A new look at teaching pronunciation to ESL students

Phonemic chart

Many English teachers avoid teaching pronunciation, not because it is not necessary, but because they have little or no information on the subject. Proper pronunciation is essential when learning English as a second or foreign language however; the main goal is to be understood, after all, and if ship comes out as sheep, this purpose may be quickly defeated.

Common pitfalls encountered when teaching pronunciation

Many teachers begin pronunciation practice as they introduce vocabulary. This is the way many textbooks advise to teach pronunciation. Unfortunately, for students with a mother tongue that bears no resemblance to English, this actually makes comprehension more difficult.

Drilling pronunciation is another less than desirable form of instruction. A step up involves combining the teaching of pronunciation with that of spelling, another important skill, but the real starting point is on the level of the phoneme.

What is a phoneme, and why are they important?

A phoneme is defined as ‘the smallest unit of sound in a language system’. This could be illustrated by the sounds of /p/, /b/, /d/, and /t/ in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat. For a student to consistently produce these sounds, they must train themselves to hear them. So the path to proper pronunciation starts with listening and identifying, NOT speaking! Once they can accurately differentiate between phonemes, and pick out matching ones from tapes and videos, they can progress to forming the sounds themselves.

Think of this type of learning as an accelerated version of an infant’s language learning experience! Babies start by imitating distinct sounds, then moving up to sound combinations, and finally distinct words. Different languages use the tongue, mouth and cheeks differently, so diagrams of how to hold these facial muscles to properly produce the desired sound are extremely helpful. Videos can also be instructive, as the students can mimic the speakers on the screen and improve their vocabulary and pronunciation.

The step from pronouncing phonemes to full length words is a short one, and from there it is a much larger leap to being able to communicate in a natural conversation. A whole new set of obstacles appears, but there are easy ways to overcome each one.

The final three walls between your students and pronunciation

We have taken noises and made them significant to our students. We have started to teach articulation. Now we must deal with complex emotional, psychological and cultural motivations that require a unique type of re-education.

A strong psychological barrier exists in the form of ‘learned helplessness’. This is simply the reaction of most people to ‘shut down after several failed attempts at something new. This may be hard to spot, but once recognized it is simple to overcome. Praise the student for each small step, each successive victory. Record their progress by taping them reading the same passage repeatedly over the course of the year. They will be encouraged to see how far they’ve come!

Anxiety is a more easily recognized problem. Students are often acutely self-aware and are reluctant to experiment with sounds for fear of getting them ‘wrong’, and have a general lack of fluency. The best remedy for anxiety? Games! Try reader’s theatre, dialogue practice from textbooks (plays are good practice, as they encourage role playing) and handclap rhymes to build confidence. The entire classroom will benefit from the more relaxed atmosphere games engender!

The final wall is that of cultural identity. In this case, we do not wish to breach the fortification, but merely to create a path for the flow of information. Many people do not want to eradicate their accent; it is a strong indicator of their culture and heritage. As a matter of fact, an accent is not truly a barrier to proper pronunciation. The main goal here is the ability to be readily understood. New Yorkers and Londoners have distinctly different accents, but can usually communicate quite freely.

Role playing and impersonating native English speakers is a perfect way to improve your students’ pronunciation as well as their enunciation skills. They will be amazed to see that mimicking famous actors such as John Wayne or Nicolas Cage can actually improve their English pronunciation. After a few rounds of this game, ask one student to speak their own tongue with an English or American accent, or better yet, have them teach you a phrase or two. This will probably lead to great hilarity as they are able to hear the reverse of their own attempts, and can prove highly instructive as well!

Teaching pronunciation in the ESL classroom does not have to be difficult. By using games and a creative approach, you can ensure your students are equipped for the English speaking world with all the tools they need to make themselves understood!

Written by Shelley Vernon
Author of several books of games, illustrated stories and ESL plays, Shelley Vernon believes passionately that teaching should be fun – for the pupils and the teacher. Her free samples and books have now helped thousands of teachers around the world. Simply visit www.teachingenglishgames.com to grab your free samples and try them out in class.

1 comment

  1. Maria

    I work as a teacher in Brazil and learned English in the U.S. After 8 years living abroad, coming back to my country was not just frightening but also challenging as I started teaching. No one had ever corrected my pronunciation although I lived and worked with Americans. They understood me and that was enough, and I try to pass that onto my students (I tell them to try their best but to communicate because the person listening to them is not their teacher).

    Anyway, teaching pronunciation for me became a beautiful and significant practice in my classes, especially after working with the Oxford English File series (no intention to be an advertising girl for them because I don’t use it directly).

    But unfortunately for schools that use a ‘formated’ or their own way of teaching, it is a sacrilege, and I was graded as an IRREGULAR TEACHER because I used 5 minutes of my class to explain the two different “th” sounds during an examination class. My self-esteem dropped and I started my own school after that.

    Thank you for sending this information. I really appreciate it.

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