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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

Be proactive with your pronunciation teaching

pronunciation tesol

Pronunciation is an aspect of second language learning which often goes under the radar. The English pronunciation system is more challenging than many other languages for several reasons, so unless you have specific training in how to address pronunciation and phonology in the classroom, it can be equally challenging to teach. 

Most teacher training activity provides a lot of methodology support for new teachers in grammar, vocabulary and skills teaching, but pronunciation teaching tends to be less of a focus. This means that teachers often rely on remedial methods to address pronunciation (by correcting mistakes after they have already been made) rather than teaching through focused input about different areas of pronunciation, as they would with other areas of language. Another issue which many teachers face with pronunciation is a lack of confidence in their knowledge of why certain features exist, and therefore how to address them effectively. You may know what pronunciation problems are common among your students, but not where they come from or how to target them systematically through proactive classroom work.

The first step to building confidence with pronunciation is to think beyond the single-sound pronunciation errors that your students make, and think about how the English sound system works in areas related to those sounds. Here are some ways of developing this understanding in preparation for teaching:

  1. Seeing pronunciation as a physiological skill

Although we teach pronunciation as part of English language instruction, a large part of this area is not in fact linguistic, but physiological. Forming the individual sounds of any language requires the ability to shape the mouth and the speech apparatus into the correct shapes to produce the specific sounds of that language intelligibly. This means that there is a lot of physical work to do, to help learners to develop the muscles and the muscle memory to be able to make the right sounds in the right places when they speak.

One way of proactively providing input into the physical aspect of pronunciation is to hold ‘mouth gym’ sessions, where learners focus on producing challenging sequences of sounds, both on their own and as parts of words. Some languages, such as Japanese and Cantonese, for example, either do not combine consonants directly one after another, or have different phonological patterns when consonants are produced. For this reason, sequences of sounds such as /pr/ (as in ‘produce’), /pl/, (as in ‘play’) and /ks/ (as in ‘explain’) can be a long-term issue without frequent practice specifically with those sounds. Drilling these sounds together in sequences such as ‘plaplapla’, ‘pleepleeplee’ and ‘plupluplu’, for example, can develop the quick-acting muscle movements which are required to produce even simple words with these sound combinations in them.

Focused drilling in this way is one playable and proactive way that teachers can focus on specific sounds without having to correct endless examples of errors in certain sound combinations.

2. Working with pronunciation through lexis

Another way to select and plan content for a purely pronunciation-focused lesson is to think of groups of words under the same meaningful topic which contain those target sounds. The ability to group sounds in words with a memorable connection to learners is one way of applying a lexical approach to pronunciation work, and having a strong context to teach through will make it much easier to create tasks and activities that follow a theme, rather than working with example words from different topics, which would be much harder for learners to retain.

For example, the topic of transport includes a lot of words with the sound sequence /tr/ - even the topic word ‘transport’ contains /tr/. Through images or situations including traffic and traffic lights, trucks, trams, trains running on tracks, tractors, etc., a lot of opportunities for use of /tr/ can be created, which will lead to more meaningful practice of these sounds.

3. Working with pronunciation as a language system

Once you have a clear idea of the sounds (or words, as above) which you would like learners to focus on, a pronunciation lesson can be built through the same lesson staging techniques as a vocabulary or grammar-focused lesson. Pronunciation lessons can be staged as PPP, ESA or test-teach-test structures, though with a specific sound, sound combination or pattern of pronunciation as the target language, rather than a grammar structure or set of vocabulary.

As with other language systems such as grammar or vocabulary, the target pronunciation feature can be presented through images (as with the ‘transport’ topic, above’, or through elicitation from sets of words. Practice activities can be created using peer or teacher-led dictation, work with written words or even gapfill tasks using the International Phonetic Alphabet, if this is familiar to the teacher and students. Production activity can be organised in the same way as a productive speaking task, though with the focus on the use of words or phrases containing the target sound or pattern being studied. Almost any vocabulary activity can be adapted into a pronunciation focus with a little creativity, and will still be effective if it follows the basic best-practice principles of ESOL lesson and task design.

However you decide to address pronunciation in your classroom, focused teaching of specific target features is always more effective than correction of errors after they occur, so don’t be afraid to plan and deliver pronunciation-specific classes following the same principles that you would go by for any other lesson focusing on spoken grammar or vocabulary. The more you work with pronunciation, the more your students’ speaking will improve, and the greater their spoken confidence will be.

Language Point Teacher Education Ltd. delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL over 12 weeks, part-time in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.

If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher development courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

Upcoming course dates:

Level 5 Trinity CertTESOL (12 weeks online):  January 15th, 2024 - April 5th, 2024

Level 5 Trinity CertTESOL (12 weeks online):  February 12th - May 3rd, 2024

Level 6 Trinity Certificate for Practising Teachers (10 weeks online): April 22nd - June 28th


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