Teaching pronunciation to elementary, intermediate and advanced levels
It’s all about the accent!
Although English is my first language, I also speak some Marathi, my parents’ first language. When I was 28, I visited my extended family in India and got by with ‘pidgin’ Marathi – and learned to my surprise that I spoke it with an English accent, a source of some amusement and endearment to my relatives.
I also studied French and German at university – luckily, I mastered the French accent without difficulty, but was less successful with German. I worked abroad for a year as an assistante in a French secondary school. I have experienced firsthand then people’s responses to me as a second language speaker, both at work and in social contexts. Perhaps for these reasons, when I first started teaching ESOL, one thing I did instinctively was to include lots of activities to help students work on their pronunciation.
Pronunciation training for teachers
Three years later, my interest in teaching pronunciation led me to enquire about pronunciation courses in central London and I suddenly got an opportunity to shadow an experienced teacher who was looking for a replacement to run such a course. Two months later I was teaching pronunciation to L2 ESOL learners for two hours a week. Despite having been trained, I still felt thrown in at the deep end! But it was the best possible training for me – you know what they say: ‘when you teach, you learn.’
What do learners want?
The two most frequent reasons learners give for wanting to improve their pronunciation are to be taken seriously at work and to be better understood. These learners are well-educated in their own countries but feel their English accents alone are holding them back.
What a difference a day makes!
So what difference can 24 hours make on a course lasting twelve weeks? Well, as English is not a phonetic language, gaining some level of mastery of the 44 sounds of English through the phonemic alphabet can make a huge difference. One student said ‘I learnt to recognise the different sounds in English even the ones I’ve never heard before. I think pronunciation is key to reach complete comprehension.’
Teaching advanced learners (L2)
There are many activities and approaches to teaching pronunciation, but the one I use is simple, holistic, empowering and great fun. It’s also learner centred – students keep a personal pronunciation record which helps them start to diagnose the sounds they personally find difficult, noting those which are identified during the course and recording their progress.
One of the first activities is to induct students in the specialist terminology for talking about pronunciation. I give out a list of about 15 words and students discuss their meanings in groups. They think about and check meanings for homework. Next I give each group a few words on cards and they share their understanding of these – we check together and I elicit or give examples.
During the course, learners work in groups as we go through each sound and its symbol and as they do this they develop a personalised phonemic chart (more below).
Games and activities for elementary, intermediate and advanced levels
I skip the above stages for intermediate (and lower level) ESOL students and adapt the approach so that we focus on some key phonemes, rather than the full 44, but otherwise these activities work well with all levels. Students can:
- use the phonemic chart, focus on a symbol and its sound, and give out mirrors for students to feel, see and discover how each sound is articulated and practise making it.
- call out words and make lists for each sound in initial, medial and final positions, then choose three favourite words, one for each of the three positions; practise saying the words and record them onto what becomes their personalised phonemic chart to help them remember the sound.
- take short dictations of individual words, to listen for and transcribe the initial or final consonant sound; also for vowel sounds, first the monophthongs, then the diphthongs, then both.
- focus on words with the ‘non-rhotic’ r
- play phonetic bingo for practising vowel sounds (See note1)
- do phonemic crosswords to practise transcription both ways (See note 1)
- transcribe popular film titles or a short story from the phonemic script (works even if all 44 sounds haven’t been covered) or for those who have covered all the sounds into the phonemic script
- practising well-known tongue twisters
- play ‘Pronunciation journeys’ to work on minimal pairs (See note 1)
- learn pronunciation rules for plural -s and the third person singular present simple –s endings, using a chart (See note 2)
- learn pronunciation rules for the past simple –ed endings using a chart (See note 3)
- listen for and count the number of syllables in a word
- identify the stressed syllable in a word
- read out a short text and listen for the ‘schwa’ – weak sound
- watch clips from ‘My Fair Lady’ or ‘The Pink Panther’ (remake), which are funny and drive home a point
- transcribe a list of the most common mispronounced words (suitable words selected for each level) from the phonemic alphabet
- decipher the pronunciation of a list of less common words using the phonetic transcription in a dictionary
- record some spontaneous speaking and a short, prepared/rehearsed text which includes all 44 sounds of English or just the sounds selected to work on, which enables the teacher to give individual, accurate and objective feedback (usually at the end of the course)
During these activities, learners have many ‘eureka’ moments and are invariably delighted with their results. Another student said ‘This has been by far the most useful course on English I have ever taken. I learnt things that will stay with me forever. I learnt that English is not that irregular. There are some pretty handy rules.’
Even with the lowest levels, I have found that working with mirrors is always popular, fun and effective if used spontaneously for selected sounds and the same applies to the symbols. ESOL learners often feel that they don’t get enough help with this aspect of their language learning. I recommend it and guarantee that you will have just as much fun teaching it as they do learning it.
Photo: Watching their Ps and Qs: Intermediate ESOL students at City and Islington College
- Hancock, M. (1995)Pronunciation Games, Cambridge University Press
- Soars, L. and J. New Headway English Course Beginner (2002: 11) Oxford University Press
- Cunningham, S and Moor, P (2007: 17) New Cutting Edge Intermediate Students’ book Pearson Longman
Further reading: Underhill, A. (2005) Sound Foundations, Macmillan