Number one for English language teachers

Applied linguistics: Teaching pronunciation

Type: Article

Associate Professor of English, Charles Hall, and Senior English Language Fellow, Christopher Hastings, offer some guidelines for teaching pronunciation.

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Since the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching, pronunciation has often been de-emphasized or overlooked in many classes. The fact that you are reading this article suggests you want to add more pronunciation work to your teaching. Let’s go through some guidelines for teaching pronunciation you should consider before looking for activities, approaches, and techniques that will work in your context.

Ten guidelines for pronunciation teaching

1. Begin with PAY.

We use the mnemonic PAY (Purpose, Audience, You) to remember three factors that should be considered when teaching pronunciation, writing, listening, or even snowboarding. Take a minute to answer the following questions:

  • Purpose: Why do your students need to work on pronunciation? Do your students need to be intelligible as a tourist in a non-English speaking country? That’s a great and attainable purpose, since most communication in English is now between so-called “non-native” speakers (NNS) not between “NNS” and people from English-speaking countries. For example, you might be helping an expert user of English from Indonesia who needs to be able to speak to another expert user of English from Saudi Arabia. Neither might be mistaken for someone from Oklahoma, and that is fine. Pronunciation work is almost never about making people sound “native,” whatever that even means in today’s interconnected world. You may even need to dissuade students who have unrealistic purposes to try for a more reasonable goal. Perhaps you are working with a student from Ukraine who will be attending an English-language high school in Hong Kong. Your student wants to sound just like a Hong Kong teenager speaking English to blend in. Well, if your student is over 16 or so, that will never happen; it’s not a realistic goal. It’s just not even normally achievable for someone older than 16 to alter his/her pronunciation habits to sound exactly like a member of a new group. Instead, find a mutually acceptable purpose. Now, write down your students’ purpose.
  • Audience: Who are your students, and with whom do they need to interact? What kind of students are they? Very serious? Fun-loving? How old are they? Age, gender, and cultural background play significant roles in the way students learn or don’t learn an L2. Then think about their audience. Who do they need to talk with? Do they all have the same native/first language? Do they share another language? Or, do you have a class with speakers from different language backgrounds?
  • You: Who are you? How does your own personality, training, or language influence your teaching abilities? Are you serious or fun-loving? Can you make fun of yourself? What is your language background? What variety of English do you speak? For example, both of the authors of this article speak standard American English. We would both be rather useless, however, if our students needed to work exclusively on New Zealand English pronunciation for some purpose we can’t even really imagine. On the other hand, we could easily help prepare them to speak English intelligibly in New Zealand with no problem.

Now that you have an overview of your PAY, refer back to this as you experiment, plan, adopt, and discard techniques, activities, and approaches.

2. Some sounds just aren’t important.

Not every individual sound is equally important. For example, the two th- sounds in English, as in thin [θ] and the [ð], aren’t really necessary for intelligible pronunciation in most cases. In fact, many varieties of English have lost these sounds. Refer back to your PAY; would it be essential to master these sounds? Except for a few rare Purposes, they are not important, which means You shouldn’t spend much time on those sounds. On the other hand, the vowel sounds in seat [i] and sit [I] are important in almost all contexts in English and might be essential to your students’ Purpose.

3. Language is more than a bunch of sounds.

It might be fun for some students to spend hours practicing individual phonemic contrasts, such as in seat and sit, but it’s basically a waste of time. We need to look at three different levels of language analysis that might need work depending on your PAY:

Phonemic contrasts: These are individual sound differences that are significant in a specific language/variety. For example, the difference between seat and sit is phonemic (different and significant) in English, but not in Spanish. So, many Spanish-speaking students will need help to hear and produce the difference. But speakers from other languages may already have that contrast, so to practise it with them would be a waste of time.

Phonotactic constraints: Every language has specific rules on how individual sounds can be combined. Even though two languages have the same individual sound(s), there might be differences in how they can be combined. This may cause problems for students. In English, for example, we can end a word with the [ts] consonant cluster, as in cats, but we can’t begin a word with [ts]. That means that when a word such as tsar (also written czar) is spoken, the first sound is not a [t] but instead a [z] in English. On the other hand, Russian, German, and other languages allow words to begin with the consonant cluster [ts], so the same word (spelled Zar in German) does indeed begin with [ts] when it’s spoken aloud. Listen to the sound file (link at the bottom of this article) to hear the difference.

Of course, the opposite will also be true. Students’ first languages might not allow certain combinations that are common in English. For example, Chinese words cannot end in a consonant cluster, so many English words might be problematic for Chinese speakers. The next time you listen to a speaker whose first language is Chinese, pay attention to their word endings and see which sounds actually cause communication problems. Those would be the ones to work on; you can normally ignore the rest.

Intonation and stress: The rhythm of a language is unique. In fact, there can be many different rhythms in the different dialects and varieties of a single language. Intonation and stress are very important in English, but they are not predictable. Some languages have predictable stress. For example, the first syllable of every Czech word is stressed. On the other hand, different English varieties often have different stress patterns for the same word. Consider the British and American pronunciations of harassment, which are different and not even predictable. PAY will help you decide exactly how much work you need to do on intonation and stress.

4. You can’t “fix” everything. Don’t even try.

This is difficult for many teachers. If your students make a “mistake” that doesn’t influence intelligibility, can you let it go? For example, you are having a discussion with a student who says, “Yes, he was a berry bad man.” Can you ignore it and continue with the conversation? How do you determine what does need to be fixed? Refer to your PAY!

5. Everyone has an accent.

Fortunately, few PAYs require so-called native-like pronunciation. In most cases, intelligibility is good enough. In fact, you should be suspicious of any claims that a program, method, or even instructor can “reduce” a foreign accent and make you sound just a like a so-called native speaker. Consider just how many different types of native speakers of English there are and quickly see that such a claim is spurious. Yes, you can modify an accent if there is enough motivation and some skill, but any speaker of any language has an accent of some kind. This also means that any expert user of a language who is also a “non-native teacher” can be as effective, or often more effective, than a native-speaker instructor. The difference is in the training or approach.

6. Your speech muscles need practice.

When you ask your students to try to alter their pronunciation, you literally are retraining tongue, lip, jaw, and neck muscles. It’s as much physical as it is cognitive. Imagine that learning a new language is like learning to play American football after playing soccer (football in British English) all your life. It’s going to feel odd to move your mouth in new and “strange” ways. And, just as happens when people try to learn a new sport, some people will have more physical skills than others.

7. Don’t waste time with too much “feedback.”

We all have short attention spans. If you spend more than a few minutes on pronunciation during feedback, you are wasting both your time and that of your students. A couple of minutes of intense, focused feedback is better than a tedious hour of repetition.

8. Your first language does matter.

This is unfair but true. Prototypically, speakers of certain L1s will have an easier time dealing with the phonemic contrasts, phonotactic constraints, and intonation and stress patterns of an L2 than speakers of other L1s. Usually, a German speaker will have an easier time with English pronunciation than a Chinese speaker will. The reverse is also true. An English speaker will normally have an easier time pronouncing German than Chinese. Students’ first language(s) have a major influence on what’s easy and what’s difficult in pronouncing a new language. We return to PAY. What if you have a mixed class? How will you work with the variety of prototypical challenges each group will face? How will you assess them?

9. You can’t control the universe.

Age, culture, gender, and L1 can’t be controlled by the teacher or the student. Yet, each of these factors is crucial in determining a student’s success in achieving his/her purpose. As a teacher, you have to just accept that and carry on. You now have some of the background necessary to incorporate pronunciation into your class. Once you’ve established your PAY, you can start figuring out which approaches, techniques, and activities will help your students reach their purpose.

10. Use whatever works for you.

Do not get hung up on theoretical correctness or specific approaches and techniques. If an activity works for your group, fine. If not, that is also fine; now find another activity. Your job is to help your students learn what is needed for their purpose as best you can. Good luck, and don’t forget that YOU are crucial to your students’ success.

Learn more about teaching pronunciation in Phonetics, Phonology & Pronunciation for the Language Classroom by Hall and Hastings. Download the sample below, to read the first chapter. To find out more about the book, and to buy to copy, click here.

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