The Internet TESL Journal

A Quick Way to Improve /r/ and /l/ Pronunciation

Tim Greer
tim [at]
Kobe University (Kobe, Japan)
This is a simple method for providing a large group of EFL learners with short, intensive pronunciation practice.


Many students have trouble pronouncing certain English sounds that don’t exist in their first language, the /r/ and /l/ difference being one of the most well-known examples. Yet in a speaking class of 30 or more students, it is difficult for the teacher to correct all the mistakes all the time. While correcting pronunciation in every instance is probably counter-productive to communication, here’s one quick way to show the class that you are concerned with accurate pronunciation.

One Point Pronunciation Practice

Step 1

While the students are performing some communicative task in pairs or groups, pay attention to their speech production and note any words they are particularly mispronouncing in their conversation. For instance, in one of my classes recently, the students were discussing various types of music and many of them were saying “lock” instead of “rock” and “lap” instead of “rap”. Let’s use the first of these as an example.

Step 2

After the pairwork activity has finished, tell the class that you are going to take a minute to focus on pronunciation. Write the two words “lock” and “rock” on the board, one under the other.

Step 3

Pronounce each of them several times clearly, pointing up as you say “lock” and down as you say “rock”. At this stage the group will probably be listening carefully, but many of them will be unable to detect any great difference in the two sounds. Make sure they understand the difference in the meaning as well. In this case, I touched the lock on the door for “lock” and played a few chords on my air guitar for “rock”, so that everyone knew what the two words meant.

In teaching the difference between /l/ and /r/ I have found that there is little value in trying to explain the position of the tongue relative to the palette. Most learners do not have a firm grasp of exactly what they are doing with their mouth as they speak. Instead, since my class has only Japanese students, I tell them that the /l/ sound in “lock” is about the same as saying rokku in Japanese and to change it into “rock”,  simply think of a Japanese "U" sound (/u/) before it. In fact there is no sound here, but this puts the mouth in a good position to approximate the /r/ sound. At this point I usually write a small katakana "u" on the board in front of the /r/ word and tell the class not to say /u/ but just to think it.

Model this for them by saying “rock” while thinking “/u/rock”. After this, repeat step 3 a few times, pointing and repeating the two words so that the students begin to hear the difference.

The same concept should work for students from other countries who have difficulty pronouncing this sound.

Step 4

Next get the group to point up or down while you say one of the two words. Inevitably some of them will point the wrong way, but choose one or two who are getting it right and encourage them with a few brief words of praise. At this stage they should not be actually repeating after the teacher, just listening and pointing.

Step 5 

Finally have them practice the two words in pairs. One partner should choose one of the words to pronounce and the other should listen and point to the sound he or she hears. In this way everyone is practicing at once so no one is particularly singled out for scrutiny in front of the group and they are less likely to feel self-conscious about making mistakes. At the same time the teacher is able to quickly listen to one or two of the student pairs and offer advice in a way that is impossible in pronunciation activities where the whole group repeats after the teacher.


The whole process should not take long. It is important the students know that you value accurate speech production, but only to the extent that it facilitates communication. If the teacher spends to much time trying to correct pronunciation, some learners will start to lose confidence in their speaking ability. Instead focus intensively on it for these sixty seconds and then focus on communication for the rest of the class. One minute of conversation each week will be enough to remind most students of how to produce the target sounds and they will begin to monitor their own speech during pairwork and group conversations.

Of course the same process can be followed for practicing other difficult sounds such as /th/ and /s/ with minimal pairs like
or /v/ and /b/ with
The important point is to base your target sound on the students’ needs by choosing one that they have just been (mis)using in meaningful communication. The class will quickly get used to this pattern of pronunciation practice and will appreciate that you are correcting (but not over-correcting) their English. Pronunciation drills take on an atmosphere of play rather than work and the quick break away from the textbook can act as a motivator for those whose attention is lagging.


If you come across a word that can be mispronounced in more than one way, first introduce the vowel sounds using the method above and then later introduce another similar word to show the vowel sounds. For example, in one class after we were talking about Japanese food, I used
to focus on the /l/ and /r/ sounds. After the class had mastered these, I wrote “low” on the board next to “law” and followed the same process for the  difference in vowel sounds, pointing left and right rather up and down. After this we practiced
in a similar way. Finally I wrote arrows pointing diagonally to the four corners of the board and practiced all four at once by having the class point in the direction of the sound they heard.

Other pairs that can pose difficulty for learners of English.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. X, No. 8, August 2004