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How To Teach The R Sound (2)

In Part 1 of this two-part article, I spoke about the difficulties that learners of English as a foreign language almost invariably have when it comes to correctly pronouncing the English/American “R” sound. I then went on to describe one method that can be used by teachers to help the student say this sound accurately. I called that technique “The Way of the Parrot”, as it merely requires that the student relax and listen while the teacher repeats a word that begins with “R”, after which, the student himself tries to say it.

That method will work quite well with up to 50% of the students. Nonetheless, there will be others who are still not able to pronounce the “R” sound correctly, even after repeating that technique a number of times.

This has nothing at all to do with the student’s intelligence. For example, I was once teaching a nineteen-year-old Spanish guy English. He was actually quite intelligent, being an expert with computers. However, his capacity to simply listen to, and precisely repeat the sounds of English was not very well developed; thus, “The Way of the Parrot” did not succeed with him at all.

Undaunted, I merely went on to use another, complementary technique that almost always works when the “Parrot” method fails. I call this second technique “The Way of Analysis”. This method is, in a way, the polar opposite of the other. Using “The Way of the Parrot”, the student is told not to think at all, but merely to relax, listen and repeat. It is therefore, on the mental level, extremely passive, as far as the learner is concerned.

“The Way of Analysis”, on the other hand, requires a great deal of active thinking, as it requires that the learner of English as a foreign language carefully observe the way you pronounce the sound. Furthermore, he must listen to, and understand, the explanation you give about exactly how you are forming your mouth, lips and tongue in order to accurately reproduce that sound.

For example: when teaching the American “R” sound, the teacher might say the following:
“Watch my mouth carefully as I say the word “right”. I am going to say it extremely slowly. Notice the shape of my lips as I pronounce it: the opening between my lips is a bit in the shape of an oval, rather than round.” (The teacher then says the word “right” very slowly, by way of demonstration; then, he continues with his explanation.)

“The tip of my tongue – though you can’t see it – is resting gently against the lower part of the back of my lower teeth. It does not move as I say the ‘R’. The middle part of my tongue is somewhat raised, where my back teeth are. Now, I want you to put your lips in the exact same position as mine were when I said it; the tip of your tongue should be down, placed just beneath the lower teeth. Now, try to say the word ‘right’…”

Often, the student will place his lips in the correct position, only to then change that position once he begins to say the word. If you see him doing this, point it out to him, reminding him that the lips (and tongue) must remain in that position when he pronounces the “R” sound.

For students whose abilities lie more in the realm of active mental analysis, this technique more often than not works like a charm: they will soon be pronouncing the “R” with great precision. After that, you should tell them to practice at home, going through the same steps as in the exercise.

Over the last decades, I have taught hundreds of students, in Germany, Spain, and now Japan, mostly on an individual basis. I can honestly report that in all those years, I have only had one single case of a pupil who was unable to learn to pronounce the “R” sound: a Spanish girl, who, despite the best efforts of both of us, was not responsive to either method. Yet I should add that she had no real interest whatsoever in learning English; she was only doing so because it was a requirement for her university degree program. I therefore suspect that she had built up a mental block to English (since she openly admitted to me that she hated it), and that that was the reason why neither “The Way of the Parrot”, nor “The Way of Analysis” worked for her.

My suggestion: the next time you are teaching students English as a foreign language, and you find that they have trouble pronouncing the “R” (or any other sound, for that matter), give these two teaching strategies a try. I can practically guarantee that if one technique doesn’t work, the other almost certainly will!

Written by David Bolton for TEFL.net January 2012
David Bolton has been teaching languages for over thirty years, in Germany, Spain, and most recently, Japan. He has always sought out, and regularly employed, the most practical methods, including techniques to expand his students’ ability to learn. At his site, www.language-learning-tips.com, you can get a free EBook about many different aspects of foreign language learning.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Teacher Technique : How To Teach The R Sound (2)