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Pronunciation matters: Integrating pronunciation into your teaching

Type: Article

In this article, Adrian Tennant looks at when you should teach pronunciation and how you can integrate it into your lesson, with a number of practical ideas and activities given as inspiration.

Introduction

There are many reasons for including pronunciation activities in your lessons. Students need pronunciation activities not only to help their speaking but also to help develop their listening ability. In fact, I would argue that pronunciation is as important for listening as it is for speaking. When there is a breakdown in communication, the problem may well not lie with the speaker, but rather with the listener. Such problems are not limited to non-native speakers but can often occur between two different native speakers. Put a Glaswegian in a room with a person from Cornwall and the chances are they will struggle to understand each other if either, or both, are using a regional accent.

Let’s look at how we can integrate pronunciation into teaching and make it an integral part of most lessons.

When should we do pronunciation work?

Pronunciation shouldn’t be limited to a particular time in a lesson. Doing so makes pronunciation seem something of an add-on, an afterthought. Pronunciation can be integrated at many stages of a lesson, and is a logical part of many speaking, listening and vocabulary activities.

However, it is also important to consider why you are doing a pronunciation activity. Is it because it is useful for your students, or is it simply because it’s in the coursebook? For example, there is little point spending ten minutes of a lesson getting students to distinguish between two phonemes (sounds) when they have no problem doing so.

It is also important to think about what exactly causes misunderstanding. Is the fundamental problem to do with the way a particular sound is pronounced (or mispronounced)? Or is it to do with word stress, sentence stress or intonation? Getting your students to pronounce individual words perfectly may well not help them much when these words are put into connected speech (see the section on connected speech in Sound reasons for teaching pronunciation).

During vocabulary work

Although I’ve talked about the need to work on pronunciation in connected speech, this does not mean that we should avoid working on it at word level. In fact, in terms of both individual sounds and word stress, working at word level is obviously the best option.

Pronunciation activities should be an integral part of any vocabulary activity. Work on phonemes within a word and on word stress should take place every time an item of vocabulary is presented. Here are a few practical ideas:

  • Odd one out: Give students a group of four words and ask them which one is the odd one out (doesn’t contain the same phoneme). For example: work, turn, must, her (must contains /ʌ/, all the others contain /ɜ:/) or grow, now, soap, toe (now contains /aʊ/, all the others contain /əʊ/).

NOTE: This activity works best with vowels and dipthongs

  • Mark the stress: Say a word to the students and ask them to count how many syllables there are in it, for example: photograph (3) and photography (4). Say the words again and ask your students to mark the stressed syllable, i.e.

photograph ( )

and

photography ( )

  • How do you say gh, th and spr? Consonant clusters in English cause many students problems. Often students will insert vowels between the consonants to make them easier to say or simply miss out part of the cluster. Giving special attention to such clusters is important. Working on the sounds in isolation to begin with, then at a word level and finally moving on to the words in connected speech will eventually pay dividends (although it might be hard work to start with).

During listening work

One problem with many listening activities is that students only hear them once or twice. The focus of most listening activities is to answer a set of comprehension questions, or some other comprehension task such as to complete a chart, indicate which speaker said which sentence, etc. I’ve already criticised this type of listening in Process Listening. Here I’ll criticise it again as this type of listening does little to help students with their pronunciation. To make the most of a listening text for pronunciation purposes, two things need to be done. Firstly, a task needs to be specifically designed to focus on aspects of pronunciation. It is no good simply to listen to a piece and complete the standard comprehension task. This simply proves students can answer these question and not necessarily that they have understood everything. Secondly, the listening text needs to be played more than once. It is also quite useful if the focus is on only a small section of a listening task (one or two lines) as then more concentrated work can be done in terms of pronunciation.  The following are a few activities you can try:

  • How many words? Take a short sentence or phrase from a listening text and play it to the students. Ask them to count the number of words they hear. To extend the activity, you could ask them to write down what they hear, then compare it to what is actually said and look at any pronunciation features that crop up, i.e. weak forms, unstressed words, assimilation, etc.

Rationale: Often students are told just to listen out for the stressed words as these are the ones that are important (carry the meaning of the sentence), but this is blatantly untrue. For example, negatives are often unstressed and yet are fundamental to the meaning of the sentence.

  • What did she say? Take one or two lines from a listening text where the phonemes in individual words are changed because they are part of connected speech. This might be in the form of elision, assimilation, weak forms (schwa), alteration of the form or intrusion. Write up two or three versions of the line in phonetic script. Play the recording at least twice and ask students to circle the line that is actually being said. Afterwards, students can practice saying the different versions of the line and noticing the differences and changes. For example, play ‘Where are you from?’. Students circle the correct phonetic transcript from: /ˈweərəju:ˌfrɒm/, /ˈwɜːrəju:ˌfrʌm/ and /ˈwɜ:ju:ˌfrɒm/.

During speaking work

When we talk about pronunciation, much of the time we are referring to the way in which students speak, i.e. whether or not they are saying things in a way which is intelligible. It is therefore essential that you take every opportunity to practise pronunciation when you are doing a speaking activity. It is also often worth adapting an activity that wasn’t originally designed as a speaking activity in order to give your students as much pronunciation practice as possible. For example, after completing a dialogue listening activity, why not give your students the transcript and get them to act it out in pairs?

In fact, playing with pronunciation is often a good way to raise awareness and engage students in the activity. It’s important to make an activity fun, but still meaningful. Here are a few ideas:

  • How do you feel? Choose a few short phrases or sentences and write them up on the board, e.g. What are you doing? What do you mean? I’ll see you later, etc. Then write up a few ‘feelings’, e.g. angry, tired, worried, excited, etc. Ask the students to choose a sentence and then try saying it in a way that expresses each feeling. You might want to model this for your students by reading out one or two of the sentences using two or three of the ‘feelings’ and getting the students to guess which ‘feeling’ you are showing through your intonation, stress, tone, etc.
  • How stressed are you? Choose one or two short phrases or sentences from a speaking activity and write them up on the board. Read out the first sentence, but to try and put no stress on any words (so that each syllable is the same length and pitch). Then read it out trying to put as natural a stress pattern as possible. Finally, read it out stressing every third word (or totally randomly). Ask the students in the class to tell you about what they noticed. Put students in pairs and get them to do the same with the other sentences.

Talking about it

Working on pronunciation is as much about raising your students’ awareness as it is about doing specific activities. Unless students are aware of why the activities are important and what they are actually trying to achieve, they will be far less effective than when they do understand what they are doing and why. In many cases, students think they have a problem when in fact it might well be something else (i.e. they are focused on producing a particular sound when in fact the problem is to do with stress). If you routinely talk about pronunciation, it is much easier to deal with such issues than if it is kept as some kind of mystery.

When should you talk about pronunciation? In any of the stages mentioned above as well as during specific correction activities. Sometimes I even start a lesson by doing a five-minute pronunciation activity and discussion, based on something I’ve noticed in a previous lesson.

Conclusion

Integrating pronunciation into your classes and making it an integral part of your lessons will demystify it and make it far more accessible for your learners. As long as you use a variety of activity types and focus on different aspects of pronunciation as and when appropriate or necessary, you will soon find that your students both enjoy and benefit from the work you do. Making pronunciation work a routine part of your teaching will mean that your students see it as just part of the lesson and not simply a five minute add-on when you either have time or have nothing better to do.

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