairs, but are also suitable to the ability level of your students. The pairs will be useful to practice the target sounds through fun activities.
Now the big question: Can you explain the physical difference between the two sounds to your students?
Sometimes you can say the sounds over and over, with your students trying to mimic, but they just don’t seem to be able to hear or feel the difference. You need to be able to tell them how to make the new sound(s).
If you aren’t already familiar with the Phonemic Chart, then you might find it helpful because it shows how and where each sound is made. You don’t have to learn the symbols or teach your students the symbols, although some older students particularly enjoy learning them.
However, it will be useful for you to be aware how each sound is made.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some fun activities you can use to better teach pronunciation to your students.
10 ESL Activities to Teach Perfect Pronunciation and Get Mouths Moving
There are lots of games and activities you can use to teach this topic. Since they’ll all involve speaking and listening, they’re naturally engaging and interactive games. The purpose of these is to focus on the particular sounds your students are having problems with using appropriate minimal pairs of words.
Ready, set, go!
1. Minimal Pairs Bingo
This is one of the easiest ways to focus on particular pairs of sounds.
A Bingo card commonly has 5 x 5 squares, so you can use 25 words (12 minimal pairs, or more than two words for some sounds). One or more spaces on each card could be a “free” spot, or you could change the size, maybe to 4 x 4. (I have found that 25 words works well for a full lesson, and everyone will be able to learn them all by the end.)
Go to a website such as ESL activities to create your Bingo cards. You simply type in the words you want to use, choose how many individual cards you need and then let the program randomize the cards so that they each have a different arrangement of the same words.
- Have a spare card cut up into individual squares that you can jumble and use to call the words.
- Don’t let the students mark their cards. Provide markers such as small stones or sunflower seeds that they can put on each word as they hear it (and then remove to play again).
- If you have “free” spots they can start the game by putting markers on those.
- The first student to get five markers in a row in any direction calls “Bingo!”
- Students remove their markers and a new game starts with the winner as the new caller.
- After a game or two the students can swap cards to get a different arrangement of words to look at.
At the end of the lesson you can review the words and target sounds with the whole class.
This activity can give students the opportunity to hear the difference between the minimal pairs, recognize the different words written on the card and clearly pronounce the difference when they win and have a chance to be the caller. As each word is called, students tend to all say it quietly to themselves as well.
2. Odd One Out
Put similar words into groups of three—two with one sound, and one with a different (although similar) sound. Or you could have groups of four or five which contain the same sound, but only one that’s different. For example:
meet, seat, sit (for vowels)
plays, pace, space (for consonants)
The selection of the odd word can be a reading exercise—where students read the words to themselves out loud and identify the sounds in the written words—or a listening exercise—where the teacher reads the words and the students respond to the “odd” word.
Likewise, selected students could try reading the words aloud for others to identify the odd word, or they could work in pairs or small groups with one person pronouncing the words and the others indicating which is odd.
There are a number of different activities you could run with these groups of words—depending on the ages and abilities of your class, and your classroom arrangement.
- Ask the students individually to read through the word groups and pick which words have different sounds.
- Ask the students to discuss the groups of words with a partner and decide which one is odd.
- Divide the class into two teams, in two lines, and ask the person whose turn it is to choose the odd word as you read them out loud.
- Make the question part of another game like Tic Tac Toe. The team or individual whose turn it is to place an X or an O must first pick the odd one out. They proceed with their turn if they choose the right word. If they can’t identify the odd word, then they lose their turn.
- Play Run and Grab (see below) putting the words on the board and having participants run up to pick the odd word.
3. Run and Grab
You could have your minimal pairs on flashcards or you could simply write two (or more) words at a time on the board.
- Create two teams and then pair students up with a member of the opposite team. In turn, each pair goes to stand at the back of the room, looking down an aisle at the board.
- When you call one of the minimal pairs out, the pair races to the front to touch the correct word (the odd word out) on the board or grab the appropriate flashcard.
- Students from the winning team could have a turn at calling the words for others to run to.
Younger students especially enjoy activities that include movement and a chance to race, but older students also find it enjoyable.
If your students are keen on basketball then there are a couple of ways you can use this to inspire them to practice their minimal pairs.
- Board Basketball—Set questions using minimal pairs such as choosing the “odd one out” (see above) or asking students to choose the correct word as in Run and Grab (see above). When students give the correct answer, they (or their team) score “baskets” (points) on the board. An optional additional to this game is to have students take a shot at throwing a ball into a hoop or receptacle after they identify the correct odd word. (Making the shot wins them another point.)
- Crumple and Shoot Basketball—The minimal pair words are written on pieces of (scrap) paper. Students are lined up in two teams. In turn, the front student picks up the paper and reads the word. If it’s read correctly they then crumple it up and throw it into a basket/bin/receptacle a set distance away. (Getting it into the basket wins another point.)
Or you could display words on a screen (with an LCD projector) or on flashcards. When the student whose turn it is gets it right they can throw a ball (or other object) into the basket or bin, gaining another point.
5. Sound TPR (Total Physical Response)
Younger students especially enjoy any activity that involves movement.
Designate particular movements to particular sounds, as lively or as gentle as you like. For instance, they could be sitting at their desks and raise a hand, clap or stand up when they hear a particular sound, or they could be standing in a space and jump or run in response to sounds.
As with “Odd One Out” (see above), this could be reading based or listening based. They could respond to words on flashcards by correctly pronouncing them and moving in the prescribed way, or they could respond to the teacher (or another student) saying the words.
If you’re teaching younger students—who may also be learning to read and write—they should also be learning phonics, which relates each sound to English letters. There are established systems of hand signs or gestures for each sound which you may find useful here. These can be seen under Visual Phonics on YouTube, or you can look up Jolly Phonics.
Dictation is when someone speaks out loud and someone else writes it down. Getting your students to write down what you say is good listening practice for them, and when you’re dictating minimal pairs they need to listen especially carefully. There are a few different dictation activities you can use.
- Minimal Pairs Dictation—The teacher reads out minimal pairs in a particular order and the students write them down. Or the students could have the words already written down and you could instruct them to put marks, numbers, colors, etc. on particular words as you read.
- Running Dictation—The students work in pairs. One student runs to read the words or sentences from somewhere farther away, like on the wall outside the classroom. They then dictate to the other student who writes them down. The dictation could be single words, minimal pairs or sentences including target words and sounds.
- Fast Dictation—This is where the dictation is read in one continuous stream instead of a few words at a time with breaks. The students listen and write any words or phrases they notice (without panicking!) In this situation, the dictation should include some target words (in minimal pairs) which the students should listen for specifically and write down in the order they hear them.
- Picture Dictation—The students have a picture, background or series of pictures containing objects that represent the minimal pair words. They follow instructions to highlight the pictures of their minimal pair words, which may include, coloring, making marks or drawing additional items.
7. Fruit Salad
This is generally a game where the players sit in a circle with one player standing in the middle. The players have each been designated as a type of fruit. The middle player calls a fruit, and all of the players who’ve been assigned that fruit must rush to change places while the middle player tries to take one of their chairs. Periodically they can call “fruit salad!” and then everyone must change places.
Instead of using the names of fruits, you can designate words containing minimal pairs to groups of students, and maybe choose another word for the “fruit salad!” command.
For example, as the students are sitting in the circle they “number off” one by one around the circle with:
“pea,” ” bee,” “pin,” “bin”
Then the person in the middle will call “pin!” or another given word to get their peers running around.
8. Chinese Whispers
When someone is genuinely whispering, and therefore not using their voice, it’s nearly impossible to hear the difference between some words. For example: “bit” and “pit.” In a social situation where whispering is used we rely on context to fill out the meaning.
In the classroom, Chinese Whispers is a game that involves passing a message from student to student, hopefully without it getting changed too much. In order to play Chinese Whispers as a pronunciation game it might be best to allow speaking and to ask students to carry the message farther away where it can’t be overheard by others.
One student could be outside the door and you tell them what the message is. Then the second student goes outside and they tell them the message. The first student comes back in the classroom and sends the next student out. This goes on until every student has heard the secret word. The final student comes back into the classroom to say what they think the message was.
If the message contains words from your minimal pairs list, it will probably have changed, maybe more than once.
9. Card Games
Flashcards are a wonderful resource that every ESL teacher should have bundles of. They can be used for whole class activities and games, or you can create multiple smaller sets to be used by individuals at their desks or in pair/group work activities. Here are a few examples:
- Hold it High—Just like Run and Touch (see above) if students have individual sets of cards on their desks, they can hold up the appropriate one when it’s called, and the teacher can then look around and have a quick check that everyone is correct. To move from reading to speaking they should firstly say it as they hold it up, and secondly individual students could have a turn at the front.
- Happy Families—Create a set of cards containing maybe 6 – 10 families of 4 cards, color coded by families. For example, “boo zoo boom zoom,” “cap tap cub tub,” “kick thick kink think,” etc. Supply a complete list for each member. The cards are distributed like in Go Fish. Students in groups of four play, trying to collect sets of four by asking the person next to them if they have particular cards.
- Snap—Make the same decks of cards as in Happy Families. Students can play Snap in pairs or groups with a stack of cards containing relevant minimal pairs. The student placing the card down on the deck should call it at the same time. The next student must put down a card that fits in with that card family. The group proceeds until the winner has no cards left.
- Catching Cards—Students gather at the back of the room. The teacher throws individual flashcards and students try to catch them. When they get one they say the word and show it to everyone.
- Pair Up—Students are each handed a flashcard with a minimal pair word. They have to walk around and either find others with the same word/sound.
- Bean Bag Toss—Lay the flashcards containing the minimal pairs spread out on the floor. Each students takes a turn throwing a bean bag onto a card and clearly saying the word on that card. (They could then collect the card and win a point.)
- Stepping Stones—Lay the cards on the floor. Students use them as “stepping stones” to cross a river, saying each one clearly as they step on it.
10. Minimal Pair Math
Assign a number to each of the minimal pair words you wish to focus on. Then call out the words in your chosen sequence, possibly joined with mathematical symbols (e.g., plus, minus). Students can write down the words and their associated numbers while you speak. Ask the students to give you the final number that all these words add up to.
Obviously just doing a couple of activities once or twice may not fix the pronunciation problems your students are having. Hopefully, these activities for targeted practice will lead your students to a better understanding of English pronunciation so that an occasional “nudge” (rather than nagging) will keep them on track.
Whenever the opportunity arises, you can remind them of these pronunciation lessons and minimal pairs when those minimal pair words pop up again in speaking, listening and reading lessons. This is a great way to continue pointing out the words used in your minimal pairs in context. Then students can hear how they sound (again) and get a feel for which words have which meanings.
Practicing a whole phrase or sentence containing the troublesome sound is more likely to cement it in their memory, especially if it’s part of a song or a video that they can watch and practice along with.
The important thing is to integrate these activities into your class’s routine whenever possible, and to keep reinforcing the different sounds and meanings.
With time, great English pronunciation will come!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these fun activities, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.