Posted tagged ‘vowel sounds’

Central Vowels, Polar Views

February 16, 2011

My next challenge on YouTube will be to present the central vowels. The difficulty is that not everyone agrees on what the central vowels are. I see four points that I must address:

1) /ɑ/ vs. /ɔ/          

I’ve already explained to viewers in my video on back vowels that not all native speakers in the U.S. distinguish /ɑ/ from /ɔ/.  I, for one, usually pronounce cot and caught the same way. However, my vowel sounds in cot and jaw are different. I’ve also noticed that when I’m using careful speech, I tend to make a difference between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, but when I’m speaking fast and informally, I do this less. Am I the only one? If models are possible to give, I think students should hear the two distinct vowel sounds. One way is to use online recordings, such as those provided by The University of Iowa: Phonetics: The Sounds of English and Spanish. Most important for students to understand is that variations of /ɑ/ vs. /ɔ/ exist in North American English.

2) /ɑ/ – Central or Back Vowel?

Some sources, such as Rebecca Dauer’s Accurate English[1] and the University of Washington’s Phonetics Resources, list this phoneme as a back vowel. Others, like Linda Lane’s Focus on Pronunciation[2], present the phoneme as a central vowel. The two views likely stem from the fact that variations in production exist. How you classify this sound depends on how you say it. Simply put, if the tongue is pushed backward, then it’s a back vowel. If the position is forward enough to differ from the position needed for /u, ʊ, oʊ/, then it can be grouped among the central vowels. Agreed?

3) /ʌ/ vs. /ə/            

Is there a difference? Dauer and Lane agree there isn’t. The University of Washington states there is. I only see a difference in stressed versus unstressed sounds. If two separate symbols are needed for this, however, then we’d also have to create more symbols to deal such differences as the stressed /i/ in feed versus the unstressed /i/ in friendly, the “ee” being louder and longer than the “y”. I read that some actually use different tongue positions for /ʌ/ and /ə/, but since I don’t, my choice will be to present only /ə/.   

4) /ɚ/ vs. /r/         

Both Linda Lane and the camp at the University of Washington do not list /ɚ/ as a vowel. They address vowels followed by /r/ separately. In contrast, Rebecca Dauer in her book along with Gerald Kelly in his How to Teach Pronunciation[3] not only include the “er” in “her” as a vowel, but also use two phonetic symbols to show its joining with a second vowel sound, which is much like the production of diphthongs. Kelly, in fact, lists the vowel sound in fear as a diphthong:  /fɪə/. (He uses /ɜː/ for the  “er” alone.) Dauer sticks with the label “vowels followed by <r>”, but follows the same practice with her symbols (fear = /fiɚ/). I find the use of two symbols helpful and think it’s helpful for students to view /ɚ/ (or /ɜː/)  as a vowel and /r/ as a consonant.

[1] Dauer, Rebecca M. Accurate English: A Complete Course in Pronunciation. Prentice Hall Regents, 1993.

[2] Lane, Linda. Focus on Pronunciation: Principles and Practice for Effective Communication. Longman, 1993.

[3] Kelly, Gerald. How to Teach Pronunciation. Longman, 2000.

Back again: “Sentence Generations” for back vowels

February 12, 2011

As I got ready to publish the latest lesson in my YouTube series Pronunciation of English Vowel Sounds, I realized that a classroom activity for back vowels was needed. I decided to recyle and modify Sentence Generations for this small group of four vowels: /u, ʊ, oʊ, ɔ/. Click on the link below to go to the printable handout.

Step 1 – Place students in small groups of 2 or 3. Give each group a set of cards from the Back vowels_activity handout. (1 set = 16 cards cut out)

Step 2 – First, have students lay out all the key word cards in blue: boot, book, boat and bought. Then ask them to sort the remaining cards according to the vowel sounds. They must match each card to the key sounds represented by the key word cards, i.e., all the words with /u/ will be grouped with “boot”, all the words with /ʊ/ will be grouped with “book”, etc.

Step 3 – Correct students’ choices in the sorting task, and then do a choral listen-repeat of each grouping.

Step 4 – Have them shuffle the cards and place them face down in a pile. Taking turns, each student will draw two cards at a time. They must make sentences using their two cards. (Some sentences will likely be silly.) After stating the sentence, the other student(s) must pose one question each to ask for more details using those same two key words. Place the cards to the side after they are used. Model:

Student A: [Draws cards “boot” and “good”.] I need a pair of good boots.

Student B: Why do you need a pair of boots?

Student C: Do you know any stores that sell good boots?


Student B now draws two new cards.

December Celebrations: Learning linking through holiday poetry

December 13, 2010

“December Celebrations” is a children’s poem by Helen H. Moore. I used it once in a pronunciation class, and I recently rediscovered my copy of the simple yet warm verses. Not surprisingly, I’ve found a few U.S. schools that have posted the poem on their sites to share with their communities. Here’s one copy.

You’ll find that the language is  accessible to lower level students. I see less than half a dozen words that would require explanation: gather, feasting, customs, traditions, and nations. You could prepare students for the first reading by posing discussion questions with these words. Suggestions:

  1. Around the December holidays, people travel home to meet in one place and celebrate together. For which holidays does your family gather?
  2. Holidays often mean eating special foods. Families and friends prepare big meals with lots of dishes. Think of one of your favorite holidays with special foods. What kinds of dishes does your family feast on?
  3. On Christmas day, many families and friends give gifts to one another. Giving Christmas gifts is a custom.  We could also call it a tradition. What are some customs or traditions your family has for the holidays?
  4. Can you name all the December holidays you know? In which countries or nations are these holidays celebrated?

The poem naturally lends itself to practice with rhythmic patterns. However, I chose to use it to teach the linking of final consonants to initial vowel sounds. Phrases to highlight:

cold and dark

families around

presents and

feasting and

customs and

old and

in all lands

of all ages

If you’d like, there’s also the opportunity to teach

  •  the linking of two vowel sounds with the phrase “so every year”  (note the use of /w/);
  • the linking of the same consonant sounds with the phrases “all lands” (hold the /l/ in “all” and release into “lands”).

Pronunciation Profiles: Putting Target Sounds into Meaningful Practice

April 30, 2010

Level: Intermediate to advanced.

STEP 1 – Select your target sound(s). For instance, /r/. Create word lists, trying to include words with the target sound(s) in different positions and in different letter combinations. Write a total of 10-12 words. (If you’re targeting consonant sounds, you can decide whether to include challenging clusters.) Examples:

                read                       hurry                     share                     horror                  

                write                     married                exercise               prefer

                run                                                                                         country

                romantic                                                                              world

STEP 2 – Use your word lists to create questions. The questions should be about personal habits, preferences, etc. Examples:

  1. What do you like to read?
  2. How often do you write email?
  3. Do you run or do any other kind of exercise?
  4. Do you prefer romantic movies or horror movies?
  5. Do you always have to hurry to be on time?
  6. Are you married? / Do you think you’ll get married one day?
  7. Is it easy for you to share what belongs to you?
  8. How much of the world have you seen? Name a country you want to visit.

STEP 3 – Write the word lists on the board. Do a simple listen-repeat drill with the class as a warm-up. Give reminders about manner and place of articulation.

STEP 4 – Hand out copies of the questions to the class, or write them on the board. Students should note their own answers first. Tell them this is their personal profile. Then have them survey one another. Moving from partner to partner, their goal is to identify a student with a similar “profile”.

VARIATION: You can still create the world lists, but have advanced students compose their own questions in small groups. Then have students pair up with members from different groups to interview one another.

Paired Interview

Using the Sense of Touch in Pronunciation Instruction

October 26, 2009

I’ve shared tips for teaching vowel and consonant sounds in an earlier posting. One addition to that list is the benefit of using our sense of touch. Some may describe this instruction as tactile or hands-on. Whatever you wish to call it, the idea is to get students to understand sound production by placing their hands in a certain position so that they can feel a change produced by the articulators.  Below are some so-called tactile exercises to try your in your classroom.


  • To understand aspiration:

Hold your fingers in front of your lips. Say /p, t, k/ and you’ll feel a puff of air. Say /b, d, g/ and you won’t.


  • To understand voicing:

(1)    Place your hand on your throat. Say voiced consonants such as /v, z, w/ and you’ll feel your vocal chords vibrate. Say voiceless consonants such as /f, s, h/ and you’ll feel no vibration.

(2)    Plug your ears with your fingers. Say voiced consonants and you’ll hear your voice inside your head. Say voiceless consonants and your voice will sound much softer.


  • To understand open (low) and closed (high) vowels:

(1)    Place your hands full on your cheeks face with your fingers pointing upward. Say a sequence of vowels from high to mid to low such as /u, oʊ, ɑ/ and you’ll feel your jaw gradually drop.

(2)    Place one thumb lightly under your chin. Say the same sequence of high to low vowels and you’ll feel the pressure of your chin on your thumb as the jaw drops.


  • To understand nasal sounds:  

Pinch your nose and pronounce the nasal consonants /m, n, ŋ/. The sound will be obstructed. Release your nose and say the sounds again. They should sound natural because the air is properly escaping from your nose and not your mouth.


Perhaps you know of other exercises. If so, please share them!

Making Pronunciation Exercises Meaningful: Activity for Minimal Pairs

December 26, 2008

Vowel sounds can be troublesome for all language learners, beginner to advanced. The use of minimal pairs in classroom exercises helps develop recognition and production of vowel sounds. Some pronunciation textbooks offer exercises based on minimal pairs, but they are often limited to controlled practice. With the help of minimal pairs lists, such as the ones offered by John Higgins (based on English RP, but useful regardless), you can create communicative activities of your own. Here’s one idea:

 “Sound Search”

Targeted skills: Vowel sound discrimination and production via minimal pairs.

Level: High intermediate to advanced

Number of students: 9+ (If you use my lists. If you use your own, you can set the number.)

Materials needed: Index cards

STEP 1 – Prepare two stacks of cards in advance: role cards and item cards. You can use the nine role cards BELOW or create your own. Each role card should list four items (things that the student will search for). Each item is part of a minimal pair – each on a different role card to ensure the need for discrimination between the two given vowel sounds. Some role cards may be duplicated so that there are enough cards for each student in the class. You need to have a separate stack of cards with the individual items listed (one per card). Note: If you duplicate a role card, say “Baseball Player”, then you’ll need two item cards for “a ball”, two item cards for “a bat”, and so on.


Baseball Player                         Cook                       Nature Lover                    

a ball                                          a bowl                               an owl

a bat                                           some pepper                     a boat

a cap                                           a cup                                 a tent   

a good pitch                               a good peach                    hills


Seamstress                                 Hairstylist                           Doctor

collars                                          curlers                                 a pain

a curtain                                      a tint                                    cotton

       a cuff                                            an oil                                     heels

       pants                                            a new cut                              a cough


     Writer                                             Jewelry Maker                  Hotel Manager

     a pen                                                beads                                    beds

     some paper                                     a disc                                    paints   

     a desk                                              a pin                                      a new cot

     tales                                                 tools                                      towels


STEP 2 – Pass out the role cards. Ask students if they have any questions about vocabulary. Then explain that they must assume their assigned roles and search among their classmates for the items on their list. They may inquire however they’d like: I’m looking for…/ Do you by chance have…?/ I could really use…

STEP 3 – Now pass out four item cards per student, making sure they don’t receive items on their own lists. These are the cards they must give away to the appropriate person. When asked about an item, one student must confirm the other’s request: Did you say a PEN as in P-E-N? / A pen? You mean something to write with?/ Etc.  If a student has the item requested, then the asker may take the item card. Each student’s goal is to collect all four item cards to match the items on his or her role card. The game is over when all students have collected the necessary items on their lists.

SUGGESTION: Encourage creative dialog among advanced students. They can make, grant, and decline requests with more than one line:

– Hi. I’m a writer. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t use computers. I write with a pen. Do you have a pen?

– A pen? No, I’m sorry. I only have a pin as in P-I-N.



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