By: Kelly Rose

Looking for a quick warm-up routine in your language lessons? How about trying a tongue twister? With just one sentence students can practice speaking aloud in English while focusing on pronunciation and prosody. For over ten years I have used this technique with much success in my English pedagogy classes. My students look forward to reading the kooky sentence every week and repeatedly indicate feeling an improvement in their English pronunciation skills in the end-of-term surveys.


Are you ready to give tongue twisters a try? Here are some tips to help you along the way:

Limit the length. One sentence or two short sentences are less daunting for language students to read than a longer text.

Know your students’ phonology challenges. Focus on phonemes which your language students struggle with. For my Japanese-native language learners, I create sentences practicing [b] / [v], [l] / [ ɹ], [s] / [ʃ], [θ] / [ð], [f], and [w] / [ʍ] sounds. Initially, focus on just one or two phoneme pairs like [s] / [ʃ], “Sheep C is a she.” As your students improve, you can combine trickier phonemes and blends into one sentence such as, “My mother’s brother’s frog is really fat and lazy.”

Demonstrate porosity. In English, the intonation, rhythm and stress of words can be just as important as correct pronunciation. Musical students will appreciate clapping or tapping the rhythm of the sentences too. “Did your father visit Vancouver in November?” has a natural stress on content words. Also, the question allows students to practice rising intonation.

Silly sentences are preferred. As long as the sentence is grammatically correct, the funnier or stranger the better. Likewise, try to relate it to the lesson’s topic or current event. For example, when discussing how to incorporate storybooks into English lessons, my students practiced: “This wooden picture book looks really lovely.” Sentences can also touch on cultural aspects, like explaining titles (Miss-Mrs.-Ms.) such as “Ms. Smith’s teeth are thin but clean” or slang like “thick” in “Please thank those two thick thieves.”

Incorporate movement. Add tactile or kinesthetic elements by clapping or tapping the rhythm. When explaining the [l] / [ ɹ] distinction, I use my hand to show tongue position. As students say the phonemes, they also move their hand to the correct position. Likewise, some twisters can be acted out using gestures such as, “We see (point to eyes) three ships (show three fingers) at sea (make a wave motion with hands/ arms).”

/ ɹ/ phoneme
/l/ phoneme

Show your struggle too! Create sentences which challenge you (the teacher/ native speaker) and acknowledge this difficulty to your students. When demonstrating, show them that you struggle and encourage a playful atmosphere. One favorite is “red leather, yellow leather.” My students and I all say the sentence slowly, then as we increase the speed, we have a laugh as we fumble together. I also try to incorporate my students’ culture or knowledge into the sentences when I can. The customary, “she sells seashells by the seashore,” becomes “Shiho sells shiso[1] by the seashore.” Students enjoy explaining the herb to me and watching me struggle along with them.

[1] Japanese for “beefsteak plant.”

Practice again after a bit. Leave the final minute or two of the lesson for students to say the sentence again. For a challenge, you can hide the sentence and ask students to recall it from memory. By spacing the practice sessions students can test their memory and whether they really have internalized the pronunciation and prosodical skills of the specific tongue twister. As a final challenge, teachers may wish to have a “pronunciation pass” as students exit the classroom. After practicing the sentence at the end of class students say it individually to the teacher as they leave the room. Teachers can offer a fist bump if successful or send the student to the back of the line to try again if they need another attempt. Of course, use this step with discretion based on your classroom atmosphere and students’ resilience. There were some groups I chose not to attempt this with, due to this class’s affective needs.


Below is the general process I typically use. Please feel free to adapt for your own contexts:

  1. Show the sentence on the whiteboard/ handout / PowerPoint. Ask students to read the sentence (say it in their head) and identify the tricky sounds. (1 min.)
  2. Students discuss in pairs or groups for 30 seconds, then share the tongue twister’s challenging sounds as a class. The teacher underlines those sounds using colors.

3. The teacher demonstrates pronouncing one word slowly, with students repeating. I tend to start with the last word and work backwards.

4. The teacher adds the next word and repeats the process. Teachers can also jump around the sentence choosing to practice words with similar phonemes.

5. Once the class finishes the full sentence, students practice a few times individually in a quiet voice. I ask them to say the tongue twister five times beginning slowly and increasing speed until the last is “super speed.” The teacher also does this along with the students.

6. Once the murmurs are finished, the teacher begins a slow rhythmic count (“1, 2, 3 go!”) and the whole class says the tongue twister together. The process repeats at a slightly faster pace and continues until the class attempts an incredibly fast pace (no doubt stumbling with it). After a group laugh the teacher counts a natural pace and the class says it a final time (most likely with success).

7. The final two or three minutes of class students must recall the tongue twister and attempt to say it at a natural pace.

8. If the teacher chooses to do the “pronunciation pass,” the teacher stands at the door and students individually say the sentence with the teacher offering feedback or correction. Successful students can pass through the door while students needing another attempt go to the back of the line and try again.

Would she welcome a
wooly sheep’s skin?

Ms. Smith’s teeth are thin but clean.

My mother’s brother’s frog is
really fat and lazy.

On Wednesday we will work using
the world wide web.

Let’s play with this little,
wooden board game.

This wooden picture book
looks really lovely.

She threw these three thick
things through the window.

Friendly frogs fry flies and lice.

Red leather, yellow leather.

Very violent black bears
break blackberry vines.

Did your father visit Vancouver
in November?

Please thank those two thick thieves.

Freddy loves freezing
fresh fish on Fridays.

Creamy clams cram in clean cans.

Bears are usually barred
from beer bars.

The third Thursday is the
thirteenth of this month.

Would she walk through
the woods to work?

She sells shiso by the seashore.

Kelly Rose (M.Ed.) is a senior lecturer and teacher trainer at Hiroshima Bunkyo University. Originally a social studies teacher in California, she has taught ESL in Japan for over fifteen years. She enjoys designing English lessons for kindergarten and university-aged students. Additionally, she is an active member of Hiroshima International School’s Board of Directors.

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