This article was influenced by Teaching American English Pronunciation by Peter Avery and Susan Ehrlich
If you’re a native English speaker, you probably have some trouble with helping your students improve their pronunciation. You may know that they’re not saying something correctly, but knowing what the problem is and how to fix it can be difficult. After all, we never really learned pronunciation growing up, aside from maybe a speech therapy class or two to fix a lisp or the ever difficult ‘r’ sound.
While I don’t want to advocate for perfect, accent-less pronunciation, being misunderstood in a second language can be really frustrating. Just changing the way that you shape your mouth or place your tongue when saying certain sounds can make a huge difference and improve your students communication and confidence!
Intonation and Stress is a Great Place to Start with Teaching Pronunciation…
Check Out this Beginner Teacher’s Guide to Teaching Phonology Today!
Today I want to talk more about how to troubleshoot when it comes to your students’ pronunciation. We’re going to focus specifically on the four different factors that English vowels have. Knowing these different aspects of vowel sounds can help you and your students improve their pronunciation errors and, consequently, improve their communicative abilities.
The Height of Your Tongue: High, Mid, Low
The first aspect of vowel pronunciation in English is the height of the tongue in your mouth. Say the following words out loud and notice where your tongue is: bit, bet, bat. As you say the words you’ll notice your tongue and jaw lowering with each one. Now say them in the reverse order, and you’ll feel your tongue and jaw rising.
A vowel can either have a high, mid-level, or low tongue height. Vowels that require your tongue to be high in your mouth are the vowels in team, tip, two, and took. Vowels that require your tongue to be at the mid-level are the vowels in take, tell, toe, and taught. Vowels that require your tongue to be low are the vowels in tap and top.
When teaching your students to be more aware of the height of their tongue and jaw, have them say the words one after the other. A lot of times the comparison of one vowel sound to another can help bring more awareness. Start out with high/low pairs, like the words clean/cat, soon/son, or lid/lot.
After your students have identified and practiced some words that have a high or low tongue height, begin to introduce mid-level vowels. Have your students practice word sequences that will slowly raise or lower their tongue with a partner. Much in the same way that I explained tongue height a few paragraphs ago, have your students repeat sequences like “boot, book, boat, bought, bat.”
The Use of Your Tongue: Front, Central, Back
Not only will the height of your tongue influence how a vowel sound is pronounced, but which part of the tongue is involved can make a difference as well. Notice which part of your tongue moves when you say the word “cat” (front), which part moves when you say the word “cut” (middle), and which part of your tongue moves when you say the word “caught” (back).
In the same way that saying a series of words can help show you and your students the difference between high, mid, and low tongue height, saying a similar series can show what part of the tongue is used to pronounce certain vowels. Have your students practice saying, “cat, cut, caught” or “read, rud, rude.”
If they’re still having trouble recognizing the difference between which part of their tongue is used, as I find this aspect of vowel pronunciation more difficult than the first, try saying the vowels in isolation. You can use the same sequences, but instead of saying “cat, cut, caught,” say “ah, uh, aw.” And instead of saying “read, rud, rude,” say “ee, uh, ew.”
The word, “but,” is worth mentioning because it is a mid central vowel, meaning it uses neither the front or back of the tongue and is neither high nor low in the mouth. The vowel sound in “but” or “machine” is called the schwa sound. It’s the most common vowel sound in English. When making this sound, your tongue should be in the space that it occupies when at rest.
The Tenseness of Your Mouth
The third aspect of English vowel pronunciation is the tenseness or laxness of your mouth. The vowel sounds in “mood,” “sleep,” “taste,” and “toad” are tense, while the vowel sounds in “rid,” “hood,” “test,” “suds,” and “caught” are lax.
One of the best ways to tell the difference between tense and lax vowels is through the shape and strength of your lips. If you are smiling or puckering your lips when saying the vowel, it is most likely tense. Lax vowels will be very relaxed. Notice the difference between the words “teen” and “tin.”
If your students are having trouble distinguishing between tense and lax vowels, try exaggerating the difference between the two. Have your students pay attention to the shape and tenseness of your mouth. When your students are ready to move onto practicing the two types of vowels, ask them to pretend to stretch an imaginary rubberband when saying the tense vowels, and quickly clap their hands when saying the lax vowels.
Many textbooks, curriculum, and teaching resources recommend that you teach tense vowels first, then lax vowels, and then focus on the distinction between the two. Teaching in this way will give your students a good amount of practice and experience with tense vowels, before introducing lax, which will allow them to more easily see and hear the difference.
As with all of the other aspects of vowel pronunciation, repeating contrasting vowels can help make students more aware of the differences. Try repeating tense and lax words together, like sleep/slip, taste/test, or mood/mud.
The final, and probably easiest, aspect of English vowel pronunciation has to do with the shape of your lips. A vowel can be either rounded or unrounded. The only vowel sounds that are rounded are the four back vowels found in two, took, tote, taught.
It’s pretty easy to compare rounded and unrounded vowels, such as “saw” and “sun” or “like” and “look.” To help your students further practice this concept, ask them to pay attention to the way that a partner says certain words or simply watch themselves speak in a mirror.
You could even create a fun “game show” type of activity, where four students are given different words with rounded or unrounded vowels, and another student has to guess which is rounded without looking.
There are so many fun things you can do with this aspect of pronunciation! Read a story to your students and ask them to react with rounded vowel sounds such as, “ooh,” ‘ew,” or “woah.” If you’re looking for a more TPR-focused activity, ask students to hold up a sign or make a circle with their hands every time you say a rounded vowel in a story.
Even though teaching pronunciation can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be too overwhelming! Vowels seem much less scary after they’re broken down into more simple aspects like lip rounding and tongue height. A well-researched lesson plan is a great thing, but if you don’t know the answer to a student question, don’t be scared to get back to them!
For more pronunciation resources, check out the articles below:
I Want to Hear From You!
Native Speakers: which of the 4 aspects do you find the most difficult to teach?
Nonnative Speakers: which of the 4 aspects was most difficult for you to learn?