R-Controlled Vowels: Pronunciation Teaching Made Easy

March 3, 2016 by admin

When it comes to teaching pronunciation, R-controlled vowels can be tricky. Words like here, there, far, and for can frustrate learner and teacher alike. Why is that?

“The very concept of the “R” sound has a way of messing with our brains,” explains Karen Taylor, Director at English Language Training Solutions, “because in English, it is actually a vowel most of the time.” That’s right: While the letter R is considered a consonant, the sound it makes can be a vowel (/ɝ/, as in bird) or a consonant (/r/, as in rabbit). Words like rural and rarely can contain both the consonant and vowel R. Saying these words can be tricky even for native speakers of English.

So what’s the solution? “Start with R as a vowel sound,” says Taylor.

In Color Vowel® Chart terms, / ɝ / is the PURPLE SHIRT sound, or PURPLE for short. Calling it PURPLE, we now have a convenient name for a vowel sound that can be spelled in several ways: -ir as in bird, -er as in fern, -ear as in heard, and -or as in attorney to name a few.

With PURPLE in place, we can now explain what R-controlled vowels really are: any vowel sound that starts in one place (like OLIVE SOCK /a/) and moves to PURPLE. The words far, guitar, and Barbara are all OLIVE-to-PURPLE words. (Say each one slowly and notice how you start at OLIVE /a/ and end up at PURPLE / ɝ /. Other R-controlled vowels include GREEN to PURPLE (fear), WHITE to PURPLE (fire), RED-to-PURPLE (fare), AUBURN or ROSE to PURPLE (four) and BLUE to PURPLE (tour).


“The fun begins when you teach these vowels kinesthetically, right there on your Color Vowel Chart poster,” Taylor adds.

Here’s how it works:

First, locate the starting sound of the stressed vowel on the chart. For example, the word tour would start at BLUE MOON. Place your hand on the blue portion of the Chart.
Then, sliding your hand as you slowly say the word, move your hand to PURPLE. Tour. Stay there for a moment, still voicing that sound, noting how you ‘land’ on the PURPLE vowel sound.
Try this ‘moving to PURPLE’ technique with the words fear, fire, fare, far, hour, and four.

“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 until I found The Color Vowel Chart.” ~Susan Ryan, director of Confident Voice

Susan’s company, Confident Voice, provides online accent coaching services. “As my students learned to move to PURPLE, the vowel sounds in these words began to sound more natural and clear, not muddy. They could hear, feel and see the difference, and so could I. I use this technique for teaching R-controlled 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,” remarks Susan.

And we love this kind of feedback on The Color Vowel® Chart. The ultimate goal in any learner’s journey is to progress with confidence, and we are always developing new techniques to use with the chart. Right now, for example, we are offering a free download of our Color Vowel® Memory Game. Try it with your students and see how it helps them learn vowel sounds by associating them with Color-based phrases.

If you want to explore further, we invite you to join our free video mentoring call on the Color Vowel® Chart. Space is limited to just 15 spots so that we can attend to your questions and interests.

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