As probably all ESL teachers are aware of, many, if not most of their students have difficulties with pronunciation. Students may have a great understanding of grammar and a wide-ranging vocabulary, but if they can’t be understood when speaking, those are moot points.
But it is somewhat difficult for teachers to address every single pronunciation issue that pops up in class. Add to that, having a strictly pronunciation-oriented class can be seriously boring for the students and you. Plus, it can be downright embarrassing if teachers single out one student’s pronunciation issues.
Typically, the problem is not so much the pronunciation of words, but how students make the sounds that are combined for pronunciation. That’s why it’s necessary at times to break words into constituent sounds. We can call these sounds speech sounds or phonetics.
It is of course difficult for teachers to address every single pronunciation issue that pops up in class. With the right TESOL certification, teachers can learn how to offer a creative, insightful and engaging pronunciation class. Beware not to embarrass students by singling out their pronunciation issues.
Today we have a game that can make honing speech sounds more fun, and at the same time target weak areas. It’s called, Fun Sentence Dictation Activity. It’s something I designed many years ago when I realized, as mentioned, much of the underlying problem in pronunciation is not words but individual speech sounds.
But how do you teach sounds to a mixed class of elementary students, university students, or adults? Well, you don’t have to teach it as much as create an awareness of it in your learners’ minds then capitalize on it. And it can be done in a fun way. Read on for instructions on how to take your pronunciation classes to the next level.
It is important to be able to represent sounds for students in an unambiguous way; standard English spelling doesn’t usually do the job, so some different representations of sounds may be needed. The most common method is the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). There are other methods, many of which will be incorporated into the textbooks your students are using. Whatever one you choose, be certain that students understand it, and be certain that you are consistent with the way you apply it. Students will depend on it.
1. Identify Problematic Phonetic Sounds
If you’re teaching pronunciation within a specific culture, you’re likely aware of specific speech sounds that are problematic to the culture. Therefore, you know which sounds to focus on. However, if you have a mixed class, you’ll need to spend a little time interacting with them to be able to identify weak areas.
For example, a diverse group of learners may need some polish in the following contrasting (“vs.”) speech sounds:
- /ae/ vs. /eh/, /uh/, and /ah/
- /ee/ vs. /ih/
- /p/ vs. /f/
- /b/ vs. /v/
- /th/ vs. /t/ and /s/
- /TH/ vs. /d/
These are now your target sounds (TS) and the sounds you incorporate into the activity. Again, the point here is to playfully create an awareness of speech sound shortcomings in the students that will provide an opportunity for you to correct and teach.
2. Create Fun Sentences
They’re called fun sentences because they sound somewhat silly but could be real. Check out a few examples here:
- Have an apple after stamping the sample.
- A fashionably tan man.
- My cousin Sunny is Fanny’s friend.
- Matt’s math class.
- We expect wetter weather.
- Six beef sandwiches.
- Is Kim with Jim?
- This list or these?
- Three trees filled with bees.
- Six sick pigs sitting.
- Fly Friday after five.
- Pick up your pace.
- Perfectly proper photos.
- French fries please.
- Fifteen photos of the finishers.
- A ban on vans.
- The velvet vest is best.
- They’ve left Dave.
- We’ve been breathing better.
Notice how each sentence has captured either one speech sound or a pair of speech sounds. For example: “Have an apple after stamping the sample” emphasizes the /ae/ sound. And, “We expect wetter weather” incorporates “tt” which comes out as /d/ (when located in the middle of a word) vs. /TH/ (weather).
Write or type one sentence on one strip of paper. Depending on your class size, you’ll want to have enough for at least 1, 2, or 3 rounds.
3. Prepare the Class
Have a shoebox with the individual fun sentence strips and pass the box around. Each student will grab 1, 2, or 3 or three strips depending on your plan. Students shouldn’t show each other what their strips say. They’re secrets only to be revealed later in the class. Each student should also have a pen and paper to write on.
4. Let the Dictations Begin
Starting with the first learner, he/she will speak the sentence as clearly as he/she can but in a natural way— natural but clear. That’s the challenge. It shouldn’t be elongated or halting. You can permit one or two repeats, but no more than that. The idea is to challenge both speakers and listeners.
The listeners write what they hear on a note pad. Continue going around the room until you’ve completed the round or rounds. You should be taking note of issues with specific speech sounds and or words to be addressed during the feedback portion. But remember, during feedback time, no names; just address the issues—we don’t want to shame anyone.
5. Wrap Up and Feedback
When everyone finishes speaking their sentences, it’s time for the revelations. Beginning with the first sentence, you will either write on a board or show the strip to the class. Class members then check what they heard.
As they see where they may have gone wrong, they become aware of their need for developing their skills in discerning contrasting speech sounds. In that sense, “Fun Sentences” is also a listening activity. On the other hand, if most of the class wrote the wrong sentence, the speaker can see where he/she needs polish in sound production.
No worries though, there are no grades for this, so they don’t need to worry about showing each other or the teacher what they wrote/heard.
What happens if the person saying the sentence missed the accurate sound but someone else hears/writes the correct sentence?
Spoken: “Set these papers there.”
Written: “Sit this papers there.”
That tells you there’s an issue with the student’s perception of the /eh/ vs. /ih/, and /ee/ vs. /ih/ sounds. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence.
Or, what if the speaker said, “Pickled Pfeffer,” clearly, but the listener writes, “Pickled pepper.” That tells you the listener has an issue with /p/ vs. /f/ sounds.
As the teacher, you’ll have to be alert and judge what passes for clear speech and what passes for weak listening.
You can also turn this into a game as follows:
1. Divide the class into two teams: A and B.
2. One speaker from team A will say the words clearly to another team A member who will write the sentence down.
3. If the sentence is correct, then team A receives points. If incorrect, team B may attempt to steal the points by producing the exact sentence spoken by the team A speaker.
4. Alternatively: Create a time limit of say 15-20 seconds to accomplish the sentence.
5. Select the game-ending point goal and continue the game until finished.
The Fun Sentence Target Sound Dictation Activity is a fun way to address pronunciation issues from the bottom up. If students can learn to produce clearer speech sounds, their pronunciation will improve significantly. Having this type of activity can help them realize that they need some polish and be more welcoming to phonetic instruction and training from you. And, because it’s a pronunciation activity, it can be used with all levels and ages. It’s just fun and gets a lot of laughs (depending on the chemistry in your class)!
Give it a shot and tell us how it went.