The Hows and Whys of Teaching Pronunciation

Teaching English pronunciation is an area of language teaching that many English teachers avoid. While there are many textbooks and instruction manuals available, as well as books on the theories and methodologies of language teaching there is comparatively little on learning pronunciation.

Why? Is it because we don't need to teach pronunciation or because it cannot be taught?

Certainly, we need to teach pronunciation. There is a big difference between a ship and a sheep and a pear and a bear! When teaching any language as a foreign or second language, our first goal for our students is basic communication, and that can't happen if no one can understand what they are saying.

How NOT to Teach Pronunciation 

When teachers decide to focus on pronunciation practise many of them make the mistake of trying to teach pronunciation along with introducing vocabulary. This can work with students who have a "good ear," or who perhaps speak a related language. However it can be hit and miss with students whose mother tongue has no relation to the target language.

This brings us back to the question of whether pronunciation can be effectively taught at all? The answer is yes, of course it can be taught, it's just that the way many textbooks tell us to teach it is actually one of the least effective.

Most textbooks will have you drill pronunciation with repetition of the vocabulary. Some of the better ones will have you work on it with spelling, which is an important skill, especially in English with its many irregularities and exceptions. Very few will start you and your students where you need to start, however, and that is at the level of the phoneme.

Start with Phonemes (but not necessarily phonetic script)

The dictionary defines "phoneme" as "any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat." This definition highlights one of the key reasons that we must, as language teachers, start our pronunciation instruction at the level of the phoneme. If a phoneme is a "perceptually distinct unit of sound" then we have to realize that before students can consistently produce a given phoneme, they must be able to hear it. Thus the first lessons in pronunciation should involve your students listening and identifying, rather than speaking.

Introduce your phonemes in contrasting pairs like /t/ and /d/. Repeat the phonemes in words as well as in isolation and ask the students to identify them. In order to visually represent the differences they are listening for, you may want to draw pronunciation diagrams for each sound showing the placement of the tongue and lips.

You might also consider teaching your students the necessary symbols from the phonetic alphabet, because although T and D are written differently in English, the TH in "there" and the TH in "thanks" are written exactly the same, despite the difference in pronunciation. This isn't essential, and really works best with adults rather than children, but it is worth it for any students who are highly visual or analytical learners.

You can play all sorts of matching games with this material to make the drills more fun and less stressful. You can have students play with nonsense sounds and focus on the tiny differences between contrasted phonemic pairs, the key being to get them to hear the phoneme.

All these games are included in the English Language Games Digital Book for adults with 163 games and activities!

From Recognition of Phonemes to Practise 

Once they can hear and identify a phoneme, it's time to practice accurate production of the sound. For this, pronunciation diagrams are useful. Your students need to be able to see where to put their lips and tongues in relation to their teeth. Most sounds are articulated inside your mouth and students have no idea what you are doing in order to produce that particular noise. If you have ever tried to teach a Japanese student how to say an American /r/, then you have experienced the frustration of trying to get a student to produce tongue movements they can't see. There are books out there with diagrams, and with a little practice you can probably produce sketches of them yourself. If you can't, get hold of a good reference book so that you can flip to the relevant pages. Your students will thank you for this insight into the mouth, especially since there is no danger of the embarrassment of bad breath with a drawing.

While this may sound time consuming and unnatural, you have to realize that you are in the process of reprogramming you students' brains, and it is going to take a while. New neural pathways have to be created to learn new facial movements and link them with meaning.

In the classroom, we are recreating an accelerated version of the infant's language learning experience. We are providing examples and stimulus through grammar and vocabulary lessons, but with pronunciation lessons we are also breaking down language to the point of babbling noises so that our students can play with the sounds, as infants do, and learn to distinguish meaningful sounds on an intuitive level while making use of more mature analytical skills that an infant doesn't have.

If you regularly take ten minutes of your lesson to do this kind of focused phonemic practice, your students articulation and perception of phonemes will see improvement after several weeks, and you will get them all to the point where you can practice pronunciation on a word or even a sentential level.

Pronunciation games for children can be found in this English Language Games for Children book: English Language Games for Children

Moving on to Pronunciation of Words 

The progress will be more pronounced with younger students, but even adults will begin to give up fossilized pronunciation errors when reciting vocabulary words in isolation. It's time to make the next leap – correct pronunciation in the context of natural conversation. Make no mistake; this is a leap, not because it is more physically challenging, but because you are about to address a completely different set of barriers.

When we teach on the phonemic level, we are struggling to expand physical and neurological limitations. We are taking irrelevant noises and making them significant to our students, while trying to teach them a greater range of articulation with their mouths, tongues, and lips. But when we work on pronunciation at a lexical or sentential level, we are dealing with complex emotional, psychological, and cultural motivations that require their own kind of re-education.

Three Big Barriers to Good English Pronunciation

Anxiety, learned helplessness and cultural identity are the three biggest barriers to students' successful adoption of a second language. Not every student will have all of these problems, but it is a sure thing that all of them will have at least one of these problems to a greater or lesser extent. As English teachers we have to find ways to bring these problems to our students' attention in non-threatening ways, as well as suggest tools and strategies for dealing with them.

Anxiety is a fairly straightforward problem to discover. Students who feel a lot of anxiety in speaking are generally well aware of the situation and they know that it is impeding their progress. The impact on pronunciation specifically can be seen in their unwillingness to experiment with sounds, a general lack of fluency that makes it hard to blend sounds correctly, and poor control of the sentential elements of pronunciation, such as intonation and syllable stress. The best remedy for anxiety is highly structured, low- pressure practise. In other words – games.

Jazz chants, handclap rhymes, reader's theatre, and dialog practise from textbooks can all be helpful. Structure and repetition reduce the pressure on the students and allow them to focus on pronunciation and intonation. Classroom rituals, like starting the lesson with a set greeting and reading aloud a letter from the teacher are also excellent ways to integrate pronunciation practise into the rest of the lesson while reducing stress for the student. Rote phrases, drilled for correct pronunciation, will eventually be internalized and the correct pronunciation will improve overall pronunciation.

Learned helplessness is much harder to bring to a students attention, and may be difficult for the teacher to recognize. The term "learned helplessness" comes from psychology and refers to the reaction people and animals have to a hopeless situation. Basically, after trying something several times and consistently being unable to get a positive result, we shut down. We stop trying. If students are getting negative feedback on their English skills, especially pronunciation, and if they try to improve but feel they haven't, then they stop trying. You might think they are being lazy, but in fact they simply don't believe they can improve. They have already given up.

Luckily, once it is recognized, the fix is pretty easy: stay positive, praise frequently and specifically, and periodically tape students speaking so that they can hear the difference after a few months. If you can coax even a little progress out of a student, then tell the student exactly what they just did right (For example: The difference between your short /a/ and short /e/ were really clear that time! Let's do it again!). Tape the students reading or reciting a passage at the beginning of the year, then tape the same passage every couple of months. Play the tapes for you student and let them hear how much they have improved over the course of a few months. They will probably impress themselves, and you!

Finally, the question of cultural identity has to be dealt with. Students that don't want to be assimilated into an English speaking society aren't going to give up the things that mark them as different. An accent is a clear message about one's roots and history, and many people may be unwilling to completely give it up. As teachers, we need to ensure that students' can be easily understood by others, but we don't have to strive for some hypothetical Standard English pronunciation. In fact, we should highlight for our class that after a certain point, accents don't matter much at all.

Some fun activities that can help your students become more sensitive to the subject of accents are doing impersonations, listening to native regional accents and teaching you a phrase in their own language.

Impersonations can be done as a class. Students can impersonate famous people, like John Wayne or Nicholas Cage, or they can impersonate teachers – always a fun activity! The idea is to have them take on a whole different identity and try out the pronunciation that goes with it. Often, your students will produce the best English pronunciation of their lives when impersonating someone else. Be sure to tape them for this as well, since it proves that they can use English pronunciation in a conversation or monologue.

Get tapes and videos of English from other parts of the world than your own. Play or watch them, and have the students pick a few sentences out for you to repeat. Let the students see if they can hear the differences between your English and the English on the recording. Then have them try repeating the phrases in your accent and in the other accents. Its fun, it gets people laughing, and it helps students realize that there are many correct ways to pronounce English.

A third way to loosen a student's grip on accents is to have them teach you a phrase in their language for you to repeat with your own accent. See if you can get the students to imitate you afterwards. Silly as it sounds, this will give them a lot of insight into what the key phonemes in English are and how one's native language can interfere with one's target language. At some point in our childhood most of us have put on a ridiculous, heavy French or Spanish accent as we spoke English. It was usually to get a laugh out of the rest of the room. This is what you are trying to get your students to do in their own languages with an American (or other native English) accent. It is fun, and students come to realize that if they can sound American/British/Australia/Canadian/ or whatever in their own language they probably do it in English. In fact, there probably isn't anything funnier than listening to a Japanese student imitating an American trying to speak Japanese, then watching the grow amazed at the improvement of their pronunciation in English.

Teaching pronunciation properly can be fun, easy, and quite the learning experience for yourself and your students. Take a few ideas from here, a few from your textbook, and give it 10-15 minutes every class. With a little time, you will see quite a difference, not just in pronunciation, but in attitude and overall language skills.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Shelley Vernon promotes learning through English language games and activities.  Go to: Digital Book of Games and Activitiesfor teens and adults or: English Language Games for Children

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