A Spaniard, a Chinese woman and a Saudi Arabian man walk into an ESL classroom.
There’s no punchline (I didn’t say they walked into a bar, did I?)—this is just a typical day in your class.
And they have more in common than you might think.
And they all arrive with the same problem: Their first language (which ESL experts call L1) has an enormous influence over the way that they sound when they pronounce English words.
Despite their desire to improve, a native-sounding English accent can be extremely hard to achieve.
Our role as teachers is to assess their pronunciation issues as individuals and as a group.
Right from the beginning, we need to be using simple yet effective exercises to gradually loosen the grip exerted by the sounds of our students’ first languages.
The good news comes in two parts: (1) You can prepare to help these students even before they walk into your classroom, and (2) we’ve developed some fun, easy exercises to raise their awareness of pronunciation problems and get them on the path to correcting them.
Seeing ESL Through the L1 Lens
Everyone is different, and respecting this individuality serves us well.
Our students’ first languages (L1) are good initial indicators of the pronunciation issues we can expect to hear.
After all, we all absorb and adopt the sounds of the linguistic environment in which we grow up—be it English, Chinese, Spanish or Arabic—and we tend to see our second language through the lens of the first.
This is as true of our students’ use of vocabulary and grammar (which leads to the generally unsuccessful “direct translation” method and its natural results: Chinglish, Konglish, Spanglish and their cousins) as it is of their pronunciation.
Such issues are to be expected. It’s totally okay.
I mean, if a student has never in their life pronounced a consonant pair (like the “fl” in “fluent” or the “st” in “stunning”), then their mouth will try to find a way to keep the two consonants separated (“ful” and “sut”).
If the “th” sound doesn’t appear in their L1 (and it exists in only a handful), then their tongues, intimidated by the new challenges of this unfamiliar sound, will seek an easier way. This is why Chinese children often say “sank you” instead of “thank you” when first learning English.
Often, students won’t realize that they’re making a mistake. It’s very hard to hear your accent with your own ears, and to give an objective assessment of it compared to native speakers’ accents.
Plus, the problem isn’t always highlighted by their teachers. If they learned English from someone who isn’t a native speaker, the teacher might have the same issue. Even native English speakers teaching ESL often let pronunciation issues sit on the back burner, because they are seen as less important than the basics of the language.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that pronunciation can wait until students have nailed down grammar and vocabulary. By that time, students will have been allowed to form an unhelpful habit at the beginning of their language learning journey, and pronunciation exercises at this point can be too little too late.
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How to Prepare Yourself for ESL Pronunciation Exercises
Once you know which L1 your students speak, you can anticipate their pronunciation issues. Generally, you can expect to hear these problems:
Consonants: /b/ and /p/ (cub/cup); /d/ and /t/ (road/wrote); /g/ and /k/ (bag/back); /ʤ/ and /ʒ/ (ledger/leisure); /v/ and /b/ (vote/boat); /z/ and /s/ (prize/price)
Vowels: /ɪ/ and /i:/ (bit/beat); /ʊ/ and /u:/ (full/fool); /ɔ:/ and /ɒ/ (short/shot); /æ/ and /ɑ:/ (hat/heart)
Consonants: /ʧ/ and /ʃ/ (catch/cash); /v/ and /f/ (halve/half); /θ/ and /s/ (thing/sing); /z/ and /s/ (prize/price)
Vowels: /ɪ/ and /i:/ (feet/fit); /u:/ and /ʊ/ (pool/pull); /ɒ/ and /ɔ:/ (pot/port); /æ/ and /ɑ:/ (hat/heart)
Consonants: /l/ and /r/ (light/right); /t/ and /ʧ/ (tip/chip); /d/ and /ʤ/ (dim/gym); /f/ and /h/ (fall/hall); /v/ and /b/ (vile/bile); /θ/ and /s/ (thing/sing)
Vowels: /ɪ/ and /i:/ (hit/heat); /u:/ and /ʊ/ (pool/pull)
Consonants: /p/ and /b/ (pill/bill); /g/ and /k/ (log/lock); /v/ and /f/ (of/off); /θ/ and /t/ (three/tree)
Vowels: /e/ and /ɪ/ (head/hid); /ɜ:/ and /ɑ:/ (heard/hard); /ɔ:/ and /ɒ/ (short/shot); /eɪ/ and /e/ (pain/pen)
Consonants: /ʤ/ and /ʧ/ (gin/chin); /g/ and /k/ (goal/coal); /f/ and /p/ (leaf/leap); /θ/ and /t/ (three/tree); /ð/ and /d/ (there/dare)
Vowels: /ɪ/ and /i:/ (hit/heat), /æ/ and /ɑ:/ (hat/heart); /eɪ/ and /e/ (pain/pen)
Now we’re going to look at the best exercises for improving these pronunciation issues and many more!
11 ESL Pronunciation Exercises That Build Excellent Habits from Day One
1. Practicing the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
If some of the above symbols looked entirely unfamiliar (/ɑ:/ and /ʤ/ for example), don’t panic.
The IPA was invented to represent every sound in English (and, in its other versions, every other language), so that we have a specific, dedicated symbol for every consonant, vowel and diphthong (vowel combination).
It takes the average person about 40-60 minutes of study to entirely master this system, and I recommend that you invest this time so you can use the IPA with your students. They tend to enjoy figuring it out, and it’s the fastest way to convey the sounds of new words.
2. Opening Discussion
There’s really no use beating around the bush!
If you have a class of students from various backgrounds and with different first languages, you can have students break down into groups to discuss what they think are the most common pronunciation problems for native speakers of their languages. They can also try to pinpoint their own pronunciation problems stemming from the L1.
If everyone comes from the same background and speaks the same L1, then you can work on this together as one big group.
Either way, emphasizing pronunciation during the first few lessons is a great way to plant this important element in your students’ minds as something worthy of their attention and effort. Explain that these mistakes are totally natural and normal, and encourage students to be brave and continue speaking no matter what.
Begin by gently correcting the most basic problems (th/s for everyone, r/l for Japanese, p/b for Arabic, etc) and returning to these themes during each lesson until you hear genuine, lasting improvement.
3. Recording Sessions
Ask the students—irrespective of their skill levels—to record their own speech in English. Bring a tape recorder to class and have everyone take turns recording and listening over the course of a few classes, or, if possible, use recording apps on their personal phones or computers. A trip to the computer lab or language lab might be in order, so everyone can sit down and record themselves.
After recording, listen with a critical (but compassionate!) ear. How does their pronunciation compare to that of native speakers? Which sounds stand out as difficult? Which might cause comprehension problems for a listener?
Save these recordings however possible, so that students can reflect on their progress over months and years.
4. Doing Pair/Group Work
If you’re working with a class of students, have them help each other.
Encourage them to watch their partner’s mouths as they speak, keeping an eye out for the protruding tongue of a correctly pronounced “th” sound, for example. Constructive criticism and advice from classmates can be just as valuable as that from a teacher.
5. Running Diagnostics
Once you’re aware of the likely problems, confirm these details with some diagnostic tests. This can be as simple as keeping your ears open for the expected “problem” sounds and then making notes on what you hear. Can you hear a difference between “mass,” “math,” and “mash”? When discussing numbers, can you hear the /v/ sound in “five” and the all-important “th” in “three”?
Get a general sense of what’s going on with the whole class, or do individual chat sessions where you note any pronunciation issues you hear within 5 minutes or so.
Using these diagnoses, plan a steady routine of practice and correction. It may harm your student’s confidence if you correct every single pronunciation mistake, so plan a time during the class to focus on pronunciation in particular, and select one or two important sounds for particular focus each day.
6. Mastering Thing/Sing
As we’ve seen, this “th” sound will be unfamiliar for almost all of your students.
The basic truth is this: The tongue must protrude at least 1 cm past the teeth. If it doesn’t stick out that much, the “th” sound won’t be properly produced.
Have your students observe each other, use a mirror or record videos of their speech to analyze whether their tongue is in the correct position. Have them place their index finger on their chin, pointing upwards toward the nose and crossing the lips, and then have them pronounce any “th” word. The tongue must touch the finger.
7. Mastering Right/Light
This one is tricky because you won’t be able to see what’s going on. The difference between the two sounds depends on the position of the tongue within the mouth.
/L/ is formed by contact between the tongue and the roof of the mouth, just behind the upper teeth. Explain this to your students and have them try to practice for a little while. Write sentences with lots of /L/ sounds on the board so they can keep going for a while.
The secret to /R/ is to encourage your students to keep their tongue still when making the /R/ sound. It should not make contact with anything.
Rounding the mouth into a relaxed shape will help enormously. The corners of the mouth are brought in, as though pronouncing an “oooh” sound. Again, create some sentences with lots of /R/ sounds and write this up on the board so they can practice for a while.
Finally, create some sentences that contain the two sounds, and have them run through saying these and see if they can distinguish between the two sounds.
8. Mastering Prize/Price
The difference between these two sounds is that /Z/ is a voiced consonant and /S/ is unvoiced.
Experiment with your students. Have them each place a finger against their throat and make the sounds. They should be able to feel some vibration on the voiced consonant, but should feel none on the unvoiced.
The same method works for the voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds (bath and bathe, respectively) and the P/B sounds (bit and pit).
9. Playing with Minimal Pairs
For all of the above sounds, Minimal Pair exercises are an excellent method of raising awareness and comparing the correct sound with the sound our students are using instead.
You can find these online, in textbooks, create your own or even have your students brainstorm them. Here are some examples that help with the R/L problem:
One great exercise is to write one word from each pair on its own flashcard. Have each students come up to the front of the class, grab a flashcard, say the word and have the rest of the class guess which word they’re saying. For more timid students, this can be done in pairs or small groups.
10. Stretching Them Out
Artificially elongating the problem sounds is another good way to focus attention where it’s needed. Hold the “th,” “z” or “sh” sound for five seconds. Let the students really hear the sound your making by walking around the classroom. Once everyone has heard what you’re doing, have them try to replicate those elongated sounds.
11. Twisting Tongues
Creating tongue twisters is a fun way to bring attention to the problem. Remind your students that the sentences don’t necessarily need to make sense!
For example, the following tongue twister is fantastic for the “th” sound: “Arthur Smith is the author of a math theory.”
The satisfaction of hearing someone beautifully pronouncing, “Thursday the thirteenth is my father’s birthday” is a real treat for any ESL teacher.
Diagnostics are great, and the initial, intense focus on the problem sounds will help, but only continuous attention to pronunciation will bring about lasting improvement.
Build in a few minutes of specific practice every other class (or every class, with beginners) and review previously studied sounds to make sure the lesson has taken hold.
Drill all the sounds a few times (both in chorus, involving the whole class, and individually). Provide as many examples, minimal pairs and tongue twisters as are needed along the way.
I encourage you to always be raising awareness of the problems, planning how best to deal with them and returning to these topic periodically to check how your students are doing.
Let’s hear it for creating great pronunciation habits with all our students!
Dr. Graham Dixon is a writer, musician and educator. He began teaching with VSO in China, and then worked in a language academy in Thailand. He has since taught ESL in the UK and USA, and writes on ESL classroom techniques, health and meditation. Graham is also a ghostwriter of novels, and a professional composer and trumpeter, as well as an amateur chef.
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