teaching pronunciation

Teaching pronunciation is a complex subject, and it is worth a whole class or two of instruction. However, as befits the frenetic times we live in, I’ll offer here a listicle of some key tips to keep in mind when teaching pronunciation.

  • Do your homework beforehand. If you have a class of Saudi, Thai, Japanese, Korean and Mexican students, be prepared with a simple pronunciation syllabus that meets their needs. A quick internet search or perusal of resources (like Learner English by Swan) will tell you what issues to target. Knowing ahead of time that many of these students have issues with (for example) T/Th or other phonemes will prepare you and them for success.
  • Don’t lean on the book. Don’t lean on CDs. Learn what aspects of pronunciation should be taught and do it. The book is a useful tool, gives some clever games and drills and is, of course, easy to use, but your job is to fix problems, not book-teach. Use it, don’t follow it. CDs flatten all audio! The best model is you. Yes, it is tiring. Yes, you’ll get hoarse. Do it for your students.
  • Learn the IPA. Seriously. Then get your students to learn it! Yes, the IPA looks a little scary (Greek letters! Aaah!) But it is far easier to grasp than you think and is terribly useful for you and for your students. It helps them unlock the mysteries of pronunciation by themselves from dictionaries, pronunciation websites, and apps. They’ll WANT to know it if they are intermediate level and, if they are academically oriented, they’ll need it.
  • Change your schema. Think old-school, hands-on-coaching. Yes, we love Communicative Language Teaching with a focus on communication and fluency with accuracy being somewhat secondary. Here, you enter the world of phonemic accuracy, of intonation and fricatives and bilabial voice stops and voiced and unvoiced phonemes – oh my. Repetition, modeling, listening/speaking drills, comprehension checks all focus on getting it right, all are part of this playground. It can be fun, like working out in a gym can be fun. Sort of. But it IS motivating.
  • Half of what you are doing is building confidence. Be confident. Help them be confident that they WILL get it. I’ve had students who truly believed (and were told) that they ‘couldn’t pronounce L or R’ because of their nationality. Begin with this: Every human being can produce and hear any phoneme with the right coaching and practice unless they have a physical or neurological issue. Tell your students: ‘You WILL be able to pronounce this sound, but it will take some work. If you try hard, I KNOW we will be successful together.’ You will not be lying. Belief is powerful!
  • Enunciation then pronunciation. Before ‘pronunciation’ work on unfamiliar phonemes, spend one class on enunciation. Especially for languages that primarily keep the mouth semi-closed like Japanese, get students to practice opening their mouths, working on full vowel sounds and on simply projecting their voice and saying the words. Some cultures find the open mouth rude, which makes English a rude language I suppose. To say ham, you have to open your mouth. Projecting, speaking confidently, opening the mouth and enunciating often makes students much more comprehensible even before focused pronunciation remedial work begins.
  • Keep this in mind: If you can’t hear it, you can’t say it and if you can’t say it, you can’t hear it. Teaching pronunciation is a neurological process. You are not just getting students to mimic a sound, you are pushing them to make new neurological connections and this is hard work. There is no ‘TSU’ sound in English, most native English speakers can’t say it nor hear it. (Tsunami is not ‘su-na-mi’) To hear this phoneme and use it, we have to create a new neurological pathway. Tiring work! This is our coaching job, to expand our brains and, of course, we are working on listening skills too.
  • Always start with the physical. Listening and speaking sounds is abstract. Use cut-away images of the mouth, animated video clips on how that sound is created; anything to help them see and physically get the process. Show students where and how in your mouth/throat the sound is created. Use your hand, finger, cotton swabs dipped in sugar water, mirrors and other props to help make students physically and visually aware of how to form the sound the sound. Kazoos for intonation! Rubber bands to show stress/syllable length! Yea stuff!
  • Help students see the correct sound as they are mastering it. As you work through the back and forth of listening/pronouncing/listening/pronouncing the new phoneme, often within the framework of minimal pairs work (P/B etc.) pause and let your students have a physical reality check. Use small mirrors to check tongue placement or a finger on the lips to check TH sound (tongue must touch!) or held tissue paper to check P/B (P – it moves, B – doesn’t move) and so on. Pair students up and let them help to physically assess each other as well.
  • All praise to the Speech Therapists of the world! We are not worthy! Over the endless years of teaching pronunciation instruction, it is the Speech Therapists (STs) who have brought science and therapeutic attitudes to pronunciation instruction. They are awesome! Go online and get to know TeacherTube and YouTube and the zillions of useful pronunciation websites and apps that you’ll want to become familiar with to use with or recommend to your students. As you do so, know that it is the tricks and tools of the Speech Therapist trade that we have benefited so much from in our ELT. All honor and praise to the STs of the world and the plethora of amazing cyber resources available to us because of their hard work.
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M.A. History (Cross-Cultural Studies), Western Washington University; TESOL Certificate, The School of Teaching ESL. Denny is a teacher educator at S-TESL and delivers most of the 4-Week Intensives each year. Denny has taught ESL at ELS Language Center in Seattle and in Japan at Sundai Junior College. He worked at American Cultural Exchange in Seattle as Center Director and as Director of Marketing.