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Warming Up the Gears: 7 Fun, Field-Tested Vocal Exercises

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Woman massaging her facial musclesGetting students speaking is one of the toughest challenges a language teacher can face. In this article, Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, Canada, introduces some vocal exercises you can use with your students to help get them speaking.

Does anxiety seem to prevent your students from participating in class, from enjoying practicing speaking with their peers, or from doing oral reports individually or as a group?

In one my previous posts on helping learners to minimize anxiety in speaking, I included a tip for “warming up the ‘gears’.” For any ELT practitioners who wish to experiment with ways to help students feel more at ease in speaking, this post shares a set of vocal exercises to warm up learners’ “gears” that I have learned through researching and voice training, used in my teaching of English-as-an-additional-language learners, and shared with practitioners through workshops.

These vocal exercises are enjoyable ways for learners to learn how to loosen their facial muscles before speaking, to develop a thick skin, and to enhance the vocal image that is critical to speaking.

1. Articulate Clearly

Minimize lazy tongue.

Step 1: Ask learners to work in pairs and take turns practicing saying the following common tongue twisters or any fun tongue twisters you use in your teaching.

  • How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
  • She sells seashells by the seashore.
  • When you write copy you have the right to copyright the copy you write, if the copy is right.
  • You’ve no need to light a night light on a light night like tonight, For a night light’s a slight light, and tonight’s a night that’s light. When a night’s light, like tonight’s light, it is really not quite right to light night lights with their slight lights on a light night like tonight.

Step 2: Gradually increase the speed of delivery, but one must say each tongue twister accurately before increasing the speed.

Step 3: After the pair work, ask for individual volunteers to practice saying the tongue twisters to the class. Increase the speed of delivery with each turn. Each learner must attain accuracy and speed before moving on to the next volunteer. While each learner practices saying the tongue twister, the rest of the class could hit the table to create a rhythm that will help the learner deliver the tongue twister following the beats.

2. Control the Breath

Minimize breathlessness.

Breathing is fundamental to speaking. This exercise helps release tension and slows the heart rate during speaking.

Man with a party hat and whistleStep 1: Try to say the entire alphabet, using only one breath (A → B → C → … → Y → Z).

Step 2: Ask students to stand up and say the alphabet in a manner that conveys excitement about sharing each letter with their peers. Encourage learners to make proper eye contact with each person in the room while saying the alphabet. Beyond lengthening the breath, convey the message that, if learners are not enthusiastic about what they want to say, they cannot expect others to be enthusiastic.

Step 3: Reduce the rate of delivery or lengthen the duration of uttering each letter in the alphabet.

A great way to recycle the task is to give each learner a party noise maker or a blower that enables the instructor to see when each learner runs out of air. It is also a fun way to switch up the exercise.

3. Vary the Pitch

Eliminate a monotone or an overly high-pitched voice in order to engage listeners and convey authority. I usually begin by speaking like a robot or playing a clip of a monotonic speaker before introducing the exercise.

Step 1: Say the words by going down the musical scale: low-low-low-low-low-low

Step 2: Say the words by going up the musical scale: high-high-high-high-­high-high

Step 3: Switch up the exercise by mixing low and high as each student takes a turn to practice. You will surely encounter some students who cannot tell the difference between the pitch of each word with its accompanied note, and these students usually get big cheers when they are able to accomplish varying the pitch through this exercise.

4. Vary the Speed

Embrace variety in pace to convey the relative importance or urgency of one’s message. Refer to Dlugan’s Six Minutes blog for more information about the average speaking rate.

  • Try speaking at a slow pace and time yourself (e.g. 140 and fewer words/min.)
  • Try speaking at a medium pace and time yourself (e.g. 141-­‐180 words/min.)
  • Try speaking at a quick pace and time yourself (e.g. 181 and more words/min.)

5. Vary the Volume

Raise learners’ awareness of the need to adjust the volume to the situation and the setting. Learn to project the voice and be aware of how a speaker may be perceived as speaking too softly or too loudly.

Step 1: Say the following words with the intended volume as indicated.

soft → very soft → loud → medium → very loud → soft → extremely loud

Step 2: Ask each student to stand at the very far corner of the room where the lesson is taking place and to self-introduce in order to receive the group’s feedback on the volume. This works especially well if doing it in a lecture hall, as most learners will quickly realize that they need to speak up and project their voice.

6. Vary the Stress and Use Pauses

Use appropriate stresses and pauses to clarify meaning and create impact. Using pauses effectively can help one to gather thoughts; give the listener time to breath and to reflect on what was just heard; and signal transition, create impact, and draw in the listener.

Ask the students about where the stress and pause should be placed in the following examples:

  • Don’t exit Excel
  • Ask not what your country can do for you ask what you can do for your country (JFK)
  • Action needs to take place now not later
    This is an appropriate time for action
    We need to act, period
  • Success is never final failure is never fatal it is courage that counts (Winston Churchill)

7. Vary the Tone

Change the emotional register of one’s voice. If one’s tone conveys interest and enthusiasm, the listener will pay more attention to the message. Use Shakespeare’s sonnets to practice infusing emotion in what one is saying.

Portrait of ShakespeareShall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
(Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18)

These vocal exercises are fun, enjoyable ways for learners to learn how to loosen their mouth muscles before speaking, to develop a thick skin, and to enhance the vocal image that is critical to speaking. Have your learners bring their funny bones and sense of adventure to your “warming up the ‘gears’” segment. Integrate the segment at the beginning of a speaking class at least a few times, switch up the exercises by incorporating some of the suggestions offered here, and be prepared for plenty of great fun and laughter!

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

9 thoughts on “Warming Up the Gears: 7 Fun, Field-Tested Vocal Exercises

  1. Thanks a lot.

  2. I am very grateful for your excellent tips and material to improve our teaching language process.
    Your articles helped me a lot when trying them in my clases.

  3. Thank you for these exercises! And they work too! ;-)))

  4. Pingback: Warming Up the Gears: 7 Fun, Field-Tested Vocal...

  5. Thanks for posting. Great exercises for improving speaking..

  6. Pingback: Blog Review: OUP ELT Global Blog | ESL Review

  7. Pingback: Warming Up the Gears: 7 Fun, Field-Tested Vocal...

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