How to help students with tiny voices be heard

We are often asked by teachers how to help pupils who are so quiet that they cannot be heard when they speak. Our guest blogger this month, Alison Coates of the English Speaking Board, tackles this issue with breathing and resonance exercises to help projection. 


When I was asked to judge the recent PiXL Up for Debate heats across the UK, I was incredibly impressed by the standard of the young speakers in attendance. Similarly, at the Westminster ‘Speaking up for Speaking’ Oracy event in April, in which English Speaking Board (International) Ltd. took part, not only were the young speakers extremely clear and articulate, but they made themselves heard by everyone, which is not always easy to achieve! But what can you do as a teacher when you have a pupil with such a tiny voice that audibility is a real issue? 

Lack of confidence and lack of audibility often go hand in hand – but not always. In over twenty years of teaching Speech and Drama, I’ve developed a repertoire of activities and exercises that always helps me to coax a big voice out of even the most reluctant speaker. The key for me has always been to make it fun and enjoyable and, as with anything else, regular practice is essential.

There are two key things for teachers to consider when developing audibility in students; breathing and resonance. Without sufficient breath support and breath control, the voice will never be audible or, if it is audible in places, it may fade away at the ends of sentences. Resonance is the amplification of the note produced by the larynx (nothing more than a tiny squeak in its raw form). Just as the sound of a guitar or violin strings is amplified by the box surrounding it, the human voice is amplified by the resonators. When air passes through a hollow space, it vibrates and a resonant pitch is heard – think of the sound you get when you blow on the neck of a bottle – that is its resonant pitch. Take another bottle, fill it slightly with water and the sound is different. We’re all built differently and our resonators come in all shapes and sizes – that’s why our voices (like the different shaped bottles), are all different. Resonance is the carrying power of our unique voice; it needs to be in balance to be effective, and to avoid harsh or nasal tone. To get this balance, it is important to practise a combination of flexibility exercises for the jaw, soft palate, tongue and lips (to achieve good forward tone) combined with the breathing exercises necessary for breath support.

One of my favourite breath support exercises for children (and one that harks back to the Saturday morning drama classes of my childhood), is the ‘tube of toothpaste’ exercise. I ask the children what happens when you squeeze a nearly empty tube of toothpaste from the top of the tube – invariably, they’ll tell me that “very little comes out”. But then we talk about what happens if you squeeze the tube from the bottom – they agree that “much more comes out”. It’s the same sort of idea with the voice – squeeze from the top and very little comes out (and you’re likely to end up with a sore throat into the bargain); squeeze from lower down (intercostal breathing in conjunction with the diaphragmatic press), and there is immediately far more power to the voice, because the breath is now supported. Get the children up to ‘be’ tubes of toothpaste. Ensure that they place their hands on their ribs, in order to feel the deep in breath and the squeezing of the out breath. It’s useful to initially get them to say something without using this technique (a line from a play, the days of the week – whatever you like), followed by their speaking the same words using the correct breathing technique. You will definitely hear the difference, but more importantly – so will they. (I have been known to interrupt subsequent speech work with “tube of toothpaste!” when they forget, and it’s like flicking a switch; once learnt, never forgotten!)

At English Speaking Board (International) Ltd. we are mindful of the dual importance of clarity and audibility – in our assessment criteria, unsurprisingly, they are inextricably linked: if you are audible, but unclear, then your audience won’t make any sense of what you say. Similarly, if you’re clear but inaudible, your message will also be lost. ESB encourages clear, audible speech at all times, and this in itself will help the speaker to grow in confidence. If you can communicate clearly and effectively, your potential is truly unlimited.

“Education is a wonderful gift, but to give someone the confidence and skills to be able to communicate that learning through the spoken word is the greatest gift of all.” Christabel Burniston – Founder of English Speaking Board (International) Ltd.

A selection of ESB’s favourite breathing and resonance exercises is below: – contact us at for more information about our assessments in Oracy, or for further speech resources.

Exercises for Breath Support

The object of these exercises is to assist in increasing the amount of breath taken and the control to sustain longer phrasing in speech

Take this long phrase a line at a time, adding to it each time, and building up to saying the whole phrase on one breath.

1. I am now working/

At an important exercise/

For breath support and breath control/

And my aim is to control the breath easily/

To the end of this long, long sentence with ease and confidence/

And then I will count to five – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5/

And there will still be some breath left at the end to sigh out like this…

2.  And one by one they walked up the hill

And one by one and two by two they walked up the hill

And one by one and two by two and three by three they walked up the hill

And one by one and two by two and three by three and four by four they walked up the hill

And one by one and two by two and three by three and four by four and five by five they walked up the hill

And one by one and two by two and three by three and four by four and five by five and six by six they walked up the hill

(Extend this exercise to twelve by twelve)

3. Using the ribs only. Breathe in for a slow count of three. Pause for a moment and then breathe out gently, with an open mouth, for a count of six. Raise the arms out to the sides, reaching shoulder height, on breathing in and lower them slowly while breathing out. This exercise should be done slowly and gently.

4. Repeat the same exercise but whisper the numbers on breathing out.

5. Extend the counting to nine, twelve, fifteen etc. (Only add the additional numbers when the preceding stage can be achieved easily and comfortably).

6. Place the backs of the hands on the lower ribs and breathe in easily. Feel the ribs swing out. Gently blow the air out on an OO sound and feel the ribs swing in.

7. Repeat exercise 6 sustaining the OO sound for a count of ten.

8. Say the following, taking a slightly bigger breath on ribs before each line. At the end there should be enough be left to speak the sentence twice without taking a further breath:


I can

I can control

I can control my

I can control my breath

I can control my breath and

I can control my breath and sustain

I can control my breath and sustain my

I can control my breath and sustain my phrasing.

Exercises for Resonance:

1. With teeth apart and lips just touching, hum gently for a count of six: “mmmmm”. Repeat five times, feeling the vibration in the lips and face. Repeat on a higher and lower note in your range.

2. Speak the following phrases, thinking of all sounds being equally forward:

Wild, wild weather

Cool and clear – cool and clear

Ma makes me moody and ma makes me mad

6. Place finger on lip and flick (like a baby!) as you make the sound:


6. Place hand on top of head and move the sound around the resonators (mouth, nose, throat.)

Exercises to Encourage Forward Placing and to Rid the Sound of Too Much Nasal Resonance

1. Hold the nose and repeat the following, trying to make the sound as though you were NOT holding the nose.

a) Jack, Jill went up the hill

b) Up Jack got, away did trot

c) Apples, eggs, ices are always popular

d) Jack Sprat hated fat

4. Put fingers lightly against the nose (don’t hold it too tightly – allow air to come through) – feel the vibration of the sound when you make the M and the N sounds, but try to feel no vibration when you make the vowel sounds – I.e. Think of M and N vibrating in the nose and the vowels being placed in the mouth.



5. Hold the nose and purposefully buzz all the sounds forwards into the nose (You will sound like a railway station loudspeaker) as you say the following:

a) Days of the week

b) Months of the year

c) Letters of the alphabet

Think of the sounds being placed forward all the time. Try this on different notes in your range, and also at different volumes. Repeat this exercise this time NOT holding the nose – think of the sounds coming forward easily through the mouth.

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