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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

Sounding English

Simon Mumford

Simon Mumford has taught English for Eighteen years. He teaches at the University of Economics, Izmir, Turkey. His interests include designing classroom activities that are fun but have a serious purpose. He edits the Practical Teaching Ideas column in IATEFL Voices.


1 Weak forms
2 Difficult sounds
3 Other sounds


English has sounds not found in other languages and sounds that are different to native-speakers are indistinguishable to some non-native speakers. Also, the sounds of English are not always pronounced as they are spelled or shown in writing. In connected speech sounds change and blend with each other, consonants and syllables get lost or become almost inaudible, and the pronunciation of a word changes according to whether it is stressed or not. Here are some ideas to help our learners cope with these sometimes perplexing sounds of English. While we do not necessarily want our learners to sound like English people, we do want the language they use sound as much as possible like natural English.

Weak forms

Was and bees: strong and weak forms
The past of the verb to be is was/were. The normal, weak pronunciation of was, /w?s/, sounds like a bee buzzing. If you want to show the stressed sound of was, eg at the end of a sentence (But I was!) you could make the sound of an angry bee. Students may like to contrast these be(e) sounds themselves.

July- swallowing consonants
When native speakers ask Do you like... They tend to run the sounds together. In addition the final k sound may be 'swallowed' so that it is not heard at all. So to get our students to ask the question in a natural way, get them to say (the month) July instead of

Detecting 've
I have got is usually reduced to >I've got in speech. Often it is very difficult to hear the difference between I got and I've got, but of course I got a cold refers to the past, where as I've got a cold is present tense. Although students may not be able to hear the difference, they should be able to feel it, as the v sound produces a little puff of air which you can detect if you put your hand a short distance from your mouth. One possibility would be to have students working in pairs, one saying sentences with 'I got/I've got' and the other feeling for the 'puff'.

Difficult sounds

English r
The r at the end of English words is not often sounded. Words ending in -ar, -our are pronounced ahh. Ahh is also the sound doctors ask patients to make when they want to look down their throats; this is because the mouth is wide open and not blocked by the tongue. Teachers playing the role of doctors could develop the doctor's say ahhhh into say car, bar, tar, far, star, flour, hour, park, bark, dark, dart, part, start' or any other word with this sound. Ahh sound is used by doctors universally, so every nationality should be familiar with it.

Sounding w
Some nationalities have difficulty with the w sound, they produce something like vinstead While making the w sound, students should make their lips rounded and push them forward, making a 'kissing' shape. In fact some words that begin with w are words that show that we want something, eg want, wish, would like, so students can 'kiss' the objects of their desire towards them.

Smile please!
When taking a photo of someone, we ask them to say cheese. This is simply because the long eee sound makes them smile. Thus when contrasting sheep/ship cheap/chip leap/lip pete/pit, we could use the idea of posing for a photograph to practise the longer sound. The teacher can say Say cheap/Pete/sheep and hold an (imaginary) camera, not taking the picture until the smile is good enough.

Angry vs hungry
Some students tend to confuse the inital sound of these words. If you put your finger between your teeth when saying these words, you will bite your finger. When saying hungry you will bite your finger harder, leaving more definite teeth marks in it, which is suitable when you think about the meaning! The hu has a more positive biting motion. Use a piece of paper if you don't want to use fingers, to see which leaves the deepest marks.

Other sounds

The word explode illustrates the stress of many two syllable words in English. If you think of this word as a bomb, the first syllable is a short unstressed hissing sound (the fuse) and the second, the explosion (/p/ is a 'plosive' sound) which carries the stress. Practise this word and other similar sounding words (expand, explain, exploit, express etc.) bearing this in mind.

Stressed vs unstressed Do
A: You should always do your homework.
B:But I do do my homework.

In B's reply, the first do is much stronger, because it is used to emphasis the fact that the action is performed, in spite of what A may think. Therefore it may be useful to practice dodo. This could be quite musical: dodo dodo dodo dodo. I do do regular exercise

Same word minimal pairs/groups
Some consonants are dropped by some native-speakers. The word hunting has three consonants 'at risk', the initial h, the t after n and the final g. Various pronunciations of this word could be 1 hunting 2 'unting, 3 huntin' 4 'untin' 5 'un'in'. While most students do not need to produce all these forms, it may be useful for them to recognise them. Write these on the board, say them at random, and ask students which one they heard.

Schwa drills.
As well as representing the unstressed vowel sound in many words, the schwa is the sound of the weak form of are. In addition, it acts as a sound that can carry questioning intonation, which can turn statements into questions, similar to adding question tags. The following drill shows how these two uses of the schwa can be demonstrated in the same utterance by using a transformation drill

Write the following non-standard (but in fact often used) question forms on the board You going to France?
You playing football on Wednesday?
You getting married next week?

Ask student to repeat, inserting schwa in the appropriate places, i.e. after you (meaning are) and at the end (acting as a question tag) You /?/ going to France, /?/?
You /?/ playing football on Wednesday,/?/?
You /?/ getting married next week, /?/?

You might like to have fun playing with words and finding your own ways to help students 'sound English'.


Please check the English for Teachers course at Pilgrims website.

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