How to Teach Vowels to ESL Students: Tips and Example Activities
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 to learn how to teach vowels to ESL students with some fun techniques to jumpstart the new learners’ voyage.
- 1. Teach Minimal Pairs
- 2. Do Shadow Exercises
- 3. Practice Mouth Shapes and Positions
- 4. Sing Along with Lyrics
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:
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 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.
2. Do Shadow Exercises
Shadow exercises are an extension of the minimal pairs exercise.
The 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’s a good one to get started:
3. Practice Mouth Shapes and Positions
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 with Lyrics
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 are 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.
Alternatively, 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.
When teaching vowels, remember yourself as a kid. Some of that reading stuff was awkward. But it could sometimes be fun!
Remember the exercises listed above when you want to infuse some fun into vowel practice.
When pupils get confident about their speaking, your classroom will sound more natively English in no time.