7 Tips for Targeting Consonant Sounds

It took me long enough, but I finally decided to create an overview of the 24 consonant sounds in English. The YouTube lesson is just over 15 minutes, and I include some insights and additional resources for learners at the end. I had created a whole playlist for American English vowel sounds back in 2011, and then my attention was drawn to other topics that I felt deserved more attention. As a result, I never got around to making a similar playlist on consonant sounds. I still feel that while consonant sounds require practice, more misunderstandings likely occur because of inaccurate vowel sounds. Stress and intonation also fill up a lot of the practice material I offer private students who receive accent training. I have entire playlists that help develop pronunciation skills by focusing on suprasegmentals.

In all my video lessons, I try to give information that is accessible and practical. One problem I have with formal pronunciation materials is the use of off-putting terminology. My decision has been to avoid it. I can’t remember ever talking about labiodental or velar sounds with students. Back in 2011, I proposed user-friendly names for consonant groups. See post. I presented these novel names in my overview of consonant sounds. I feel that The Chain Group is easier to remember than affricates, and the word “chain” already has one of the target sounds.

Besides using alternative labels, I suggest other practices for teachers who wish to target consonant sounds with their students.

1. Test out the listen-repeat approach. 
If I hear an inaccurate consonant sound produced within the context of a private lesson, I first decide if it was clear enough in context. Does it warrant correction? I also consider if it was an isolated incident or if this is truly an inaccuracy that occurs with frequency. Calling attention to the word, I then model the correct pronunciation. If the student can repeat it with accuracy, then only additional practice is necessary. Detailed explanation isn’t.

2. Offer an explanation and visual model as needed.
If a student is unable to produce a consonant sound clearly, I then begin to break it down to be sure the student understands the place and manner of articulation. I use common words: teeth, tongue, lips, nose, etc. I prefer “tooth ridge” to “alveolar ridge.” I can’t always remember how to spell the latter, let alone say it, so why should I expect my students to learn it? I also make use of my hands quite frequently to model what the tongue does.

3. Allow for visual comparison and evaluation.
The great thing about webcams is that they allow you to get up close. Without having to breathe in a student’s face, I can give a close up look at my articulators and ask the student to do the same. I encourage students to make use of their cameras on selfie model if they don’t have access to a mirror.

4. Target the sound in different word positions: initial, medial, and final.
This is especially important with stops (plosives).  We can teach students to understand aspiration by feeling a puff of air on their fingertips. Can they detect a different between Tim and Mitt? Let them arrive at the conclusion about how aspiration can change according to where /t/ is in a word.

5. Build upward toward sentences at a moderate pace.
After getting a handle on the sound and using it within words, I then push students toward phrases and finally sentences. What happens with advanced students is that they slip back into old habits when they engage in meaningful use of the target sound. They’re fully capable of reading and speaking fast, so they do, but I encourage them not to rush, and consciously take the time to articulate a problematic word. It’s a matter making new movements of their articulators habitual. This is true of both consonant and vowel sounds. A target sound can occur between two linked words, so students must gain practice multitasking: maintaining control over the sounds and producing connected speech.

6. Build towards free speech.
Pronunciation practice can’t be all drills or texts read loud. The goal is to transfer the successful drill practice to original, unrehearsed production. Immediately after a set of words and phrases, I might launch into some Q&A made up on the spot and ask the student to use the key words in their responses:

judge > judgement > judgmental > judge’s > judging
appear before a judge > the judge’s decision > pass judgment > be judgmental

Q: Do you consider yourself to be judgmental?
Q: Why do we form judgments as soon as we meet others?

7. Encourage further listening.
If there are problematic words for a student, YouGlish.com can be a useful tool for additional exposure to the given word in context. Students can listen to all varieties of English to hear a range. However, I ask my students to filter for American English if they wish to repeat after a model. See results for “judgmental.”

Got more tips? Please share.

Featured photo by Geralt retrieved from https://pixabay.com/photos/checklist-check-rectangles-list-2470549/.

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