Get Twisted: How and Why to Use Tongue Twisters for Pronunciation

Get Twisted
How and Why to Use Tongue Twisters for Pronunciation

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 12,804 views |

Rubber baby buggy bumpers.

Sally sells seashells by the seashore.

Peter Piper picked a peck, a peck of pickled peppers.

Red leather, yellow leather.

Is your tongue tired yet? There’s just something inherently fun about tongue twisters. They are silly and nonsensical, but they still manage to make us smile. Perhaps because they offer the a challenge in an area that is typically par for the course – pronunciation. For native speakers, a pronunciation challenge is amusing and sometimes frustrating, but mostly it is just fun. For English as a second language speakers, however, pronunciation challenges are a part of every day. Not every ESL student has the same struggles, but most do have something they need to improve when it comes to their spoken English. That is where tongue twisters enter in. If you have ever thought about how to use them in your pronunciation lessons but weren’t sure how to make it work for your students, here are some tips on how to do it right.

6 Tips for How and Why to Use Tongue Twisters for Pronunciation

  1. 1

    Know Why You Are Using Tongue Twisters

    While they offer tons of fun both in and out of class, tongue twisters in the classroom must serve a purpose. They are a tool to help your students achieve better pronunciation in English. For some students, good pronunciation comes easily. For others it is a skill they work hard at attaining. Either way, when you use tongue twisters in the classroom, you should be thinking about the pronunciation issues your students struggle with. Is there a certain sound confusion that makes their speech hard to understand? You might see some common threads depending on the first language of your students such as l/r confusion for Japanese speakers, p/b confusion for Korean speakers, and i (as in sit)/ I (as in sight) with Spanish speakers. Choosing tongue twisters that zero in on these pronunciation pairs will make the most of your time in class while still giving your students a fun challenge.

  2. 2

    Pay Attention to the Physical Aspect of Sound Not Just the Mental Aspects

    Many times, we think that pronunciation issues are a mental problem – that a student either can’t distinguish two sounds, that is they can’t hear the correct sound, or they can’t choose the right sound in their head before it ends up in their mouths. Sometimes, however, the problem is a physical one; students may hear the right sound and choose the right sound to say but still be putting their mouth and tongue in the wrong position. I find it helpful to have hand mirrors easily accessible in class when doing pronunciation activities so students can look at the physical position of their mouths in comparison to mine. Sometimes when they see what their mouth should be doing versus what it is actually doing, they can correct a physical problem that has been inhibiting correct pronunciation. When you use tongue twisters in class to work on pronunciation with your students, take some time to point out where your mouth is when you produce the target sounds and make sure your students have their mouths in the same positions.

  3. 3

    Put the Tongue Twisters in Writing

    While native speakers may be able to repeat a tongue twister just from hearing it, your ESL students may not have the same experience. For most ESL students, it helps to have tongue twisters not only said for them but also written on the board. That way they can have visual as well as aural information on the tongue twister. You can write your tongue twisters on the board or type several out on a worksheet. Just make sure your students can read along when they listen to you say the tongue twisters.

  4. 4

    Don’t Put Too Much Emphasis on Meaning

    While some tongue twisters have a story to tell (such as Sally’s and Peter Piper’s) not all tongue twisters make sense. Many are just a challenging grouping of words based on their pronunciation not their meaning. That’s why you will want to stress to your students that not all tongue twisters make sense even when you understand the meaning of each word in the phrase. (I remember being a child and desperately trying to understand what rubber baby buggy bumpers really meant!) So while it is a good idea to review any unfamiliar vocabulary that shows up in your tongue twisters, it is not necessary to make logical sense of the phrases. You’ll have to point this out to your students, especially those who want to make sense of any confusing bits of English they encounter. Remind them that tongue twisters are about pronunciation fun not meaningful phrases. So if you choose to use any of these nonsense pronunciation challenges with your students, be sure to point out that they don’t really mean anything and that even native speakers don’t find a deeper meaning beyond the sounds it takes to produce them.

  5. 5

    Practice, Practice, Practice

    And I’m not talking about your students. Remember tongue twisters are meant to be a pronunciation challenge for native speakers. And while you don’t have to be perfect when you present them to your class, you do want to at least appear competent. Take a few minutes before you drop the tongue twister bomb on your class to practice saying them yourself. Some may come easily. Others may be a real challenge for you. If you practice, you will at least have some idea the ones you will have to present to your class with more care.

  6. 6

    Make a Game of It

    While tongue twisters are great fun all on their own, you can take the hilarity to the next level by using a tongue twister as part of a game. Try using a tongue twister as the target phrase in a game of telephone. Students will have to work really hard to pass the right phrase to the next person in line, and they’ll only get one shot to do it. Just make sure you use unfamiliar tongue twisters in this activity. You can also do a spelling B style pronunciation challenge with tongue twisters as the targets. Write several tongue twisters out on slips of paper and then have each student draw a slip and then read the tongue twister to the class. If they mispronounce it, they are out. You can also use tongue twisters as part of a game of charades or Pictionary. Your performer won’t be able to speak the phrase, but his team will have to say their best when they guess what he is acting out or drawing.

Ultimately, tongue twisters are a great blend of fun and function in the ESL classroom. If you are ready to try a few tongue twisters in class, check out this list to get you started.

When you use them right, they are great for pronunciation improvement and class moral.

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