Thursday, April 11, 2013

Using Cuisenaire Rods to Improve Student Pronunciation and Grammar

Here’s a fun activity to help your learner with pronunciation and grammar using Cuisenaire Rods to help them visualize and correct their errors. 

Hearing the subtle differences in the pronunciation of words can be tricky for new learners. Fortunately, there's a way that you can help them see how words are pronounced.

Here's how:

Place a set of Cuisenaire Rods on a table. Make sure you have plenty of table space. Explain that you are going to work on pronunciation, but instead of just listening to a sentence you are also going to look at it.

Have your learner say a sentence out loud. It doesn't matter what it is about. Listen carefully to the sentence (have them repeat it if you didn’t catch it all the first time). 

Use the rods to make a model of the sentence. Each rod represents one word. Color and size are not important for now, but make sure you’re using only one block per word.

Sample Sentence: “Yesterday I talked with my sister on the phone and I watched a movie."

Lay the block down horizontally on the table if there is no mistake for a particular word. Anywhere you hear the learner make a pronunciation or grammar mistake, turn the block up vertically.

Let’s imagine that a learner pronounced the sentence as follows: 
“Yesterday I talk-ED with my sister on the phone and I watch-ED a movie.”

Each word is represented by one block. Blocks that lay horizontally on the table represent words that the learner said with no pronunciation or grammar mistakes, while vertical blocks indicate a mistake.

·      Now that you have your sentenced modeled in front of you word by word with the mistakes indicated by vertical blocks, break down each mistake. Replace the single vertical block with several blocks (still positioned vertically) to help the learner see how they are saying the word.

So when the learner says “talk-ED” and “watch-ED” instead of “talked” and “watched,” I could replace the original vertical block with two to help them visualize that they were pronouncing the word as two syllables.


Have the learner repeat the sentence as you point to each block one by one, helping them understand that each block is showing them one word in a sentence.

·      Now you repeat the sentence, pointing to each block as you move from word to word. When you reach a mistake, stop and grab new rods. You will replace the “mistake rods” with the “correct rods” as you move along.

So, if I want to help my learner both hear and see the switch from “talk-ED” to “talked,” I might switch the rods representing the mistake to ones that better represent how to pronounce “talked” correctly. Emphasize the correct pronunciation as you are replacing the rods. 


After you have done this for every mistake in the sentence, move the vertical rods that represent all of the mistakes off to the side. It should look something like this:

Tell the learner to say the sentence again and point to each word as they say it. When they reach a “blank spot” for a mistake, have them choose which blocks which represent the correct pronunciation and fill in the blank as they try to pronounce the word correctly.

·      If they choose the correct blocks but are still having trouble pronouncing the word correctly, repeat the correct pronunciation for them and have them start over.

For our sample sentence, the finished product should look like this:

Have the learner repeat the sentence one last time with the correct pronunciation and grammar. 

Optional: Use the pen and paper to write out the sentence correctly after you’ve gone through this exercise with the learner.
Cuisenaire Rods are typically used to help kids visualize basic principles in mathematics. Their size and color represent the numbers 1-10, with 1 being the smallest and 10 being the biggest. 

For this activity, it does not matter what rods you choose to represent words that were said correctly.

While you may choose whichever rods you want to indicate the learner's mistakes, you should make sure that they are consistent. Choosing the same type of rods to represent the same type of mistake is important for your learner to visualize mistakes that they are making over and over again. For example, if the learner pronounces the "-ed" at the end of the words "talked" and "watched," you should use the same size and color blocks to show them this because this is the same mistake. If at any point in the sentence they make a different type of mistake, use different color and size blocks to represent this. You may choose any size and color as long as you keep them consistent for the same types of mistakes. 

As much as possible, try to use the size of the blocks to indicate over or under pronunciation. In our example, the learner's mistake used a larger block (the light green block) to represent the extra "-ed" sound they were adding and over-pronouncing at the end of the word. The bigger size corresponds to over-pronuncation. When we replaced blocks to show the correct pronunciation we used the smallest block to represent the "-ed" sound (the white cube), because it is hardly pronounced compared to the first part of the world ("talk-"). 

Don't have a set of Cuisenaire Rods? You can buy them on Amazon for only $12.64. 

If you buy them through the English at Large website (look for the Amazon box) English at Large receives a 4% commission that helps support our organization and provide you with more teaching resources just like these! 


Catherine Sigmond 
Project Assistant, English At Large 
MA Candidate, Tufts University Department of Education

Literacy and Learning for Life
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