10 Activities to Improve Your English Pronunciation [Self-Study Guide #7]

Published on
November 17, 2022
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Updated on
November 15, 2022
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10
min read
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Written by
Emile Dodds

Pronunciation is more than just getting different sounds correct. It’s speaking clearly with the correct pace, tone and stress. These ten simple activities will help you practise all these things.

10 Activities to Improve Your English Pronunciation [Self-Study Guide #7]
Table of contents

Note: This is the seventh of a series of guides covering self-study activities. You may also be interested in other other guides on listening, writing, reading, speaking, grammar, and vocabulary.

If you think of pronunciation simply as individual sounds, you are missing the point!

To speak naturally, you need to know how sounds connect together in a word or in a sentence. Why do we have words like “hafta” (have to)? Do we say words individually, or do we speak in “chunks”? How do you know which words are stressed in a sentence? How is enunciation different from pronunciation?

Good pronunciation practice examines questions like these and provides ways to improve.

How to approach pronunciation practice

Here are some general tips for pronunciation practice.

  1. Always record yourself for best results. You can do this with your phone or laptop. A high quality but free recording app that you can use is Audacity.
  2. Practise regularly as part of your learning routine.
  3. Practise various skills, such as speed and stress. Our activities will help you do this.
  4. It’s okay to copy the tone and style of another speaker (for example in a podcast or TED talk). In fact, it can be very helpful.
  5. You’ll notice that many of our activities recommend using TED talks or podcasts as resources. These are great tools for pronunciation practice.

Using this guide

This is the seventh of a series of guides covering self-study activities. You may also be interested in our other guides on writing, reading, listening and speaking.

With each activity, you'll find our recommended resources, the time the activity takes, and the effort level. 

For the recommended time, we've split it into short, medium and long. How long you want to take depends on you, but you should be able to do the shorter activities in under 15 minutes, the medium ones in around 30 minutes, and the longer ones in up to 1 hour.

Easy activities

Activity 1 - Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are sounds that are similar, but different, such as the vowel sounds in sheep and ship or tree and three. By pronouncing words which only differ by one sound, we can focus very clearly on that one sound.

Our guide on minimmal pairs will be helpful if you want to go into the topic in more detail.

As with all pronunciation practice, you will need to record yourself. You will also need a list of minimal pairs (with pronunciation) that you can find at Warwick University’s List of Minimal Pairs or EnglishPost’s List of Minimal Pairs

You should note that pronunciation is heavily influenced by your native language. Hence, you may wish to search for “English minimal pairs for Spanish speakers” or “English minimal pairs for Greek speakers” or so on.

The technique is simple:

  1. Listen to minimal pairs and record yourself pronouncing the difference.
  2. Use your recording to correct yourself.

It’s fast, it’s fun and it can help you find and correct your pronunciation weaknesses.

Skills: Pronunciation
Tools: Warwick University’s List of Minimal Pairs, EnglishPost’s List of Minimal Pairs
Time: Short
Effort Level: Easy

Activity 2 - TH Tongue Twisters

Probably the hardest sounds to pronounce for many English learners are the TH sounds, especially if you do not have these sounds in your native language.

Wait… why did I say “TH sounds” and not “TH sound”? Because there are TWO TH sounds in English. So, the first step is to make sure that you know the difference between them.

Then, a fun way to practise is through the use of tongue twisters. Here are some from my collection:

  • There are thirty-three things there.
  • They thought it through and thanked me for the method.
  • When I bathe in my bath, I think about math.
  • This and that, that and this.
  • Three thirsty salesmen threw that there.
  • Sorry to bother you, brother, but that leather is too hot for this weather.
  • The earthquake broke through three tons of thick concrete.

This site has some fun ones. This site has ten challenging “th” tongue twisters with accompanying audio.

To do this activity:

  1. Read out the tongue twisters slowly. Make sure that you get the correct sound for each instance of TH. Use a dictionary to help if necessary (the phonetic spelling is /ð/ for voiced th and /θ/ for unvoiced th).
  2. Read out the tongue twisters at normal speed (or fast). Record yourself.
  3. Listen to your recording to see how you did.

Skills: Pronunciation
Tools: Various sites
Time: Short
Effort Level: Easy

Activity 3 - Fun with accents

Have you ever listened to a person speaking English and tried to guess where they are from? Me too! In fact, I love listening to different accents.

As an English learner, it is good to become familiar with various accents from around the world, because you never know who you will be speaking English to at work or when you travel.

This video turns this fun activity into a game. You get one point for each correct answer and there are 15 seconds per round. Try it and see how you do!

If you enjoy this activity, you can find more videos like this by searching on YouTube for “guess the English accent”. You’ll find hours of fun videos.

Skills: Pronunciation, listening
Tools: YouTube
Time: Short
Effort Level: Easy

Medium-effort activities

Activity 4 - Shadowing

Shadowing refers to the technique of speaking just after someone else - like a shadow.

For example, you could listen to a podcast or a TED talk, and repeat exactly what the speaker says about half a second after they say it.

This helps you with pace, word stress, sentence stress and chunking. It is good to do this with a slow or medium paced speaker. English Learning for Curious Minds is a great podcast for this, especially as all of the transcripts are available.

Here is how we recommend you do this activity:

  1. Listen once without shadowing.
  2. Play the recording again, this time shadowing the speaker.
  3. If you find it difficult, use the transcript to help you.

Tip:

  • To record yourself without hearing the original audio, play the audio through headphones and record yourself on a separate device.

Skills: Pronunciation
Tools: Podcasts or TED talks
Time: Long
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 5 - The speed test

A large part of pronunciation and fluency is to speak at a natural speed. Let’s see how we can practise this.

You will need a podcast or monologue that comes with a transcript. I recommend our English Learning for Curious Minds podcast or a TED talk. Keep in mind that different speakers do speak at different speeds. Our podcast is a little slower paced; some TED speakers might talk quite fast.

Next:

  1. Listen to the podcast or talk once. Note the time that the speaker takes.
  2. Using the transcript, record your own version, copying the pace of the original speaker.
  3. Compare your time taken to the speaker’s time.
  4. You can also measure and compare using words-per-minute. Simply count the words in the transcript and divide by the time. (For example, 300 words in 2:30 is: 300/2.5 = 120 wpm.)

Skills: Pronunciation, public speaking
Tools: Podcast or TED Talk
Time: Long
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 6 - Hadar’s exercises

Hadar Shemesh has three great exercises for improving your pronunciation:

  1. Practise reading a text with a cork in your mouth. It sounds… weird, but this exercise will force you to work hard to pronounce each sound.
  2. The second exercise involves pronouncing only the vowels in a sentence. Again, it’s a weird exercise, but it really helps you focus on English vowel sounds. Remember, in English, there are many possible sounds for each of the five vowels.
  3. The third exercise is simply to have fun reading a text as a “rookie narrator”. Exaggerate each sound and add too much emotion to each sentence. It will help you to feel more free and experimental with your English practice.

Watch the video here to see a full demonstration of each activity. 

Skills: Pronunciation
Tools: Various texts
Time: Long
Effort Level: Medium

Activity 7 - Word stress challenge

English is a stress-timed language, which means that rhythm and stress are important.

For example, let’s examine the words desert and dessert.

The word desert is stressed on the first syllable. This means that the first part of the word is spoken slightly louder and longer:

Correct: DESert
Incorrect: desERT

On the other hand, the word dessert is stressed on the second syllable:

Correct: deSSERT
Incorrect: DESSert

Test yourself with this sentence:

George ate his dessert in the desert.

A great way to practise word stress is with words which change meaning according to the stress. For example, OBject (noun) means thing. obJECT (verb) means to complain.

Can you see the different meanings in these sentences?

  • He's working on a difficult PROject.
  • They proJECT it will take six months to finish.
  • The product is a REject because it doesn't pass quality control.
  •  We can now reJECT the hypothesis.
  • Two students were suspended for unprofessional CONduct.
  • We must conDUCT the experiment with an even number of subjects.

To practise, we need a list of words which change meaning according to the stress. You can find a long list here and a very long list here.

  1. Choose five to ten examples (pairs) from these sites.
  2. Write out sentences for each of them.
  3. Record yourself reading them aloud, focusing on the word stress.
  4. Listen to your recording. How did you do?

Tip:

  • If you are not sure of the pronunciation, use Google to check. For example, if you Google the phrase “define object”, you will get the pronunciation for both forms.

Skills: Pronunciation
Tools: Various texts
Time: Long
Effort Level: Medium

Hard or challenging activities

Activity 8 - Master of pauses

If you really want to speak well in public, you need to master a simple technique: pausing.

Great speakers pause throughout a sentence (where a comma would be), at the end of each sentence and insert a long pause before beginning a new point.

Note that we do this in both public speaking and normal conversation. However, we pause for a longer time when speaking in public.

A great model for this is the former US President Barack Obama, who was known to be a wonderful speaker. For this activity, we will use his 2004 speech.

  1. Listen to the first two or three minutes of the speech to analyse his style of speaking.
  2. Go back to the beginning and play one or two lines at a time (about 10-20 seconds).
  3. Practise saying the lines aloud, focusing on the pauses. Record yourself.
  4. Listen to the recording and check it against the original. (It needn’t sound exactly the same!)

Tips:

  • You can find the transcript of the speech here.
  • You can use this same technique with other great public speakers.

Skills: Pronunciation, public speaking
Tools: Obama’s speech
Time: Long
Effort Level: Hard

Activity 9 - Stressed out?

An important concept in speaking clearly is something called sentence stress. Don’t worry! It’s simpler than it sounds.

It just means that you need to stress – make louder and longer – some words in a sentence. Which words? The important ones!

For example, try saying the following sentence slowly and with stress on the important words in bold.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Can you see how that makes a difference?

As with many other skills in pronunciation, word stress is more obvious in public speaking than in conversation. Hence, the best way to practise is with a short talk - a podcast, a TED talk or any speech that has a transcript.

I recommend our English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, which comes with a transcript.

Here is how to practise:

  1. Listen once to your chosen audio clip or video.
  2. Listen again, this time marking the stressed words on the transcript with a highlighter. You could do this for the first 3-4 minutes of the clip.
  3. Record yourself reading the transcript aloud with focus on the stressed words.
  4. Compare your recording to the original audio.

Skills: Pronunciation, public speaking
Tools: Podcast or TED talk
Time: Long
Effort Level: Hard

Activity 10 - Chunk it

Should  we say words individually, or should we speak a sentence at a time? Neither, we should speak in “chunks”.

Speaking in chunks (pieces) of text gives English speech the correct rhythm. Try saying these two sentences, pausing at the dots.

The rain ▪ in Spain ▪ falls mainly ▪ on the plain.
The ▪ rain in ▪ Spain falls ▪ mainly on the ▪ plain.

You should find that the first sentence sounds more natural. Why? Because we pause after a chunk of ‘meaning’. The rain has a meaning, but The does not have a meaning. In Spain has a meaning, but rain in does not have a meaning.

So, your English will sound better if you speak in short chunks where each chunk has a clear meaning.

As with many other skills in pronunciation, chunking is more obvious in public speaking than in conversational English. So, the best way to practise is with a short talk - a podcast, a TED talk or any speech that has a transcript.

I recommend our English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, which comes with a transcript.

Here is how to practise:

  1. Listen once to your chosen audio clip or video.
  2. Listen again, this time marking the chunks in the text using dots, like above. You’ll find that most “chunks” are two to four words in length. You could do this for the first 3-4 minutes of the clip.
  3. Record yourself reading the transcript aloud with focus on the chunked phrases.
  4. Compare your recording to the original audio.

Skills: Pronunciation, public speaking
Tools: Podcast or TED talk
Time: Long
Effort Level: Hard

Learn by doing

The best way to practise pronunciation is by doing it! Constant practice using activities like the ones here will lead to steady improvement.

Some of these activities require little effort and some of them require a lot. Don’t be afraid of hard work - it will all be worth it when your English pronunciation sounds much more clear and natural.

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