From Drills to Discussion: Practice with Vowel Sounds

Perhaps you too have faced the challenge of covering vowel sounds within a short amount of time. What was your strategy? What resources did you draw on? Feel free to share, and I’ll do the same because it’s likely that we’ll face this scenario again. We can apply new ideas the next time around.

This month, my advanced Patreon students aim to improve their accuracy with vowel sounds. I have a total of three group classes scheduled to meet this objective. I’m balancing the live instruction with plenty of asynchronous instruction and independent practice. I’ve divided the vowel sounds into familiar groups: front vowelsback vowelscentral vowels, and diphthongs.

At the start of the month, I offered two listening quizzes to establish a baseline. Each week, the pre-lesson tasks include drills that move from single sounds to words and sentences. My handouts above provide a good amount of material you could use to record your own drills. I’ve been using Vocaroo to create my audio files, which I can easily share on Patreon.

To break up the monotony of isolated drills, I’ve also shared two tongue twisters so far: “A big black bug bit a big black bear” for the front vowels /ɪ, æ,/ and the central vowels /ʌ, ə/ and then “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?” for the back vowel /ʊ/ — making sure it’s distinct from /u/. (Older recordings of these tongue twisters are available here.) The silly sentences also give us the chance to review other aspects such as thought groups, the lengthening of a stressed vowel, and linking.

In class, we warm-up with the tongue twister of the week, and then review the lip, tongue, and mouth positions for each vowel in the set. Having all video cameras turned on is key. We see each other and ourselves. Less time is given to solo drilling, and more time is given to interactive listening tasks. Students have a chance to hear my models, but more important, they produce short utterances for each other to make sure no misunderstanding occurs.

With my advanced students, I put a spin on an old handout on front vowels. I said a sentence and they had to repeat it back to me.
Example 1: James kissed Jan. Then I’d add on a detail: James kissed Jan, not Jen.
Example 2: Jane made green tea. >> Jane made green tea for her friend Jan.

They also took turns reading listen-respond statements from my newer handout on front vowels:
Student A: Don’t [sleep/slip].
Student B: (chooses accordingly) a. I won’t. I’m not tired. – OR – b. I’ll be careful. I’ll walk slowly.

The pattern repeated with my old handout on back vowels:
Example 3: I bought a book. >> I bought two good books.
Example 4: I bought food. >> I bought good food for the goat.

Again, students took turns reading statements with minimal pairs and responding appropriately. You can pick and choose statements you’d like to use from my newer handout on back vowels.
Student A: The (coal/call) was expensive.
Student B: (chooses accordingly) a. Well, you should have used wood for the fire. – OR – b. Yes, because it was a long-distance phone call.

Some got into the spirit of the game and expanded on the exchange, that is, they improvised around the target words. I think it’s important to allow and even encourage this initiative. Playing around with the language builds agility and confidence. In fact, at the end of the second class, we engaged in unplanned “playtime” by coming up with silly sentences and reacting to them. This was inspired by a student mixing up “bonds” and “buns.” I also couldn’t hear the difference in some initial statements. The humorous but effective practice led to a higher level of accuracy in their production.

Exchanges went something like this:
The name’s Bond, James Bond, and I like buns.
Ben has banned buns.
You can replace buns with bones.
Why not have bones on buns?

Moving to more meaningful production, we ended each class with oral reading and discussion. For front vowels, I selected excerpts from “Push for Indigenous American curriculum in schools makes gains” from Newsela. We defined and practiced the word “indigenous” /ɪnˈdɪdʒ ə nəs/, making sure the short i’s were not sounding like long e’s. Our discussion about what history should be taught in schools was brief but productive. Post-lesson tasks included review drills, my recording of the excerpts for independent pronunciation practice, and a speaking task where students were invited to share a 1-minute reaction to the topic via Vocaroo.

For back vowels, I selected excerpts from an article on “poaching.” “New York teenager invents low-cost tool to spot elephant poachers in real time” is also available on the educational site Newsela. The long o in /poʊtʃ/ allowed us to talk about who poachers are, why they poach, and how we might eventually put an end to poaching. We examined different contributing factors, and students have been invited again to follow-up by recording a 1-minute reaction to the topic via Vocaroo.

It can be a challenge to provide enough correction and feedback in class, but thankfully I can give oral feedback on our discussion board via Vocaroo. Also, some of my Patreon members sign up for 1:1 practice, which can be an opportunity to address individual challenges and concerns.

In our third and final class, attention will be given to /ɚ/ and diphthongs. I’ll likely include similar pre- and post-lesson tasks, but I anticipate more time being needed to explain the articulation of /ɚ/ and all the variations (e.g., fur, far, fear, four, fire, flower).

On a related note, I’ll mention that a private student who has been doing ongoing pronunciation practice recently allowed me to incorporate a slow ballad into our practice. The slowly sung lyrics of “Wind Beneath My Wings” has allowed us to work on many of the same aspects: stressed vs. unstressed vowel sounds, thought groups, and linking. YouTube offers the official video, videos with lyrics, and various performances/covers of the song.

Featured image by Free stock photos from from Pixabay

Main source: English with Jennifer


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