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Teaching pronunciation – how and why

teaching pronunciation the s sound

Teaching pronunciation is an area of language teaching that many English teachers avoid. While there are many textbooks and instruction manuals available, there is comparatively little on learning pronunciation. Why? Is it because we don’t need to teach pronunciation or because it cannot be taught?

The importance of teaching pronunciation

Indeed, we should teach pronunciation because words can have different meanings depending on how you say them. For example, there is a big difference between a pear and a bear, two sounds that are not easy for Spaniards! A teacher’s first goal for their students is to achieve basic communication. However, that can fail if their accent is so bad that no one can understand them. In addition, teaching pronunciation is necessary since it’s embarrassing to ask someone to repeat themselves three times and still not understand them.

This article is divided into:

  • How NOT to teach pronunciation
  • Teaching pronunciation with phonemes (but not necessarily phonetic script)
  • From the recognition of phonemes to practise
  • Pronunciation of words
  • Three barriers to good English pronunciation

How NOT to Teach Pronunciation

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

This problem brings us back to whether pronunciation can be taught effectively at all? The answer is yes, of course, it can; it’s just that the way many textbooks teach it is one of the least effective. Many books will have you drill pronunciation with repetition of the vocabulary. Some of the better ones will have you work on spelling., Spelling is an important skill, especially in English with its many irregularities and exceptions. But, unfortunately, very few will start you and your students where you need to, at the phoneme level.

Start with Phonemes (but not necessarily phonetic script)

The dictionary defines ‘phoneme’ as ‘any perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another. Examples are p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.’ This definition highlights one reason language teachers start teaching pronunciation with phonemes. If a phoneme is a ‘perceptually distinct unit of sound,’ students first need to hear and recognise it. Thus in the first pronunciation exercises, students should listen and identify rather than speak.

Introduce your phonemes in contrasting pairs like /t/ and /d/. Repeat the phonemes in words and isolation and ask the students to identify them. In addition, you may want to draw pronunciation diagrams for each sound showing the placement of the tongue and lips. Diagrams can help students visualize the differences they are attempting to recognise.

Phonetic symbols

You might also consider teaching your students symbols from the phonetic alphabet. Learning some of these symbols can clear confusion where the same letters have different sounds. For example, the ‘th’ in ‘there’ and the ‘th’ in ‘thanks’ look the same, but they are not. Of course, knowing phonetic symbols isn’t essential and would be overkill with children. That said, it would be worth it for visual or analytical learners.

You can play all sorts of matching games with this material to make the drills more fun and less stressful. For example, 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.

From Recognition of Phonemes to Practise

All these games for teaching pronunciation are included in my classroom activities for teens and adults, in download and paperback. And this is the best book for ESL Online teachers.

Once they can hear and identify a phoneme, it’s time to practice accurate sound production. For this, pronunciation diagrams are helpful. Your students need to see where to put their lips and tongues in relation to their teeth. Most sounds are articulated inside your mouth, so students have no idea what you are doing 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 student’s frustration of trying to produce tongue movements they can’t see.

Get hold of a reference book with diagrams. Alternatively, you can probably sketch them yourself with a bit of practise. Your students will thank you for this insight.

New neural pathways

While this may sound time-consuming and unnatural, you have to realize that you are in the process of reprogramming your students’ brains, and it is going to take a while. Our brains must create neural pathways to learn new facial movements and link them with meaning.

We are recreating an accelerated version of the infant’s language learning experience in the classroom. We are also breaking down language to babbling noises so that our students can play with the sounds, as infants do. So, students learn to distinguish meaningful sounds while using more mature analytical skills that an infant doesn’t have.

Your students’ articulation and perception of phonemes will improve if you practise phonemes regularly. Then, after several weeks, you will get them all to the point where you can practice pronunciation on a word or even a sentential level.

This English Language Games book has pronunciation games for children. However, if you teach online, these ESL Online Games are the ones you need.

Pronunciation of Words

Younger students may progress faster, but even adults will begin to give up fossilized pronunciation errors with practise! So now it’s time to take the next leap and correct pronunciation in the context of natural conversation. Now that we have looked at physical challenges making sounds, we can address three further potential barriers.

When teaching phonemes, students explore physical parameters and develop neurological pathways. To be explicit, students make meaningless noises and use their mouths, tongues, and lips in new ways. But when we work on pronunciation at a lexical or sentential level, students may have complex emotional, psychological, and cultural motivations that require re-education.

Three Barriers to Good English Pronunciation

Three barriers to students’ adopting a second language are anxiety, learned helplessness, and cultural identity. Of course, not every student will have all these problems. However, for sure, all of them will have at least one to a greater or lesser extent. As English teachers, we have to bring these problems to our students’ attention in non-threatening ways and suggest tools and strategies for dealing with them.

Barrier 1 Anxiety 

Anxiety is an obvious problem. Students who feel anxiety speaking are generally well aware of it and know it impedes their progress. Consequently, they might be unwilling to experiment with sounds, lack the fluency to blend sounds correctly, and have poor intonation and syllable stress. The best remedy for anxiety is structured, low-pressure practise. In other words – games.

Jazz chants, handclap rhymes, reader’s theatre, and textbook dialogues are all helpful. Structure and repetition reduce the pressure and allow students to focus on pronunciation and intonation. Classroom rituals, like starting the lesson with a set greeting and reading a letter aloud, are excellent ways to integrate pronunciation into classes in a reassuring way. Drilling set phrases for correct pronunciation will eventually improve overall pronunciation.

Barrier 2 Learned helplessness

Learned helplessness is harder to solve and recognize. ‘Learned helplessness means that, after trying something several times and consistently failing to get a positive result, a person shuts down. So, if students get negative feedback on their pronunciation skills, and if they try to improve but feel they haven’t, they stop trying. You might think they are lazy, but they don’t believe they can improve. They have already given up.

Luckily, the fix is straightforward: stay positive and praise frequently. To encourage students, periodically record them to hear the improvement after a few months. If a student progresses, tell them what they did right. For example, ‘the difference between your short /a/ and short /e/was apparent that time! So let’s do it again!’ Record students reading or reciting a text at the beginning of the year and again every couple of months. Play the recordings and let students hear how much they have improved. They will probably impress themselves, and you!

Barrier 3 Cultural identity

Finally, let’s look at cultural identity. Students who don’t want to be assimilated into an English-speaking society won’t give up what makes them different. An accent is a clear indication of one’s roots and history, and some people may be unwilling to abandon it. However, this should not be a problem: As teachers, we should ensure that others understand our students, but we don’t have to strive for hypothetical perfect pronunciation. Instead, we should highlight that accents don’t matter much after a certain point.

Hindu woman in sari working on pronunciation in front of a mirror
Use a mirror to practise pronunciation and see what you are doing with your lips, teeth and tongue

Fun pronunciation activities

Here are three fun activities to help your students become more sensitive to accents; listening to native regional accents, teaching you a phrase in their language and impersonations.

Impersonations

Impersonations can be a class activity. For example, students can impersonate famous people, wether fictional or newsworthy. 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 record them since it proves that they can use an English accent in a conversation or monologue.

Loosen a student’s grip on accents is by having them teach you a phrase in their language for you to repeat with your own accent. See if you can get students to imitate you afterwards. Silly as it sounds, this will give them insight into key phonemes and how one’s native language can interfere with the target language. Most of us have put on a ridiculous, heavy French or Spanish accent at some point in our childhood as we spoke English. It was usually to get a laugh out of the rest of the room. But, it is fun, and students realize that if they can sound American/British/Australia/Canadian/ or whatever in their language, they probably do it in English. Indeed, it can be fun listening to a Japanese student imitating an American trying to speak Japanese, then watching their amazement at their pronunciation in English has improved!

Listen to accents

Get tapes and videos of English from other parts of the world. 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 the other accents. It’s fun, gets people laughing, and helps students realize there are many correct ways to speak.

Teaching pronunciation can be fun, easy, and quite a learning experience for yourself and your students. So take a few ideas from here, a few from your textbook, and give it 10-15 minutes every class. You will see quite a difference in pronunciation, attitude, and overall language skills with time.

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