Minimalist Minimal Pairs: /ɪ/ vs. /i/ and /s/ vs. /ʃ/ vs. /tʃ/ English Pronunciation Class. For small groups of any age, any level!

27 02 2013

I write three words on the board:


The students tend to snicker, recognizing these as problem words. They often try to pronounce one or all of the terms. I give them a moment to consider the words, then point to SHEEP.

“What’s this?”
“And this?”
“And this?
—“Ni idea.
Sorbo. Sorbito.” (mime it and make slurping noise)
— [giggle giggle]

“Ok. Oveja, barco, sorbo. Can anyone say all three?”
Someone inevitably tries, and all three come out as “tscheep.”

I move to SHEEP.
“This one is easy.”
I point to EE and write i in quotation marks on the board.
“In Spanish, the i makes an EEEEEEE sound. In English, the EE makes an EEEEEEE sound. Exactly the same. Say it.”
I point to the SH.
“This is [put finger to lips, look angry] SHHHHHHHH, like be quiet! SHHHHHHHH. Say it.”
“Good. Your lips come out [turn to profile view so they can see lip position] and you use air. SHHHHHHH.”
“Good. So! SHHHHHHH. EEEEEEEE. P. [big pop of air here] SHEEP. SHEEP. Say it.”

I move to SHIP.
“This one is a little difficult.”
I point to the SH.
“This is also [put finger to lips, look angry] SHHHHHHHH, like be quiet! SHHHHHHHH. Say it.”
I point to I.
“But this sound [pause for dramatic effect]. This sound does not exist in Spanish! I am sorry. [wring hands, look faux repentant]”
“This sound is IHHHHHHH, in the back of the throat [point to location on self]. IHHHHHH. IHHHHHH. Say it.”
“Good! It’s weird, no? SHEEP is EEEEEEE, this is IHHHHHH.”
“Very good. So! SHHHHHHH. IHHHHHH. P. SHIP. SHIP. Say it.”

I move to SIP.
“This one is the most difficult.”
I point to the IP.
“This is also IHHHHHHH, then P. IHHHHHHP.”
I point to S.
“But this sound is SSSSSSSS, like a snake. SSSSSSS. It is clean. SHIP and SHEEP use SHHHHHHH, be quiet! But this one is SSSSSS. Say it.”
“Good! You bring your lips back [turn to profile view so they can see] and SSSSSS, like a snake. See? It’s not SHHHHHH, be quiet! It’s SSSSSSS.”
“Nice. So! SSSSSSS. IHHHHHH. P. SIP. SIP. Say it.”

I point to a strong student.
“Your turn. Say it.”
I point to SIP.
I work through all three words together with each student in turn, me correcting anything that goes awry, reminding them of snake versus be quiet! and familiar EEEEEE versus weird IHHHHHH.

“Nice work. Now, I’m going to make your lives more complicated.”
I write CHIP under SHIP and CHEAP under SHEEP.
I point to CHEAP.
“What’s this?”
“And this?
—“Patata frita.”
“Okay. How do you say this? [point to CHEAP]”
—“CHEAP.” (typically they get it right)
“Correct – EEEEEE like SHEEP. And this?”
—“CHIP.” (accuracy depending on level of group here)
“Nice – IHHHHH like SHIP.”

“So! Sorbo, barco, patata frita, oveja, barato. Very different! But we say SIP, SHIP, CHIP, SHEEP, CHEAP. It’s important to say them correctly!”

“Okay. Everyone needs a sheet of paper.”
“Please tear it into six pieces. They do not need to be equal.”
I wait for the first to finish while being astounded at how little spacial reasoning some of my students have.
“Write the all of words big [huge hand gesture] on the papers. [draw a diagram on the board if the level’s really low]”

I wait for most everyone to be done.
“Okay, here’s the game. I say a word, and you hold it up [exaggerated gesture here]. Easy. Ready?”
“The first word is…… SHIP. [this can come out more as SHHHHHIIIIIIP if needed per the group level]”
Tell students YES or NO as they come up with answers.

As I go through the words, it becomes quickly apparent which students have problems with which phonemes. After a run through all the words with a few repeating, I pick a strong student and beckon them to the front of the class, indicating that they should bring their papers.

As soon as they get to the front next to me, I take a step back.
“Your turn.”
It’s normal for them to be slightly taken aback, but they tend to recover quickly and understand the game. Because they have the cards in their hand, I’m able to correct their pronunciation as they try out each word. They love correcting their class members as answers are offered.

Each student runs through all the words and one extra – I make them repeat whichever sound they have the most difficulty with (frequently the SSSSSSSS of SIP). This means everyone gets many, many chances to hear the differences between all five minimal pairs.

I’m continually surprised by how well some of my very low-level students take to this activity, as well as how much difficulty some of my upper-level students have with it. It offers students who have trouble in English a possibility to seriously shine. Those students who think they’re all that also get knocked down a few pegs, reminded that they still have plenty to refine.

The approach seems ultra-simple almost to the point of childishness, but students across the board seem to love it. I hear a lot of murmured “este juego mola” comments, and one older girl who struggles with English even directly commented (in Spanish) that this seemed so much more practical than what they studied in their regular class. She asked if she could come with me every day. I beamed.

I follow up the students-as-teachers part by complimenting the whole class.
“Nice work. This is very difficult, but it is important. If you say SHEEP when you mean SHIP, oveja cuando quieres decir barco, you sound stupid. [that twisty finger to the skull gesture here, which gets the point across]”
“If I say I went from Valencia to Mallorca in a SHEEP, I sound stupid! [very limited giggles here] That’s like saying Fui desde Valencia a Mallorca en una oveja. [giggles erupt] Stupid, no? I want you to say these correctly. Pronunciation is important.”


This bit drives home the “Pronunciation is important” point even further, and for students in 1º Bachillerato and above, I think it’s appropriate. They already know these words and toss them around anyway; it’s time they learned how to do it correctly.

“When I say SHEEP and I mean SHIP, it is stupid, but it is innocuous.”
Write INNOCUOUS on the board.
“Do you know the word INNOCUOUS?” [no one ever does]
“It is the same as the Spanish word inocuo. Do you know that one?” [they tend to have heard of it but not know the definition]
“It’s like innocent. It doesn’t hurt or offend anyone. When you mistake SHEEP for SHIP, it is innocuous – no one will be offended.”
“But, be careful! Not all pairs are innocuous. I think you already know them.”

Occasionally a student will get it and spontaneously offer “BEACH” here; if not, prompting them with a written B under SHEEP and CHEAP does the trick.
“That’s right, BEACH. EEEEEE like SHEEP and CHEAP. What does BEACH mean?”
“Yes. It’s not funny when I say that Spain has beauuuuutiful beaches! [students practically pee their pants laughing here] To me, a native speaker, that sentence sounds normal. The Spanish beaches are beautiful! It’s true. But…”
I write BITCH under SHIP and CHIP.
“If I use the IHHHHHH sound, it’s BITCH. Puta, right? You don’t want to make this mistake – it is not innocuous.”

“Can anyone think of another dangerous pair?” [they usually can’t until prompted with a written SH]
I write SHEET under SHEEP, CHEAP, and BEACH.
“What’s SHEET?” [sometimes they know, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they guess “mierda,” which is exactly my point]
SHEET means hoja, like hoja de papel, or sábana, like on my bed. It’s not funny to say that I have beautiful sheets on my bed! [laffo]”
I write SHIT underneath SHIP, CHIP, and BITCH.
“But as soon as we use IHHHHHH, it becomes, well, mierda. Not innocuous!”
“You can remember that the ‘good’ words – BEACH and SHEET – use the EEEEEEE sound, like SHEEP and CHEAP. The dangerous words use IHHHHHH.”
“Got it? Good. Hmmmmmm, better erase this.”
I make a big show of looking paranoid outside of the classroom and erasing the curse words from the board. The students eat it up.

By the way, after nearly three years of adherence, I’ve decided to flout the the “STRICTLY ENGLISH ONLY EVER DON’T EVEN UTTER AN HOLA” rules. Teaching has become infinitely more effective when I refer to the Spanish equivalents of things. I’m simply not with these students enough to create the “immersion effect,” and I waste far too much time trying to get them to follow simple instructions to engage with a perfectly decent activity because they don’t understand how to play. I use 99% English. The 1% Spanish facilitates learning in an environment with serious restrictions of both material and temporal resources, y punto.

I’d love to hear anyone else’s experience with this.


Modal Verbs and Agony Aunts: Conversation Class for Older Mid-level Students

18 10 2012

Today’s topic is MODAL VERBS. Can anyone tell me a modal verb?

My mid-level students have all been over modal verbs multiple times in their regular English classes, and  they can produce a good starting list when prompted (we’ll skip shall for sake of modern relevance). In general, though, they’re reluctant to regularly use any beyond can, and their form needs work.

Once the map’s been generated, we talk about usage: these verbs are for ability and possibility. We use them to permit and prohibit, to oblige and forbid, to suggest and advise.

I sneak in a grammar review here – what’s easy about modal verbs? No matter the subject, these special verbs don’t change their form – I could walk, you could walk, he could walk, she could walk, it could walk, we could walk, they could walk.

If you want a negative, just stick a NOT onto the end of the principal verb of the sentence – that is, to the modal: I could not walk, you could not walk, he could not walk, she could not walk, it could not walk, we could not walk, they could not walk.

To take it into the past is as simple as changing the base form of the second verb to its present perfect: I could have walked, you could have walked, he could have walked, she could have walked, it could have walked, we could have walked, they could have walked. By the time I get to the end of this list, I’m going a zillion syllables a minute, and I think the students get the idea – don’t stress about the grammar here, because it couldn’t be simpler.

I start a new map: Agony Aunt. “La Tía de las Agonías”? Not quite – I explain the idea of an advice columnist, then elicit ideas of possible situations that might prompt someone to send in a letter. Issues with relationships, family, friends, work, school, decision-making… a whole heap of personal problems.

The mere existence of agony aunts can seem a bit inexplicable, so I ask: why in the world would someone write to a perfect stranger for advice instead of just asking their friends? It takes students a bit of thinking, but eventually they reach the conclusion that it must have to do with anonymity. YES, precisely – you write a stranger because your problem is embarrassing. That’s why people write, it’s why people read, and it’s definitely why I’ve chosen it as today’s vehicle for conversation.

It’s time to put the desks together and play agony aunt ourselves. I bring out four Dear Abby letters from the desperate, adapted to an appropriate level of English. Students take turns reading them aloud (hello, Reading!), explaining what the problem is (hey, Listening!), and theorizing about possible solutions using the modals we’ve generated earlier in the class (‘sup, Speaking!).

Dear Abby,
I am 16 years old and I want to leave school this year. My parents say it is too early for me and that I should be trying to get into university. I want to work with my friend in McDonalds. Then, I can start earning money to buy things.

Dear Abby,
I saw one of my work colleagues taking some paper from the office and put it in her bag. Do you think I should report her for theft to the boss or not? My parents always taught me to tell the truth and that stealing is wrong. What do you think?

Dear Abby,
I have been married for nearly a year and my husband doesn’t seem interested in me anymore. I think he may be interested in his co-worker, a woman half his age. I am pregnant now and feel fat and ugly. Is there any hope for our marriage?

Dear Abby,
I love my partner dearly but I can’t cope with his aversion to soap and water and clean clothing. He wasn’t like this when I first knew him. He helps pay the bills but I hate him being in the house because he smells. I’ve tried being direct but nothing works. He has enough time to spend in the bar, so why not in the shower?

The best advice so far:
You might burn the school.
You ought to blackmail your colleague.
You must take revenge on the co-worker. You should do jiu-jitsu and punch her face.
You must throw him in the shower and hose him down. Like a cat.

Things get more personal when I hand out “secret” role-playing cards. Students read over the personality they must assume, and then proceed to ask the class for advice. With stronger groups, I let them wander around the room; weaker groups stay seated in the big table and request help one by one.

The characters:

  • You are a 10-year-old boy with long hair. Your parents tell you it looks dirty and they want you to cut it, but you think you are old enough to decide your style for yourself.
  • You are a 45-year-old single woman with many cats. You have seen ghosts in the mirrors of your house for the past week. You are scared you might be crazy.
  • You are the vice president of a very large company. You know the president of the company has been stealing money – but the problem is, he’s also your brother.
  • You are a 30-year-old mother of five young children. Your husband makes enough money to support your family, but you are home with the kids all day, and you are very bored.
  • You are a 19-year-old college student studying Economics. Your best friend from high school is the lead singer in a rock band, and he invites you to leave school and go on tour with him.
  • You are a 16-year-old high school student. Your mom tells you that she is actually a superhero with superpowers, and that she has to leave you for several years to save the world.
  • You are a 17-year-old high school student. You know you are smart, but you can’t stop stuttering, and you get very poor marks in school.
  • You are a 50-year-old dwarf with big dreams to become a famous ballet dancer. You have never danced before in your life.

I always have to explain “stuttering” and “dwarf,” but all of these work exceptionally well. My favorite actor actually incorporated st-st-st-st-stuttering into his speech. The soundest advice, though, was for the would-be-dancing dwarf: he might do well by taking his potential pirouette prowess to Jackass.

Food Culture: Conversation Class for Older High Level Students

17 10 2012

In their first lesson sorted into level groups, my high-level students grapple with a proposal: what and how a culture eats can tell you something about the character of its people.

I write “FOOD/CULTURE” on the board in a bubble, and demand: Tell me about Spain. Unfailingly, the first two terms out of their mouths are paella and cocido (further shout-outs have included chorizo, lentejas, “spanish omelette,” and the mediterranean diet). The students must tell me what paella is, assuming I’ve never seen one before. It’s rice and meat and veggies, okay, so it’s like an Asian stir-fry? No? You say it’s in a giant pan? But I can’t eat all that. It’s for sharing?? Well, I didn’t know! You’ve got to tell me these things!

We run through the same process with cocido, giving us enough information to begin speculating conclusions on the nature of Spaniards given their gastronomy. This is the magic step – I’m asking students to take the information they’ve spontaneously generated (okay, with a little prodding), synthesize it, and use their force of reason to put forward a conclusion. Some groups get it immediately, while others completely balk. The look on their face when I balk right back is absolutely priceless: “In order to answer, you’ll have to think! I know!! I warned you this class was different!! Think now!!!”

These squeals and general jumping around like a loon eventually elicit some pretty solid conjectures on Spanish culture – the communal meals are demonstrative of a remarkably social character, the specific eating rituals reflect a culture rich in both tradition and individualism. Paella is Valencian, cocido is madrileño. Fabada comes from Asturias, gazpacho is andalucian, pan tomaca from Cataluña, migas from Extremadura, etc etc etc – all speaking to the importance of Spanish regionalism. Three hour lunches, the idea of sobremesa, the intertwining of celebration with daily life  allsuggest an unhurried pleasure-seeking people.

After generating this list, I offer a quick-take on American culture as demonstrated by what and how it eats. We value individualism at the expense of the group, partiuclarly in big cities – people frequently eat alone in the name of efficiency. There’s state importance, clearly, but nowhere near the level of the Spanish – there’s a trend towards nationalism rather than regionalism. And Americans wouldn’t know what to do with themselves for the latter 80% of  the time it takes to have a proper Spanish comida.

[[I note, clearly, that I’m making vast generalizations here – the point of the exercise is not to pigeonhole anyone, but rather to connect the way in which a people choose to conduct a daily necessity to an explanation of more general trends within the society. it’s a 50-minute conversation class: don’t get uppity and I won’t either.]]

I proceed to explain the concept of food trucks, something nonexistent here in Spain and, I think, exemplary of American gastronomic trends. After drawing a rudimentary doodle of a trailer on the board and giving a skeleton of the concept, I inquire: would an American-style food truck work in Spain? Students overwhelmingly respond that it would not – which I don’t entirely agree with, but okay – and so it opens up the discussion to go in reverse. Would a Spanish-style food truck work in New York City? What would a Spanish-style food truck look like? Suppose we have an investor and must draw up a proposal. What should we offer, how is it going to look? Paella in paper cones, a mobile tent for purposes of caña concealment next to your traveling tapa truck?

Admittedly, this creative bit of the lesson plan never quite blossoms as I’d envisioned; the Spanish educational system isn’t set up to foster innovation. I’m hopeful, though, that by continuing to insist upon original thought from my students, they’ll grow accustomed to the idea of throwing caution to the wind in the name of imagination.

The final activity is prompted free conversation, which is something I plan on incorporating into all of my High and Medium level lessons. Each student receives a question card, bearing a food culture-related query that must be posed to the rest of the class. I first did this by requiring everyone to stand up and mingle, but they floundered with the freedom. For the rest of the classes, I push desks together into a round-table discussion. Questions include:

Is buying organic food worth the cost? Why or why not?
If you were an ingredient, what ingredient would you be?
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever eaten?
Would you ever consider vegetarianism?
Is eating healthy important to you? Why or why not?
Have you ever eaten horse or dog meat? Would you like to?

The last question in particular gets students talking – eating horse meat is not traditionally strange in Spain, so I was surprised at how many students recoiled at the thought. A scant handful had tried it, and only a daring few wouldn’t turn up their nose at a hot plate of fresh grilled canine.