16 June 2011

Teaching English /r/ and /l/ to EFL learners: a lexical approach (parts 1-3 final)

Teaching English /r/ and /l/ to EFL learners: a lexical approach (parts 1-3 final)

Charles Jannuzi
University of Fukui, Japan


English /r/, /l/ and contrasts across these two categories of sounds are often cited as pronunciation and listening perception problems for a variety of EFL learners, most from E. Asia. The language backgrounds most often associated with these problems are Japanese, Korean, Chinese and some languages of SE Asia (e.g., Thai but also Cantonese Chinese). Other language speakers have also expressed an interest in improving their pronunciation of English /r/ and /l/, including Russian and German EFL learners.

Perhaps the most well-known group to have a problem with the two categories of sounds is Japanese EFL learners. This could be because their native language background creates the most difficult problems to overcome, both in terms of listening perception and spoken production. It could also be because Japan attained affluence before most of the rest of Asia and hired native speakers of English to help teach and model the language. So a lot of information based on knowledge and experience of Japanese and Japanese learners of EFL has been exchanged and discussed in 'global ELT'.

What is the issue for Japanese learners of English?

In the case of Japanese learners of English, just what is the issue? The most common account is based on a simple 'contrastive analysis'. Japanese is said to have one categorical sound (or phoneme) whereas English has two. The Japanese sound is often referred to as a type of [r] that is tapped, flapped or trilled. The Japanese sound never closes a syllable and has a very limited distribution in Japanese (for example, it is only found at the beginning of foreign loan words). One form of the Japanese /r/ is part of the syllables used in grammatical inflections (such as verb forms which are suffixes). As stated, the word-initial form of Japanese /r/ is limited to words of foreign origin (e.g., ramen, the type of Chinese noodles now a national dish in Japan, or ramune, a soda the name for which seems to be derived from the English word lemonade).

English-speaker descriptions of the Japanese sound--or of the Japanese learner of English's inter-language sound--represent the Japanese (or inter-language) sound as variably resembling English /l/, /r/, or /d/ (especially [d] in the middle of a word, like in the word middle). Phonetic descriptions have also said that the American medial voiced [t] of words such as little are quite like the Japanese /r/.

However, it is not really clear how useful a cross-linguistic, contrastive analysis of phoneme inventories is in diagnosing the problems or in helping Japanese learners of English to overcome them. For one thing, the often-read argument that Japanese has only ONE phoneme, Japanese /r/, is arguably wrong. That is because, using structuralist criteria for determining what is and what is not a phoneme, we can isolate at least two Japanese [r] sounds that are distinct: initial [r-], such as in the word rou (candle) from palatalized initial [r-] in ryou (dormitory).

It is also misleading to teach EFL learners that there is one English /r/ and one English /l/. That is because they will hear native and fluent speakers of English make a wide array of both sounds in actual speech. The real issue, though, is what is THE SAME across the [l]s that make them an English /l/, and what is THE SAME across the [r]s that make them an English /r/? Phonology as an academic pursuit has not really answered that question. Phonetic analysis shows, in terms of articulation, that there is a wide variety within both categories of sounds. Interestingly, the distribution in the lexicon of English [r] sounds strongly parallels English [l] sounds: word-initial (right vs. light), word-initial cluster unvoiced (crime vs. climb), word-initial cluster voiced (grow vs. glow), post-vocalic (fear vs. feel, stir vs. still), medial (correct vs. collect), and unstressed syllabic (batter vs. battle).

There is some complementary distribution if we consider clusters: [tr-] as in true but no [tl-], [sl] as in slide but no [sr-], [shr-] as in shred but no [shl] (except some loan words), and [l] can cluster with [r] post-vocalically, as in girl or world, but not vice versa. Moreover, since both of these sound categories tend toward phonetically 'vowel-like' (relatively unobstructed), perhaps it is not surprising that in some cases they might reduce to a vowel or vowel lengthening in some accents, dialects and word contexts (such as post-vocalic [r] in the forms of English of London, Boston, NY and New Orleans, or the lost [l] of the words chalk, talk, walk, etc.).

Given the variety of English /r/ and /l/ sounds and how they parallel each other in the lexicon of English, it is little wonder that EFL learners, even after they have practiced making an English /r/ vs. /l/ distinction (often initial [l] vs. initial [r], e.g., led vs. red, light vs. right, etc.), lose the ability when actually communicating orally. The one distinction they learned gets lost in the thicket of the lexicon, the various [l] and [r] sounds in all their positional variation, and all those varieties of English. Therefore, it is best to teach--over a period of time and through a variety of activities--the full parallel variety of English /r/ and /l/ sounds as found in the MOST FREQUENT WORDS of the lexicon. A proposed sequence is this: first the variety of English /l/s, then the variety of English /r/s, then /l/ vs. /r/ contrasts in common words, then a follow up on the variety of post-vocalic [r]s in rhotic  and r-colored accents, such as US and Canadian forms of English.

What sequence should be used to teach English /l/ and /r/?

One line of reasoning might say that, since English /r/ is typically the last consonant acquired by native speakers, it might be best to teach English /l/ first to EFL learners because of the inherent difficulties with the English /r/ group of related sounds. A different line of reasoning that might support this first approach might be based on inter-language analysis. If Japanese has its own /r/ sound, the argument goes, then Japanese learners of EFL would find it easier to differentiate and master English /l/ first. However, as noted above, Japanese /r/ and Japanese learners' inter-language /r/ and /l/ sounds are often described as sounding more like English /l/ (or /d/ or medial voiced tapped [t]) than English /r/. If all these arguments are considered together, the issue of which sequence to follow starts to look rather difficult to decide.

One compromise might be to conclude that the Japanese /r/ and palatal /r/ are not acceptable substitutes for either English /l/ or /r/ and to start an instructional sequence with English /l/ first. The strongest justification for English /l/ coming first is that even English native speakers, in terms of production, typically acquire /r/ last in their language development and this complex set of sounds actually often requires remedial practice.

So one possible proposed sequence of instruction (as a pronunciation segment of a longer class, such as 20 minutes out of a 90 minute class period) is as follows:

Sequence of instruction  

First class: English /l/
Second class: Review of English /l/, English /r/
Third class: Review of English /l/, /r/, contrast of English /l/ vs. /r/
Fourth class: Review and revise as necessary
Subsequent classes: Work on problem contrasts within and across the categories (e.g., 'farm' vs. 'firm', 'walk' vs. 'work', etc.).

English /l/ should be taught using the most frequent and useful words of English as possible (and teachers should be prepared to provide an L1 translation in the case of less common words) and should cover the following types of /l/:

Types of English /l/
Word-initial [l]: like, lake, let, lot, low, lamp, leap, last, etc.
Unvoiced cluster [l]: clean, close, clock, place, play, please, slide, slow, slip, etc.
Voiced cluster [l]: blue, blow, blood, blame, glad, glue, glow, glass, etc.
Post-vocalic [l] (dark l): feel, fall, fail, call, sale, all, deal, tall, etc.
Medial [l]: follow, hollow, yellow, jello, hello, pillow, filling, collect, etc.
Unstressed syllabic [l]: settle, battle, riddle, middle, puddle, little, tunnel, etc.
[-rl] cluster: girl, world, whirl, hurl, curl, twirl, swirl, unfurl, etc.

Then, English /r/ should be taught using the most frequent and useful words of English as possible and should cover the following types of /r/:

Types of English /r/
Word-initial [r]: right, raise, rise, risk, rose, run, red, road, etc.
Unvoiced cluster [r]: cry, cream, crazy, tree, true, try, pray, praise, prize, three, throw, etc. 
Voiced cluster [r]: broom, bring, British, grow, grass, great, dry, draw, dream, etc.
Post-vocalic [r] (reduces to or alternates with 'schwa' in many dialects and accents): car, fear, far, tear, fair, form, farm, dear, hear, more, war, etc.
Medial [r]: correct, Korea, porous, preferring, occurring, recurring, referring, transferring, etc.
Unstressed syllabic [r]: ladder, litter, batter, motor, runner, sadder, madder, heater, etc.
[-rl] cluster: girl, world, whirl, hurl, curl, twirl, swirl, unfurl, etc.

Example teaching activities

Let us suppose you teach English pronunciation and spelling as a small but regular part of general EFL or a speaking/conversation/oral communication course. I suggested above a possible sequence of the following: First class, English /l/; second class, review of English /l/ then introduction of English /r/; third class, review of English /l/, /r/, contrast of English /l/ vs. /r/; fourth class, review and revise as necessary; subsequent classes, work on problem contrasts within and across the categories (e.g., farm vs. firm, pull vs. pool, walk vs. work, etc.). Let us then look at some specifics of what to do in class.

Minimal pair drills and other possibilities
The traditional way to focus on sounds has been in minimal pair drills. There are at least two problems with these as they have often been done in ELT. First, they rush students into making listening contrasts between two similar sounds before they have learned how to make the sounds. Second, many materials often choose relatively infrequent words in order to illustrate the sound contrasts. I propose instead that at first you teach the sounds positively (not in contrast), across a variety of positions, using words drawn from the students’ textbooks, word lists, syllabuses, the most frequent and useful words of English, and English loan words that are well-known in the students’ own language. Japanese, for example, is loaded with these and they make for very good reinforcement that there is an l/r distinction in English. This gives pronunciation an added lexical focus.

I usually teach a sound of English with a classroom sequence like this: Today we are going to practice the English sound /l/. Let’s look at how the /l/ sound is made in your vocabulary.

Examples of English /l/ sounds to put on the board:
At the beginning of words: like, lake, let, lot, low, lamp, leap, last, etc. 
After another consonant (unvoiced) : clean, close, clock, place, play, please, slide, slow, slip, etc. After another consonant (voiced): blue, blow, blood, blame, glad, glue, glow, glass, etc.  
After a vowel (dark l): feel, fall, fail, call, sale, all, deal, tall, etc.
In the middle of a two-syllable word: follow, shallow, yellow, jello, hello, pillow, filling, collect, etc.
Unstressed syllabic [l]: settle, battle, riddle, middle, puddle, little, tunnel, etc. 
[-rl] cluster: girl, world, whirl, hurl, curl, twirl, swirl, unfurl, etc.

I start with one type of /l/, the word-initial [l-] and give a few examples. I write them on the board and have the students say the words, repeating after my model. I make a point that students need to listen to my pronunciation, and look at my face when I pronounce the words (because visual clues on the face are often crucial to acquiring a sound). Then I ask students to give other examples from the vocabulary that they know. If this yields few examples, I ask them to search their textbook (e.g., today’s TOEIC practice chapter). Another way to elicit l-words is to write some simple sentences on the board from which the l-word has been deleted, such as:  

_ _ _ _ Biwa is the largest in Japan. 

We continue the drills over the entire variety of English /l/ sounds. After we have practiced saying all the words, we then practice some simple sentences in which the sound appears several times, such as: I like lying lazily by the lake. Or, if students have dictionaries, I like lilacs, lilies, and gladiolus.

Contrasting English /l/ and /r/

The same sort of activities can be repeated for English /r/ in the next class with pronunciation practice (see the figure above for 'Types of English /r/' for examples of words). I like to start with a quick review of English /l/ before /r/, even though the contrast is not made directly. Rather, we review English /l/ and then practice English /r/ with the same sort of simple pronunciation and lexical tasks. After these two lessons, the class is ready for a classic English /l/ vs. /r/ contrast. We review /l/, then /r/, and then the repetition drills expand to the minimal pairs, across the different types of the sounds: low/row, light/right (or write), lies/rise, led/red, climb/crime, play/pray, glow/grow, blue/brew, collect/correct, feel/fear, still/stir, little/litter, etc. If a word falls outside the typical word lists, most frequent words, or English loan words, it is a good time to add some dictionary practice to the pronunciation routine.

The minimal pairs can be presented on the board as opposing columns:

Minimal pairs for repetition drill and practice distinguishing English /l/ from /r/

/l/                     /r/
low                   row
light                right
led                   red
climb              crime
play                pray
blue                brew
glow                grow
collect            correct
feel                  fear
still                stir
little                litter

The teacher can lead a repetition drill first of the the /l/ words, and then the /r/ words, and then a back-and-forth contrast of the contrasting word pairs (e.g., light-right, etc.). Avoid, however, a rising-falling sing-song tone when saying the contrasting words in pairs.

After word pairs, another way to contrast the words in short ‘tongue-twister’ sentences that include both sounds, such as:
-I really like red roses, yellow daffodils and white lilies very much.

-She likes to read literature and writes really well.

-When I take a test, I feel a little fear that I might fail.

-He likes playing pool, but thinks bowling is boring.

Listening Perception

Having students listen and repeat words that exemplify the sounds covers both listening perception and production ( as well as short-term memory and vocabulary knowledge). However, there is a simple way to focus on listening perception to see whether or not they can perceive the differences in the categories of the sounds—minimal pair sentence cloze listening.

Repeat an ambiguous sentence 6 times, plugging in one of a a minimal pair, which changes the meaning of the sentence. Students number from 1-6 on their paper and then write if they hear the word with an /l/, if they hear the word with an /r/. It’s advisable to have ready translations of the sentences in the students’ L1 because then they won’t be distracted by language that they don’t understand, and it makes clear that what seems like a small difference in sound can result in such a difference in meaning. Note how the sentences also include other examples of /l/ and /r/ in use, which is an important aspect of listening perception.

Some examples I have used (Choose a sentence and say it 6 times, 3 times /l/, 3 times /r/):

 Minimal pair sentences for listening perception of English /l/ and /r/
-She wrote a note on her ____________.  (list/wrist)
-The teacher ____________ the tests. (collected/corrected)
-The children _____________ at the church. (played/prayed)
-In the summer heat, the wind __________. (stilled/stirred)
-The worker cut the _________. (glass/grass)
-The people were __________ on the concrete. (walking/working)

Whole-class activities with a learner focus

Most of this sequence of pronunciation practice has been done as whole-class activities, but it’s nice to shift more of the performance onto the learner. However, there are ways to do this without putting learners under too much pressure, which can lead to embarrassing situations. In this case I prefer ‘melee activities’ that send students to the board.

For example, prepare a list of frequent, useful words that fall under one of four categories: the word has an /l/, has an /r/, has both an /l/ and /r/, and has neither /l/ nor /r/ (like, long, low, bowling, flag, full, feel; red/read, wrong, right, boring, your, confirm; weather; curl, girl, world; way, day, decide, etc.), until every student has a word. 
Next, divide the board up into four areas: ¼ space for /l/ words, ¼ space for /r/ words, ¼ space words with both /l/ and /r/, and ¼ space for words with neither /l/ nor /r/. 
Then announce to the class that you are going to give each student a word. That you are only going to say it once and that they have to listen to their word and then write it on the board, in the correct space (e.g., if the word contains an /l/ sound, it should go in the /l/ space on the board). I like to demonstrate, giving an example of each type of word (one /l/, one /r/, both /l/ and /r/, neither). 
Students get their word from you (say it in a normal voice while standing in front of them) and then write what they think they heard on the board. After all the words have been placed in their spaces, you can then compare it with your teacher’s list. This can then be a good time to see how well they perceive sounds. Sometimes a student’s ‘miscue’ will surprise you. One student received the word well and wrote bowling instead. This means that she might well have perceived an /l/ sound but didn’t perceive the word correctly. There will probably be some l-r inversions as well.

I recommend that you then re-read aloud the words on the teacher’s list (having students repeat) and write the ones that have been missed in a different color chalk or white board marker in the correct space. Then you might ask students to extend the activity a little further by giving still more words that fit under one of the four categories. Then you can finish with whole-class repetition of all the words as a final reinforcement of the /l/-/r/ distinction.


The English /l/-/r/ distinction is usually considered an important one for clear speech and avoiding a derogatory stereotyping of accent. However, if you actually look at the two sounds as categories, you see that there is tremendous phonetic/articulatory variety of both English /l/ and English /r/ across the lexicon. I have argued here that because of this variety we need to give many examples of how the sounds are used in frequent, useful words of English. It is my hope that the explanation of the phonetic variety of English /l/ and /r/ and my detailed, practical suggestions for classroom activities prove useful for you and your English learners.


  1. This is what every English teacher in Asia and especially Japan should know.
    Everyone, ELT, ALT, NET, JET, JTE, etc..., it doesn't matter what acronym your job title falls under.

  2. This is awesome! Extremely Helpful! Thank you!

  3. This is amazing and very helpful