Classroom language for teaching pronunciation

Summary: The big list of useful classroom language when teaching pronunciation


The big list of useful classroom language when teaching pronunciation


NB. As this is language to be used in the classroom, much of it is quite different from what teachers would use to discuss these points, let alone how linguists would talk about these topics. The tips on how to make sounds are also things I have found worked with language learners rather than accurate descriptions of a native speaker's tongue position etc.


Useful vocabulary for talking about pronunciation


vowel (sound) - consonant

long vowel (sound) - short vowel (sound)

diphthong (= double vowel sound)


the phonemic chart

minimal pairs (= words that have similar pronunciations and are confused by some non-native speakers)

voiced- unvoiced

the letter's name - the letter's sound

regular pronunciation - irregular/ unusual pronunciation

unstressed pronunciation - dictionary pronunciation

homophones (= words that are pronounced the same)

homographs (= words that are spelt the same but pronounced differently)

RP (= received pronunciation)/ Queen's English/ BBC English/ Oxford English

regional accent

stress (= rhythm)

word stress

sentence stress/ main stress/ most stressed word

stressed word - unstressed word

stressed syllable - unstressed syllable

weak form


(tip of your) tongue

(front/ bottom/ top) teeth

(top/ bottom) lip

top of your mouth

voice box

intonation (= tone/ pitch)


rhotic R (= r sound after vowels that most British speakers don't pronounce but most Americans, amongst others, do)


Useful questions to ask about pronunciation

"How do you pronounce this word/ part of the word/ syllable/ sound?"

"How is PH/ -ed/... usually pronounced?"

"Is this the same or different sound?"

"What did I explain about the pronunciation of this word/ sound last week?"

"Can you give me another example of word with the same (vowel/ consonant/ first/ last) sound?"

"What is this sound? Can you point to it on the chart?/ What colour is it on the chart?"

"Is it a long sound or short sound?"

"How many sounds/ syllables/ vowel sounds does this word have/?"

"What is the difference between this word and this word?"

"What is another word with the same sound as 'hair'? How do you spell it? Good. What does it mean?"

"What do these two dots after the vowel mean?"

"How important do you think it is to lose your accent when you are speaking English?"

"Where should your tongue be when you say that sound?"

"What shape is my mouth?"

"How is my mouth shape different when I say these two sounds/ words?"

"Look at my mouth. Which of the two words am I saying?"


Talking about the phonemic chart

"The vowels are paired up so that there is one long one and one short one, but the sounds are never exactly the same"

"This sound isn't used by... speakers/ people from..."

"I would pronounce this as..."

"Your dictionary might use different symbols"

"This is the British chart, so some symbols and sounds might be different for Americans"

"The picture next to each word represents a word with that sound"

"Here is a bookmark version which I printed out from the English File website. Keep it in your book or dictionary and use it as much as you can"

"We'll go through the whole chart quickly to show how it works, then go back through the difficult sounds over the next few weeks"

"You don't need to sit down and learn the chart, just use it all the time when you look words up in dictionaries"

"This section is the vowel sounds. Vowel means sounds like the letters A, E, I, O and U. The rest are all consonants, like B, C and D in the alphabet"

"Most of the consonants are paired up with one voiced sound and one unvoiced one. Let's run through them together.... These ones at the bottom don't work in the same way"

"The most difficult consonant symbol is /j/, which is the first letter of the German word 'ja', not the first sound in 'jam', which is this sound"


Individual sounds



"Imagine you are trying to put some breath on a mirror so that you can polish it"

"Actually breathe on a mirror or a piece of glass and see if it works"



"Put your tongue between your front teeth"

"Put your finger in front of your lips as if you were going to shush someone, and make sure your tongue has touched for finger and so it is a bit wet"


Minimal pairs




Voiced and unvoiced sounds

"Is it voiced or unvoiced? Put your hand on your voice box/ Put your hands over your ears and check"

"Which two sounds are basically the same but with and without your voice?"

"If we put our mouths in the same position but stop/ start using our voices, what sound do we make?"

"What is the relationship between the consonant sounds that are next to each other on the chart?"


l and r

"For the first one, curl your tongue back as far as you can and flip it. For the second, try to keep your tongue totally still. It can help to bite your bottom lip with your top teeth. R is actually more similar to W, and some British people pronounce it that way. You could also try holding your hand by the side of your mouth with your palm down to represent your tongue and move it or keep it still as you say the two sounds"


ch and sh

"The first one is explosive, like sneezing. The second one is smooth, like the sound for 'Be quiet'"


s and sh

"For the first one, pull your lips back like a cat hissing. For the second one, round your lips"


b and v

"The first one is like P, but using your voice. Move your mouth into a circle and release a little puff of air. The second one is like a voiced F. Put your top teeth on your bottom lip and make a long smooth sound. You should be able to extend the second sound forever, but the first one is very short"


v and w

"With the first one, bite your bottom lip with your top teeth. For the sound one, make a small circle with your mouth"


sin and sing

"The second sound is further back in your mouth. Try touching your tongue on the top of your mouth just behind your teeth for the first one, and biting the back of your tongue with your back teeth for the second one"


year and jeer

"The first one is like a vowel sound. Try making a long /i:/ sound and then going straight into the word, then make the starting /i:/ shorter and shorter. The second one is like CH, but voiced. So the first one can be made long, but the second one is more explosive"


Vowel sounds


Long and short vowel sounds

"The two dots/ triangles after the sound mean that the sound is long"

"The sounds are paired up with one long sound and one short sound that are similar, but they are never actually exactly the same. Can you see how each symbol is at least a bit different, for example the dot on this /i:/ but no dot on the short sound?"


sit and seat

"The second one is longer, but you also need to pull your mouth back and smile more. This is why we say 'cheese' when we take photos and not 'this'"


cap and cup

"In many American accents, there is no difference between these two sounds"

"Which one is the Simple Past of drink and which one is the Past Participle?"


fur and far

"For the second one, open your mouth more and imagine the sound is being made further back in your mouth"


Spelling and pronunciation rules


A and an

"What is the first sound of honest/ university/ umbrella? Not the first letter, the first sound. Is that a vowel or consonant?"


Pronunciation of regular past tenses

"Is it possible to say 'needd'? Why not? How about wantd? Why not this time? That's right, d and t are basically the same sound but voiced and unvoiced. So we need to put a vowel sound between the two sounds. That means that these words add one syllable when we make the Simple Past, unlike other words like 'passed', which is still one syllable in the past"


Pronunciation of s ending in the third person and plurals

"This is basically the same rule as for regular Simple Past. When the words ends in s or its voiced version z, you need to put in a vowel sound and so add one more syllable. In this case, the same is true for other similar sounds like sh"


magic E

"If you have a short vowel sound, then one consonant, then an E, the vowel sound says its name. For example, a changes to A. The same is true with things you can replace E with like -ing"


Double letters with -ing, -ed and comparatives and superlatives

"This is because of the magic E rule that we learned before. If we add an -ing to plan and it becomes planing, how do we pronounce that? That's right, like plane. So, we need to double the consonant so that the vowel sound doesn't change"


Other spelling rules

"I before E except after C"

"Ph is always pronounced like an F"

"-ough has so many different pronunciations that you just have to learn each word individually"

"The French never pronounce the last sound on a word, and we sometimes follow that rule with French words like ballet and buffet"

"The pronunciation of ch depends which language the word comes from. For example, chef is a French word so we use the French sh pronunciation"


Word stress and schwa

"We don't usually stress prefixes and suffixes, but it is sometimes possible for special reasons. What is the difference between 'He's unHAppy' and 'He UNhappy'? Why might you say the second one?"

"The word stress doesn't change when we add -ed/ -ing/ -er/ -est/ a prefix/ a suffix"

"Try saying the word with really extreme stress on each syllable and see which one seems least silly. For example, DICtionary, dicTIONary, dictionAry, dictionaRY. You see, you are laughing at most of those. Which one is not so ridiculous?"

"The number of syllables is the same as the number of vowel sounds. What are the vowel sounds in this word?"

"Some people say baLLET like the French, but most people think that is pretentious and just say BAllet"

"This is an example of a word that changes stress depending on whether it is a verb or a noun. Listen and tell me which one is which"

"Schwa is never stressed"

"Schwa is the most common sound in English, because we are lazy. To make the sound, totally relax your mouth like a teenager replying to a question and grunt. That's it!"

"Schwa is the only sound in English with its own name. That's because it is so common and important"

"Most words which have a stressed and unstressed form change the vowel sound to schwa"

"It looks like an upside down E"


"Thirteen and thirty are sometimes difficult even for native speakers. If the next word begins with an N, the sounds are almost exactly the same. The first one is stressed on the second syllable, but that is also difficult to hear in a string of numbers. The best thing is to do what we do and check with 'Is that one-three or three-oh?'"


Explaining pronunciation in natural speech

"The first sound of this word is (almost) the same as the last sound of this one, so this one is (almost) silent"

"If we pronounce this word very slowly and carefully it has three syllables, but it usually just has two"

"If we say 'I am' rather than 'I'm', that puts stress on AM and so actually changes the meaning. What would 'I AM British' mean? Is it the same as 'I'm British'?"

"The stressed words are usually the most important to understand the meaning. Let's look at the sentence with just the stressed words and just the unstressed ones, and see which you are more likely to understand- 'going park walk dog' and "He is to the to his'. You see. The words in the second sentence are all about the grammar, and those kinds of words are usually unstressed"

"Although we learn that 'to' has the same pronunciation as 'two' and 'too', in fact it is usually pronounced like ter. The main exception is when it is at the end of the sentence, for example in a question"


Regional and other variations

"Some people do pronounce the H is WH questions, but most people don't"

"It is pronounced ... in some places, but that isn't considered standard (and people will probably just assume it is a mistake if you are non-native speaker)"

"It can also be pronounced..., (but people might have problems understanding you)"

"It's basically the same sound, but some people pronounce the R at the end of the word"

"Some teachers used to say that the T sound is 'often' is wrong, but it's quite normal nowadays"

"Where you are going to study, people usually pronounce this sound/ word as..."

"The standard British/ RP pronunciation of grass is a long sound, but even in the UK a short sound is really common"

"If you look at the whole world, the two pronunciations are about equally common"

"Quite a lot of native speakers say it like that, but most people still consider it a mistake"

"It says that both pronunciations are okay in my dictionary"


Describing pronunciation games


Pronunciation journey

"If you hear this sound/ word, go down the right branch. If you hear this sound, follow the left hand one. After five words, you will be at the bottom. Shout out the city name you end up at and we'll see if it is the right one."

"Let's do it one more time, but this time just watch my mouth as I won't actually make any sound"

"Good. Now this time I'll cover my mouth and you just have to do it from the sound"

"Great. Now play the same game in groups (with this new worksheet)"


Phonemics hangman

"It's exactly like hangman (that we played last week), but you have to say the sound instead of the letter name. Here is a phonemic chart to help you"



"If you hear a word with this sound, run and touch this wall/ card. If you hear a word with this sound, run and touch this one"


Board race/ Brainstorming race

"With your team, you have to write/ draw as many words with this sound as you can in five minutes. Each person can only write one word, then they have to pass the pen to the next person, but you can help each other"


Self-study for pronunciation tips

"Try recording your voice"
"Choose one sound to concentrate on when you are speaking"

"People will be able to understand you most of the time, so just be careful when you know there is a similar sounding word that they could be confused with"

"Look at yourself in the mirror when you are making the sound"

"You can get programmes that record your voice and play it back to you so that you can compare it to the original. You can't trust the scores that they give you, but having something to aim for does help you concentrate"

"Reading out loud isn't very useful. It's better to improvise a presentation or dialogue and record that"

"Learn one word for each sound so that you can compare new words to it"

"Look up the pronunciation of all words that you learn in your dictionary and write them down in your vocabulary notebook"


Discussion question for teachers/ trainees using this list


What pronunciation problems do your students have? Practice giving tips on these points with your partner and then compare with the tips above. What do you think of those tips?


Could you simplify any of the language above?


Do you think any of the explanations are too inaccurate to be useful and could use more correct jargon etc?


Copyright © 2010

Written by Alex Case for

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