On the Tip of My Tongue: Articulatory Awareness to Teach Pronunciation

Most of us can give students accurate and functional definitions of, say, verb, semicolon, and syllable, yet we may feel out of our depth when it comes to describing the workings of pronunciation. But pronunciation need not be so daunting and mysterious; it’s entirely mechanical, and if we understand and communicate those mechanics to our students, we’ll start to see some serious progress in their pronunciation.

First, a rundown of the articulators that we use in English:

  • the voice box (or larynx),
  • the tongue,
  • the teeth,
  • the lips,
  • the nose (yes, we all talk through our noses!),
  • the alveolar ridge (just behind the upper teeth),
  • the hard palate at the roof of the mouth, and
  • the soft palate (or velum) at the back of the mouth.

Linguists deal in more nuanced terms, but for classroom purposes, these will do just fine. Once students are familiar with the articulators, we can start asking questions:

—How do we make [m]?

—[mmmm]

—I know you can say [mmm], but what are you doing? How are you doing it?

We say [m] by putting our two lips together, using the voice box, and releasing air through the nose. The sound of [n] is similar because we are also using the voice box and releasing air through the nose, but in this case our mouth is blocked off with the tongue flat against the alveolar ridge. Sounds like [m] and [n] exist in nearly all languages, so they’re a nice, comfortable place to start students speaking about the articulators, but once they’ve got the hang of it, we can start leading them into more challenging territory.

Many speakers of Korean and Cantonese struggle with [z] but have no problem with [s]. How do we say [s]? Tongue flat against the upper teeth, a little space for air, and no voice box. Once they’ve got that, have them hold it, and get them activating their voicebox (fingers on the throat helps a lot for voiced sounds). Similar activities will help students with [f], [v], [θ], [ð], and other tricky sounds. Once they’ve got the mouth formation right, repeat, repeat, repeat to build that muscle memory. Beyond just single phonemes, the language to talk about articulators will help students with consonant clusters, voiced and unvoiced -S and -ED at the end of words, and a host of other common problems.

This kind of awareness raising can work at all levels. Beginners won’t be as articulate, but they’ll quickly start using phrases like “tongue and teeth together” and “no voice.”

Mini-lessons in pronunciation like this can be extremely satisfying to teach. You’ll see ripples of epiphany spreading through the class, students will ask you to explain other challenging sounds in the same way. Once you’ve started to incorporate this kind of language into your repertoire, you may find your own articulatory awareness increasing, and you’ll be able to give students feedback like, “almost, but your tongue is a little too far back; move it closer to your teeth.” 

Happy articulating!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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5 Responses to On the Tip of My Tongue: Articulatory Awareness to Teach Pronunciation

  1. Mary McKenna says:

    Seems practical enough. Any specific tips for helping Vietnamese with English pronunciation?

  2. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    Great piece, Robert! Would love to see you do a follow-up in which you explain how to help Spanish-speakers distinguish between “b” and “v” sounds in English. And how to help French speakers with our “th” sounds.

    • Robert Sheppard Robert Sheppard says:

      Thanks, Alexandra!

      Those two problems you mention are especially tricky, and that’s a particular category of pronunciation error for us all to try to be attuned to. I think what makes those errors so hard to correct is that these learners know these letters from their L1, already have a particular sound associated with it, and the English phoneme associated with those letters doesn’t exist in the students’ L1.

      Articulatory awareness helps as a first step, but after that, a whole lot of drilling and exercises goes into forming new habits.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. mihee woo says:

    I was attracted by an example of struggling students who have in trouble in pronuncing English.
    I was totally understanding that problem,
    because I’m Korean. As a foreigner student,
    sometime I had a trouble in pronuncing some words.
    I think explaining exactly how to pronunce those words might help students correct their pronunciation.
    Like what you said in your blog, “but your tongue is a little too far back; move it closer to your teeth.”
    Having a mind-set of explaining how to pronunce is pretty important to teacher who is teaching foreigners.

  4. MaryAnn Voveris says:

    This is wonderfully clear information that I will study and incorporate into my teaching. Thank you.

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