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The Magical Disappearing S
One day in a listening and speaking class, I
hand, can be distracting, even if meaning is suc-
noticed that many of my students regularly
It certainly plays a
abuse the letter S.
In order to enhance my
part in students’ feelings toward their own
scope on this issue, I decided to lend my ear to
Deciding when to correct and
a larger sample of the community. I asked 50
instruct thus requires a careful balance
students, mostly first-year beginners with mini-
between students’ perceived need for grammar
mal English backgrounds, to record their voices
with a teacher’s desire for students to be able
reading isolated words and a set paragraph
to communicate with confidence.
(Figure 1). Of these, nearly 70 percent consis-
(3) “He res car is very fat.” Aid the awareness
tently mishandled the S in both the paragraph
of pronunciation additions and omissions.
and subsequent free talk. Specific mistakes and
percentages are given in Figure 2.
One way to do this is to create a passage in
The S problem manages to find itself in both
which the letter S is completely eliminated.
the grammar and pronunciation camps, which
Then tell students to read it, taking special care
likewise divides the solutions into different
to avoid the S sound. You might also take an
kinds. On the one hand, the letter S plays a cru-
opposite approach. Create another paragraph
cial grammatical role in English, holding the
which makes heavy use of the letter S in many
power to change the meaning of a statement.
forms, and tell students to make sure that it is
On the other hand, the S is nothing more than a
pronounced every time. Another exercise is to
pronunciation stumbling block and poses no
have students listen to a passage in which S is
threat to understanding the meaning of a sen-
not pronounced correctly. They can raise their
tence. For a symphony of solid speakers, try
hands every time they hear a mispronounced
these eight teaching points in your class.
(1) “He land hard on the floor.” Bring grammar
(4) “The hoses are crues tightly.”
A listening exercise is generally better than a
Locate words in your class that are often
written one because it brings to life differences
wrongly pronounced, then teach the words by
in meaning. You might dictate contrasting pairs
locating other words that closely resemble the
in a way that will force students to process the
incorrect pronunciations of your students. I
meaning of different grammatical structures. Or
did this with the word “bed,” and had my stu-
if a teacher says to the students during a TPR
dents work on simple phrases, such as “the best
(Total Physical Response) exercise,“Pick up the
bed,” and entire sentences, such as “I blessed my
pens,” then students must decide to pick up a
brother’s bed.” This might enable students to
pen or pens off her desk. If a learner encoun-
see how saying the sound with a hiss can hin-
ters such structures enough times with trained
der a smooth flow of words and cause confu-
ears, she will likely use correct forms in her
sion about meaning.
own speech the next time around.
(5) “He sup stair sen th kitchen.” Teach the
(2) “Zen he hear a loose noi.” Learn what to
linking of words.
“Linking” means to run words together in
Many TESOL theorists would say that gram-
everyday speech. Because students often learn
mar instruction is too heavy in many classes,
from a book, they often cannot comprehend
and that students can learn to “catch” structures
such blending of words in natural speech. For
themselves. Poor pronunciation, on the other
example, the sentence “Let’s eat over there” is
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Figure 1. Pronunciation test for student survey.
eat bed card thief truck pen girl king
At the fire station, Liz wants to make sure the hoses are screwed on tightly to her truck.
Anthony is the fire chief. He is upstairs in the kitchen looking for food. Then he hears a loud
noise. Ring! Ring! Ring! Anthony slides down the pole. Thud! He lands hard on the floor.
His red car is very fast. Three trucks are going to the fire but Anthony is the fastest fire
fighter to find the house.
The paragraph is adapted from: Fire Fighter!, Eyewitness Readers Level 2, by Angela Royston, DK Publishing, 1998.
Figure 2. Student survey pronunciation results.
eat 60% said “eas”
truck 24% said “trus” or “trucks”
bed 52% said “bes”
pen 10% said “pens”
card 64% said “cas” or “car”
girl 10% said “girls”
thief 26% said “tees” or “thees”
king 4% said “kings”
At the (50% “za”) fire station (40% “stasen”), Liz wants (64% “want”) to make
sure (26% “sore”) the hoses (94% “hose”) are screwed (32% “screws or “crues”)
on tightly to her truck (28% “trucks”). Anthony is the fire chief (22% “chiefs”).
He (12% “ee”) is upstairs (76% “uptairs” or “upstair”) in the
kitchen (12% “chicken”) looking for food (38% “foos”). Then (30% “zen”)
he hears (28% “hear”) a loud (26% “loose”) noise (4% “noi”).
Ring! Ring! Ring! (24% “rings” or “zring”) Anthony slides (62% “slide”)
down the pole (8% “poles”). Thud! (48% “thoos”) He lands (48% “land”)
hard on the floor (6% “flos”). His (52% “he”) red (38% “res”) car is very
fast (28% “fat”). Three trucks (32% “truck”) are going to the fire but (14% “bus”)
Anthony is the fastest fire fighter (10% “fiser”) to find the house (12% “how”).
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often pronounced as if it were one or two
(7) “Ansony shlides.” Help students differentiate
words; all four words are not distinctly enunci-
among S sounds.
ated. If this phrase is learned as it is often spo-
Along with the problems of sounding and not
ken, then the mispronunciation of “eat” as “eas”
sounding S comes that of using the sound in
will be cleared up soon enough.
varying degrees (called “sibilants”).
Is this important? In my research, those stu-
speaking teachers especially need to know that
dents who read the paragraph naturally linking
in Vietnamese, S is properly pronounced “sh.”
words and sounds made significantly fewer mis-
Furthermore, students from northern Vietnam
takes than those who read each word distinctly.
are used to making a “z” buzz for the letters D,
To model and reinforce linking, a teacher must
R, and GI. The use of drills, particularly in lis-
spend some or all of his time talking naturally,
tening, is a good way to overcome these obsta-
despite the temptation to speak with artificial
cles, although it is up to you, the teacher, to
slowness and clarity.
make them exciting.
(6) “The fastest to find the how.” Summon the
(8) “He hears a loud noissse.” Stop the eternal S.
Unless you are a snake, a short S sound at the
A common problem for Vietnamese learners
end of words is sufficient.
An exception is
of English is the elimination of final sounds in
where the entire word is drawn out, as in the
many words. This is also done with the letter S.
case of stress on a sentence level. In general,
An excellent remedying activity can be to whis-
though, it is better to insist that S be pro-
per, or have students whisper, a choice between
nounced in shorter “bites.”
I want a new house / I want to know how
Without launching an all-out campaign, I have
been able to see more clearly an annoying prob-
Make a little fuss / Make a little pho
lem, and to bring this to the attention of my stu-
You need to choose / You need to chew
dents. Now, every day when class dismisses, my
students no longer yell out,“Let’s eass!”
He wants to kiss her / He wants to get her
She’s a spice girl / She’s a spy girl
Hayden Sewall is in his third year of teaching
at Vietnam Maritime University in Haiphong.
Showing students why to pronounce the last
He is working on an M.A. in TESOL, and is the
sound sends a stronger message than simply
ELI Curriculum Director for Vietnam.
telling them how to do so.
tions would you use them? underweight,
Ideas on the Go
skinny, lean, thin, scrawny, bony
(2) If you were big, which of these words
would you like to be called? In what situa-
tions would you use them? fat, fleshy, stout,
obese, overweight, flabby, blubbery
Mark Sasse, M.A.
Next, introduce students to the idea of
Goal: Help students understand the
meaning and function of connotations in
“connotation”: a speaker’s attitude or emo-
tions toward a subject. This can consist of
feelings, evaluations, levels of intensity, and/or
Begin by discussing with students these two
stylistic colorings (for example: colloquial,
bookish, slang). Connotations convey more
(1) If you were small, which of these words
meaning than mere dictionary definitions.
would you like to be called? In what situa-
Knowing connotations will help students
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choose a variety of words accurately and
Ideas on the Go
sensitively. Such variety in speaking or writ-
ing English is preferred and brings them one
step closer to fluency. To illustrate, list these
five contrasting examples and discuss them:
Make the Exam
(1) cheap v. inexpensive
(2) not neat v. messy, a slob
Amy Young, M.A.
(3) mentally handicapped v. retarded
(4) “Hey, kid, give me my watch” v.
Goal: Review for an exam by having
“Hey, brat, give me my watch”
students create mock tests.
(5) “He is hard to get along with” v.
“He’s a jerk”
One idea for having your students interact
Finally, use the following exercise to give
with the material they have studied (with-
students practice with connotations: When
out just saying, “Review!”) is to have them
a sports announcer reads the scores of foot-
make their own practice tests and answer
ball games, he uses a variety of words which
keys. In creating an exam, as well as in tak-
mean “win” or “lose.” These words can indi-
cate whether the score was close or not. For
ing tests created by their classmates, stu-
example, if Vietnam defeated Thailand
dents review course content and skills in a
9-0, the announcer would not say, “Vietnam
defeated Thailand 9-0.” He would use a word
Have a clear idea ahead of time what you
with more emotion, because beating a team
want them to do, or you may end up with a
by such a large score such is amazing.
series of yes/no questions. (Don’t ask how I
Students should look at the following foot-
know this!) Address points such as: How
ball scores and choose a verb from the list to
many questions should the test be? What
best describe each game.
type(s) of questions? True/false, multiple
choice, matching, short answer, and/or essay.
How should the answer key be made?
There are at least two ways to structure
South Korea 0
• You could assign making a test as home-
In class, students would then
exchange and take one another’s tests.
• You could have students create the tests in
pairs or small groups, then exchange with
another pair or group.
Make sure that students know the answer
key must be separate—it defeats the whole
purpose to have the answers written on
Mark Sasse (M.A., TESOL, Azusa Pacific
Amy Young (M.A., TESL, University of
University) has taught in Vietnam since
Kansas) is the ELI Curriculum Director for
1994, and is now at Thai Nguyen Teachers’
China, and taught at the Sichuan College
College. He is the “Help Desk Q&A” colum-
nist for Teacher’s Edition.
of Education for the past five years.
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