16 Awesome Pronunciation Activities for ESL Students
Do you find yourself nagging your students about their incorrect pronunciation?
English pronunciation can be tough to master.
When at least several of your students are struggling with the same problem, it’s definitely worth doing some activities to teach them how to recognize the sound and then pronounce it themselves.
Read on for 16 pronunciation games for ESL students that you can easily adapt to your lessons!
- 1. Minimal Pairs Bingo
- 2. Let’s Roll
- 3. Odd One Out
- 4. Run and Grab
- 5. Stations
- 6. Basketball
- 7. Did You Read What I Read?
- 8. Sound TPR (Total Physical Response)
- 9. Listening Tower
- 10. Dictation
- 11. Fruit Salad
- 12. Say It Again, Sam
- 13. Telephone
- 14. Card Games
- 15. Minimal Pair Math
- 16. Shadow Speaking
- What to Do After Pronunciation Games and Activities
1. Minimal Pairs Bingo
Minimal pairs are English words that are almost the same except for one sound—for example, “ship” and “sheep” or “pat” and “bat.” This activity is one of the easiest ways to focus on minimal pairs, which are usually very tricky for English learners.
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 work 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.
- 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 gives 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 say it quietly to themselves as well.
2. Let’s Roll
You’ll need to do a little preparation for this game, but it’s oh-so-fun-and-worth-it. It’ll test your students’ pronunciation skills and listening accuracy, too.
- Prepare two blank dice for each group of three to five students. You can use whiteboard dice if you have them, or make your own “dice” by folding paper cubes. You’ll also need a box with the top open (like a shoe box).
- Think of two target sounds that you want to focus on—for example, the vowels [i] (pronounced “ee” as in tree) and [I] (as in “trick”).
- On each die, write three words for each target sound, making a total of six words that you want your students to pronounce correctly. Alternatively, your students can come up with a list of words for each sound so they then make their own dice and choose which words to put on them.
- On each person’s turn, they will roll two dice in the box so their group members cannot see. They will then read the word on each die.
- The group will decide if the words contain the same vowel sound or different vowel sounds.
- If they answer correctly, both the speaker and the listeners got their part right.
For a simpler version of the game, just write the sounds on each side of the dice or use the phonetic alphabet. On their turns, players will roll one die, and then they must give a word that contains that sound.
3. 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 that 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.
4. 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.
Before your students can pronounce words correctly, they will have to hear them correctly. This is where the game comes into play. It will test how well your students hear what you say.
Before you play, designate each wall in your classroom with a sound. For example, if you were teaching fricatives, you might label one wall [s] (as in “see”), another [z] (as in “zoo”), a third [sh] (as in “ship”) and the fourth [j] (as in “measure”).
Have students stand in the middle of the room. Then say a word. Students will have to run to the wall labeled with the sound that they heard. If someone runs to the wrong wall, they are out and must sit down. If they run to the correct wall, they are still in the game. Then say another word, eliminating students as necessary, until only one student remains standing.
For a more complex version of this game, label two walls with “same” and whiteboard dice Then say two words at the start of each round. If students heard the two words you said as the same, they run to one wall. If the words differed in only one sound, they run to the other wall.
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 #3) or asking students to choose the correct word as in Run and Grab (see #4). When students give the correct answer, they (or their team) score “baskets” (points) on the board. An optional addition 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 a 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.
7. Did You Read What I Read?
This game is played in pairs, and it will test your students’ pronunciation and listening skills. Start by preparing two numbered lists of words for your students. Some of the words on the lists should be the same while others should be minimal pairs.
For example, one list might be “bark,” “back,” “boo” or “pan” while the other list is “bark,” “pack,” “boo” or “ban.” Each student should keep their list hidden from their partner. Students will go through the list reading each word and listening to the corresponding word their partner reads.
For each pair of words, the two students must decide if it’s the same word on both lists or if they are minimal pairs. On your cue, students start going down their list and come to you when they think they have all the correct answers.
For each incorrect answer, the team receives a 15-second penalty. The team with the fastest time wins the game.
8. Sound TPR (Total Physical Response)
If you’re teaching younger students, then activities with movement are a must.
Designate particular movements to particular sounds, as lively or as gentle as you like. For instance, they could be sitting at their desks and raising a hand, clapping or standing up when they hear a particular sound. Or they could be standing in a space and jumping or running in response to sounds.
As with “Odd One Out” (see #3), 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.
9. Listening Tower
In this game, students will work with a partner to build a tower before the opposing team can. Your students will practice their pronunciation and listening accuracy as they play.
- Prepare minimal pairs to test your students on. Get several plastic cups then write each word on a cup (make sure to write on both sides of the cup).
- Divide your class into two groups.
- Write down the minimal pairs on your board so your students can have a clear view of them.
- For each round, two students will act as listeners—one student from each group. Have them sit next to each other, with the cups in between them.
- Choose another student from any of the groups who will act as the speaker. The speaker will come up and look at a word you have written down before returning to their group. The word should be one of the words in the minimal pair you just wrote on the board.
- When you say “Go,” the speaker will say the word he or she read on your paper.
- The listeners will race to grab the cup with that word written on it. Whichever person grabs the cup with the right word gets to keep the cup.
- Play another round with another minimal pair, but this time choose a speaker from the other team and keep alternating with each round.
- Each team will use the cups they earn to build a six-cup tower. Play until one pair has their six-cup tower complete. The winners then get to knock down both towers!
You can give diverse minimal pairs or focus on specific sounds if your students consistently have trouble with those. For example, you might ask them only [p] and [b] minimal pairs so they can get the hang of those two sounds.
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.
11. 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 say, “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.
12. Say It Again, Sam
This silly game will get your students talking and laughing as they try to say the same sentence in as many different ways as possible while practicing intonation and inflection. Start by dividing your students into two teams. One student from each team comes to the front of the room.
The first student tells you an emotion he will try to communicate through a sentence (surprise, anger, frustration, disappointment, excitement, etc.) and then says the sentence in front of the class. It can be an original sentence or one you provide.
As he says the sentence, he should use inflection and intonation to convey intent or emotion behind the words. His team then guesses the emotion he was trying to get across.
The second student, the one from the other team, then tells you a different emotion and says the same sentence with different intonation and inflection, trying to convey that emotion. Her team then guesses the emotion behind her words.
Keep going back and forth between the two players until one of two things happens:
- The speaker is not able to think of another way to say the sentence.
- The speaker’s team cannot correctly guess the emotion he was trying to convey. When that happens, the point goes to the other team.
Play until one team reaches a score of five. As you play, you will find that general, nonspecific sentences are easier to say in multiple ways, such as the following:
“You think that.”
“I want to go.”
“It’s raining outside.”
“The test is tomorrow.”
More specific sentences, especially those that imply emotion already, such as “I hate you,” will be more challenging for this game. But if you have more advanced students, this challenge might be more fun for them.
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, Telephone is a game that involves passing a message from student to student, hopefully without it getting changed too much. To play Telephone 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 into 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.
14. 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 Grab (see #4) 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 first say it as they hold it up, then individual students could have a turn at the front.
- Happy Families — Create a set of cards containing maybe six to 10 families of four 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 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 student 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.
15. 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 as you’re speaking.
Ask the students to give you the final number that all these words add up to.
16. Shadow Speaking
Shadow speaking is an easy game that tests your students’ pacing, intonation and pronunciation. In essence, your students will speak along with a short audio passage to see if they can match the pacing and intonation.
- Start by playing a selection for your students so they can listen to it.
- Play it again and have them speak along with the recording. If it’s just a simple dialogue that’s easy to memorize, your students should be able to remember it after one or two times through. If it’s more complicated, provide your students with a transcript.
- Play the recording a third time, turning the volume a little lower in the middle of the recording.
- Set the volume even lower and play a fourth time.
- Eventually, work your way down to turn the volume off completely in the middle of the recording. Your students should try to maintain the pace and intonation of the recording even though they can’t hear it.
- Before you get to the end of the recording, turn the volume up again and see which students are still on time with the recording.
You can do this activity with your entire class at one time, but you might be able to better assess your students if you work with them one-on-one.
If you like, practice a few times with your whole class before dividing up into teams. Meet with each student one-on-one for their final time through the recording (when you turn the volume off completely).
Award each person still in synch with the end of the recording a point toward their team total. The team with the most points wins.
What to Do After Pronunciation Games and Activities
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.
For instance, you can look up minimal pairs on FluentU and show your students different videos that use the word pairs. The immersion program has thousands of engaging, native videos like movie clips, music videos, vlogs and news segments, so you’ll be able to find something that works for your class.
You can also use multimedia flashcards to view clips from other FluentU videos where the words appear. For additional practice, you can assign videos or quizzes to students for homework, and see which questions they’re getting wrong for a targeted approach.
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!