Tangling Tongues with Tongue Twisters is a Teaching Tool

I’ve found tongue twisters can be a remarkably helpful tool for teaching ESL. Tongue twisters are great because they help with pronunciation in a fun way. The teacher can also target specific sounds that might be troublesome for English learners. In China, for example, my students struggle with the difference between “fifteen” and “fifty” but it’s really dull to just drill the “teen” and “tee” sounds over and over again. Using a tongue twister with similar sounds might give my students the practice without a lot of unenthusiastic mimicry.

While I probably wouldn’t devote an entire lesson to tongue twisters alone, they are great for filling gaps in lesson plans. However, with a little tweaking, tongue twisters can be tied with other activities for a more comprehensive lesson. I started out with a little practice as a warm-up. Then I had students write their own tongue twisters using their own name and similar sounds. A student named “Greg,” for example, could write a tongue twister like, “Greg grows green grapes.” The class can then practice some of the new tongue twisters together or students can practice public speaking by reciting their work in front of the class.

Tongue twisters are formed with similar sounds. This means that they tend to use small, easy words paired with a couple of unusual words in order to create the right sound. That’s prefect for expanding vocabulary. I recently taught the tongue twister, “Dave’s dog’s dig deep ditches.” My students don’t know the word “ditch,” but they knew the rest of the words. This was an opportunity to teach them a new word. A visual makes this very easy, but a simple explanation tied to the context from the tongue twister itself is an easy way to define new words.

My students are often so focused on the strange sounds of the words that they don’t realize that many tongue twisters are meaningful, normal sentences (which happen to have the same sound in many words). That makes tongue twisters a good opportunity to teach a little reading comprehension. For example, I taught the tongue twister, “Fifty-five firefighters fried fifteen french fries.” If the sentence had been something more like, “The firefighters cooked some unhealthy food” my students wouldn’t have struggled so much with it. Because of the similar sounds, however, my students didn’t really understand the meaning. They basically thought it was a bunch of words thrown together nonsensically. Spending a little time decoding tongue twisters can help students understand what they are reading.

Another option is to tie a lesson on tongue twisters in with a lesson on something more abstract, like poetic language. I taught them the meaning of alliteration. Then I gave them a paragraph that I’d written and had them circle alliterations in it. The difficulty level can be adjusted to fit the class. For beginners, the alliteration should be obvious. For advanced students, use a poem instead of prose.

Tongue twisters can be adapted to suit a multitude of purposes. They can be a regular warm-up activity at the beginning of class or they can fill an entire class period, if paired with other material. They are great because they can be fun and inject the class with a little energy.

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