Honing Students’ Skill at Producing /h/

Some sounds in English are problematic for most learners, and some sounds cause difficulty only for speakers of certain languages. In my own teaching recently, two private students have challenged me to create multiple sets of exercises to target /r, ɚ/ in different positions and in different combinations. The students are set apart not only by geography, but also by their first langauges, and yet I can use some of the same materials for both of them. On the other side of the globe, there is an EFL teacher who wrote to me about a challenge faced by Polish and Spanish speakers. Their /h/ comes out too harshly. Has anyone made similar observations? What suggestions do you have for teaching /h/?

In a previous post on consonant sounds, I suggested the use of a mirror at close proximity to the mouth. The release of breath on the /h/ would fog up the mirror, and the contrast between words like what-hut would be more noticeable. However, this teaching tip was designed to help those learners who always drop their h’s or aren’t sure when an h should be silent in a word.

To help learner produce a softer /h/, I’d suggest reviewing the basics:

  • /h/ is a release of breath and it’s voiceless;
  • /h/ releases into a vowel sound (a voiced sound) and as the /h/ is said the mouth is already in position for the following vowel sound;
  • /h/ doesn’t require us to block the airflow anywhere, especially not in our throat or the back of our mouth.

Suggested steps for production:

  1. Ask students to sigh gently. As they do, they can place a hand in front of their mouths and feel the warm, soft flow of air.
  2. Ask them to take a deep breath and give a longer sigh, but this time move directly into /aɪ/ on the same breath.
  3. Ask them to produce a shorter sigh and move more quickly into /aɪ/. This should result in a simple “hi”.
  4. Try the same steps with other vowel sounds to produce: he, hoe, hey, who, how.

Possible activities:

  • Find a short text and omit all the instances of /h/. Have students read the text aloud and ask them to consciously think of the basic steps of production as they insert the /h/ to complete words. Example: _umpty Dumpty sat on a wall. _umpty Dumpty _ad a big fall. All the king’s _orses and all the king’s men couldn’t put _umpty together again.
  • If you’re working with Russian students, you can try the trick of comparing a strong Russian accent with a more accurate accent in English. A single student can provide both samples. How? I’d suggest writing a few lines of a joke or simple tale in English using Cyrillic letters. This will encourage the English text to be read with a strong Russian accent. Then hand out the same text written correctly with the English alphabet. This should force a different mindset to move in place. The point is that an H-sound in another language cannot necessarily transfer to English. Example: Хамти Дамти сэт он а уалл… / Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Emily says:


    Regarding Russian pronunciation…

    When I was in college, I studied abroad in Krasnodar, Russia. This is a small city not far from the Black Sea – very far west, and quite far south. My friends and I noticed that a Russian man we knew there pronounced “g” just like the American /h/. (head: not “golova,” but “holova”) I remember being surprised that it didn’t come out as Russian /X/, but as a sound that’s not in Russian.

    My Russian was never particularly good, so I never found out if this was a regional Russian accent, an individual quirk, or if the person speaking was not originally from Russia but maybe from Georgia, for example.

    My suggestion is that if this is an accent your students are familiar with, it might help them to make /h/ sound in that context first and then in English. But as I said, we might have met the only man in Russia to make this consonant substitution. 🙂

    1. Yes, the “holova” pronunciation is regional. Russian speakers in Ukraine also do this. That H has a strong release of air.
      I like your idea of making the transition from a familiar sound to the target sound. For this kind of speaker, you’d have to work on softening that /h/. I think the technique of sighing into a vowel sound could work.
      Thanks for posting your comment, Emily!

  2. RedMat says:

    This site is very informative and worth visiting every now and then. Please up the good work!

    1. I appreciate the support. 🙂

  3. Emma Dyer says:

    Waooo, Jennifer, Thank you so much.
    Your clear explanations about the vowel sound instruction and the tip how we can put our tongue,lip, mouth in each of the fifteen vowel was the best.
    Now I understand clear.
    With all my respect and Thanks to make this instruccion possible to all of Us.

    1. Thank you for the positive feedback, Emma. I appreciate the support.

      Kind wishes to you!

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