Reasons to get tongue-tied in the classroom

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of CONNECT.

Pitta-Gay Powell (Ehime)


Say this out loud:


I’m not the pheasant plucker. I’m the pheasant plucker’s son. And I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant pluckers come.


No, I’m not going to ask you to repeat it three times. Once is enough drama. With a natural pace, it should take about five seconds to say both sentences. Try bringing it down to three seconds and then involve another unsuspecting victim . . . I mean friend . . . in your tongue twisting shenanigans.


If this tongue twister goes how I expect it will, you will find that this one is not for the classroom, but many students will love the fun of this kind of linguistic gymnastics.


What are tongue twisters?


Tongue twisters are sentences made of several words with the same initial sounds. They depend heavily on the figurative device alliteration. Not only are they difficult to articulate because they require the brain to switch the shape of the tongue superfast, but they require the tongue to consecutively alternate between sounds that are barely distinguishable from each other. 


Why use tongue twisters?


The short answer is because they are fun. But, outside of that super important component, tongue twisters offer lots of benefits to a language learner.


Tongue twisters provide muscular exercise for the tongue. Who knew our tongue needed exercise? This exercise strengthens the parts of the mouth that are actively engaged in speaking. The result is greater skill in articulation, and good articulation leads to good pronunciation prowess. 


Tongue twisters also help students to become more cognisant of phonetic variations that affect meaning. Through tongue twisters, students learn the distinctions between homophones (words with the same sound), homographs (words which look the same but may sound different), and homonyms (words that may look and/or sound the same but mean different things). 


Who can use tongue twisters?


Well, anyone in the teaching/learning process can use them. However, since they are highly recreational, I suggest using them at the earlier stages of second language learning. 

How are tongue twisters used in a lesson?


There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Tongue twisters are versatile and their uses varied, depending wholly on the creativity of the instructor. I will, however, provide some ideas as to where to start.


As a warmup


Imagine your students guffawing at the very beginning of your lesson. That’s very likely what would happen if you used tongue twisters as a warm up activity. Even if students aren’t yet sure of the meaning of the tongue twister, they would definitely have fun reading and trying to repeat it quickly. Imagine what this warm, tongue twisting, atmosphere full of laughter will do for student engagement for the rest of the lesson.


As content support


If you ever have to teach any of the grammatical concepts mentioned before—homophones, homographs, or homonyms—this activity is pretty useful. Tongue twisters can also be used in part of speech differentiation. As an added bonus, it increases vocabulary and provides the opportunity for students to actively practice saying sentences structured correctly, according to the grammatical rules of target language.


Here, learning can be facilitated implicitly. Trying to get the tongue twister right over and over is a laughing matter for kids, but to some degree, it may unconsciously act as a blueprint for their own target language sentence creation. Students don’t have to know they are learning to actually learn.


As a get-out-of-jail-free card


All English teachers want second language learners to practice speaking the target language outside of the classroom, but most are at a loss as to how to get them to do that. Using tongue twisters as a get-out-of-jail-free card is one way. Students could be provided with various tongue twisters via the teacher’s means. I would make use of the class’s notice board or the English board. If students learn the tongue twister of the week, they can opt to use it to dodge a question within the class and have it passed to another student. 


This activity’s success is dependent on the type of atmosphere that exists between and among a teacher and the students. We must accept that sometimes students don’t know the answers to questions asked, and displaying increasing speech prowess instead of being embarrassed for not knowing an answer to a question is a win. This also means that teachers will have to update the listed tongue twisters weekly, perhaps. 


Where to start?


Let me help you out. Two of the most popular tongue twisters involve Betty Botter and her bit of bitter butter, as well as Peter Piper who had an affinity for picking and losing pecks of peppers. I find these particularly cliched but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others online. Still, I went searching and I chose two tongue twisters I felt most suitable for the average younger Japanese student.


If two witches were watching two watches, which witch would watch which watch?


A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.


Feature image photo credit: James Barker on Unsplash

Pitta-Gay is an ALT based in Ehime currently pursuing a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction. In her not-so-spare time she creates workbooks for children. She enjoys appreciating nature from a respectful distance, as well as sleeping like life depends on it.