Number one for English language teachers

Methodology: teaching pronunciation: l and r

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced

Advice an suggestions of how to help students overcome the confusion in pronunciation between L and R.

I am teaching some Japanese and Chinese adults English and as you may know, one of their main problems is the pronunciation of the L and sometimes the R, especially in combination, e.g words like recently, relief, related, clearly, celebrate, learn, etc. You can hardly hear the difference in L and R. We are working on that, but I would like to know: how can I practice this in a nice/funny way, instead of just repeating the words or putting them in sentences?

I was thinking along the lines of a poem or limerick with L or R words that they have to repeat / learn by heart. I know some in my own language, which is Dutch, but I don't know any in English. The only one I know in English is: she sells seashells at the seashore. Do you know any of those with L or L/R words? (The L is more of a problem than the R) Or would you perhaps know a game which we could do, involving as many L and/or R words as possible?”
Aletta Blaise

It's interesting that you call this a vocabulary problem. It's most often thought of as a pronunciation problem, but of course you're quite right: it is also a vocabulary problem because it can prevent learners making effective use of vocabulary they know, and trap them into saying different words from the ones they intend.

One well-known English tongue twister with L and R is: “Red lorry, yellow lorry”. Try repeating that thirty times at high speed! There are also variations on this, such as “Red lolly, green lolly”. If learners want to have a go at these, then of course they can, by all means. But the trouble with tongue twisters is that even native speakers find them tricky – that's the whole point, after all! – and some learners might just find them demotivating. So I'd also suggest making use of some short phrases and sentences which do include the problem sounds but which are less tricky than tongue-twisters – e.g.:

Do you read a lot?
I'm really grateful
They're clearly related
I'm nearly ready
Do you feel all right?
You can always rely on Leroy
I was last in a relay race
O'Reilly and Leary
Kerry or Kelly?

The French Revolution

In fact, they can easily make these up themselves, perhaps including vocabulary they are currently learning (there's another good L/R phrase: 'currently learning'!) and then learn them by heart and practice them whenever they have a spare moment.

Limericks are also quite easy to make up – especially if you aren't too fussy about quality! Here's one I've just invented, including quite a few Ls and Rs:

There was an old man from the Rhine
Who failed to walk in a straight line
To the left and the right
He lurched through the night
After drinking a barrel of wine

The stresses should be on the underlined syllables – one or two of them are a bit unnatural, but that's normal with limericks! Pairs of sounds such as L/R can be practised through well-known games. Here are a couple of examples:


Instead of numbers, the bingo cards should contain confusable words like red, led, crime, climb, correct, collect, arrive, alive, frying, flying. You the teacher could call out the numbers, especially if the learners are at an early stage of recognising the L/R difference, but they can take on the role of caller themselves if you think they'll do it reasonably well. (If they can't, the result will be chaos!)

A variation on Simon says

You could establish the rule that learners should obey commands which contain L, such as Lift your right hand, Raise your left hand, Lift your right leg but not obey commands with no L, such as Raise your right hand. Once they've got the idea, they can take turns to give commands.

Lastly, three points about pronouncing L

  1. The tip of the tongue should be touching the alveolar ridge just behind the upper teeth (or touching the teeth themselves, if it's easier – this is a close enough approximation) but there should be no contact between the sides of the tongue and the teeth further back. You can test this by putting your tongue in the position for L and breathing in – you should feel cold air along the sides of your tongue. For R, there should be light contact between the sides of the tongue and the teeth, but no contact between the front part of the tongue and the teeth or roof of the mouth, and when you breathe in you should feel cold air on the roof of the mouth.
  2. There are actually two varieties of L: dark L as in 'feel', with the back of the tongue raised towards the roof of the mouth, and clear L as in 'leaf', without this raising of the tongue. If learners find this additional distinction hard to make, they can certainly dispense with it; whichever variety of L they find easier can be used in all cases.
  3. A more radical suggestion is that if the L sound is really elusive for some learners, they could substitute a /u/-type vowel, so that 'feel', for instance, would sound something like 'fee-you' with a reduced version of 'you'. This is a feature of 'Estuary English' and certainly seems to be spreading among young people in Britain.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Excellent ideas - I am teaching Japanese teenagers.

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