There are many sounds in the English syllabary that ESL students struggle with. Sounds like the ‘th’ in “this” or the ‘v’ in “va-va-voom” just don’t exist in some other languages and many students struggle to contort their mouths into the right shapes. So what can the ever-resourceful ESL teacher do to support their flagging gaggle of eager learners? Well, the real key is practice; the more one practices the more competent one becomes. But sitting around and repeating “red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry” over and over is likely to incite a re-enactment of The Shinning.

Word Trees are a simple way to practice pronunciation with ESL students.

They also help develop listening skills, they’re super quick to make, and they’re easy to present. Plus, they can be used at almost any level. I haven’t tried them with an Elementary class so I’m afraid I couldn’t comment on their effectiveness in that environment.


I learned of Word Trees from a well-respected, senior teacher in my company. He raved about them in a training session some time ago. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept or how it could be effective, but now I use a Word Tree at least once a month in my schools.

Here’s an example of a Word Tree I used recently:

Word Trees

The objective is to listen as someone says a series of words in the Tree and follow the path to a number. An example using the above would be

19, wrong, sea. What number? … Yes, 2!

I’ve found the best way to demonstrate the activity is to go through an example with the whole class together. Start by handing out worksheets and drawing a large copy of the Tree on the board. Then quickly introduce the different words so that students can get used to how you pronounce them. Follow this with an example but point to the words you’re saying to guarantee that the class follows your correctly and gets that they have to follow the path. Lastly ask students to say which number was reached; this should solidify their understanding of the concept.

From the example a teacher can dive right in to doing a few rounds with the whole class. Once everyone seems to be getting the hang of things and their ears have become attuned it’s time to let them do the talking. Before splitting them into pairs make sure to practice the various words with the class, highlighting and instructing on the tricky sounds such as “l”/“r” and “s”/“sh”.


In the above example I chose words that were then to be used in the listening and speaking parts of that lesson. I then matched them against words that appear similar but contain a different sound.

It’s also important to listen out for common mistakes that students make. In my example I included “19” and “90” not only because the day’s text contained some dates but also because I frequently hear my students say

I’m sixty years old.

when really they’re trying to say that they’re sixteen. I try to illustrate their mistake by asking them about their grand-kids.

Levelling Up

Over the first few uses I always repeat each word twice. This gives students a better chance to hear them. As they get used to the activity over the year I drop to only one instance of each word to make it more difficult.

Another simple way to increase the challenge is to get students to sit back-to-back. This way they really have to strain their ears to hear and the speaker has to enunciate carefully.

The final difficulty increaser that I’ve heard of but never used is to change one of the rules of the game. Instead of progressing down the tree in one direction, let the speaker go back up as well. Here’s a version of my original example that illustrates this rule change:

Word Tree 2

This creates a much more complex audio maze for the listener to follow, and gives the speaker a bit more creative freedom in their task.

I’ve found Word Trees to be effective and engaging for classes of various ability levels, but really it’s the simplicity that draws me in. After making an initial template using a table with some arrows, it takes mere seconds to make an activity that can take up ten minutes in any part of a lesson. For all these reasons it’s become a solid staple in my teaching utility belt.

Do you use Word Trees? In what ways do you implement them? Share with us below.

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