This week’s Spotlight lesson is our Phonics lesson: M to R, which gives low-level learners printing and pronunciation practice. The letter “R” inspired me to write this post on perhaps the trickiest bit of pronunciation in English: the /r/ sound. I’ve had students from all over the world struggle to pronounce /r/ as we do in English! Minimal pairs with /l/ and /r/ can be especially difficult for English language learners, so I thought I’d include some practice in my blog post today.
What position does the tongue need to be in to form the /l/ and /r/ sounds in English? In most languages, including English, the /l/ sound is produced with the tip of the tongue against the back side of the front teeth. The tongue “flaps” or flicks outward when making the /l/ sound. Most students have no problem making the /l/ sound.
The /r/ sound, in most languages other than English, is made with the tip of the tongue near the front teeth (similar to the /l/ sound in English). The tongue often flaps or trills in this position. The English /r/, however, calls for the tongue to be much farther back in the mouth. The tongue stays flat and doesn’t move up and down. (See the pronunciation tips section below for more /r/ pronunciation info to give to students.) Because the /l/ and /r/ sounds are produced in similar regions in other languages, fluent speakers of English often have trouble distinguishing if an English learner is saying /l/ or /r/. When fluent English speakers are speaking, /l/ and /r/ sound very different.
Allow students to listen and repeat the words from the minimal pair list below. These words include: light / right, lace / race, pilot / pirate, glass / grass, and full / fur. You could also simply demonstrate these words yourself and assign the audio for homework (have students listen and repeat the list of pairs 5–10 times).
The following printable worksheet is designed to give students practice in saying and hearing/deciphering words with /l/ and /r/.
1. Use the first set of minimal pairs to demonstrate this activity. Say one word of each of the five minimal pairs (e.g., light, race, pirate, glass, full). Your students should circle the words they hear you say. Give them the answers, and see how many they guessed correctly.
2. Now pair your students up for the next two sets. Have student A say five words while student B circles what he/she hears, then switch. Students will get both pronunciation and listening practice and will really focus on the /l/ and /r/ sounds.
3. To finish, have a volunteer say five words for the last set in front of the class. Students can all guess what their classmate is saying. Ask students how they did in all four sets. Did they get none wrong, one wrong, or many wrong (for their circled answers)? “Wrong” answers can indicate mistakes in pronunciation or hearing/deciphering, so students really feel like they’re in it together! Repeat this activity the next day if you feel your students still need to work on /l/ and /r/.
1. Point out to students that the front of their tongue should be halfway back in their mouth. Their tongue shouldn’t be touching their front teeth at all. Pull those tongues back!
2. Mention to students that their tongue should not move. It stays flat, or slightly concave, but does not flap up and down at all.
3. Tell students to press the sides of the tongue against their inner, upper back teeth. This sometimes helps students keep their tongues in the approximate /r/ position.
4. Point to your throat (where it meets your jaw, but in the center). Tell students that the /r/ sound is produced there (in the uvular region).
5. Practicing in front of a mirror really helps. Have students repeat the minimal pairs list at least 10 times in front of a mirror for homework. Tell them to really pay attention to what their mouth is doing.
6. For fun, tell students to practice growling like an animal (a bear, for example). Say “grrrrr”. This is the sound of the English /r/!
For over 50 printing, writing, spelling, and pronunciation lessons and worksheets, visit our Phonics Cafe! Flashcards and student certificates are also included in this section.
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