Ask the average person what the most difficult kind of English to understand is and they’ll say “Scottish.”
(Unless they happen to be Scottish, of course.)
This isn’t a coincidence.
The difference in vowel sounds between English speakers and Scots is distinct.
This has to do with the great vowel shift. According to linguist and author of “A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles,” Otto Jespersen, this shift wasn’t as dramatic among Scots, and thus, the Scottish accent bears the most resemblance to old English.
Teaching English Vowels: AEIOU, but Why?
Vowels have a lot to do with how we understand a language.
In English particularly, a language that is not fully phonetic, focusing on them is especially important.
Luckily for you, as an educator, there are many ways you can help your students make friends with vowels.
Once they are confident in their vowel use, they will also be much less shy about speaking.
Read on for some fun techniques to jumpstart the new vowel learners’ voyage.
1. Teach Minimal Pairs
The goal of minimal pairs is to isolate the vowel while providing two different words with an otherwise identical sound.
For example: ten/tin, read/red, mad/mid, etc.
This serves several purposes: It helps students differentiate vowels well, learn new words, and practice speaking.
There are a few ways your pupils can practice minimal pair use, such as:
Simply doing drills
Do a minimal pair worksheet that incorporates many vowel pairings. Probably the best way to do this is incrementally, so as not to overwhelm students. For example, for one week you can practice the short “e” vs. short “i” sound (minimal pairs such as ten/tin). The next week you can keep drilling the same thing and add the short “e” vs. short “a” sound (such as ten/tan), and so forth. This way, your English learners will gradually refine their vowel sounds.
Remember to also focus on contrasting long and short vowel sounds within a single letter. For example, the “a” in mat vs. the “a” in mate. These are technically not minimal pairs, but are good to drill to emphasize how the long vowels sound different than the short vowels of a word.
Constructing memorable sentences
When I worked with students on minimal pairs, I usually had them construct their own sentence or sentences for memory purposes. For example, if we were practicing short “i” vs. short “e” sounds, they could write: “I gave ten tuna tins to the cat.” If your ESL learners are advanced enough to create their own sentences, this is great because it will be easier to remember something that they actively composed themselves.
Using fun phrases
If your students are beginners learning pronunciation, you can either write sentences with minimal pairs yourself or use a worksheet.
Of course, you have the option of picking and choosing, or using all of the above exercises at the same time.
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2. Do Shadow Exercises
Nah, they’re not shady. At least not metaphorically speaking.
Shadow exercises are an extension of the minimal pairs exercise.
Their beauty of shadow exercises is in their minimalism: learners listen to a short monologue passage several times, speak along with the video, trying to sync up exactly with its timing, and as a last step, say the passage on their own.
When applied to vowel practice, you can adapt the shadow exercise to your pupils’ needs. Look for audio material that is to their level or a little bit more difficult and incorporates the vowels you have been working on in class.
Here are some good ones to get started:
- Listen, Repeat, Shadow: Follow along with this short story about automotive manufacturer, BMW, mimicking the sounds and intonation of the speaker.
- English Shadowing Practice with Jim Carrey/Ace Ventura: Practice your pronunciation by shadowing dialogue from Jim Carrey’s hit movie, “Ace Ventura.”
If you’re looking for more fun and engaging material to show your students, try adding FluentU to your classroom curriculum. FluentU takes clips from movies and television shows, songs, commercials and news articles and transforms it into curriculum for English students. As a result, they benefit from learning natural English from native English speakers—all while learning more about the culture of English speaking countries.
3. Tell Students: “Put Your Vowels Where Your Mouth Is”
I’ve had multiple students tell me some version of, “I don’t even think about how I move my mouth; I just kind of say the words.”
Not to talk smack, but while those students often have pretty great grammar skills, their pronunciation leaves something to be desired.
Feeling how words sound in your mouth really does help speaking skills. I remember that the moment I thought of the “r” in Spanish as a light “d” in English and practiced it as such, my accent became a lot better.
First, just isolate the vowel and demonstrate how to pronounce it physically. Does the long “o” have a more round shape on the lips or more open? What does it look like? Show those details. This is also a good time to contrast short and long vowels.
Here are some more detailed videos on how to teach the shapes of vowel pronunciation:
- American English Vowels: How to pronounce vowels using standard American English.
- English Pronunciation|Vowel Sounds: Learn how to identify and make the various vowel sounds presented in British English.
Also, give your ESL learners mirrors to observe how the vowels look when they are pronouncing them.
When they’re ready, incorporate single words into the practice. For example, practice the long vs. short “e” sound: read/red.
When students both develop muscle memory around their speaking and can check it physically, this will develop healthy speaking habits. When they learn new vocabulary, they won’t just think about what it means; they’ll also consider its phonetics and how to reproduce the sound accurately.
4. Sing Along!
I like to think of singing as an extension of vowel practice.
And vowels themselves are often more extended in heartfelt ballads or pop music, giving learners a chance to really practice pronouncing AEIOU and sometimes Y in context.
While not all consonants when singing are pronounced the same way as in speaking, most vowels are. The great thing about them is that there are five basic singing vowels to start out with, giving you a basis for practicing them both alone and with songs.
Start out drilling those five basic vowels. When pupils comfortable with them, provide a list of suggested simple pop songs that incorporate those vowels. Someone made a playlist on YouTube that I really enjoy because it incorporates slow, catchy songs with minimal vocabulary. That’s what you want to aim for when suggesting songs for pronunciation. This list of ’80s songs also has those good qualities for comfy English practice. Then, you have the option of compiling a list of possible songs inspired by these ones or letting students choose their own with your approval.
Alternately, if your students are music enthusiasts and already have songs that they really want to sing, give them that option. Make sure, however, that the songs chosen don’t have too many additional complex vowels or many verses. The idea is to focus on a limited set of sounds and build up gradually.
If your ESL learners like the limelight, you can end the singing vowel practice with mini performances (one song per person should be more than enough). If not, having them record their song is also a great option.
In either case, giving anonymous feedback is a good way to help your students. For many people, pronunciation is the element of language they are most self-conscious about, so it’s important to not correct in the moment or in front of too many people.
For those who do group singing, you have a few options: You can take notes on each performance and give written feedback later. You can also note down which mistakes are patterns for the class and give global feedback. Doing more refined practice based on those vowels is a next step you can take.
For those who do individual, recorded singing, simply give them written feedback on their recording.
These exercises can also be reproduced with the shadow exercises if students are super shy about singing.
The important thing is to get your classroom on board with practicing vowels in a structured way. So, whatever method is the most fun and effective for them is the one you should use.
When teaching vowels, remember yourself as a kid. Some of that reading stuff was awkward.
But it was also fun! Dr. Seuss books like “The Cat in the Hat” were the best, right?
Since not all your ESL students want to feel like kids, remember the exercises listed above when you want to infuse some fun into vowels practice.
When pupils get confident about their speaking, your classroom will sound more natively English in no time.
And One More Thing…
Looking for fun resources for teaching vowels and other English concepts? Then you’re going to love FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences.
There are many different types of videos, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it easy to watch and understand native English videos with interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see what it means, learn how to use it, hear it pronounced and more.
For example, if you tap on the word “brought,” then you see this:
You can learn any video’s vocabulary with FluentU’s fun quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The videos are organized by genre and level, so it’s super easy to find the ones that work for you. FluentU also keeps track of your learning, then suggests videos and examples perfect for you.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.