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Pronunciation Teaching: 11 quick multi-sensory techniques

See, touch, and feel what can't be heard

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In this post I’d like to start a list/discussion of useful pronunciation teaching techniques. One of my favorite teachers-who-write, over at The Other Things Matter, inspired by another one at The Breathy Vowel, tweeted the following:

Then later he mentioned something about cellphones and progress in the pronunciation area.  I wonder what progress that was? I was particularly interested in the “comfort zone” hashtag, as every time I’ve had the chance to do a pronunciation workshop with teachers, from any background, invariably the feedback comes in that for any or all of three reasons, the vast majority give pronunciation short shrift: 1. “I’m not that good at pronunciation myself, so I don’t feel confident helping learners with it.” 2. “Isn’t choral repetition pronunciation practice? That’s the only technique I’ve experienced.” 3. “Grammar and vocab are on the national exams; learners don’t need pronunciation practice.” I’m gonna skip #3; while it may generally be more true than false around the world, I figure human nature is such that if #s1 & 2 get dealt with, #3 will be less relevant. If teachers have the skills and confidence, they’ll want to help their students when the opportunity arises. Funny though — I think there are far fewer resources to help learners improve their pronunciation (or at least understand the problems) than there are on grammar, vocab, or the 4 skills. Once in awhile some cool-seeming self-help software shows up (what’s become of “Pronunciation Power”?), and self-access websites and youtube videos are burgeoning (e.g. English Central, but what exactly is the learning process here?), but nearly all of them aim at comparing a learner to a native speaker model… Not getting into the “native” argument here.  However, I will make the claim that any pronunciation teaching or practice should be aimed at helping the learner achieve more recognizable English. This applies to the abilities to distinguish between heard utterances and produce less ambiguous-sounding utterances, and it’s aimed at the accurate-enough construction of segmentals (isolated sounds – whether or not the ‘phoneme’ exists), and the ability to recognize and effectively enough utilize the suprasegmental (linked sounds, intonaton, stress) pronunciation patterns.

And that’s the problem with most of what’s out there — a great deal of it isn’t that different from “listen and repeat”. Even the famous British Council Ipad app is lacking in this area, at least for free. The problem with “listen and repeat” is that the pronunciation problems learners have exist largely because they cannot notice the problems. They may know the problem exists, but if it’s still happening, it’s quite possible they may not know why. In other words, they cannot hear it.  Add to that that so many of the issues are also not visible while a speaker is uttering something (e.g. the vowel sounds of ‘bed’ and ‘bad’), and it’s no wonder that so little time gets spent on raising learner awareness of pronunciation issues. So — I just want to start a list of teaching ideas.  The items in this list are based on the idea that if learners could hear the problem, they’d eventually stop making it.  Therefore, they can’t hear them. Therefore effective pronunciation help comes in the form of techniques/exercises that allow learners to feel, see, and/or touch the sounds.  While I can’t remember where I first came across a few of these ideas, the idea of using the body’s other senses (arguably, our multiple intelligences) was given to me by Karen Taylor de Caballero many many years ago.Here’s a list of 1 free website and several techniques/tools that go with this idea. PLEASE share with me any techniques that you use. I would love to grow my repertoire. It’s of course important that students do these physical things… the teacher probably doesn’t need as much practice :-) Before we get started, finally, let’s remember that anybody with a smartphone brings a mirror to class everyday… opportunities abound!

update: the videos of segmental techniques posted here in response to reader comments were filmed during a CBI pronunciation workshop with pre-service and in-service teachers for whom English is a 2nd language.   

Pronunciation: Segmentals

1. The ‘chopstick’ test: feel the difference between /l/ and /r/

1 chopstick (or pen) across the mouth, way back, held by the lips. No teeth. Say ‘right’ without touching the chopstick with the tongue. Say ‘left’, pushing the chopstick out of the mouth on the initial consonant. Repeat a lot with any appropriate words. Progress to words that require both sounds (preferably /r/ before /l/), such as ‘really’ and ‘world’. Learners know when they have produced ‘l’ successfully because they have moved the chopstick.

2. Paper for seeing aspirated plosives

Hold a piece of paper vertically and loosely level with but a couple of centimeters away from the spot where the lips join. Say a few minimal pairs with the un/aspirated plosives (‘bill’/’pill’, ’till/dill. ‘kill/gill’)… SEE the difference.

 3. Fingers on throats for feeling voiced/unvoiced pairs

Place a finger or two on the skin just under where half the species has an adam’s apple. Take a deep breath, and exhale producing a constant but alternating /s/ – /z/, toggling the vocal chords on and off while noticing them through feeling the vibrations. Move on to problem minimal pairs for learners (depends on their L1)

4. One hand as upper teeth, the other as the tongue – remote manipulation

Hold left hand horizontal to the ground, palm down. Bend the fingers as the teeth of the upper jaw. Hold the right hand in a loose fist under the left, also palm down. This is the tongue, at rest. This is also its position during an American-style /r/. Extend the fingers of the right hand to touch the first joints (alveolar ridge) of the left hand’s fingers. This is where the tongue is at the start of the /l/.  Play around with other sounds requiring tongue movement and the upper mandible. Essential here is that students do this while they are enunciating problem sounds/words. I’ve always found this to be especially powerful because it involves simultaneous sight, touch, and sound. Students are more able to understand and begin to adjust the mechanics that have been causing them problems.

5. Quick whiteboard drawings – visualizing the inner workings

I’ve found producing the relevant bits of this drawing quickly on a whiteboard (minus the labels) is a snazzy and efficient visual technique for illustrating a problem and a correction.  Practice a few times and it shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen seconds..


6. A self-access website par excellence

A resource hosted by the University of Iowa, Phonetics: The Sounds of American English has been around for ages, and checking it out again tonight was like visiting an old friend. Animation and clear video of a real person, combined with the name and phonetic symbol of the sound; it could only be bettered if it were possible to put two problematic sounds on the screen at the same time, which, come to think of it, it is. Would be great if other varieties of English had sites like these to help us out. Please let me know if they exist.


7. The Color Vowel Chart

Did you know that (with a couple of stretches) all the vowel sounds (of American English anyway) are represented by a color in which they occur? Karen Taylor de Caballaro and Shirley Thompson put this together and I still haven’t found a simpler way for students to get the distinctions between vowels down. The link above takes you to non-ipad friendly interactive proof.  Here’s a picture, with the colors approximated to vowel shape (front to back & high to low. Now all you have to do is make sure students can say these colors, and from then on new vocabulary can be discovered/acquired as a ‘red’ word, or a ‘blue’ word, etc., by (teacher or the students) referring to colors or the chart. Tip: start with a ton of words for students to sort through by color of the stressed syllable.


Pronunciation: Suprasegmentals (Intonation, stress, etc.)

1. Rubber bands for seeing and feeling word and sentence stress

Hold a rubber band as shown. Stretch it on the stressed syllables and words as you speak. Used faithfully, this rapidly raises learner awareness of the Pronunciationregularity of rhythm and the essential differences (if any) in intonation between English and their L1, as they can feel and see the difference at the same time, even if they have trouble hearing it.. And it’s less noisy than ‘beating out’ the rhythm.  I like to turn learners lose with rubber bands as they have conversations in pairs.

2. Knee-dips

As (1) above, replacing fingers and rubber bands with quick knee dips. Gets quite raucous and autonomous/discovery oriented with pairwork conversations.

3. Backchaining/Frontchaining for hearing unstressed/reduced syllables

One of the very few techniques I’m aware of that lets students whose native language doesn’t do much syllable de-stressing HEAR unstressed syllables (mostly schwa awareness-raising).  Primarily choral repetition drilling (which I usually do while using (1) above so that students simultaneously feel, see, and hear the stressing/reducing, backchaining assembles a focus utterance from the end of the isolated utterance to the front, one or two syllables at a time. Invariably, this one produces “aha” moments that have been remembered by learners. Having to produce a nearly inaudible “uh” and then do it again with a fronted stressed syllable that, when combine to carry meaning, forces the learner to notice the unstressed elements. Assuming noticing is indeed step one to acquisition means we’re on the way. Frontchaining is the same, only the other way around. I can’t say why but I find backchaining moire effective. The video below actually gives an idea of #s 3 & 4 here.

4. The wave for getting the rhythm and tone

I used to get learners to hold their index fingers up in a straight-ahead pointing position. We would then move our fingers up and down according to the intonation of whatever utterance we were focused on. Then I wondered if maybe cross-culturally all this pointing might get a bit aggressive, so I developed a full-handed wave instead. I prefer it now — flows a lot more like the rhythm of speech flows, and maybe students get a bit of a kick out of it because it’s bit hip-hoppy. In any event, it allows us to see and feel the rise and fall and flow of speech.

That’s all I got — please add techniques you use in the comments.

Pronunciation Teaching: 11 quick multi-sensory techniques

Comments (38)

    • I’m very happy you found this post useful! thank you so much for the promotion! are you in Brazil? Today I suddenly have more visitors from Brazil than ever before :-). Meanwhile, do you want to share how you handle pronunciation issues? Thanks again!

  1. Very interesting. I’d really like to see a visual for the hand gesture idea for ‘l’ and ‘r’ – any chance of that?

    I think the key point here is intelligibility, which, within the phonological core of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), might be very different from what some teachers expect. How many teachers have cumulatively spent hours of valuable class time on ‘th’, to the point of getting students to push their tongues so far out of their mouths (to touch a finger, or whatever) it becomes completely unnatural, and then had them all immediately revert to ‘d’ or ‘z’ or whichever are the closest sounds in their L1, anyway? Well, perhaps we don’t need to bother, in this case, for ELF intelligibility.

    My feeling regarding the ‘l’ & ‘r’ distinction, though, is that it does affect communication and so is worth spending time on. However, ‘r’ is much more difficult to produce than ‘l’ (consider speech therapists for L1 speakers of English). ‘L’ is automatically made if a speaker touches their tongue to their alveolar ridge and lets the sound come out of their mouths over the tongue’s sides (it’s a lateral sound), and this can quite easily be monitored and practised by students with a little training.

    So relating all this to intelligibility and realistic ‘learnability’, a possible course of action would be to let students carry on making whatever approximant they have for ‘r’, whilst distinguishing the two sounds to aid intelligibility by focusing on a more accurate production of ‘l’.

    For most of us teachers, the success of pronunciation teaching, with the limited time we have available for it, may be as much about the battles we choose as how we fight them.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for taking the time write. You raise interesting points. I’ll add a visual for the hands shortly. Need to sort out some laptop software and a suitable background first.

      I especially like your last point as I believe it’s not so much what we can correct in the time we have our students (which I think is virtually nil), but what tools and awareness we can help them acquire so that they can develop their proficiencies more efficiently. that’s why I’m a fan of most of these activities – you can do most of them at home, so to speak.

      Thanks again and check back in a few days for a pic alongside the item you asked about.


  2. TH is a challening sound for nearly all L2 English speakers.

    One technique I use for rapid success learning TH is this:

    Have the student place their index finger at their lips as if telling a child to be quiet (e.g. “Shhhhhh!”. ).

    Now tell the student to leave their finger at their lips.

    Next, tell them to extend their tongue TIP out between their teeth and allow air to flow over the top of the tongue and out of the mouth.

    If they do this properly, the TH sound made will make their finger wet! This works EVERY TIME!

    Then experiment with “Airy/voiceless TH” and “Vibration on/voiced TH” as sounds in isolation , then in words. (Thin-Then)

  3. While I do agree with Chris that intelligibility is certainly key to the teaching of pronunciation, I don’t think it’s what we / students should always settle for. Some students in certain contexts / situations will certainly want to come across as proficient users of English – and that includes fluency, accuracy, precision, complexity and pronunciation, I think.
    So will the dreaded TH hinder comprehension? 9 times out 10, no, I don’t think it will – especially in monolingual contexts, maybe. But I think a faulty sound, depending on how often it’s uttered, can potentially (and I say potentially) annoy the listener and undermine the strength of the message.

    • I’m reluctant to agree with the significance of the TH sound. While you may be able to pass off ‘thank you’ and still be understood, other words like ‘math’ and ‘width’ are not understandable or lead to misunderstanding when not properly pronounced. I’ve had been of the opinion that the TH, SPS, STS, F, P, S, Z , l, R, SKS, THS sounds were nothing to get all excited about in my teaching plan but merely to be introduced and practiced on occasion. I’ve changed my mind on this. Especially when teaching Asian students, these sounds become critical if they are doing a speech. It’s just not possible to understand 30-40% of the speech if the student is not proficient in these simple sounds. Over and over I’ve had students who have been studying for years the English language and when they did not respect the importance of these basic sounds, their speech was mediocre at best. I’m of the opinion that a student that can conquer the above sounds will significantly increase their ability to speak like an American. I’ve tested it over and over and I get the same results every time. Kids that have terrible accents, once they have conquered these important sounds, sound almost like an American and everything they say is understandable. It’s now one of my most important lessons and one I keep harping on throughout the entire quarter and beyond.

      • Hi Daniel,

        Thanks for the comment and the stimulation!

        Here comes the ‘native speaker’ topic I tried to avoid in the post. :-) I was (and am) with you completely until ‘speak like an American.’ I’m having a little trouble understanding what this means… to ‘speak like an American?’ To whom is their English recognizable? Obama? Me? Ah-nold who once was married to a Kennedy? J-lo? A white middle-class Bostonian 45-year-old descended from a Mayflower ticket-holder? Mike Tyson? If you’re in an ESL environment within the US, I understand how a goal of many of your students might be to use English like a ‘native speaker’, and comprehend ‘American English’, but where is such English actually spoken? There are simply too many different varieties of Americans, each with its own very loose and vague variety of English. Extend the idea and we see beyond America’s borders to a couple billion more English speakers, many/most of whom will never need to sound like some ideal ‘American.’

        And that seems to be the point. There are zillions of varieties of English spoken on the planet — within nations, among L2 users with different mother tongues, and so on. This is the age of English as an International Language (or Lingua Franca, if you prefer). The thing is, the best users of English speak an English that is recognizable as English — the individual phonemes might sound a bit different, or the intonation might not be exactly like one of the more ‘native’ varieties, but mechanically and rhythmically given the utterances that are formed and the structures that bind the utterances, it all comes together to be recognizable as English to the ears of the skilled-enough listeners. I think this was your point until the ‘American’ bit of your comment, and I agree completely with it.

        So then the question would be, “what is ‘recognizable’?” I’m of the opinion that this might be our top priority when thinking about pronunciation moments in class. After all, teachers don’t correct pronunciation errors anymore than they do grammar or vocabulary errors. We’re only strategically making learners aware of their need to make a correction, and preferably scaffolding students’ tool usage to make those changes, which they will do in the subsequent weeks, months, and years, in a a best-case scenario. If some of those students have the self-discipline and time (or cash if they are Meryl Streep) to train themselves up to some ‘ideal’, all power to them. I can’t make that happen for them.

        Thanks again for this comment, and for opening this conversation (I dodged it in my post…:-) )

  4. What fantastic tips! The only caveat I have is using the IPA. This is a tremendous amount of great work that is unavailable for most students because IPA has gone the way of the dinosaur. I suggest you try EPA – the English Phonetic Alphabet instead.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Judy. You have a truly interesting profile on LinkedIn. I agree about the IPA in a lot of contexts (sniff), but you’d be surprised how popular it still is in Korea. I just let the context determine how to represent the sounds symbolically. Even in my post I avoided IPA for ‘th’ and other not easily recognizable symbols. Haven’t noticed the “EPA” before — so thank you for pointing me to it :-).

  5. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the mention and a great list of tips and suggestions for making pronunciation in the classroom a bit more accessible and fun.

    I think almost any of Adrian Underhill’s “Sound Foundations” activities can make for a more aware language teacher or student. Using a (clean) pencil or finger inserted in the mouth and lightly touching the front of the tongue as learners glide from /i:/ at the front of the mouth to /u:/ at the back is very effective for getting students recognize how tongue position changes in relation to vowel sounds. I also like how you can have students work with each other and create islands of intelligibility for a phoneme. The fact is, there’s going to be a pretty wide range of acceptable allophones for each phoneme, and letting students explore and play with sounds is a great way to get students out of the “one right pronunciation” box.

    As far a suprasegmentals are concerned, I think cuisenaire rods are a very effective tool. Short rods for unstressed and long rods for stressed syllables/words. Using one sentence (something like: “I never ride the bus to work when it rains.”) and just letting the students move the rods around and say the sentence in different ways can be great fun. One cool tip (also snatched from Adrian), is to simply invert the stress pattern as it would normally be said. It’s super difficult for students to do, leads to a lot of laughter, and helps students see that they already do have a conception of how English pronunciation works.

    Thanks again for the tips,


    • Great ideas (and a fantastic reference, too), Kevin! Thanks for
      stopping by and contributing. I like the idea of something
      physical/tactile to move around (like the rods) to experiment with
      stress/meaning. Maybe sticks or other things from nature would work,
      too. Also happy to have more to do with my chopsticks! I tried
      getting my first Korean students to use their pens or fingers, but had
      to buy them chopsticks because they just hated the idea of using
      something even remotely unclean. Over the years I’ve come completely
      around on that. My mother would be so proud (“Spit that out! You don’t
      know where it’s been!”).

  6. Hi Tom,
    Ok, I get your point. I wasn’t talking about having an accent like an American or even intonation. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used that phrase ‘speak like an American’. I just mean that I want it to be intelligible. In other words, I don’t have to guess what they are saying because they are using the proper phonetics in the word. I agree that we are not there to correct every bit of their pronunciation, and I don’t do that. But the SPS, THS, etc. sounds that I noted before, I do stress very strongly because they make it easier to understand what they are saying. Of course intonation would help even more. I also force my students to pace themselves so they don’t talk so fast their speech sounds garbled. When you ask ‘what is recognizable’, I would take the phrase ‘ I have a math class today’ and would correct the speech if the Asian student said, “I have a mass class today’. At best this would confuse the listener, even if asked to repeat the phrase, the fact that the Asian student would repeat ‘mass’ would beg the question ‘Is this person catholic?’ and further explanation would have to take place. If the student is trained to correctly pronounce the ‘th’ sound, at best, the first time he will pronounce ‘math’ correctly, the worst scenario is that he corrects his ‘th’ sound the second time around once he realizes he has ‘broken’ the ‘th’ rule.

    • Yeah — good to see we’re on the same page. I agree that helping learners become aware of distinctions between L1 and L2 is a significant element of pronunciation work. Personally, I’m interested in the ‘th’ kerfuffle arising in the ELF part of the TESOL world. I really wonder if no one needs it as part of English as an international language. Anyway, thoughts for down the road. Thanks again for stopping by.

    • I thought several times about the irony of spewing written words about entirely visual/tactile pronunciation techniques. At the time it would have added an unknown amount of time to the project, so I just put it out there, planning to come back with vids shortly. Surprised you are the first to ask for so MANY additional visual aids 😉 I’m hoping to play with my home-based webcam and video software on Thursday to address this. If you’re looking for assists on three, maybe I’ll make this the occasion of my first video-slider…

  7. This is a great collection of techniques, and well worth sharing. I use many of the techniques you mention, but I was glad to discover the rubber band and colour chart. (I don’t suppose you have a similar colour chart for RP, huh? I’ll have to think about it). I also use various ways of comparison to increase sound awareness – tongue twisters, rhyming, English word pairs alongside words from the students’ L1 (seat/sit vs. Spanish si). Things like “Elizabeth’s birthday” help in understanding the different position of articulators through the quick movement needed. Music and rhythm help with stress-timing and vowel reduction. I frequently work with students whose L1 drops the ends of words. Sound-spelling correlations work well for these students. Given how difficult it is to teach the IPA to linguistics students, having students who feel English spelling a clear guide to pronunciation is both refreshing and odd.

    • Hi Dana,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad a couple of these were useful to you. Why don’t you give tthe RP color chart a try yourself? :-) I grew up in London, and remember it well, but I wouldn’t risk asserting myself as the expert on the marriage of her Majesty and the BEEB 😉 Like you, I’ve found the ends of words an issue with many students, and the paper-blowing for aspiration item here often gets a look in those moments.

      Happy beautifful Sunday to you!

  8. hi tom

    i read this when you first posted it and found it great, now that you have updated it with a reader request just elevates this into another level, this is what blogging should be, interaction between poster and reader.



    • Thanks, Mura! I completely agree. it’s no fun, and certainly no ‘evolution’ in a vacuum. Like it says at the bottom, I’m in this for the dialogue…

  9. This is great. Another thing I use is a mirror so that the students can see what they are doing. This has proved invaluable with the th sound. Thank you for so much information.

    • Yes, mirrors! Forgot to mention those! So easy now here, as all my students have phones and are constantly using them to check their make-up…

  10. It’s a great site. I learned at the teacher trainig college some of this techniques and they are useful for our students. Thanks.

  11. Sir,It is a great site indeed. The use of mirror is very handy. I have tried a few of your techniques and very well received by my students.Thanks a lot.

  12. Hi. This is quite a freaky coincidence, but in class yesterday, one of my students was having trouble with question intonation and I told her to stand with her knees bent and raise and lower her voice and body following me as I did the same. I had no idea this was an actual technique till I came here today AND, as the ninth in the list, the one I’ve been assigned to demo on Saturday! Like I said, freaky… I’ll just add that the studentl though it was hilarious and she eventually got the intonation right. Cheers!

      • Another thing, Richard. Kinda makes you realize how techniques are born, right? A mix of context and inspiration, perhaps? They might be dreamed up occasionally out of context, but they are just another form of social practice, made real at a site of human engagement… Thanks for making me think again.

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I'm in this for the dialogue :-)

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