ESL Tongue Twisters: Practicing Pronunciation

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Difficult Sounds

As English language teachers know, there are sounds within English that are not used in other languages; therefore, those are the sounds that should be practiced with tongue twisters. Note: Start with “easy” tongue twisters, building to the more difficult ones as students' abilities increase.

For many international students learning English, the sounds v, w, f, r, th, l and ending sounds like -er, -ed, -ing are the ones they have difficulty with. Teachers need to be aware that students from different countries have different difficulties based on what sounds are in their native language. For instance, Chinese students may have no difficulty with j sounds in words such as jam, jimmies and jump; however, Spanish students will need practice pronouncing the j sound because in Spanish, the j is pronounced like a y.

Very Vibrant Violets

To start students off, create three or four word alliterative sentences or phrases of the sounds with which your particular students are struggling. Some examples are:

Very Vibrant Violets

Vincent’s Vaulting Vampires

Walter Whitehall’s Widgets

When will Wally whistle?

Frank’s Frying Franks

First, find Freda’s flowers.

Roger’s Rowdy Ropers

Round Rolling Rattlesnakes

Three Threads

The Thorough, Thrifty Thesaurus

Luscious Licorice Lollipops

Laurie likes lavender lilies.

Jimmy jumps joyously.

Joan’s Jaunty Jonquils

Longer Sentences and Multiple Lines

Once students have mastered the short tongue twisters, introduce them to some of the more well-known ditties, such as:

  • Suzy sells seashells down by the seashore. If Suzy sells seashells down by the seashore, how many seashells did sweet Suzy sell?
  • Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he?
  • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, then how many peppers did Peter Piper pick?

Reinforce Vocabulary

Tongue twisters are an excellent means of having students reinforce their vocabulary. Give them a list of vocabulary words with the same sound, preferably a sound that they are struggling with using. Ask the students to create a phrase or sentence using some of those words. Allow them to be silly and nonsensical. Assist students who are unsure of how to proceed with the assignment by modeling what you want them to do.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Another benefit of using tongue twisters to develop pronunciation skills is that students practice vowel sounds as well as prefixes and suffixes. Listening to and speaking the words repetitively has been found by English language teachers to help students grasp difficult sounds.

For instance, this classic poem enables students to master the b sound as well as the -er ending.

Betty Botter’s Better Batter

Betty Botter had some butter,

“But,” she said, “this butter’s bitter.

If I bake this bitter butter,

It would make my batter bitter.

But a bit of better butter,

That would make my batter better.

“So she bought a bit of butter —

Better than her bitter butter —

And she baked it in her batter;

And the batter was not bitter.

So ‘twas better Betty Botter

Bought a bit of better butter.

This next poem gives practice in the -ght blend, the long i sound as well as ending -s sounds. In addition, students learn multiple meanings of the word light.

Light a Night-Light

You’ve no need to light a night-light

On a light night like tonight,

For a night-light’s light’s a slight light,

And tonight’s a night that’s light.

When a night’s light, like tonight’s light,

It is really not quite right

To light night-lights with their slight lights

On a light night like tonight.

This ditty gives practice in that pesky f sound. Students also are exposed to words that sound the same, yet are spelled differently with different meanings as in fisher and fissure.

Fisherman Fisher

There was a fisherman named Fisher

who fished for some fish in a fissure.

Till a fish with a grin,

pulled the fisherman in.

Now they’re fishing the fissure for Fisher.

As an Assessment

Tongue twisters are a handy assessment tool for judging how well students understand as well as use correct pronunciation. Conference with students individually, asking them to read to you various tongue twisters they have not seen before. Have a duplicate sheet with the student’s name at the top. Circle missed or mispronounced sounds. This will give the educator a means to gauge how well the student is doing.

Artful Articulation

The use of ESL tongue twisters gives students an enjoyable way to develop skills while increasing vocabulary, as well as learning multiple word meanings. Use the phrases, sentences or poems above or develop your own for challenging, entertaining and useful classes in pronunciation.