Monday, December 1, 2014

Past simple adventures: a fun pronunciation class

ESL teachers are used to be faced with many challenges on a daily basis, but the students sometimes need to be eased into a challenge to avoid them being scared of the new grammar topic. Usually, the first time they encounter the past simple tense is a bit daunting, for they feel insecure with the new rules they must oblige to. On top of the grammar rules, we must add the pronunciation ingredient to a fluent learner recipe, and that is when the content may feel overwhelming. The teacher knows it is not rocket science, but only pronunciation that needs to be tackled with meaningful content, activation of schemata and some good old practice, and one way to achieve these three goals is by playing games in classroom. To fulfill the objective of teaching ESL learners how to pronounce the past simple endings, one can go through the following steps in class and have fun while learning!

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The first activity to be done is a review on verbs in the past simple form, for the students have already been introduced to the topic and must practice it. To do that, you will play a memory game in which they must pair the verb in the base form with the verb in the past simple form. You can use this game to review some irregular verbs too, but remember that the regular verbs are the target at this moment. You may divide your class in groups depending on how many students you have and how much time you have on your hands. Each set of cards will be played by two teams, and the team that gets more pairs, wins. It is important to assess them during the game, ask them questions, drill the pronunciation and have them speak, not only read the cards. Once they have gone through the deck of cards, you can be sure they will remember the verbs they have studied.

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Secondly, they need to realize that there are indeed, three possible different ending sounds in past simple regular verbs (/t/,/d/,/ɪd/). It is usually much more meaningful to students realize a pattern by themselves than to simply tell them. Therefore, you should find real audio input with three verbs (that are not on the deck of cards) being pronounced in the past simple (e.g. wanted, helped, called). This is a good moment to expose them to different speakers other than you, their teacher; you can find this audio sample in the course book, on the internet or you can even ask colleagues to record. Once you play the track once or twice, if they have not realized the difference between the samples yet, you can tell them to listen to how they are pronounced. The idea is that you guide them through the realization of the differences. Use the board to build with them a chart with three columns (/t/,/d/,/ɪd/) and write the three verbs from the sample in the columns.

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The third activity needs to make them think about the different endings they have just learned. Therefore, you will play another audio sample with all the verbs in the set of cards. Have them only listen the first time, then make them repeat the verbs after the sample. Tell them that they will have a second chance at winning if they place the verbs they got in the memory game in the correct column of the chart you drew on the board. Go through the listening and drilling on more time before they start competing. Give them masking tape to stick only the cards with the past simple form on the correct place. You can choose a team leader at this point, or even draw a second chart if you have many students. Now the winner is the group that finishes the task first, so you might have to re-distribute the verbs they got in the memory game. Remember that the activity only ends once you have corrected their production as a group, for this is the time to really make the learning settle. Now that the charts have a bigger amount of examples, elicit from them the rule behind these three possible endings. Depending on their level and what you have already studied you can use the terms voiced and voiceless, or you can scrutinize every and each sound that comes before the past ending. To really achieve the goal of having them pronounce the endings correctly, you will need to do some more drilling at this point again.

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To wrap up the fun day of past simple adventures, it is nice for them to produce and practice the pronunciation topic they have just learned. You can tell them that you have planned games for them to have fun, now it is time for them to plan games to each other. For this task you will need IPads with the app TinyTap downloaded. Divide your class in pairs or trios and tell them that they must make a game in which they pronounce the regular verb in the past, and the player needs to choose between (and tap on) the  /t/, the /d/or the /ɪd/ ending. The app is easy to use, but it is important to get acquainted with it in advance so that you can help your students accomplish the challenge. Do not forget to help them with their speaking as well, for that is the target of the lesson. Once they have finished making their game, have them change IPads and play with each other´s games. At this point you can also change IPads with another teacher’s group. The point is to have them listen and produce the verbs within different activities.

Some students might be nervous about producing language for they fear they will make mistakes. What they do not realize is that teachers see these mistakes as teachable moments. In order to enjoy these moments without exposing students, teachers may use games in the classroom. Having a classroom environment that is fun, enjoyable, meaningful and interesting will get students motivated in every activity proposed by the teacher, even the scary pronunciation tasks. This essay detailed a lesson plan that has proven to be successful and, with the necessary changes, I believe it can be helpful to other teachers and ESL groups out there.

ESL Young learners: how to teach pronunciation skills?

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     English has spread around the globe as a Lingua Franca, that much is known. Still, only knowing how to write and read English does not seem to be enough anymore, for many people have had the need to be fluent speakers of this language. As a result, many parents have enrolled their children in English courses as early as they can in an attempt to provide them with an upper hand they will only enjoy when they are much older. As teachers, how do we deal with these young learners? Well, we must recognize that young learners might have an advantage when it comes to becoming almost native fluent English speakers; however, to achieve this goal, their characteristics must be considered in order to develop appropriate activities and develop pronunciation effectively.

     It is known that starting to study English at an early age (before seven years old) might be a big advantage in terms of acquiring native-like pronunciation. According to Rogerson-Revell (2011), many factors might influence the phonological acquisition of a foreign language, such as: exposure, attitude, motivation, aptitude, L1 interference and age. The author talks about the idea that after puberty native-like speech is impaired by neurological changes, but she also refutes that theory adding social and linguistic factors to why adults may not acquire native-like accents as easily as kids (Rogerson-Revell, 2011). The reasons might still be confusing, but fact is: children tend to learn a second language more easily than adults. As English teachers, we must not ignore the fact that adults can achieve fluency in speech and we are their facilitators in this task. We must, also, admit that it is easier to achieve such goal with kids, as long as we do not forget that, once again, we must facilitate the process. 

     Teachers must be aware of the characteristics that influence young learners’ language acquisition in order to ease them through the process of speaking accurately. Shin (2014) points out quite directly that we must always remember that, according to Piaget, children are active learners and thinkers. That means that a book-based and teacher-based approach will not let students live up to their potential. She also points out that, according to Vygostky, children learn through social interaction (Shin, 2014). Therefore, teachers must produce an environment that enables social interaction, not only between teachers and students, but also among students. Apart from these general rules to teaching kids, the author also scrutinizes some important aspects, such as: kids “acquire through hearing and experiencing lots of English, in much the same way they acquire L1; learn things through playing; they are not consciously trying to learn new words or phrases – for them it’s incidental; love playing with language sounds, imitating, and making funny noises; are not able to organize their learning; not able to read or write in L1, so it is important to recycle language through talk and play; and their grammar will develop gradually on its own when exposed to lots of English in context “. In summary, kids will not pick up English pronunciation consciously as adults do, so it is up to the teachers to expose them to English in different ways so that they can develop their phonological skills. To provide such exposure, teachers must be aware at all times of the characteristics of their young learners and apply them. 

     Once teachers have prepared themselves to the young learners they are teaching, it is time for them to apply this knowledge planning activities and classes accordingly. As Shin (2014) points out, in L2 learning environments, the language is more decontextualized, the use of L2 tends to be artificial, and learners may not be motivated. It is the role of teacher to overcome these natural obstacles of the L2 classroom providing a context with meaningful and communicative activities. Fransisca (2014) recalls that activities should be chosen according to the aims of the program as well as the developmental stage of the students, and the possibilities are many. Some useful activities are: role-playing, games (e.g. Chinese whisper), tongue twisters, songs, chants, storytelling and etc. We must remember that children learn by having fun (Shin, 2014) and it is the teacher’s job to provide fun, yet focused, activities to produce target language. Planning classes should not be overlooked by teachers, for it is the time to think about how the correct pronunciation can be acquired in a meaningful way. 

     No task comes to easy when we it comes to language acquisition, and teaching kids pronunciation is no exception: there are some difficulties, but none is impossible to be overcome. First of all, teacher must recognize that there are some phonemes and some qualities of connected speech that might be difficult for young learners to acquire (Fransisca, 214). Teachers cannot forget that kids are losing their baby teeth, using braces, and struggling with difficulties even when producing L1. It is the teacher’s job to understand young learner’s limitations and patiently help them develop skills and strategies to overcome them. Secondly, when planning, teachers must be aware that young learners have a limited attention span, so instead of having long activities, one must plan several varied activities that practice the pronunciation of the same target language. Thirdly, children need repetition to master speaking skills, but having the same activities might bore and disengage them. Finally, the teacher must always assess if and how are the students producing language, so that the lessons planned are being helpful to the group at hand. It is important to know the possible challenges of developing fluency in young learners so that such task will not be hindered. 

     For the kids that have the opportunity of studying English at an early age, the advantage must be acknowledged and used in their favor. Since they are not yet conscious of such advantage and of the significance of being fluent in English, it is one of the teacher’s tasks to engage them. To sum up, awareness is a key word for young learner’s teachers, for they must be aware of the characteristics of children, of their difficulties and of how they learn in order to teach them English pronunciation effectively.


Fransisca, E. (2014). Teaching Speaking To Young Learners. Retrieved from: on December, 1st, 2014.

Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011). English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Shin, J.K. (2014). Teaching English to Young Learners. Retrieved from: on December, 1st, 2014.