When I began teaching American English pronunciation, I felt confident about many of my abilities. I knew how to teach syllable stress and I knew how to teach my students the importance of the reduced ‘schwa’ sound. However, there was always one topic that made me uneasy: teaching “r-colored” vowel sounds (those dreaded vowels that occur before an /r/ sound, as in the words hear and hair).
I knew that r-colored vowels were special, but I just couldn’t find an effective, visual way to show my students how to articulate them.
Eager to find a solution, I posted my question on The Color Vowel Chart’s Facebook Page: “Karen, when are you and Shirley going to come up with a tool that teachers can use to teach about vowels before /r/? I really need some help here!”
As it turns out, The Color Vowel Chart already does that. Here’s how it works:
For words like Maryland, hair, there, and very, start at RED and
move up through PURPLE to illustrate the r-coloration of the stressed vowel.
The next day, I was working with a client and we encountered the word Maryland. I asked my client to identify the stressed vowel sound in Maryland using The Color Vowel Chart. With some support, he identified the starting sound as RED. We then tried out our new strategy: Using the chart as a visual tool, we moved from RED through purple to the /r/ watermark. The sound was awkward at first, but after a few iterations it began to sound pretty good. We went on to use this strategy to pronounce the words marriage, parallel and care.
As we moved from RED through PURPLE, the vowel sounds in these words began to sound more natural and clear, not muddy. The sounds had a good length. My student could hear, feel and see the difference, and so could I. I use this technique for teaching r-colored vowels with my students all the time now. I no longer dread questions about these sounds; in fact, I love teaching this aspect of American English pronunciation.
Susan’s description of RED words that move through PURPLE can be applied to other r-controlled vowels:
And then, of course, we have words like perfect, first, work, and Shirley, which start at PURPLE and stay right there.
Susan Ryan is director of ConfidentVoice and teaches pronunciation online using The Color Vowel Chart.
Karen Taylor is co-author of the Color Vowel™ Chart and is founder of English Language Training Solutions (ELTS).
Copyright 2012. This article may not be reproduced without the written permission of Karen Taylor or Shirley Thompson. Please contact us if you’d like to distribute this article in printed form.
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