Vowels can be difficult to hear and pronounce. Practice starts with active listening. Learners often hear short sounds and try hard to mimic them, but the effort makes them too long.
/red/ can sound like /reɪd/ or /hæt/ like /heɪt/. Ask students to make the short sound shorter than they think is right until they have become used to it. Long sounds can also be tricky. If students don’t hear length, they continue making the same mistake.
Check out these ideas for practising vowel sounds by Mary Shepherd, teacher at ATC Language Schools, Ireland
Asking students to make long sounds longer helps learners to pronounce long sounds correctly. This way, words like ‘beach’ /biːʧ/ and ‘sheet’ /ʃiːt/ cannot be mistaken for other words and won’t land your students in trouble.
Diphthongs also need to be over-extended until the length is right, for example, ‘won’t’ and ‘don’t’, can be made longer until the learners get used to length.
Use these simple set of steps for practising your vowel sounds – Remember it as: HARP.
H is for HEAR
Hear the sound. Actively listening to a phoneme alone, in single words, then in contrasting words, is useful. Minimal pairs of words, which have only one phoneme in the difference, is the most effective way of hearing difference. Hearing the target vowel in sets of words, each using the same target sound, is useful too.
Examples of minimal pairs (a group of words with only one phoneme in the difference). Students must identify the vowel difference in each word.
/hat / hate/
An example of using one vowel in a group of words to highlight the target vowel.
/ Bat / Fat / Rat /
Task: Listen to pairs of words and say if they are the same or different.
Bed Red (same)
Want won’t ( different)
Task: Listen to pairs of sentences and say if they are the same or different.
I work late at night I walk late at night (different)
I want to do it I won’t do it (different)
A is for ARTICULATE
Armed with a set of words and target sounds, learners need to practise. Articulating English sounds requires the mouth to move flexibly in new ways. Asking students to overextend vowels can be embarrassing and may lead to hiding behind hands but if the teacher models the sounds, the students can copy.
Over-pronounce each phoneme, making sure they can see how the mouth moves. What do they notice?
say: ‘head’ / hɛd/ and ‘heat’ / hiːt/ – Is the mouth open wide?
say ‘hat’ /hæt/ – Does the jaw drop?
say ‘hot’ /hɒt/- Do the lips pout?
say ‘hood’ / hʊd/ – Do the lips purse? (say ‘who’ /huː/ – can they see/feel the difference?
Task: Practise in private, in front of a mirror. Overextend the mouth and pronounce each vowel sound clearly until you are used to it.
R is for RECORD
Record, listen and repeat. Outside class, students need a model. In class, teacher records a set of words or expressions on a student’s phone.
Task: At home, the student then records themselves repeating the same vowel sounds. Listen back and if the sounds are not exactly the same as teacher, delete the recording and do it again. Listen and delete as many times as it takes to get it right.
P is for PRACTICE
Now we can practise in class. Minimal pair exercises are ideal for individual sounds. Bingo is also a popular activity which is well-known and easily adapted for different vowel practice. Any grid which can contain separate words with target phonemes, either one particularly difficult sound, or two confusable sounds, can be used to create games.
Here’s a link to a blank BINGO template which you can use again and again with your own vocabulary. A great way to review vocabulary of the week.
Task: Listen to a set of words and list them in phoneme groups.
For example: How many groups are there here? (four)
Task: Take confusable sounds in different words and identify which is which:
Hit / heat
Task: Take confusable words and learn them in sets, where one phoneme is used:
A good cook book
Bob’s hot dog pot
Jo won’t go home
Written by Mary Shepherd, teacher at ATC Language Schools, Ireland.