Teaching Pronunciation Differently – 1

Professor Higgns teaches Eliza phonetics

Professor Higgins explaining some of the finer points of English phonetics to Eliza.
(from My Fair Lady, 1964)

If you’re a language teacher you’ve probably already seen diagrams of the inside of the mouth showing the position of tongue and lips when certain sounds are produced.

I’ve looked at them with interest but much in the same way that I look at cross-sections of car engines or volcanoes.

On the  12th of January, at the beginning of their EVO course Teaching Pronunciation Differently, Piers Messum, Arizio Sweeting and Roslyn Young presented us (the participants) with such a diagram but with a very significant difference. (Read more…)

A Silent Way lesson on syllable stress

The teacher’s responsibility and the student’s responsibility

syllable stress
In The Common Sense of Teaching Foreign Languages, Caleb Gattegno suggested that the aim of good teaching is to make students “independent, autonomous and responsible”. Elsewhere he claimed that the role of a teacher is to force awarenesses. These two statements are in no way contradictory. A sensitive teacher who does what is necessary for a student to have new insights does not remove or replace that student’s own responsibility for his/her learning.

Sometimes it can be useful to make it clear to a student that they need to mobilise their faculties themselves.

I was very much struck with this a few years ago when I was observing a colleague, Andi Biero, teach a “false beginner” class. The teacher was trying to focus a student’s attention in such a way that an element of the language that the student was unaware of would become apparent to her. I don’t now remember the exact order in which the teacher tried different ways of doing that, but otherwise what follows is pretty faithful to what I saw.

One of the students, Danielle, had said something in which she had put the stress in “today” on the first syllable.

1) The teacher indicated that there was a pronunciation problem.

First, the teacher just said, “Pronunciation” to indicate that there was something wrong with the pronunciation of this word. This produced no response.

2) The teacher made a gesture to indicate the stress.

The teacher made a gesture in the air with her hand to indicate the stress. Danielle looked blank.

3) The teacher tapped the word on the:

Caleb Gattegno - Silent Way US English Word charts

Caleb Gattegno – Silent Way US English Word charts 1977 © Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Then the teacher pointed to the written word “today” (she was using the Silent Way word charts – it’s on bottom of Chart 10) and tapped lightly on “to” then forcefully on “day”. Danielle said the word again with the stress on the first syllable and also pronouncing it as “too”.

4) The teacher used the colour code on the chart to indicate the schwa pronunciation of the first syllable.

The teacher showed her (by covering up with a finger the khaki coloured “o” of ‘today” and by gesture virtually changing it to yellow, the colour for the schwa /ə/ or neutral e) that the vowel in “to” should be pronounced the same as the vowel in “the”. Danielle now said “TUHday” instead of “TOOday”.

5) The teacher tapped the rhythm on the student’s hand.

The teacher took Danielle’s hand and tapped the rhythm of the word in the palm of her hand. No result.

6) The teacher and then the student tapped the rhythm on the desk.

The teacher tapped out the rhythms “DAH di” and “di DAH” with her hand on the desk and asked Danielle to repeat each tapping. After a few attempts, Danielle was able to do this but still said “TOday”.

7) Some students tapped one of the two rhythms and others said which it was.

The teacher asked other students to tap out the above rhythms and had Danielle (and other students) say which was which. The class had fun doing this and Danielle became able to recognize the different rhythms but she couldn’t transfer this to “today”.

8) The teacher asked the student to put the stress on “to”.

The teacher asked Danielle to deliberately put the stress on “to” and then to put it on “day”. What Danielle produced was always the same.

9) The teacher wrote the word with the stressed syllable in capital letters.

The teacher wrote “TOday” and “toDAY” on the board and asked other students to say one of the two but without indicating in advance which one they were saying. Danielle (and other students) had to say which one she heard. This was obviously an enjoyable activity for the whole class and after some mistakes at first, Danielle managed to do this accurately. But she still said ” TOday”.

10) The teacher got the student to “walk” the stress.

The teacher asked Danielle to “walk” the word with her, stamping hard on the “day”. This had no result.

11) The teacher gave the student a shove between the shoulder blades on the stressed syllable

The teacher stood behind Danielle and when she (Danielle) said the word gave her a firm shove between the shoulder blades on the “day” syllable. She did this two or three times but with no result.

All this time, Danielle had co-operated with the teacher’s suggestions and remained relaxed.

12) The teacher made the “palms up” gesture.

Finally, the teacher calmly made the palms up gesture, looked at Danielle, and said gently in French (Danielle’s native language), “I’ve tried everything I know. Now, you are the only one who can do something.”

Danielle looked away from the teacher, paused, and said “toDAY”.

My conclusions

Language teachers observing a Silent Way class for the first time often feel that an inordinate amount of time can be spent on one small problem, “So what does it matter if she does have the stress wrong in today? She’ll be understood anyway?” The point of the above lesson was not principally to get Danielle to pronounce today correctly but, on one level, to help her to build up criteria for recognising and producing differences in stress – essential in English though of little significance in Danielle’s native language, French and, on another level, to gain awareness of her own actions and, therefore, control over them.

For various reasons, Danielle dropped out of this class but enrolled a few months later in a complete beginners class I happened to be teaching. She never once blocked in this way over pronunciation or anything else. Maybe during the experience described above, she had learnt more than just how to pronounce “today”.

© Glenys Hanson 2001-2015. Originally published on the Une Education Pour Demain website.

.Creative Commons License
“Working on syllable stress in a Silent Way class” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Classifying English Vowel Sounds

classifying vowels

Common spellings of English Vowel Sounds

Glenys Hanson


Students learning English sometimes get the impression that the spelling rules are almost impossibly difficult to master. It can be useful for them to realize that there is a high percentage of irregular spellings in common words (that is, the 500 or so function words plus the 2000 words necessary to describe every day objects and actions) but that other words are generally regular. This means that the more English they learn, the easier it gets. It also means that just because the irregularly spelt common words are common, students will inevitably get a lot of practice in reading and writing them and learn the spellings without the need for specific exercises. Just telling beginners this can give them confidence and avoid them wasting their time learning by heart the spelling of words such as “two” or “women”. When they have advanced enough to have a vocabulary of 1000 words or more it can be salutary for them to understand that there is a certain “method in the madness” of English spelling. This is one of the objectives of the “classic” Silent Way vowel classifying exercise described below.

Students whose native language uses the Latin alphabet have a different problem: seeing the written word induces incorrect pronunciation because they spontaneously attribute to the letters the sound value of their first language. The vowel classifying exercise can be helpful for this, too.

The “classic” Silent Way vowel classifying exercise

The first step is to have a corpus of at least 50 words. This is usually done by brainstorming words from the students themselves. For example, words related to a wall picture, words related to a topic such as food or a given profession. The teacher writes the words on the board in no particular order. The corpus can also be a short text, but this is not so much fun. Brainstorming nearly always produces a high energy level in the class which is important for the next step not to be perceived initially as a chore.

The second step is for the students to classify the words in columns according to the vowel sound. They may be instructed to classify all the vowel sounds in a word or only the stressed sounds. The first possibility has the advantage of generating more sounds to be classified from a given corpus; the second means that they also have to work out which is the stressed syllable.

To do the classification the teacher provides the students with large sheets of paper (flip chart sheets) and scotch tape or Blu-tack to fix them to the walls and a marker. The teacher requests two volunteers to be “secretaries”. One secretary is to write the words in columns on the wall and the other to erase the words from the board as they are added to the columns. If all the syllables in a word are to be classified, this latter secretary strikes through the syllables of polysyllabic words until they are all done. The other secretary underlines the relevant syllable of polysyllabic words according to each column. That is because such words will be found in several columns. The other students have to tell the secretaries what to do.

Once the teacher has made it clear to the students what they have to do, s/he has almost nothing to do for the next 1 ½ to 2 hours except sit at the back of the class and listen to the students discussing where to put the words. In this situation, the only times I, personally, intervene is to suggest they change secretaries from time to time or when they have a problem they are incapable of resolving themselves. For example, Pierre has an American accent and wants to put “past” in the column “bad” while Marie with a British accent wants to put it in the column with “car”. I point out that they are both correct and why. Otherwise, I let them put the words where they wish. Often some of the words erroneously classified at the beginning of the exercise are corrected by the students themselves before the end.

Only when they have completely finished do I indicate, by writing a number at the head of each column, how many misclassified syllables there are. Then I sit down again and let them work it out. At this point, shyer students, who have been overruled earlier by a noisy majority, frequently find the courage to speak up.

After they have finished again, I adjust the numbers at the head of each column – and let them continue to work until there is a zero at the head of each. I rarely have to help them.

Students often express pride and satisfaction at having been able to solve the problem without the teacher’s help. Intermediate and even advanced students are frequently amazed to discover how many common words they had been pronouncing incorrectly for years.

If possible, the sheets are left on the walls and in the following sessions when other words pose a pronunciation or spelling problem, the students work out where to place them. In fact, words already written in the columns will often continue to be mispronounced because it is usually not enough for students to realize that their pronunciation of a given word is incorrect if they have been mispronouncing it for years. They will need practice to change an ingrained habit. Having the columns permanently on the wall, serves as a handy reference that can be used by teacher and students alike.

When they have 10 or more words in each column, the students can be asked to work out what are the common spellings for each sound. If the Silent Way Fidel charts (all the possible spellings of each sound are listed in columns and colour-coded) are available, it can be useful to take them out and compare them with the columns on the wall.

In some classes I do the classic exercise described above but I also do “pen & paper” variants if I think it useful for intermediate or higher classes.

This exercise is intended to make students aware that though there is not just one spelling for each sound, for each sound there is only a very limited number of common spellings.

Either the students work as a whole group in the classroom as described above or they start the exercise in class in small groups and finish it individually for homework.

Step 1

First I give them the following sheet of paper:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - words to be classifiedClassifying English Vowel Sounds: common words (PDF)

Step 2

Then I also give them an “empty” sheet on which to classify the above words:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - worksheet (PDF Classifying English Vowel Sounds: common words – worksheet (PDF)

Step 3

When they have finished their classifications, I give them the following to check their work:

Classifying English Vowel Sounds -common - keyClassifying English Vowel Sounds: common words – key (PDF)

 When they have the key, I ask them a number of questions. For example:
  • “Why was this particular layout chosen?”
  • “What is the role of the final letter “e”?”
  • “What is the role of the letter “r” after a vowel?”
  • “/ju:/ is not a vowel or diphthong. Why is it included here?”

At a later session I may get them to work in the same way with another collection of words: common words with strange spellings or words related to their profession or field of study..

For an on-line interactive version of this exercise see: Classifying vowels.

There are many other ways of working on spelling and pronunciation but this is one I have found particularly effective over the years for achieving results because it encourages students to create and refine their own internal criteria.

© Glenys Hanson 2015. A different version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2002.

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“Spelling and Pronunciation Exercises: Classifying Vowel Sounds” by Glenys Hanson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Working on pronunciation karaoke style

 How the karaoke technique works

Working on pronunciation karaoke style


This is a technique also known as “shadowing”. It is a way of working on pronunciation in the widest sense: including melody, stress and intonation. It is the way we spontaneously learn to sing songs. We sing along with someone who knows the song or with a recording. It works because of a phenomenon known in physics as “forced vibration”. You may have seen this demonstrated at school using two tuning forks: when one fork was struck the other vibrated in unison. The sound energy is transferred from one fork to the other. We can use this fact to help ourselves produce sounds that “vibrate” correctly in the foreign language.

Students can do this working on their own; they just need a device connected to the Internet and a headset.

Step One

Find a short video or audio recording accompanied by a transcription. Choose one that you find easy to understand. Some suggestions:

Step Two

Find the built-in audio recorder on your computer.

  • On Windows 7: Start > Menu > Accessories > Sound recorder.
  • On Mac Lion: Applications > QuickTime Player.

Step Three

  • Turn on the video or audio recording (your source, for example, Michael below for example).
  • Follow the transcription while “subvocalising”. This means not speaking aloud, but using your lips, tongue and throat “as if” you were speaking. It’s easier to keep in time with the recording if you don’t actually produce any sound.

Step Four

  • Turn on the video or audio recording (your source, Michael below for example).
  • Turn on the computer’s built-in audio recorder.
  • Say the the text very quietly with the original recording. It’s important to speak quietly to be able to hear the original recording and be influenced by it.
  • It’s OK to miss out some words, but it’s essential to keep up with the recording and not fall behind.

Step Five

  • Check your recording.
  • Did you manage to keep in time with the original?

Step Six

  • The same as Step Four but speaking a little louder.
  • Continue re-recording the text, gradually lowering the volume of the original until you feel more and more confident.

Step Seven

  • The same as Step Four, but after the beginning turn the original recording off and continue speaking yourself.
  • After a little while, turn the original back on. Are you still in time with it?

Here’s a short Real English video, an interview with Michael, a New York policeman. You can use it to try out this technique.

Real English®

And here’s the transcription:

Interviewer: What’re you going to do tonight?
Michael: What am I going to do tonight? I can’t really say. I’m going to go home and have a … lot of fun with my wife.

Finally, a short except from Julian Kitagawa explaining how he does shadowing – just slightly different from what I’ve described above.

© Glenys Hanson 2015. An earlier version was published on the Une Education Pour Demain website in 2012.

Creative Commons License
“Working on pronunciation “karaoke” style” by Glenys Hanson licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.