Sounds with rhyme and reason

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EL Gazette, issue 281, June 2003

There's so much more to teaching pronunciation than drilling and the phonetic alphabet. A few simple exercises can open your students' senses to the rhythms and patterns of speech.

1. Encourage students to think in terms of sounds rather than letters. One way to do this is to ask them to add a sound. For example, add one consonant sound to the beginning of eight to make another word (possible answers = late, wait, date, hate). Another way is to ask them to reverse the sounds in words. For example, what do you get if you reverse sign? (answer = nice). Here are some more examples of reverse words: might – time; sick – kiss; speak – keeps; dice – side; main – name; face – safe; tail – late; make – came.

2. Help students to discover patterns of spelling. For example, write these words on the board and ask students to pronounce them: rat; pet; sit; not; cut. Then add an ‘e’ to the end of each one (making rate; Pete; site; note; cute)  and ask them to pronounce them again. Point out how the final ‘e’ makes the previous vowel say its own name (ie, pronounced as it is in the alphabet). Similarly write and pronounce these words: head; spot; had; bee; pea. Then add an ‘r’ after the vowel in each (making heard, sport, hard, beer; pear) and point out how the letter ‘r’ has changed the sound of the vowel before it.

3. Demonstrate how your pronunciation point makes a difference to meaning. Use contrasting pairs to show differences in sounds, syllables and stress. Here are some examples:

Sounds –

a. I got a good prize for it.
b. I got a good price for it.

a. I’ll correct it tomorrow.
b. I’ll collect it tomorrow.

a. The officer’s here.
b. The office is here.

Syllables –

a. We need more sport.
b. We need more support.

a. That’s a low bus.
b. That slow bus.

a. I found a small stream.
b. I found a smaller stream.

Stress –

a. I think that’s my bag. (but I’m not sure)
b. I think that’s my bag. (not yours!)

a. I’m Joe Smith. (not Joe Jones)
b. I’m Joe Smith. (not Dave Smith)

a. I saw his bus pass. (the document)
b. I saw his bus pass (the vehicle)

4. Use rhyme to demonstrate the pronunciation of words. For example, here is a poem to demonstrate how to pronounce past tense -ed endings. Notice how reversed rhymes with first etc, despite the difference in spelling.

The Driving Lesson

He looked round first
And then reversed

The car that passed
Was going fast

It hit the side
The driver cried

He never guessed
He'd pass the test


5. Remember your students’ needs as listeners. Raise their awareness of how words sound in joined up English. One way to do this is to present sentences written exactly as they might be heard by a dictation machine. The students have to interpret what was really said. Here are some examples. Give the words in brackets as clues.

She dozen turn much. (earn)   =  She doesn’t earn much.

I thing cold cars are better. (old)   = I think old cars are better.

Known uses good news. (no)   = No news is good news.

I never her July before. (lie)   = I never heard you lie before.

I picture book off the floor. (picked)   = I picked your book off the floor.

I don’t light green. (like)   = I don’t like green.

They join does for dinner. (us)   = They joined us for dinner.


6. Use ‘backchaining’ as a way of drilling difficult phrases. For example, to drill ‘She walked into a shop’, ask students to listen and repeat as follows:

1. shop

2. a shop

3. into a shop

4. tinto a shop

5. walk tinto a shop

6. She walked into a shop.

If students have difficulty pronouncing the /kt/ of ‘walked’, Step 4 and 5 are specially important here. It makes the consonant cluster easier to articulate. Also, the unexpected word division helps them ‘hear’ the pronunciation more clearly, rather than just hearing what they expect to hear.


7. Encourage students to be aware of syllables. Say words syllable by syllable, counting them out with your fingers, and ask them to do the same. Demonstrate the effect that various affixes have on the syllable patterns of words. For example, all of the words below have one syllable. Ask your students to decide if they are still only one syllable in the plural.

kite; house; plate; game; place; bike; bridge; cake; horse; noise; skate; nose; cake; snake; rule; stone  

Get your students used to representing the syllables of words as stress patterns. For example, ‘holiday’ can be represented as O o o (three syllables, the first one stressed). Use ‘odd one out’ exercises like this:

Which word has a different stress pattern?

a. October       b. November   c. December    d. January


8. Prepare students to expect variation in the pronunciation they hear. Use taped material with some variety of accents. Raise awareness with exercises like this: each sentence is printed as heard by a dictation machine, but one word is wrong because the machine misinterpreted the accent. Students identify from the context which word is wrong and what it should be.

1. She’s a rider of romantic novels.

2. Read about it in the noose papers.

3. We watched TV and den we went to bed.

4. I want to tank you for your help.

5. With a bit of look, we’ll win this game.

6. Can you old the umbrella while I get my keys out.


9. Encourage students to pronounce punctuation. Show them how this can make a difference to meaning, using contrasting pairs like these:

a. What was the question he asked?
b. “What was the question?” he asked.

a. It was cold outside. It was snowy.
b. It was cold. Outside, it was snowy.

a. I saw her clearly. She was hungry.
b. I saw her. Clearly she was hungry.

a. “Who?” said Martin.
b. Who said “Martin”?

10. Encourage students to be aware of their own pronunciation. For example, ask them to tape themselves saying either a or b of contrasting pairs like those in tip 3. They should make a note of which one they said. Then, they listen to their own tape in a couple of weeks and decide if they are saying sentence a or b. In this way, they can check if they are making the distinction clear enough.

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I want to use some of this in class. How would you like to be credited?
Mark Hancock's picture

You can mention my name if it seems relevant. I've made the Bilbao talk into video, with the slides and voiceover. It's on Youtube already, and I'm just working on getting links to the site under Talks...

Great stuff. Will have a look now.

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