Category Archives: Teaching Tips

10 presentation tips for students in the form of a letter

Dear students,

I am writing this letter after watching last semester’s students do their presentations. Overall, I was quite disappointed with their presentations. You are reading this because I don’t want you to make the same mistakes. Paying attention to this letter should lead to a  higher grade for you, so please take a minute to read it.

Your predecessors (last semester’s students) made one big mistake. They did not read the scoring system, or the presentation rules. The scoring system and the rules help me to give you a grade, but they also help you to do a good presentation. However, many students ignored the rules and the system, did poor presentations, and so got low scores.

As a teacher, I feel responsible for this. Maybe I didn’t explain clearly why the scoring system is like that, so I will do it here. My beliefs about presentations are:

  • YOU are the most important part of your presentation. We want to know what YOU know; what YOU feel; what YOU think. The best presentations this year were things that people were passionate about or were very personal. We also want to hear YOUR ENGLISH.
  • THE AUDIENCE is very important too. They want to learn something from you, and be entertained or interested by you. Also, they want you to communicate with them.
  • Your presentation needs presentation skills that you can use again and again at university and in your career. Almost everyone will have to present something at some time. These skills are very important, and very different from normal speaking. If you don’t learn these skills, you will find this presentation difficult, and many other things difficult.

Based on these thoughts, here are some practical tips for you:

  1. Choose a topic that is personal to you. It can be a personal story, an interest or a theory. Also, think about if the audience will be interested. Don’t just look up something on the internet that you don’t know and don’t really care about.
  2. Structure your presentation carefully. Think about an introduction, a conclusion and two or three key points. If you try to do more than this, your presentation will not have enough detail.
  3. When you design your slides, the information on them should add to what you are saying. Instead of writing your three key points on a slide, find pictures to represent them. If you have difficult words or numbers, you should write these on your slides to help the audience understand.
  4. DON’T WRITE A SPEECH! Presenting is not the same as reading. Speaking and writing are quite different.  Also, memorizing your speech is very difficult. If you write a five minute speech, and try to memorize it, it will take you at least two hours. In that time, you could just practice explaining twenty times! If you do this, your presentation could be twenty times better!
  5. Ideally, you should not look at your notes during your presentation. They are there to help you if you forget. Your notes should be key points, words and one or two sentences only. You should never read more than one sentence from them.
  6. Your English does NOT have to be perfect. Your English does NOT have to be very complicated. Your English HAS to be understandable. This means that you should not look up too many words in a dictionary, or copy writing from the internet. It also means that you should check your pronunciation of difficult words carefully (especially if they are in the title). It also means that you should speak slowly and simply, and check that the audience is understanding.
  7. There should be NO KOREAN in your presentation. The challenge here is to make yourself understood in English, with help from pictures and gestures. You should imagine that your audience is from Thailand, and cannot speak Korean or read Hangeul.
  8. Keep to the time limit. You should practice your presentation before and check that it lasts five minutes. During the presentation, don’t be afraid to cut things so that you finish in time. Have something extra planned in case you finish early too.
  9. Presenting is about communicating with your audience. Look at them, smile at them, talk to them, check that they understand. Ask them questions. Tell them a joke. Surprise or shock them. There are many ways to keep them interested. Keep them in your mind at all times during planning and presenting.
  10. Lastly, and most importantly, PRACTICE. Presenting is about standing up, speaking loudly and slowly, changing slides, and talking to people. So, you should practice like this. Imagine you are really presenting. Go home and present to your parents, grandparents or your younger brother. Presenting always feels strange the first time, and then less strange each time after.  It’s better to feel strange in front of them than your teacher, your friends and the girl/boy you are secretly in love with.

Finally, let me share some of this semester’s best presentations. Notice that most of them are very personal.

  • The rules of basketball
  • Working in an Izakaya
  • Dates I would like to go on
  • UFO sightings
  • Unknown webtoons
  • My first love story
  • The end of Inception
  • Three restaurant special events
  • Three ways to measure your height

Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your presentations.



TBV’s Notes

As you can see from the letter, I wrote this as a way to turn what was a reasonably negative and frustrating experience into what will, I hope, be a more positive one next time. This is also a way to spread information to students in one useful lump, rather than feeding it in piecemeal as I did this time. In general, this project was very rushed and I think that next time this will help me to think about what is important, and the things that I need to do in order to structure the project better and give students the best chance of success. What I would like to do next time is do the practice in class if possible, and get students to develop their presentation from a fairly casual explanation to a friend, into something more formal in small groups and finally into an actual presentation.

Looking back over the tips, the “NO KOREAN” sticks out. I feel like I should (defensively) mention that in general I am fairly pro-L1 in class in the right context, but I also think that students tend to use it as a crutch when things get difficult in English.

I am undecided whether to actually give this letter to students next semester, but I’m leaning towards it. It is, at least, a useful reminder for me of what to concentrate on next time. Feel free to share it with your students, and do let me know if there’s anything that you’d change or add.



PS I feel like I have lifted this posting style quite shamelessly from Mr. Michael Griffin. You can check out his blog here.



ELF #4: Orienting your class to ELF

Finally then, my eagerly awaited (by at least three people) post on how I believe one could go about orienting one’s classroom to English as a lingua franca (ELF). If you’re interested you can read parts 1, 2 and 3 too.

In order to write this post I read a fair bit of literature with titles that refer to teaching ELF or an ELF pedagogy, only to find that they deal with culture in rather broad terms (McKay 2002), critique methodology  (Holliday 2005), or provide rough frameworks for teaching (Dewey 2012). So far it seems that in 12 or so years of intensive research, the ELF field has produced one book aimed at the practical teaching of ELF, Robin Walker’s (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. While Dewey (2012) may rightly decry the devotion to norms and interlanguage still present in the Delta syllabus, this is perhaps partly a product of the lack of any practical help for teachers who would like to prepare  their students for ELF communication, and researchers themselves should perhaps bear some of the blame. I strongly suspect that the take up of ELF would be helped as much by a book of decent classroom techniques and activities as by advocating for its inclusion in in-service training programs. It is with a toe in the researcher camp, and the other 9 in the teacher camp, that I write this post.

It might be helpful here to state a few things that I believe, and that the suggestions that follow rest on:

  • There is a thing that people do called English as a lingua franca, that involves communication between speakers of different L1s in English (leaving aside native speakers (NS*) and same L1 non-native speakers (NNS) for the sake of simplicity).
  • This ELF communication will be different from communication between NSs in grammatical, phonological, syntactical and lexical forms. In addition these forms will vary between individuals and contexts. This variation is natural, and not deficient in terms of native speaker norms.
  • This variation means that there is no such thing, nor will there likely ever be, as an ELF model or variety.
  • A student’s own conception of the language is more important than a model is anyway. Students are exposed to multiple models in every class.
  • We can’t teach ELF, but we can help to prepare students for meeting English in this kind of context (and others) by simulating it in our classrooms. 
  • The decision to orient, or not, your classroom to ELF should be taken as part of a reflection of your students’ needs (the macro-context).

It might also be helpful to say here that these suggestions are things that I have done, try to do now, or may try to do in future in my classroom. For those not familiar with this blog, that means groups of first year engineering and design students at a university in South Korea.

Decentering Intelligibilty

If ELF can be said to have an ideology (and for the record, I would say that it does), it could be viewed as one of decentralization. This is in the sense of removing native-speaker English from the center of (often criticised) models such as Kachru’s. From a teaching point of view it means removing yourself from the center of the classroom. The change in role of a teacher from a dispenser of knowledge to a co-constructor has long been a tenet of CLT in general, but where ELF is concerned this is especially relevant in matters of intelligibility.

In an ELF oriented classroom, a native speaker teacher simply cannot be the sole judge of students’ intelligibility. Firstly, a native-speaker tends to approach meaning-making from the top down rather than the bottom up (Jenkins 2000). While Jenkins talks in relation to phonology only, I would argue that it applies in general. In other words, NSs try to match the whole of a student utterance to a range of possible meanings, before working back to the constituent parts. NNSs, on the other had, tackling individual signals (words, sounds) first, building them into utterances, and finally looking for meaning**. Secondly, in a lot of English teaching, intelligibility is bound up with native speaker norms, with the inference that learning these norms will make the student intelligible to native speakers. For students who will use English as a lingua franca, this seems untenable.

So the big question then. What can I do about it? Well, it’s pretty simple. Your students are better judges of intelligibility to other NNS than you are. This means getting them involved in judging it at every level, and by every level I mean the one that really matters (in Korea at least), testing. My classes loosely follow the Willis & Willis conception of TBLT, which means each week ends with students presenting a “polished” version of whatever task I set them for that week. This is evaluated to give their weekly quiz score, as required by our program. During one group/person’s performance, other students listen and grade them on their intelligibility.

I am aware that grades are important, and the concept of students giving each other grades may well be a new one. In general however, my students have taken to this quite well. Here are some reasons why I think it might be so:

  • I explain the reasoning for doing<span style="ages or my preferred path of numbers of breakdowns in misunderstanding.
  • I always have a good number of students evaluating so that an average can be taken and no one person can inflate or deflate a grade too much.
  • I make sure the teacher and performing students have a right to ask why a certain grade was given.
  • I don’t ask for examples of misunderstanding. While this would be useful, it tends to drive students down the path of least resistance, which is to tick 100% so they don’t have to provide examples.  

This also has the extra bonus of freeing up time and attention for me to concentrate on grading other things.

As I said, this works well for me, but it tends to happen in well-structured groups using institutionalized processes. This minimizes the face-threatening nature of evaluating misunderstanding. However, no such neat and sanitized methods for signalling non-comprehension exist in more open pair or group work, and students are fond of adopting the “let it pass” strategy. This is definitely an unresolved problem in my class, so this solution falls into the things I might try in future category mentioned above.

My solution would be to try to partly institutionalize and sanitize the process of signalling non-comprehension. One unrealized ambition of mine is to introduce a load of “classroom chunks” for functions such as giving an opinion, politely disagreeing and showing that you don’t understand. NS-like chunks could simply be given, but a truly ELF-oriented approach to this would probably involve negotiating the chunks with input given in the form of NNS examples drawn from corpora such as VOICE. I suspect that some of the face threat involved in showing that you don’t understand is exacerbated by being stripped of L1 based politeness strategies. Having a recognized and validated (by the students) system for situations like this may go some way to restoring these strategies, as well as perhaps legitimizing misunderstanding as a natural part of classroom life (something which may have been drummed out of the students through their previous experience of English at high school). My other solution for sanitizing the process slightly is to change the medium, and have students complete written feedback forms for each other. In theory removing the need to give face to face feedback removes some of the potential for that face to be threatened. I’d hope that employing one or both of these strategies might help miscommunication to be signalled more often and more easily.

It might seem that I am getting slightly distracted from ELF here. After all, signalling non-comprehension is pretty crucial to any classroom, and presumably is the first stage in Long’s (1983) Interaction Hypothesis, a fairly important concept in second language acquisition. However, in a ELF classroom, it’s perhaps the most important thing. Here’s why. I said in a previous post that ELF draws it’s standards/ideals from people, not norms.*** What this might mean in practice then, is that your students should be the sole arbiters of intelligibility in a ELF oriented activity. In other words, if it works, it stays, if it doesn’t, it goes. I’m sensing that there may be gnashing of teeth and throwing of toys out the pram here, but stay with me for the rest of this post at least. Your role  as a teacher during this then, is to decenter yourself completely, and I mean go sit in the corner – I do, and WATCH! Note here, I say watch, not listen, not monitor (hearing is ok though). Let them get on with it, and intervene only in the following cases:

  • Students are not doing the task. It’s probably best to politely ask why this is so. Perhaps they didn’t understand the instructions?
  • Students are using the L1 to discuss. In this case, I usually ask them what they’re trying to say and we look at how it could be done in English.
  • Students are looking a word up in a dictionary. At the very least, this becomes useful vocabulary/teachable moment for later. It’s also a good chance to help them choose the most understandable word and understand the usage.
  • Student understanding breaks down, and is not being repaired by the students.

I put the last bullet in boldface as it is the most important part one, and the one where intervention may be most necessary. Firstly, figuring out why understanding broke down is important, but tricky. My suggestion, in a monolingual class,would be to let the students talk about it in L1. This has the advantage of speed, so students can get back on task, and exactness, as well as being able to deploy L1 politeness strategies in a high face-threat situation. Once the students understand where the misunderstanding occurred, the first thing to do is try to get them to figure out a repair strategy themselves. If they really can’t, then I suggest at least negotiating a strategy with them. The idea is to get them to rely on their own communicative resources. “This is how I’d say it” should be your very last resort.

Outside of the above cases, however, your role as a teacher is not to interfere. This means not monitoring, not taking notes, not recasting. The students, and you should tell them this, are responsible for deciding what is intelligible and what is not. Go make a cup of tea and let them get on with it.

Right then teeth grinders, it’s proviso time. Firstly, the ideal situation for this is a multi-lingual class. Not a reality for most of us in Korea. Still, I think it has value even with a mono-lingual class. It still gets students considering their interlocutors and levelling their language accordingly, especially with a range of levels in one class. This is an incredibly important ELF skill. However, there is the potential for language that follows L1 syntactic patterns to be more understandable to a fellow L1 speaker than a speaker of a different L1, plus there is the possibility of Korean English loan words appearing that would be unintelligible to a non-Korean resident (including, potentially, an NS of English). My solution to this would be to have the students record themselves, and then listen back and try to identify parts that sound especially Korean, or include loanwords. More on this reflexive approach to stuff in further posts.

Finally, addressing the toy chuckers again, I want to make very clear what I am not saying here. Note that I am talking about ELF oriented activities above, by which I might mean giving instructions in pairs about how to do something (perhaps topically engineering or computer based). This means:

  • I am not saying that you should do this all of the time. In fact, I think I’d say that you should NOT do this all of the time. You may have noticed that this provides little in the way of pushing (norm-based) accuracy, nor much in the way of complexity. In monolingual classes you’re also probably running the risk of reinforcing L1 phonology transfer errors****.
  • I do not do this all of the time (for reasons stated above).
  • In general Standard English norms provide a useful reference point for teaching. The imperative, for example, would provide the basis for the activity above. However there has to be some tolerance of variation in these norms.
  • There is no reason why you can’t/shouldn’t teach the norms in an ELF classroom, but you might want to think about how rigorously you insist on accuracy in producing them.
  • I am not saying that this approach is suitable, appropriate or useful for everyone. Many students want/need to acquire native speaker norms. I’d also say that it’s perhaps not the best use of the qualities that a native speaker can bring to the classroom, and if that’s what students have paid for then they may be disappointed with this approach.

That said, I’ll finish this post by going back to my students. They come into my class fresh out of high school, where they have spent three years learning fairly insignificant native speaker norms in order to pass the most significant exam of their lives, and wind up apologising to me if I recast one of their utterances. This cannot possibly be a good attitude for someone who wishes to speak a language, and so an approach that relaxes attitudes to NS norms, gets the NS out of the way for a bit, and allows students to get on with making meaning with each other, can surely only be empowering.

More ELF orientation to come. Cheers,


* I’ll acknowledge here that “native-speaker” is a problematic term. As this post largely concerns teaching in Korea, I’m taking the Korean immigration definition of someone who holds a passport and a degree from one of the “big seven” English speaking countries.

** Actually, in writing this, I’m not sure that’s quite how it works. I would say that my L2 listening process worked on a whole range of levels depending on the situation.

*** This is not to say that there is no room for people in the meaning-making of English as a native language.

**** This will happen in almost any meaning-focused activity with a monolingual class, regardless of orientation.


Dewey, M. (2012). “Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF.” Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. 1(1) 141-170.

Holliday, A. (2005). The struggle to teach English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Long, M. H. (1983) ‘Native speaker/non native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input’. Applied Linguistics. 4(2) pp. 126–141.

McKay, S. L. (2002). Teaching English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Some advice on teaching the pronunciation of past tense endings

Recently this blog has been a bit of a pronunciation geek’s paradise, due to my extended reflections on my pronunciation course. Somehow, this has led me to be seen as a bit of an authority on pronunciation (other far more knowledgeable sources are available) and people sometimes ask me for advice. One such person  was Ratnavathy Ragunathan-Chandrasegaran, whose blog can be found here. I thought I’d share her question and my response with the class. Ratna said:

I’ve got a question about pronunciation. This week, I’m planning to teach the pronunciation of the past simple verbs to my learners (‘t’, ‘d’, ‘id’). Well, when I look at different websites, it says that it depends on the voiced and unvoiced consonants of the base verb. Most websites seem to say that the “voiced consonants” cause a vibration at the vocal chord when pronounced, and the unvoiced consonants doesn’t cause a vibration at the vocal chord. Apparently when we place our fingers on our throat, we’d be able to find out.

But I find that this really doesn’t work for me. When I place my fingers on my vocal chord, I still feel a vibration when I pronounce “b” and “p”.

Is there any other way that I can explain and get my learners to understand easily? Would love some insight from you.

And this was my response:

I’d start out by saying that I don’t think it’s going to be hugely important for your learners to be able to tell the difference between ‘t’ and ‘d’ in this context (past tense) anyway, from either a receptive or productive point of view (though in other contexts it is very important). If they can make some kind of short sound there I don’t think it really matters whether it’s more ‘t’ or ‘d’ ish. What is important is that it isn’t a full on ‘id’. What I mean is that ‘workd’ or ‘workt’ is probably fine, but ‘workid’ isn’t.

The reason I say this is that in the final position in a syllable there really is very little difference between a ‘voiced’ and ‘unvoiced’ consonant. I put the names in inverted commas because when they are at the end of a syllable they are often not voiced anyway, and also not exploded (ie there’s no air released) which is another distinguishing factor. The only significant difference that they make is to the length of the vowel before the final consonant (if you want to check this, try saying bat and bad and notice how much longer bad is).

So, for verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant, it’s almost impossible to get this wrong. If fact, you can’t really say ‘workd’ without mangling the pronunciation horribly. For verbs that end with a voiced one, the key is not actually the final sound, but extending the vowel a little bit, and having it fall slightly towards the end (ask if you want me to explain a bit more).

In terms of teaching this, I would stay well away from the voiced/unvoiced rules, and just see if students can do it with verbs they already know. If they can, set up some columns on the board and have them sort ones they know, and then see if they can do the same for ones that they don’t. Do lots of drilling and practice (like making stories with a list of verbs), but I would stay away from actually teaching them the rule. In general I don’t think teaching rules works for pronunciation. It’s just too much extra cognitive load for an already overworked brain.

Incidentally, in the first position in a syllable, voiced consonants should be distinguishable by voice (vibration of the vocal cords), and also by the fact that more air is expelled in the production of the unvoiced ones.

Would you agree with this? Would even ‘workid be ok’? Are there other ways to distinguish and teach ‘d’ and ‘t’ in final consonant position? On further investigation I think that I touch my tongue against the apex of the alveolar ridge (the one behind your teeth) for ‘d’, and slightly further towards the teeth for ‘t’, but this may just be me. I’m not even sure if it’s significant. Anyway, if you have any other tips, comments or advice, feel free to leave a comment below.



#KELTChat Summary: Automaticity & Fluency (23rd September 2012)

This a summary of the #KELTChat that took place on Twitter on the 23rd September 2012. It is dual posted on the KELTChat Blog and my personal blog The Breathy Vowel, but feel free to only read the one version!

On Sunday night we witnessed one of the busiest #KELTChats ever, with over 200 tweets sent in an  hour on the subject of Automaticity & Fluency. Along with regular members, I’d really like to mention the great contributions by two first-timers (I believe): @bora_maren and @jankenb2. Welcome to the community 🙂

We started out chatting about how important fluency was in our classrooms. The consensus was that it is important in every context, but especially so in Korea, where the bias of school teaching (we will return to this later) is towards grammar and vocabulary, and some teachers are guilty of treating language as knowledge, rather than as a skill, especially where speaking is concerned. We also pointed to the fact that opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. I think this is why those of us who teach at universities, such as @languagebubble, put fluency “at the forefront” of their classes.

For @keisenhow it was not only speaking fluency, but thinking fluency in English that was important, which she tries to promote through a task based approach, with thinking time built into a pre-task stage. Combined with relevant tasks and good modelling this helps her students to access the language that they need to complete the task.

We then had some fascinating ideas about the nature and role of fluency. @jankenb2 felt that fluency helped students to free their minds to focus on meaning more (I think I may have Matricized this a little in transcription), and @tamaslorincz added that it might also help with accuracy and range. @chopedu summed this up nicely with a metaphor: “Like learning to drive, we struggle before we can relegate the mechanics to the subconscious and just focus on the journey”. I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with this view on fluency though, for me meaning should always come first, but I am in no doubt that fluency helps to deliver quicker and clearer meanings. The beauty of #KELTChat was that this was then jumped on by both @bora_maren and @chopedu, claiming that form should sometimes come before meaning, and that students could not focus  on meaning, accuracy and fluency all at once, and that performance in the other two factors would drop if students focused on just one. This thread of the discussion then moved on to the role of repetition and games in the classroom. I suggested that simple speaking tasks could be redone with different audiences, and different focuses each time, and @jankenb2 highlighted the role of games in maximizing repetitions within an environment where they are actually required (ie. not just endless drilling).

While all that was going on, another chat within a chat was taking place about the role of fluency within high school classrooms. @bryanteacher (another brilliant recent addition to the #KELTChat squad) suggested that he focused much more on fluency activities, and introduced us (well me, at least) to the concept of ‘unlocking’ what the students already know. This was heartily agreed with by @annehendler, and the point was raised that it often meets opposition from school teachers who prefer to focus on the eminently more measurable and testable quality of accuracy (@josettelb).

At this point @alexswalsh chimed in with a very good point about the fact that fluency activities were strongly tied to motivation and the reasons the student is learning English. This seemed a good point, and again goes back to the testing culture here – why bother putting in the effort to be able to produce something fluently when all you need to do is check a box on a multiple choice exam. @michaelegriffin, @languagebubble and myself all agreed that motivation is crucial in developing fluency, but that we may be able to ‘sow the seeds of motivation’ by giving enough space for fluency in our classrooms. The flip side to this argument came from @alexswalsh again, suggesting that a) students may just throw chunks of language together to finish a task, and b) that doing fluency activities with large classes is not practical because many students simply revert to the L1.

Another issue that came up for public school teachers is that of level, and teachers not trusting their students, or not thinking fluency activities were necessary at lower levels. @bryanteacher pointed out that any “low-level” middle school student has a good few years of English education behind them, and this would seem to make the case that fluency needs to be concentrated on from the very beginning, a bit like what I understood Demand High ELT was all about.

The penultimate part of the discussion stemmed from the motivation thread, and considered how we could make an atmosphere in our classrooms that was conducive to practising and building motivation to achieve fluency. We talked in terms of a “safety zone” (@languagebubble), of which features might be “thinking time” and a “friendly atmosphere” (@bora_maren), or a “social presence” (@keisenhow). “Lightheartedness and laughter” and improving student dynamics through team building are important for @languagebubble.

Actually, that wasn’t the penultimate bit of the discussion, as another thread popped up at the last (this is not the easiest #KELTChat to summarize, in case you hadn’t noticed). This brought in a bit more SLA research which says that students learn linguistic features in predictable sequences. What does this mean for fluency though, @chopedu asked @jankenb2? The response was that even when students seem to be backsliding (I assume in terms of grammar and lexis), especially in conversations, this may still be a sign of progress, and again brought us back to the separate concepts of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.

Finally we did get down to talking activities, which for the sake of my tired fingers I’m going to present as a list.

In terms of book recommendations @languagebubble and I also highly recommended English Firsthand for developing fluency, especially at lower levels.

And that more or less rounded off the chat for the evening. Both moderating and participating was a thrilling experience, it seems like every chat is better than the last right now, so thanks to everyone who joined in! I’m going to leave the final word to @bora_maren, in one of my favourite #KELTChat tweets ever:

“It was my first time joining.I enjoyed it a lot. It was a bit confusing and I am still dizzy but I am sure i will get better.”

Pretty much sums it all up I think.


Alex (@breathyvowel)

PS I’ve tried to be as accurate here as possible, while weaving the various threads of the chat into some kind of cohesive whole. If anyone feels that they’ve been misquoted, misrepresented or misused, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to correct it. You can also see a Storify of the important bits of the chat here:

뉴비즈: Korean Pronunciation of English

This post is aimed at anyone teaching in Korea, but particularly those who will be stepping into a public school classroom for the first time.

I’m going to begin this post with a challenge. Listen to the sound file below, and see if you can figure out the mispronounced English word. The answer is at the bottom of this post.

If you’ve figured it out, good job. If you haven’t, then you’re in exactly the same position as I was when a student said it to me. One study showed that mispronunciation was the most common cause of misunderstanding in English (Jenkins, 2000), so getting it right is important for the student. However, Jenkins goes on to suggest that effort should not just be made on behalf of non-native learners, but by native listeners as well. With this in mind, the following section gives some of the most common, and important variations in pronunciation that  you can expect to hear, and hopefully recognize in Korea.

Differences in Korean and English Pronunciation

A quick glance at the stats shows that English and Korean actually have a similar number of sounds, 44 to 40 respectively. However, they differ in distributions slightly:

Consonants Vowels Dipthongs Total
English 24 12 8 44
Korean 19 8 13 40

Figures taken from Rogerson-Revell (2011) and Kim-Renaud (2009).


While the numbers may seem very similar, there are features of the Korean palette of sounds which make it rather lacking when it comes to pronouncing English. 4 of the basic consonants have two further variants of the same sound: tensed and aspirated. For example, Korean has a sound very similar to the English /b/*, and this sound has an aspirated cousin much like the English /p/. There is a further sound made with slightly tensed vocal cords, which does not exist in English, but is romanized to /bb/. The upshot of all of this is that a lot of Korean consonant sounds are clustered around the same points of articulation in the mouth, meaning that English has a much more varied range of sounds, produced in ways alien to Korean learners.

This of course is not always easy to do, and often leads to mispronunciations. For example, if you sit down to dinner with a Korean and they seem to be offering you a game of “poker”, they may really just be concerned about your ability to use chopsticks and offering you something that you’re a little more used to. This is because there is no equivalent to /f/ in Korean, and it is assimilated to a Korean /p/ sound. (The same goes for the voiced equivalent /v/, assimilated to /b/). In this example, there is a further problem caused by the fact that in Korean, final consonants are unexploded (sounds dangerous, but just means there’s no little “pop” of air as there is when “up” is pronounced on its own in English). Therefore, Korean adds a small “uh” sound to imitate this. This is called paragoge, and is very common in Korean speech, and means that, if you hadn’t figured it out, your host is offering you a fork, not a game of cards.

Other consonants that don’t exist in Korean are /th/ (both as in “this” and “thin”) which becomes /d/, and /z/ which becomes /j/ (if your students tell you that they want to go to the “jew”, don’t look confusedly around for a rabbi). In addition, many sounds that are found at the start of syllables in Korean and English – /ch/, /s/, /z/, /sh/ – are not found at the end in Korean, so learners may have trouble with these, often again adding an extra vowel sound to make “churchee”, “missuh”, “whijuh” and “fishee” (Swan & Smith, 2001). Finally, there is the famous /r/ and /l/ problem. In Korean, these are approximations of /r/ and /l/ in English, but the /r/ ish sound only occurs in syllable initial position, whereas the sound more like /l/ is syllable final only. This means that while “real” will sound roughly the same, “really” may sound more like “rearee”.

Vowels-wise Korean has less pure vowels, and more dipthongs. This is because what would be a semi-vowel in English (ie. /w/, /y/), is a dipthong in Korean, made by combining two vowels. This makes the glides a little less pronounced in Korean (think the middle of “Guam”), and also means that students may create dipthongs out of vowel combinations, especially “oa” and “uo”, so “oats” may be pronounced “wats”.  Korean also does not distinguish between long and short vowels in the way that English does, for example in “sit” and “seat”.  This means that your students are likely to pronounce them exactly the same, leaving you to sort out the difference. A word to the wise as well, if you’re teaching “can” and “can’t”, stick to the US pronunciation, as the long “a” in the UK version doesn’t exist in Korean, and ends up closer to a /u/ sound, with predictable consequences.

Not wishing to bore the reader senseless means that this is just an introduction to the kinds of things you may hear in your learners speech. If it seems intimidating, it shouldn’t be. You will very quickly acquire specialized listening skills for the Korean classroom, but these notes may help you to be aware of some pronunciation issues. It was noticeable to me that, after six months of teaching here, I could understand my learners fine in English, but a native-speaking visitor I brought into the classroom often couldn’t make out what they were trying to say.

That example does of course point to a certain danger with language teachers, that our specialized, acquired knowledge of learner pronunciation makes us very bad judges of how good our learners actually are at pronunciation (Kenworthy, 1987). For most learners, pronunciation should be integrated into the course, with plenty of opportunity to hear native pronunciation and compare their own. In addition, individuals may need to work on certain problems, which can be set in consultation with the teacher. Some of those highlighted above may be good starting points.

Finally then, what do you do when it does go wrong, and you simply can’t understand what a student is trying to say? There are still plenty of options, ask the student to mime or draw what they are trying to say; ask if they know another word with the same or similar meaning, or, what may really benefit them and you, is to ask them to put it in a sentence. When I did that for the example at the start, the student responded with this:

Now do you get it? (Answer at the bottom if you didn’t).

If you’re aware of other common Korean mispronunciations, or you have any funny stories to share, please tweet me or leave a comment below. Cheers,


* This blog post does not use IPA symbols, the symbols betwenn the / /  are simply letters of the English alphabet.


  • Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kenworthy, J. (1987) Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman Harlow.
  • Kim-Renaud, Y.K. (2009) Korean: An Essential Grammar. New York: Routledge.
  • Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011) English Phonology and Pronunciation Teaching. London: Continuum.
  • Swan, M. & Smith, B. (2001) Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other  Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Answer: If you didn’t get it from the sentence above, the answer is “Oasis“.

Describing people – Is vs. Has

She is blue eyes.”

My grade 5 elementary learners are doing descriptions of people at the moment. Most of the vocabulary gets picked up quite quickly: tall, short, thin, fat, long hair, big eyes etc. are no problem until it comes to using them in sentences, when suddenly constructions like “She is big eyes” or “I have tall” start to appear. This is a fairly common problem for Korean learners, as ways of describing people are very different in their L1. For example you literally say “height big” in Korean, as there is no copula with adjectives, and no concept of “tall” expressed in a single word.

It’s difficult to explain quite why and how you choose whether you need “has” or “is” for something like “long hair”, without using an awful lot of complex language which is of course way above the students’ level. In general I find it’s just better just to drill them until they produce the forms without thinking, but to help them in forming new expressions I came up with an easy and fun way to differentiate the two. The rule is:

If you can draw it separate from the body or face, use “has”. If you can’t, use “is”.

It also makes for a nice reminder for students when they make an error like “She is blue eyes” and you can draw something like the picture at the head of this post. Actually, that’s more creepy than anything else, but it seemed to work in my class.

As with everything in language learning, there’s an exception. I’ll leave you to guess what that is from this picture. Answers and other exceptions in the comments below.


Yes, I failed my perspective drawing class.


Toodle pip.