It’s a lot of fun working with the vowel /e/. Just about every language has one or more versions of this sound. In English it is one of the more frequent vowels sounds, probably in third position after /ǝ/ and /ɪ/. When you look at the Sound Foundations chart you can see that /e/ is located on the far left of the chart, below /iː/ and above /æ/. This already tells you something…. for example it tells you:
1.. that /e/ is formed with the tongue at the front of the mouth
2.. that the jaw is a bit more open than for /iː/
3.. and a bit more closed than for /æ/
In other words for /e/the jaw is, so to speak, half way open, and the tongue too is neither up nor down, but in ‘mid’ position.
Let’s take three exploratory journeys inside to help you find out what you are doing so you can help your students
Journey 1 starting from /iː/ and sliding to /e/
Using the clues given by its location between /iː/ and /æ/on the Sound Foundations chart, try this:
1.. Say /iː/and notice that your lips are a little spread and your tongue is forward (check in a mirror or with your finger tip)
2.. Notice that the tip of your tongue is not touching your top front teeth, because to do so would stop the air flow and the sound.
3. Also notice that the tip of your tongue may be touching, or is near to, your bottom front teeth.
4.. Now say /iː/, make it quite long, and slowly slide to the sound/e/. So you are doing this /iː …… e/
5.. As you do this notice that you have to lower your jaw a little.
6.. Notice too that as your jaw lowers, so does your tongue, and that the tip of your tongue remains either touching or near to your lower front teeth. This means that jaw and tongue move together, like one unit.
7.. So this is the territory of/e/, and it is around here that different languages make their different varieties of/e/
8.. Now you can continue this journey by sliding to /æ/ and you notice that the same thing happens, your jaw and tongue drop a little further, and your tongue remains close to or touching your lower front teeth.
Conclusion? This helps you and your learners to locate the territory of /e/ and it also gives you a way to get there, by sliding between /iː/ and /æ/. Now let’s try a couple of other journeys.
1.. Say (your version of) the sound /e/ and experiment with changing it a little, by moving tongue, lips or jaw to a slightly different setting. Just try to change the sound a little. If your L1 is not English, then say this sound in your own language. How is it different from English? Sometimes I ask any Spanish speakers in my class to say/e/ in Spanish, then in English and to feel the difference.
2.. Here are some instruction I use, try them on yourself and your students. “Say it with less energy…” because learners often lose the sound by over-energising the English, trying too hard. Or for the Spanish speakers I say “open your mouth just a little and use less energy…”and this may help them get from Spanish /e/ to a more English /e/. Or I might just say “Change it….” This is perhaps the most useful instruction of all, as it requires students to connect with their muscles (lips or jaw) and make some small alteration that changes the sound perceptibly. And once free from the grip of the L1 sound they are able to look for a different muscular setting.
1.. Another approach is to hear the sound/e/ in your inner ear, your ‘mind’s ear’, and when it is clear inside, then say it aloud, noting any ways the external sound is different from the internal one.
2.. You can do this with your learners by giving them a single model of the sound/e/ which they must not repeat aloud, but only listen to internally. And though you say it only once they listen several times on their internal ‘tape loop’.
3. And only then do you ask them to say it aloud, and to compare that with what they heard internally.
4. It is also interesting to ask them to listen round the class to the other versions of the sound, and I say “Listen to the differneces…” (which validates everyone. “Can you hear the differences?” “Yes, they usually say”. From this I may choose one of the versions and ask the class, “Can you say it like her/him?”
Other simple instructions which can help learners to experiment and let go of sounds they have got stuck with are “Slower”; Faster”; “Less energy”; “More energy”; “Make it longer”; “Make it shorter”; “Relax”; “Whisper it” and so on.
Have fun experimenting!