By Rosalind Johnson

10 January 2023 - 14:00

'We need to teach students breathing for speech, as this is a great way of helping them with both pace and anxiety.'  ©

British Council

Rosalind Johnson shares her ideas for how language teachers can help their students speak with clarity, and explains how warm-ups, tongue twisters and an emphasis on pace can all be used in the language class.

Students often don’t realise they cannot be understood. Their peers can understand them, but speaking with friends is different to performing for exams. Or being understood by everyone else. I tell my students that when we first hear Shakespeare we can find it difficult and we have to listen a few times to get our ‘ear’ used to the different sounds. But in job interviews or presentations, our audience will not have the chance to listen several times. So clarity of speech is especially important.   

Diction is the key!

Warm Up:  To have good diction we need to warm up the parts of our body that we use in speech, especially the facial muscles. Before each lesson a short voice warm-up is essential. Spending five minutes will help students awaken their articulators (the vocal organs, including the tongue and lips). This will result in much clearer speech. Here are some exercise to try:

  • Big face little face:  open the mouth as wide as you can and then scrunch the mouth tight. Repeat two or three times.
  • Stick the tongue out as far as you can (without hurting yourself). Repeat.
  • Massage the jaw and cheeks with your hands.

Tongue Twisters are wonderful, fun and useful. Here are six short ones (more in the link below):

  • Eleven benevolent elephants.
  • She sees cheese.
  • Six sticky skeletons.
  • Truly rural.
  • Each Easter Eddie eats eighty Easter eggs.
  • Which witch is which?

Another good way to warm up all parts of the mouth is to say:


· Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pah

· Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Paw

· Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Poo

· Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pee

· Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pa Ta Ka Pay


· Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Bah

· Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Baw

· Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Boo

· Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Bee

· Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Ba Da Ga Bay

They should take their time with this, but once they have learnt it by heart it is a wonderful way to warm up before lessons, practical exams or performances. More in the link below.

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Pace: One of the most common problems with unclear speech is pace. The pace at which our students speak can make a huge difference to their being understood.  

It is a good idea to model slow pace and ask your students to copy the pace you are speaking at (make it extra slow).  They may feel this is silly, but I can guarantee they will get faster in front of an examiner or audience of any kind.  Get them to acknowledge the punctuation and use it to keep the pace consistent.  Give them a key, for example a full stop means a breath, a comma means tap on the table. 

Making use of the pause can help listeners reflect on what is being said and encourage clarity of understanding.  A good exercise is to get your students to walk around changing direction at every punctuation mark.  For a full stop they do 180 degrees and for a comma 90 degrees. 

These exercises will help them feel the pace. This works far more than telling them to slow down. We need to teach students breathing for speech, as this is a great way of helping them with both pace and anxiety.  

Prop:  This is old fashioned but a goody!  I ask students to put a pencil or similar object in their mouth sideways (across their face, with each end pointing to an ear).  Ask your students to say their speech using the ‘prop’. They should make sure they use their lips to try to make the sounds of the words as clear as possible. They may dribble and laugh while doing this, but if they then immediately give their speech, I guarantee they will speak with more clarity!

Practice: Once they have mastered the above techniques make sure they practice effectively.  When we learn a particular tune on the piano, the most effective way of perfecting the piece is to find the trickiest bits and concentrate on them.  The same goes for speech. If they find particular parts of speech are tricky or cause them to trip up, ask them to concentrate on those parts.  The trick is to speak difficult phrases slowly and give them space.

Ros Johnson is the founder of Naxos Creative. She runs creative courses in presentation skills and personal development in Naxos Greece and online. She has worked in international schools and taught English. She has also delivered a course for teachers and trainers for British Council Malaysia. The course looked at using theatre-based techniques in the classroom.

Further Resources:

Best tongue twisters to perfect your English pronunciation

Articulation Exercises - Warming up Your Vocal Instrument

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