Because of limited time, you probably won’t be able to go over every pronunciation point in class.
Still, one pronunciation point to prioritize would be the L sound because it has a very noticeable effect on how students talk.
Whether students are just starting to learn English or they’re already advanced, they can miss out on how to say L properly. A lot of English learners aren’t aware that there are two variants of the L sound in English!
With the right techniques and activities, you can help students pick up the L sound faster. Ultimately, your goal is to give them a strong foundation so they can go from recognizing and pronouncing the sound to including it freely in their conversations.
As you plan your lesson, here’s what you need to know about teaching the L sound:
How to Teach the L Sound
Learning a whole new sound to pronounce can be overwhelming for students at first. But with a step-by-step approach, you can make the L sound a lot less intimidating for them!
1. Tackle one L sound at a time.
Ultimately, your students will have to know that there are two forms of the L sound in English: the light L and the dark L. But before you even mention the dark L, they need to be very comfortable with pronouncing the light L.
Unless they’re starting from scratch, they’ve likely encountered the light L before – during their very first pronunciation class when they had to run through the alphabet. Although students generally find it more comfortable to say than the dark L, they might still have issues with it, such as confusing it with R or making the sound too mild.
Once your students have a solid grasp of the light L, that’s when they’re ready to learn about the dark L. You can get more ideas about how to explain the pronunciation of both L sounds with Creativa’s course on Mastering North American Pronunciation. It has an entire video episode that’s all about the light L and the dark L, complete with step-by-step instructions and examples.
All in all, the course delves into aspects of pronunciation that English learners can easily miss out on – and yet are necessary for speaking English clearly. Curious about it? Here’s a free video straight from the course.
2. Make sure students can visualize the tongue positioning.
Aside from simply saying both L sounds out loud, it’s important to also show your students how the mouth-tongue positioning works.
When they know the tongue positioning for light L already, it’ll be faster for them to shift this to a dark L. The main difference is that your tongue’s touching your front teeth in light L, while it’s hanging in mid-air in the dark L. The back of your tongue also rises up a bit with the dark L, and you can feel the sound vibrating deeper in your throat.
Aside from using videos and diagrams in class, you can add in hand gestures to make the tongue positioning more obvious to students. For example, you might stretch out one hand while it’s facing down to signify the roof of your mouth. Your other hand would then imitate the tongue position.
When you combine this with saying various words that have either the light L or dark L sounds, it’ll be much more vivid for your students! You can adopt this approach too for when they’re having problems differentiating between minimal pairs such as R and L.
3. Check your students’ native language.
How your students react to the L sound will depend on their native language.
If they already have similar sounds in their native language, it might click for them right away. On the other hand, students who have never used the L sound much before will take longer because they need to train their ears first to even recognize it.
Just to name a few examples:
- The light L is mostly overused in Spanish.
- In contrast, Russian speakers overuse what sounds like a dark L.
- Light L can sound like R in Japanese.
- Hindi speakers overuse a unique L that sounds similar to but isn’t exactly like a light L.
What makes it more complicated is that there are two variants of L, and students might be proficient in one variant while having no experience at all with the other.
If you notice a student having a hard time with pronouncing L, it’s often helpful to think about it from the perspective of their native language. You could look at the sound that’s closest to L for them and then point out how they can change the tongue positioning to form the L in English.
4. Drill students on how to analyze if a word uses a light L or a dark L.
At first glance, it doesn’t seem to take too much effort to remember when to use a light L or a dark L. A light L appears before a vowel sound, while a dark L happens after.
However, unless it’s already an automatic process for students, they’ll be juggling a lot in their heads during real-time conversations, from double-checking their pronunciation to mentally going over the rules. For their speech to flow smoothly, they’ll need to work on both pronunciation and sentence drills.
Start by breaking down words for them with the L sound, then check if they can repeat your thought process. From there, you can have them analyze sentences with a partner so it’s less intimidating than being called on in front of everyone.
Alternatively, you can also assign written exercises for them to work on after class. You don’t have to do it all from scratch, either! Scroll down here to download a free worksheet with tons of quizzes and drills about the L sound in English. The quizzes are well-rounded, tackling all three levels – syllable, word, and sentence – so you can incorporate them into your class, regardless of how proficient your students are with the L sound.
5. Mention exceptions to the rule.
When you’re pronouncing the L sound in real life, there are situations where the rules aren’t so clear-cut. Your students might be able to discover these on their own too and bring these up in their questions.
What if the L sound is in the middle of the word, with vowel sounds before and after it? This happens often enough in words such as:
The key here is to check if the L is at the start or end of the syllable. A light L would be at the start of a syllable, while a dark L would be at the end.
Other situations to address would be: what if there’s a double L (“valley,” “yellow,” “silly”)? You can also point out that there are cases when the dark L in a word changes to light L, such as in “fall” and “fallen.”
The L sound is one of those aspects of English pronunciation that’s worthwhile to spend extra time on. If used incorrectly, it can throw off your students’ spoken English even if they’re only saying the most basic phrases.
At the same time, being able to successfully pronounce L will unlock a lot of English words for your students. After all, the L sound is everywhere in English. In these last two paragraphs alone, it popped up more than ten times!
For faster progress, you can encourage students to practice their pronunciation even outside of class. Here’s a handy resource – scroll down for a free worksheet with exercises that address common areas of confusion with the L sound. Students can also try reading sentences from the worksheet out loud on their own so they can be more confident with pronouncing L in English.