Practising Pronunciation

Practising Pronunciation

On the 22nd September 2019, I was lucky enough to be able to give the plenary talk in Bilbao for the British Council’s annual Teaching for Success conference. For this event, I thought long and hard about the comments I often give teachers when I observe their classes and 9 times out of 10, I tell teachers to increase their focus on pronunciation. But why is it that teachers avoid any focus on this in class? I embarked on a journey of discovery and found some very interesting information indeed.

We have all been in that situation as a language learner when the teacher looks through the register and picks us out to read something out from the coursebook. We freeze. Our mouth goes dry as we try to pronounce the words on the page in front of us that we’ve never uttered before. As the teacher repeats the words that we got wrong, we wonder why we even bother in the first place, we’re never going to get it right.

During an interview of a CELTA candidate, I was not surprised to read that she had written about pronunciation as a negative learning experience in her pre-interview task. She recalled:

One day I was in English class and the teacher told me to read a text aloud. When I was little I hated to read and when I started, I was so nervous that I made a lot of mistakes and the teacher made me start again. I was wrong again, especially in the pronunciation, and she made me start once more. Suddenly, I started crying because of the anxiety and I thought I would hate studying English forever.”

And I am certain that she is not the only one who has considered this when learning a language. It’s not easy to master the pronunciation of a foreign language and even less so when you are singled out like this and are asked to produce something you’ve never practised before.

One thing that many teachers tell me when I mention pronunciation is that it’s impossible to teach because they have a different accent and don’t speak like the Queen. I mean, the majority of the English-speaking world doesn’t speak like the Queen, but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid focussing on it all together. I for one would bet that many of our students don’t want to sound like her anyway. It really has nothing to do with your accent or being a native speaker and everything to do with sounding intelligible. As Mark Hancock states, ‘The goal is not to sound like a native speaker, but rather to communicate effectively in a global context.’ And, as English as a global language continues to thrive, we need to make sure that we understand and are understood in this context.

So, from this, we can take the key word of ‘intelligibility’ to describe the main goal we are aiming for when we focus on pronunciation in class. Intelligibility can be defined as ‘the quality of being possible to understand’ and our objective as teachers should be to ensure that all our students are understood, right? There is also the argument that some students want to be more than just intelligible, and we are therefore doing them a disservice in the classroom if we don’t help them reach their pronunciation goals.

But why is it that teachers avoid pronunciation in the classroom? In a study at La Trobe University, Melbourne in 2002, teacher reluctance to focus on pronunciation in class was analysed and these were their findings.

  • Causing embarrassment: Some teachers don’t want to make the students feel embarrassed, so they avoid asking them to practise their pronunciation in class.
  • Reluctance to monitor: Teachers avoid monitoring and therefore don’t listen to the language their students are producing, and importantly their pronunciation. If they don’t monitor, they will never know what problems the students are having.
  • Interrupting their flow: Teachers don’t want to stop a student mid-flow to correct their pronunciation.
  • Just happy they’re speaking: Sometimes, teachers are just happy that the students are producing any language and don’t mind that the pronunciation isn’t accurate.
  • Assessment: Teachers don’t feel like they have any accurate guidelines when it comes to assessing pronunciation, like they would have for other language skills.
  • Coursebooks: Coursebooks don’t cover pronunciation very well and if they have anything at all, it seems to be just added on at the end and nothing really to do with the target language of the lesson.
  • Resources: There are very few resources when it comes to extra pronunciation activities and the few that there are always missing from the staffroom.
  • Only when problematic: Teachers only tend to focus on pronunciation when it becomes a problem that they can’t put up with anymore. The problem with this is that the error will already be fossilised by the time the teacher corrects it.
  • Lack of training: Teachers feel like their lack of training on how to deal with pronunciation in the classroom makes them less confident about trying to implement it themselves.

If our classes lack pronunciation focus then there is a high chance that students could face issues to do with motivation, the physicality of producing sounds and recall in the future. So, what can we do to integrate this easily in class? Here are my top ten ways to practise pronunciation with your students, no matter what their age of level.

  1. Minimal pairs: Work on minimal pairs (such as bag and bug) with the sounds which students tend to have problems with and which cause errors in intelligibility.
  2. Dictation: This works on students micro-listening skills and enables them to focus on the process of encoding what they hear. Make it challenging, but not impossible as this could be very demotivating for students.
  3. Bingo! This is a great way to add a fun, competitive element to pronunciation practice in class. Work on words containing a specific sound, rhyming words or sight words which cannot be decoded.
  4. Chants: These are particularly useful with Younger Learners. Not only do they work on the articulation of each work, but also on connected speech. Make chants part of the regular classroom routine to incorporate pronunciation into each lesson.
  5. Use your mouth: You must be aware of what your own mouth muscles are doing when you speak in order for you to transmit this information to students. They must be aware of the tools they can use to change their pronunciation and distinguish between particular sounds.
  6. Common sounds: Focus on common sounds to encourage students to notice different sounds in the context of words and sentences. Use what you’re already using in class and take language from coursebooks, stories, poems etc. You could turn it into a matching activity, a mingle or perhaps a game of happy families.
  7. Syllables: This is one of the most important aspects to focus on in class and will make the biggest difference to students’ pronunciation skills. Make sure you use the board to highlight number or syllables and focus on both word and sentence stress as much as possible.
  8. Make it physical: Pronunciation is not something which you can acquire just through the theory. Make sure you make it physical by getting students to move around the room, run to a sound and do matching activities. The important thing is to make sure students are reacting to the sounds in different contexts to get a much practice as possible.
  9. Broken telephone: This is fun and very useful! You give a sentence to one student and they have to whisper it to the next one and so on until they get to the last person in line. This person then has to say the word or sentence out loud and see if it’s the same as the original one. Get creative with it and make the sentence an instruction or use it as a prompt for Pictionary.
  10. Use images: When we relate sounds to images, they are much easier to remember and recall. Use images to represent a particular sound or keep a bank of images for words that are hard to pronounce. The combination or visual and audio input is key to creating strong connections.

And last of all, always you make sure you celebrate success wherever possible. Pronunciation is a much more personal skill than others in language learning and it is therefore essential that we praise students for their progress as much as possible. Sometimes it can feel like a real uphill struggle, and we all appreciate someone telling us we’re getting there even when it’s tough.

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