Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Singing the Way to Pronunciation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Last week I talked about some ways I incorporate songs into my Conversation classes. I’ve also had great success with bringing music into my Pronunciation lessons. Singing and Pronunciation are just a perfect fit. At no time is my French /r/ sound more perfect than when I am singing along with my recording of Edith Pilaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” (It’s the same song I mentioned in the other article and, unfortunately, the only French song I know.) Carole Nicholl of The Language Factory has noticed that when students sing, they rarely impose their own pronunciation on the English songs. As a result, songs can be a great way for students to perfect consonant and vowel sounds, learn word and sentence stress, and practice linking and chunking.

Consonant and Vowel Sounds

Although most experts agree that consonant and vowel sounds will most likely not “make or break” someone’s pronunciation, students often ask for and can benefit from additional practice with tricky segmental (individual consonant and vowel) sounds such as the infamously difficult /r/ sound. To address this particular challenge, I have students sing along with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”. For lower level students, I just have them say the /r/ and /l/ words, but for more advanced students, the entire song is a lot of fun to attempt.

When I am using a song to give students practice with consonant and vowel songs, I usually give them the lyrics and have them highlight all the target sounds. Then, we listen again and silently mouth the words. Finally, we listen a third time and sing along.

Final –ED and –S Sounds

Getting students to correctly pronounce the final –ed sounds when using the simple past or certain adjectives can be tricky. They often need practice knowing if they should say /t/, /d/ or /ɪd/. I really like using the song “He Stopped Loving her Today”, by George Jones. There are a lot of simple pasts with –ed endings for students to practice with, it is a slow enough song for students to be able to easily sing along, and the story is sad, sweet and universal.

Final –s sounds can also be tricky. Students need to know whether the –s used in plurals and third person singular should be pronounced /s/, /z/ or /ɪz/. For extra practice, I have students listen to Lyle Lovette’s “She’s No Lady”. It is a hilarious song (my male students especially seem to get a kick out of lines like “She loves to tell me she hates the things I do”) and jam packed with all sorts of –s endings.

When I include these songs into my lesson plan, I usually give the students the lyrics and, with the first listening, they read along and highlight all the words that have the target structure (-ed or –s endings). Then, they guess how the endings should be pronounced. Next, they listen to the song again and check their predictions. After sharing and comparing their answers with a partner, they listen again and we check the answers as a class. Finally, we listen for a fourth time and we all sing along.

Sentence Stress

One of my favorite songs to use in my pronunciation lessons is “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by John Denver. Sue Miller has included this song in her text, Targeting Pronunciation, and since I first used that book in one of my classes, I have never neglected to include this song in a lesson that covers sentence stress. Students often struggle with this difficult concept. It can be hard for them to speed up enough on the unstressed function words and slow down for the important content words. This song offers them another chance to practice.

I give students a handout I have created with the lyrics as a gap fill exercise. (I have taken out all the stressed words and put them in a word bank.) The class listens to the song two times and fills in the blanks. Partners can share answers at any time. Then, we listen a third time and check the answers. Finally, we sing along. The melody of this song is very nice and students really seem to enjoy it.


Getting students to link the final sound of one word to the beginning of another word can be difficult if they do not do this in their native languages. For example, in English, when we say “some more”, we join the two words together so that they sound like “somore”. Once I have taught students the rules for Linking in our Pronunciation lesson, I like to give them more practice in the shape of Eric Clapton’s song, “Tears in Heaven”. It is full of great linking! I give students the lyrics and they listen to the song and draw lines under the words that should be linked. After listening to the song two or three times, we sing it together, paying special attention to linking the words that should be joined.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I am usually much shyer about singing in the class than my students are. In fact, I used to avoid singing completely and just had them listen to the songs until I noticed some students singing quietly along, and then I decided to get over myself. It’s not American Idol; I don’t have to sing well. However, in order to avoid having some students sing while others don’t, I announce the “rule” before we begin: all students must sing or they will come to the front of the class and sing a solo without the music. I don’t insist on loud singing. If students are really shy, they can just move their lips. But, they must at least be doing that. In the end, I have never had to follow up on my threat; most students just really seem to enjoy singing.


Comment from Claire
February 26, 2011 at 8:06 am

Thank you, Tamara, for your fun ideas. I’m teaching my first pronunciation class this semester and may have to try a few of these songs.

Comment from Tamara Jones
February 28, 2011 at 3:52 am

I’m glad it was helpful. Teaching pronunciation is a ball! I hope you enjoy your class.

Comment from Jamiella
March 19, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Thanks Tamara! I’ve done a fill-in-the-blank exercise before (for vocabulary) but it’s nice to see that prononciation, final sounds, and linking are adressed here, too! It really helps expand my ideas of how this activity can be applied broadly. I teach French and I get nervous too about singing–I like your idea here about how to “get over it.” In the past I haven’t forced my students to sing and I’m always worried about whether they “liked” the song or not, but after reading this post I realize that it’s not facebook, and it’s not about them “liking” it but getting something out of it!

Comment from Tamara Jones
March 22, 2011 at 6:18 am

Exactly! It’s not about the song, usually, it’s about the opportunity to practice. If they don’t sing, they are missing another chance to practice. I’d be interested to know how it goes.

Comment from Teresa Bashant
September 17, 2015 at 10:06 am

Hi, Tamara, I really enjoyed your ideas about teaching pronunciation and using songs, too. One thing I have also done w/ the pesky syllable-ending consonants (which are nonexistent or optional in many other languages is to have my students be detectives and figure out when they should use d,t or id (for -ed) or use s or z (for final s). They listen to many examples from me or from speech or music on the radio. They try to group the words that end the same way; then they figure out the “rule” that governs this, which is unconscious for native speakers of English. This can be a time-consuming but very memorable activity for them, and my students always relish the fact that they have learned rules of which most native speakers are oblivious. (Rule for -ed: verbs ending in t or d get an -id, verbs ending in whispered/voiceless sounds get a t, and verbs ending in vowel sounds or voiced sounds get a d. Rule for s: words ending in whispered sounds get a whispered s, words ending in vowels or voiced sounds get a voiced z.) Simply telling students the rule and having them apply it hardly EVER results in the same retention for the pronunciation of these sounds.

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