Teaching Pronunciation: An Overview

 | Teaching House Nomads Blog

Pronunciation is arguably the most essential part of oral communication. It doesn’t matter how perfect your grammar is or how wide your vocabulary is — if the sounds you are producing are not intelligible then you will not be understood. In addition, a good grasp on the pronunciation features of a language will help students with listening skills and understanding people who speak quickly or with varying accents. It has also become apparent that when students are confident in their pronunciation, that confidence can spill over into all other aspects of their language learning.

English teachers should engage students in encouraging pronunciation exercises and drills
Another kind of drill

Despite all the reasons to focus on it, pronunciation is often woefully under-taught in ESL classrooms. Some teachers don’t want to make students feel anxious or embarrassed, so they omit or only half-heartedly drill new language. When teachers do drill, they fear boredom so they don’t do the drills consistently. Sometimes teachers have trouble pinpointing exactly why a student’s pronunciation is wrong – they can only determine it “sounds wrong”, which is understandably demotivating for the student. Further complicating matters, students and teachers alike may have overly high expectations of proper pronunciation, so they don’t even both trying; conversely, non-native speaking teachers or teachers with strong local accents may feel self-conscious drilling, particularly when they are teaching from a book that focuses on standard British English.

So what are some of the solutions to providing an appropriate focus on pronunciation in the classroom? The first thing to consider is what makes an achievable goal. Broadly speaking, when using the communicative method to teach English, the ultimate goal is effective communication. Students should not be expected or even encouraged to sound “native-like” — pronunciation drills and error correction should center on the sounds that impede or improve communicating a message. Therefore, nitpicking a student who pronouns the word “this” like “dis” is not the most effective use of time, and can again be demotivating. The student who pronounces “this” like “thees”, though, should be corrected as this error can impede the message.

It is understandable for English language students to make mistakes in the classroom
The more mistakes, the merrier

There is also the question of how much connected speech — or sounds that occur between words — should be explicitly taught. Examples of connected speech are the “g” sound that appears between the words “did you” or the way “lean in” sounds like “lee nin” when spoken naturally. It may be unrealistic to expect students to pronounce sentence-length utterances with natural connected speech. However, there are some standard phrases that sound strange without connected speech features, such as the “used to” in ‘I used to swim.” If a student pronounces this “YOOZD-too” it would put a burden on the listener to decipher meaning. When this is the case, it’s important that students are at least familiar with the natural way of saying the phrase and approaching accuracy.

The final main area of pronunciation is rhythm and stress. English is an example of a “stress-timed language”, which means that each syllable in an utterance does not have equal weight. Vowels can be reduced to weak forms and function words are almost entirely eliminated. Other stress-timed languages are German, Arabic, and Russian. In contrast are “syllable-timed languages”, such as Italian, Turkish, and Cantonese, where each syllable has equal prominence and reduction of sounds is much less common. This is the main reason why an Italian accent in English sounds so distinct; speakers typically do not reduce vowel sounds appropriately and speak in a characteristically staccato manner. This can again put a burden on the listener to follow along and decipher meaning. Further, misplacing stress can change the meaning of a word entirely – consider “desert” versus “dessert”. In the classroom, it’s essential the teacher corrects errors with stress placement at both word- and sentence-level so students can become comfortable with English rhythm. It’s likely a learner who speaks a syllable-timed first language will always struggle with this area, but with consistent practice and correction they will get closer and closer to natural English rhythm and they will be more intelligible to their audience.

Getting students to continuously learn and practise their pronunciations can help them improve their language skills

So, considering the myriad features of pronunciation and difficulties for students, what’s an achievable aim? When teaching monolingual groups I like to find a celebrity example to provide a model — a group of Colombians might look to Sofia Vergara on “Modern Family”, or Russians could watch a video of Vladimir Putin giving a speech in English. Not only does this provide an achievable model for students, but it can also provide a cultural jumping off point for lessons and give students a confidence boost knowing somebody they might admire speaks English with an accent like they do. It’s also a great opportunity to introduce multimedia and authentic materials in the classroom.

While pronunciation can be a subject fraught with subjective preference and insecurity, it’s an essential topic to address in the ESL classroom at all levels. Stay tuned for a second post offering more concrete drilling and practice techniques for the classroom — coming soon!!

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