Teaching diphthongs

How to make the Sounds of English no 28: Teaching diphthongs

Here are three powerful techniques for teaching diphthongs. I call these: Sliding, Miming and Inner Imaging (See also previous post How to Make the Diphthongs of English). These three techniques give learners a rich experience of processing a sound internally. This improves pronunciation, listening, discernment, memory and retrieval. Here is a sequence I use for teaching diphthongs. You can adapt this to your teaching style and make your own variations.

1.. Sliding. Example /e/ + /ɪ/ = /eɪ/ (as in paid)
Sliding means that you slide from the first monophthong to the second.
  1. Establish the monophthongs /e/ and /ɪ/ separately, and practise them using the chart.
  2. Now slowly slide the pointer from /e/ to /ɪ/ on the chart, and have students say the first sound and gradually change it to the second. Make sure they go slowly, and that they change the sound gradually. Doing this helps them to see and sense what they are doing with their tongue, lips, jaw.
  3. It may help to have students emphasise the first element /e/ slightly, and to make sure that they arrive fully at the second element /ɪ/.
  4. When they have the new sound /eɪ/ then you can speed up the slide. In general the first sound (first element) of a diphthong tends to be more energised or prominent than the second. Help them to do this. When they can say /eɪ/ pretty well, ask them to look on the top right side of the chart, in the diphthong section, and to tell you where to put the new sound they have just made.
  5. Someone will soon see where it goes and can come up to the chart and point at the /eɪ/ symbol.
  6. When the student does this the class responds by saying it.
  7. You can point at the two component monophthongs /e/ and /ɪ/ and again the class responds by saying them separately.


At this stage the class have made the diphthong without hearing the teacher. I want them to try to find it without copying me, so that they are forced to explore their mouths, muscles and voice. They will not do this if they copy me. You can use this approach to teaching diphthongs for all eight of the diphthongs on the chart. See 3 minute video no 24

Comment This procedure develops proprioception, that is your internally felt kinesthetic sense of what your muscles are doing. Your students need to develop their proprioception in order to learn new sounds outside their mother tongue phonetic set. To help your students to do this you need to develop proprioception yourself. You need to know what your muscles are doing from your own internal perception (proprioception), not just by reading about it

2.. Miming Example /e/ + /ɪ/ = /eɪ/ (as in paid)
Miming means you make the lip, jaw and tongue movement without saying the sound aloud, and without even whispering it.

The students watch the muscular movement, which is quite visible with diphthongs. They take a visual impression of the muscular movement. Miming helps them to see the diphthong as an action rather then as a sound. Learners can quickly internalise the physicality of a sound by watching the muscular movement. Again it is important that you do not say it aloud, because then they will follow the auditory cue and miss the physical and visible insight,

  1. You mime the vowel, for example /eɪ/ paid making it slightly slower and making the movements visibly clear but not over-exaggerated.
  2. Do the same with a few others diphthongs. Have the students try it both silently and aloud.
  3. Now invite a student to the chart to point at the diphthong that you are miming.
  4. See if the class agrees.
  5. Do the same for other diphthongs.
  6. Play with this until the class gets the hang of being able to ‘lip read’ diphthongs.

When miming it can help to use gesture as well. See 3-minute videos 6, 9, 13, 26

3.. Inner Imaging Example /e/ + /ɪ/ = /eɪ/ (as in paid)
Inner Imaging means that the teacher does say the sound aloud , but say it only once – do not repeat it…!
  1. You invite students to listen carefully, and not repeat
  2. You say the diphthong /eɪ/ aloud once only, while students listen
  3. Teacher gestures for them NOT to repeat aloud, but to carry on listening internally to their ‘inner ear’. The sound is held for a few seconds as if on an inner tape loop.
  4. After a couple of seconds you ask them to say it aloud .. /eɪ/
  5. Then invite a few individuals to say the sound, and invite the whole class to listen to the differences between them.
  6. Ask if they would like you to say it again, and then repeat the same steps. Of course they will listen slightly differently, because that have an idea of what is coming….

See 3-minute video no 9 for demo of this technique.

Every attempt is of interest. We are inviting exploration, rather than immediate correctness. Gradually you identify and select the intended diphthong, and keep pointing it out on the chart.

Sliding, Miming and Inner Imaging

The aim of using these three techniques for teaching diphthongs is:

  1. To develop proprioception (internal knowledge of which muscles are doing what)
  2. To connect with the muscles that make the difference in sound
  3. To emphasise the physical and muscular nature of the sounds and pronunciation See 3-minute video no 26
  4. To give the means for experimenting with sounds and escaping from the L1 habit. See 3-minute video no 9
  5. To give learners a rich experience of processing a sound internally.
This improves pronunciation, listening, discernment, memory and retrieval … and playfulness and motivation!