16 English pronunciation problems in your ESL class (and how to fix them)
September 8th, 2019 / Teaching
Teaching English pronunciation is a fundamental part of any ESL course. Without it, students won’t be able to communicate effectively, leading to some awkward moments when they loudly tell their colleagues that they have been ‘angry’ all morning (meaning, ‘hungry’) or that they have been growing their ‘bird’ for a while (meaning, ‘beard’).
How to teach pronunciation in the classroom
Here are some simple methods to teach English pronunciation in your ESL class.
1. Tackle big pronunciation problems by writing difficult words phonetically between slashes next to the correctly-spelled word.
For example: Character /ka-ra-ct-a/. Or, using phonics /kær.ək.tə/)
Personally, I use the normal alphabet because asking students to memorise phonetic symbols adds another layer of complexity to the task.
2. Separate the syllable sounds with dashes.
For example: The three syllable sounds of ‘literature’ becomes /lit-ra-cha/.
3. Finally, underline the stress in the word.
This is very important as words often change meaning depending on where you put the stress.
For example, ‘REC-ord;’ (the disk for playing music) and ‘rec-ORD’ (the verb for recording videos).
Ask your students to say the word out loud, several times to themselves. This is a vital step. The student needs to understand which muscles to use to product the sound correctly.
The most difficult pronunciation rules
Follow this guide below to discover the most difficult parts of English pronunciation and how to fix them.
Most students will have problems pronouncing the Anglo-Saxon ‘th’ sound. There are two types of ‘th’; voiced and voiceless.
The voiced ‘th’ is pronounced with a ‘tha’ sound at the front of your mouth. The tongue does not meet the teeth like the voiceless ‘th’.
Voiced ‘th’ words include:
That, than, the, their, then, there’s, they, they’d, they’ll, they’ve, this, those, themselves, therefore
Mother, other, bother, brother, breathing, clothing, father, feather, gathering, lather, rather, soothing, weather, worthy, brotherly, together
Ask your students to try some of these words out in their mouths to see how they feel.
Next ask them to slowly pronounce some of these tongue twisters.
- They’d rather those other clothes belonged to my brother.
- There’s their mother, gathering feathers with their father.
- Therefore they’d rather go together.
The voiceless ‘th’is pronouncing with a lisped ‘thee’ sound by placing your tongue against your teeth.
Words pronounced with a voiceless ‘th’ include:
Thank, thick, thief, thin, think, thing, three, thousand, Thursday, thirty-eight, thunderstorm.
Athlete, author, nothing, toothache, wealthy, everything, worthwhile, anything.
Bath, earth, teeth, cloth, north, myth, mouth, youth, faith, underneath.
Ask your students to try some of these words out in their mouths to see how they feel and how they are different from a voiced ‘th’ word, such as ‘they’ or ‘those.’
Next ask them to slowly pronounce some of these tongue twisters.
- He thanked the wealthy author on Thursday for the third time.
- The athlete ran three thousand metres to the north.
- It is a myth that when you are thirty-three you have lost your youth.
Or and er sounds
You may not realise it, but the ‘or’ syllable in a word such as ‘world’ is actually pronounced with an ‘er’ to make /werld/.
Help your students pronounce ‘or’ better by highlighting these words.
Al and or sounds
Conversely the ‘al’ in words such as ‘talk’ is actually pronounced ‘or’ /tork/.
Help your students pronounce ‘al’ better by highlighting these words.
As you know when a ‘k’ comes before an ‘n’ then it is silent. These words include:
Most ‘ch’ words are pronounced with the proper ‘cha’ sound such as ‘chair’ or ‘china.’ However, there are a few words where the ‘ch’ is actually pronounced ‘k’. These words include:
Ache (i.e. toothache) /ake/
‘Cuit’ is actually pronounced ‘kit’ in English. There are only two main words with have this structure. These are:
‘Ough’ is pronounced ‘uf’ or ‘off’. For example, ‘tough’ /tuf/. These words include:
Other difficult to pronounce words
Island /ireland/ (like the country).
Taught /tort/ (past of ‘to teach’)/
‘As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives,‘ is a repetition game. Player one says, ‘As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives who had… [object, e.g. ” an island”]’. The next person repeats that sentence and adds another object and so on.
The game ends when someone can’t remember an object or gets the order wrong. It’s a great way to get your student to repeat difficult words.
Words that sound similar
Another big pronunciation problem that students encounter is among words that sounds similar. For example:
Angry vs. Hungry
Fix: Ask your student to think of the game Angry Birds when they pronounce ‘angry’ and the country Hungary when they pronounce ‘hungry’. They need a strong ‘h’ sound to differentiate this word from ‘angry.’
Uncle vs. Ankle
Fix: Ask your student to make a lower pitch ‘un’ sound when pronouncing ‘uncle’ and a higher pitch ‘an’ sound when pronouncing ‘ankle.’
Ball vs. Bald
Fix: Your student will know how to pronounce ‘ball’. Now, to pronounce ‘bald’ say ‘ball’ and add a ‘d’ /bal-d/.
Bird vs. Beard
Fix: ‘Bird’ is actually pronounced /berd/. For beard, ask your student to say ‘beer’. Now add a ‘d’ /beer-d/.
Ear vs. Hear
Fix: Ask your student to say ‘ear’ now make them say a hard ‘h’ to make ‘hear.’ This is why it is very important that students do not drop the ‘h’ in English. It will make a different word.
Ship vs. sheep
Fix: This is the difference between a long ‘ee’ sound and a short ‘i’ sound. Ask your student to say a long ‘ee’ like ‘eat.’. Next add the ‘sh’ at the beginning and the ‘p’ at the end to make ‘sheep.’ Now ask them to make a short ‘i’ sound like ‘it’. Add the ‘sh’ and ‘p’ to make ship. It is important to learn the difference between a long ‘e’ and short ‘i’, because there are two other words; ‘sheet’ and ‘shit,’ which students do not want to confuse.
Though vs. through
Fix: Ask your student to pronounce the word ‘though’ /thow/. For ‘through’, ask them to say /threw/ (past of ‘throw’). They’ve got it.
Past regular verb pronunciation rules
It is common to hear a student pronounce ‘worked’ /work-id/ instead of the natural pronunciation of /work-t/. They are doing this because they don’t understand pronunciation rules.
The ‘ed’ sound in regular verbs in simple past, changes depending on the sound of the last constant.
Here are the rules.
‘T’ sound: If the root verb ends with a ‘k’, ‘p’ or ‘h’, the past tense of the verb is pronounced with a ‘t’ sound. For example, ‘worked’, ‘stopped’ and ‘laughed’ are pronounced /workt/, /stopt/ and /laught/.
‘Id’ sound: If the verb ends in either ‘t’ or ‘d’, the past is pronounced with an ‘id’ sound. For example, ‘wanted’ and ‘decided’ are pronounced /wantid/ and /decided/.
‘D’ sound: For all other verbs the past is pronounced with a ‘d’ sound, omitting the ‘e.’ For example ‘stressed’, ‘rained’, ‘closed’ are actually pronounced /stress’d/, /rain’d/ and /clos’d/.
How to teach it past regular verbs pronunciation
Draw three columns on the board and head each one with a sound. Explain the rules and ask your students to fill the columns with the appropriate verbs. Here are examples:
Verbs which end with K, P and H: To work, to talk, to walk, to look, to like, to ask, to pick up, to cook, to park, to check, to escape, to jump, to stop, to hop, to help, to watch, to laugh, to push, to finish, to reach, to wash.
Verbs which end with T and D: To decide, to depend, to defend, to avoid, to divide, to include, to add, to attend, to create, to count, to taste, to hate, to want, to cheat, to last, to visit, to rent, to paint, to act, to contact, to invite, to print, to rent, to start, to treat, to wait, to waste.
Other verbs (a selection): to answer, to deliver, to call, to believe, to travel, to kiss, to stress, to travel, to listen, to arrive, to change, to play, to show, to study, to try, to use, to save, to pull, to move, to explain, to carry, to agree.
How students practice pronunciation in their own time
Your students will never learn to pronounce English without a foreign accent from your lessons alone. If they really want to get a native speaker accent, they must do a lot of work in their own time. Here are some ways to practice outside of class.
Podcasts and films: Ask your students to listen to podcasts and watch films and TV in the accent of their choice.
Songs: Singing along to songs also improves your accent. Ask them to find the lyrics of a clearly sung song online and sing along. If you’re students are keen on this method, they may enjoy Lyrics Training. A paid app that helps you learn English through songs.
Specialist videos: To practice a North American accent, try Rachel’s English. This comprehensive video guide will walk your students through all of the sounds in the English language. In addition, she has videos on the rhythm of English, elision (when speakers drop vowel sounds as they link words together in a sentence) and common idioms.
To practice a UK accent, try BBC Learning English Pronunciation Guide which covers all the common sounds in the English language.