Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching ‘Ship or Sheep’?


Gip or Geep?

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching /ɪ/ vs /i:/?

everybody who has studied English pronunciation has, at one point or other, bemoaned the lack of spelling to sound rules (see this collection of poems). Pairs of words with similar spelling but different pronunciation are plentiful (cough/dough, heard/beard, good/food), but increasingly from a teaching perspective, I feel these archaic elements of English spelling are exaggerated and English spelling can be very useful to the student of pronunciation. Nonsense words are a brilliant way of exploring this in class.

In last Saturday’s advanced pronunciation class we had the following conversation:

A  “Gip seagle feen spicken leaj?”
B  “Seef jick hib neep biller.”
A  “Feegen bick?”
B  “Sif gick dip heaz.”

It is clearly nonsense, but there is only one way to pronounce the vowel sounds within. This highlights the difference between the pair of vowels /ɪ/ vs /i:/. The mid-close /ɪ/ sound is almost always spelt < i > as a strong vowel, so ‘jick’, ‘hib’ and ‘gip’ must be pronounced with /ɪ/. In contrast, the close /i:/ sound is almost always spelt with two vowels < ee > or < ea >, but is never spelt with just one < i >, so ‘heaz’, ‘seef’ and ‘leaj’ are definitely going to be /i:/ even if we have never seen the words before.

This simple spelling rule can radically alter a student’s speech. Many students speak native languages where a written < i > would correspond to a close /i/ sound, so breaking the assumption that this will happen in English is a huge step to solving the ship/sheep problem that so many students struggle with.

along with the spelling rule, students need to learn the correct mouth positioning for the two vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/ as shown in this vowel grid.  For a full explanation see this earlier blog post.

Nonsense Words

Try pronouncing the nonsense words below – the pronunciation should be clear from the spelling:

gip  leab  seag  sib  chif  feek  piv  veize  vim  sheev  tib  bim

This material appears in class 2 of Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation. 

How to Join ‘th’ Sounds.


‘th’ Joining & Why it’s Important.

on Saturday I taught a class of 8 advanced speakers and pronouncers of English, they could all repeat both ‘th’ sounds with no problem (/θ/ as in ‘think’ and /ð/ as in ‘those’).  Nearly all of the students would, however, make an error when speaking normally, and the ‘th’ sounds would be mispronounced as some kind of alveolar or dental plosive. A huge number of advanced speakers make this error, but there is a simple trick to avoid it as follows.

What’s the problem?

the problem arises if one of the alveolar sounds /t, d, l, n/ appear directly before a dental sound /θ, ð/. Why? Because the tongue is out of position, it is impossible to go from the alveolar ridge to the teeth in no time, so the speaker makes their ‘th’ sound in the wrong place.

How to avoid a pronunciation error.

avoiding the error is technically very simple – you simply make the previous alveolar consonant on the teeth. To demonstrate, compare the following examples:

nine /naɪn/ ninth /naɪnθ/ – the underlined ‘n’ would be dental.
blood /blʌd/ bloodthirsty /blʌdθɜ:sti/ – the underlined ‘d’ would be dental.

This also occurs when joining words together:

in /ɪn/, in the /ɪn ðə/
did /dɪd/, dɪd they /dɪd ðeɪ/


in class on Saturday we used the following sentences and looked for at least two examples of alveolar consonants becoming dental in each sentence:

    1. Aren’t the residents unhealthy living in that pollution?
    2. It’s hard to succeed in the cutthroat world of the media.
    3. Did the internet suffer a loss of bandwidth this morning?
    4. I think they should ban the wealthiest from attending.
    5. For the thousandth time Katie, join the leads together.
    6. ‘Heartthrob’ we used to call him, although he’s lost his looks now.
    7. Well it’s true that synthetic materials were all the rage.
    8. We were happy, but then her misanthrope got in the way.
    9. Do you think that the national anthem is appropriate?
    10. What the hell are you doing drinking absinth?

You can listen to the sentences here:

‘th’ joining is covered in class 1 on Pronunciation Studio’s Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation course.

How to teach pronunciation


How to teach pronunciation – 5 tips for ESL teachers.

Of the hundreds of thousands of English classes that have taken place all over the world today, only a tiny fraction of them will have contained any pronunciation training. The reason for this is not that students do not want to learn pronunciation – they do. The problem is that general English (ESL) teachers are not trained in teaching pronunciation (it is not covered on most CELTA or TEFL teacher training courses), which is a shame as the topic is challenging and rewarding for teacher and student alike.

Here I have prepared some tips for ESL teachers to incorporate pronunciation into the classroom.

1. Drill, drill, drill.

Students love being drilled – it is fun, energetic and really useful. There are three basic drills:

  • Group: everyone repeats together.
  • Individual / Scatter: teacher randomly chooses people to repeat.
  • Individual / Order: teacher goes round the group in one direction (EG left to right)

Note that students often feel that they are not drilled enough, whilst teachers often feel they are drilling too much . So drill, drill, drill – students love it more than you realise. Also note that it is absolutely essential that the group repeat together and that all the group do it – otherwise the drill will fall apart.

2. The Big 3s for Consonants, Vowels, Stress & Intonation

The four key topics in pronunciation (consonants, vowels, stress, intonation) can be taught through a simple three fork approach as follows:

    • CONSONANT SOUNDS – Place, Type, Voicing (a bi-labial, voiceless, plosive is /p/).
    • VOWEL SOUNDS – Jaw, Lips, Tongue (an open, spread, front vowel is /æ/)
    • STRESS – pitch, volume, length (a stressed syllable is higher, louder and longer)
    • INTONATION – fall, fall-rise, rise

From a teaching perspective these explanations are invaluable as they give a nice simple structure to a topic that can be very confusing.

3. IPA is your friend

Most students find IPA a wonderful tool for improving their pronunciation and most can learn it very quickly provided it is presented logically. If the teacher starts with the whole chart it can seem overwhelming, so a nice way to order it is as follows:

VOWELS – Schwa – Long Vowels – Short Vowels – Diphthong Vowels
CONSONANTS – Fricative Consonants – Plosive Consonants – Approximant Consonants – Nasal Consonants

Once students know the IPA system, you can have endless fun with games, crosswords and transcriptions which are challenging, interesting and highly rewarding classroom activities.

4. Learn your stuff

There is no getting away from the fact that English pronunciation is a huge topic, so in order to teach it well and to be able to answer questions that arise in class, it really pays to know the topic well. An excellent book that makes the whole topic very accessible and enjoyable is Roach’s ‘English Phonetics & Phonology’. A more advanced read would be Gimson’s ‘Pronunciation of English’.

5. Think (and teach) in connected speech

A lot of teachers when they first start teaching pronunciation, start to think in separate syllables, explaining that the word ‘about’ would be pronounced ‘æ’ then ‘baʊt’ therefore ignoring the weak form /ə/ at the beginning. This is not helpful for students who need to speak and hear the language in connected speech. Teach joining and weak/strong structures so that students start to experience English as a native speaker does. The best place to start is always with the schwa /ə/ sound within words and sentences.

These then, are the basics – any English teacher with teaching levels from pre-intermediate upwards can add a bit of pronunciation to spice up their classes and give students something they really want.

Pronunciation Studio’s Teach Pronunciation! course is a 5 day intensive for ESL teachers – read more here. 

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