Three practical ideas for teaching pronunciation

by | 5 October 2021

It’s obvious that good, or at least comfortably intelligible pronunciation is essential for communication. If I can’t make out the sounds you are producing, well then, we are not communicating effectively. But good pronunciation goes much further: it is important for school and public exams, it’s important for career progression and for the way we are perceived by others in daily life. In fact, it’s difficult to over-estimate the impact that pronunciation or accent can have on the life chances of our students.

So, why is pronunciation so neglected in the curriculum, and what can we do about it? I’m going to focus on three practical ideas.

1. Ad hoc pronunciation work

Rightly or wrongly, a lot of pronunciation work takes place on an ad hoc basis. A student says something in class and there is something wrong with the way they say it. Let’s say the student mispronounces this short phrase: ‘a can of coke’. How can we get a really good and consistent model of how this is pronounced correctly? Click into this amazing site: Youglish finds real-life video examples of target phrases on YouTube. This is how it works:
1. First, choose the target dialect, for example British English.
2. Next, type the word, phrase or sentence into the box: ‘a can of coke’.
3. Then listen to it in an authentic video. The great thing is that it goes straight to this item. If you want a different video, click on the Next button, and it will shift to the next video.

It’s obvious how you can use a laptop and data projector in class to drill students in an ad hoc manner when a particular pronunciation issue comes up in class. I urge you to play about with this resource. It’s great. But you also need to know that you should use it with care. I tried a few different phrases at random and I came up with three immediate problems:
1. The content is not moderated. One video that came up was the testimony of a rape survivor. That’s obviously not appropriate.
2. In another video, the person speaking had quite a strong non-native accent, and they were not a good pronunciation model.
3. Thirdly, you can get Americans in British videos and vice versa, so there is a risk of mixing up the dialects.

But it’s really easy to click on the Next button and go to another video, so I don’t think these problems invalidate this resource. You just need to be on your toes and react quickly.

Let’s turn to the Youglish pronunciation advice which appears after you have listened to the word, phrase or sentence. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Break ‘a can of coke’ down into sounds: say it out loud and exaggerate the sounds until you can consistently produce them.
  • Record yourself saying ‘a can of coke’ in full sentences, then watch yourself and listen. You’ll be able to mark your mistakes quite easily.

I think we can agree that this is pretty generic advice, and not very useful: you get the same advice whatever item you type in. So, while Youglish is great in an ad hoc context, how are we going to help our students drill down and work on pronunciation more systematically?

2. Pronunciation tutorial programs

Let’s start by asking what the likely problem with ‘a can of coke’ is, and how we can address it. As an example, the problem may be one of sentence stress: ‘I’d like a can of coke‘. Strong sounds and weak sounds; stressed and unstressed.

To tackle this problem in depth, we need some professionally designed tutorial resources. For this, let’s turn to Clear Pronunciation 2 which is published by Clarity. Let’s start by watching an Intro video. This time I’ve chosen Australian English.

Let’s unpack some ideas from this video:
1. The first and most basic point: in a phrase or sentence, some words are stressed and some are not. If your L1 is Cantonese, for example, where all words are stressed, this might be a completely new concept. So cognitively, it’s very important.
2. Once we understand that sentence stress exists, we need to know which words are stressed. This helps us to rationalise the concept. The important ‘content’ words are stressed.
3. Thirdly, there are different stress patterns: di dum di dum (a cup of tea); dum di dum di (put a coat on)

And finally, we are told how we pronounce the stressed and unstressed words: stressed words are said louder and a little longer; unstressed words are said with weak vowel sounds. After this introduction video, we can move on to a series of exercises to practise and consolidate.

3. Integrating it into the curriculum

But there’s a problem here. If pronunciation tends to be taught as and when an issue arises, what is the role of this kind of systematic, in-depth resource? You can go on Youglish and take five minutes out of your class which is great. It’s a change of focus and you’re tackling a problem promptly. But to deal with it properly, in a way that is going to provide long term benefits, takes time. For pronunciation work to be fully integrated into your curriculum, you need to cross-reference your tutorial program with your coursebook. How can this be done?

Most commonly, but not really satisfactorily, pronunciation tools such as Clear Pronunciation are used as self access resources. Maybe it’s undirected self access and students can access it whenever they want to. Or maybe it’s more directed, so when an issue like ‘a can of coke’ comes up in class, you can send students to the sentence stress section of Clear Pronunciation as part of their homework.

However, research shows that pronunciation taught systematically and right from the start leads to better pronunciation outcomes. (Here’s a fascinating paper from Wesley College of Education, Kumasi, Ghana that discusses this contention.) This means that if the curriculum or coursebook does not tackle pronunciation in a systematic way, you as the teacher need to do it yourself.

This need not be difficult if you take a robust approach. It can be as simple as taking the syllabus document of a program like Clear Pronunciation 2, breaking it down into the 25 units, and allocating one unit per week across the academic year. Even if this is then something that students do on their own, the very minimum you will have achieved at the end of the year is student awareness of the issues and concepts of pronunciation, and how they can tackle them.

The Wesley College paper talks of the ‘dark cycle’ of poor pronunciation, where successive generations of teachers fail to help their students. As teachers we have an obligation to break this cycle both by addressing issues as they arise, and by integrating elements of pronunciation into the curriculum right from the start. Technology, in the form of resources like Youglish and the Clear Pronunciation series, can help us do just that.

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish

Andrew Stokes, Publisher, ClarityEnglish