Vol. 9, Issue 4, May 2009

Pronunciation Corner
Joyce Mandell

Joyce Mandell

The Pronunciation Teacher’s Toolkit

Every artisan carries his or her own specialized tools, and the same thing applies to the pronunciation teacher.  I thought it would be helpful for the readers of this column to know about some useful and simple tools that I carry to my various students/clients as I work with them on their American English pronunciation skills.

First of all, I have a large clear plastic zippered case in which I put all my tools, so that I can see everything fairly easily.  Inside I place:

Mirrors – I always have on hand a bunch of extra mirrors.  Even though I request that students bring their own, men tend to forget them very easily.  Students need to see where they are placing their lips and tongue, and how open their mouth needs to be for various sounds, etc.   I have collected an enormous amount of mirrors from used compact cases, so I keep them handy at all times.

Rubber bands – These are fairly standard tools for everyone I know who teaches pronunciation skills.  Since the stressed syllable in English is always higher in pitch, stronger and clearer, and longer in duration, the rubber band is a good visual method of displaying these features.  For example, if we say the word  a MA zing, the stress would be on the middle syllable.  So we have the students hold the rubber band between their two thumbs and pull the band open on the stressed syllable.  This gives them a real physical feeling of how much more energy they need to use to indicate stress;  pulling the rubber band horizontally shows clearly that the syllable is lengthened, pulling it vertically indicates that the syllable is also higher in pitch.   I find that pitch changes are very difficult for many speakers of other languages, so pulling the rubber band vertically really reminds them to raise the pitch as well as making the syllable longer and stronger in volume.  I suggest looking for the fattest rubber bands you can find, so students can easily feel the tension that is involved in making a syllable more stressed.

Kazoos – These have also become standard tools for the toolkit.  They are fun to use, and clearly indicate the pitch changes and stress patterns of various words or phrases.  Often, I’ll “hum” a phrase into the kazoo and ask the students to identify what I said.  They laugh and think it impossible without words, but many of them guess correctly by really paying attention to the melody of the phrase.  For example, I’ll hum something that sounds like this – “hmm-HMMM-hmm” (with the middle syllable being the stressed one) and students will call out phrases that follow that stress pattern, such as “Good morning,” “I’ll do it,”  “She’s crazy,” etc.  Then I’ll change the pattern with the kazoo to a four-syllable configuration – “hmm-HMM-hmm-hmm” – and see if the students can come up with appropriate phrases such as “She’s wonderful” or “You’re hurting me.”  It’s great when the students start calling out phrases that are wrong and don’t follow the right pattern, because the whole class can hear how the intonation and stress pattern doesn’t fit.  I think it is a very strong way to help students navigate the melodic changes that English demands.

Rubber mouth – I don’t remember exactly where I picked up this little “gimmick,” but it is a fun way to show students where their tongue needs to be for such sounds as “th” and “l.”  First of all, the mouth itself is a sight gag – students laugh when I pull it out of my bag of tricks – and I think that this kind of silliness helps them to relax while they are learning new ways to produce the sounds that they’ve been producing incorrectly for a long time.  I can show them that to say words like “think” and “thanks” the tongue juts out just a little bit between the teeth, or I can place the rubber tongue right behind the upper teeth.  All this can be done with the model, and it seems to make it clearer than if they were just looking at my own face.  The model also indicates the alveolar ridge, so it is easy to show students who are confusing “R” and “L” where the tongue should or shouldn’t be touching.

Tibetan chimes – Finally, I always carry a pair of chimes that I picked up in a Tibetan store.  When students are practicing in pairs, I use these chimes to signal that the exercise is over and that they need to pay attention to me.  In a large and noisy classroom, where students are all monitoring each other’s production and trying hard to produce certain sounds, I find that the chimes add a soothing touch to the atmosphere.  It also preserves my own voice from overuse or hoarseness.


Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to the non-native speaker for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings.  She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking.  She also works individually with business professionals.

Feel free to contact her with questions or suggestions at dialogue@nystesol.org.