Teacher Resource: Sound Discrimination with KRS-One

Last week, I wrote a guest article for William Lake’s Blog About ESL, and I advised teachers not to overuse gap fill activities for music lessons. Although they are very practical and easy to create, listening to songs and filling in the missing words can be tedious, especially if it has become a recurring activity in the class. Now, that does not mean teachers should always avoid using them; in fact, they are great for intensive language practice. Gap fills may not be the best warm-up or follow-up, but they are useful when teachers want to focus on one very specific language feature.

I was listening to KRS-One’s classic “Sound of Da Police”, and I thought the lyrics would be perfect for sound discrimination, which is an activity to help students differentiate two or more consonant and vowel sounds. In this song, students can listen for and differentiate the voiced and unvoiced labiodental fricatives — that’s /f/ and /v/ in IPA. Many languages do not have an equivalent to /f/ and /v/, and you probably have students who struggle to pronounce them correctly. This list is not comprehensive, but here are some L1 groups who might benefit from /f/ and /v/ sound discrimination activities:

  • The German and Dutch languages do not have /v/ at the end of words.
  • Spanish speakers sometimes mix up /b/ and /v/.
  • Arabic speakers usually pronounce /v/ like /f/.
  • Turkish speakers tend to confuse /w/ and /v/. 
  • Korean, Malay/Indonesian and Thai do not have /f/. It is usually substituted with /p/.
  • Korean, Malay/Indonesian, Thai, Japanese and most Chinese dialects do not have /v/. 

Using Sound Discrimination

  • Level: All Levels
  • Time: 15-20 minutes
  • Activity: Listening
  • Activity Aim: 
    • differentiating between /f/ and /v/
  • Materials:


  1. Write police on the board, and ask students to think of as many collocations in pairs. Some possibilities include police car, police station, traffic police, police officer. Check work as a whole class and write ideas on the board.
  2. Drill the pronunciation of officer several times and ask students how many syllables it has. Three syllables. 
  3. Write the word overseer on the board ask ask students how many syllables it has. Four syllables. Drill the pronunciation of this word several times. Show the mechanics of the mouth by pointing to yourself. Exaggerate the movements and show them how to tuck their lips behind the front teeth to produce /f/ and /v/ sounds.
  4. This stage is optional and you may decide to skip over it, but perhaps you might want explain that an overseer is a person who makes sure that people work. Explain that this word is old-fashioned and usually refers to American slave owners.
  5. Tell students that they will listen to the song twice. For the first listening, student simply have to write the number of times they heard officer and overseer. Have them check their answers in small groups and then report back as a whole class.
  6. Give students gap fill worksheet. They will listen to the song a second time and write either officer or overseer in the blanks. Have them check work in pairs and perhaps play the song again if time permits.

Discussion Questions

What vowel and consonant sounds are difficult for your students? Have you ever tried minimal pair or sound discrimination tasks in your lessons? What are some possible follow ups to an activity such as this one? Please write your comments below!

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  • Carissa

    Great post Stephen! I was so glad to add it to the 34th ELT Blog Carnival! http://eslcarissa.blogspot.mx/2013/09/elt-blog-carnival-pronunciation.html

    • ESLhiphop

      Very happy you liked it, and thanks for including me!

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  • Michelle

    Truly an innovative way of helping EFLs distinguish between the two sounds. I have used minimal pairs, and sometime my learner gets it and many times they are bored with them. You have a good approach to teaching and reaching your learner’s interests.

    • ESLhiphop

      Thanks for the love, @disqus_vAfohmLLgT:disqus! With a song like this one, the lesson basically wrote itself. Part of writing good lessons is just being aware of what’s out there. Stumbled upon this song accidentally, and I knew it was just perfect for minimal pairs. What have you done to help your students practice tricky sounds?