Pronunciation is often taught as a sideline to the main grammar or vocabulary focus of a lesson, with pronunciation issues being picked up along the way. However, if learners have systematic issues with certain sounds, you will need to prepare some more focused pronunciation work for them in a specific class.
Grammar and vocabulary tend to be easy to put into context - shops and shopping, talking about past memories, wishes or predictions all lend themselves well to lessons about specific language forms. But what about pronunciation? It can be difficult to relate words together according to the sounds which they contain, or to identify words which give learners issues with a specific sound. So how can we help students to organise their pronunciation study, and give them opportunities for more systematic pronunciation work in a more purposeful way?
The importance of phonological context
Because of the different shapes that we make with our mouths when we pronounce sounds in words, the shape of other sounds may also be affected. In fact, almost no sounds are pronounced exactly the same way in every position in every word, because of this effect.
So how do we know whether a learner can produce a sound accurately in the context of the range of words where it appears? One way of doing this is to prepare some words which contain that sound, and work with those words in a closed set, giving the learner the chance to produce the sound when it is surrounded by other, differently shaped sounds. For a lesson focused specifically on pronunciation, a planned list of words containing the target sound in different positions is a must.
Example: practice words with /aʊ/
(Appearing at the beginning of words, where the sound must be pronounced strongly to start the utterance): outside, ounce, owl, ouch
(Appearing in the middle of words, as a bridge between other sounds): mouth, town, shout, loud, proud, allowed, frown, cloud, shower
(Appearing at the end of the word, where the sound ends the utterance): allow, eyebrow, row (meaning argument), bow (meaning the greeting), cow,
Teaching sounds in the context of the other sounds around them gives the mouth exercise around the sound, and helps to incorporate it into different words more easily. Pronunciation is a physical skill, so the more ‘mouth gym’ work that learners can do, the more their mouths will be prepared to form the sound sequences that they need to produce in their speech.
The importance of meaningful context
So having prepared appropriate lists of words containing the sounds you are teaching, how can we present these to learners? Well, as with all language, the brain retains words and ideas best when they are linked by some kind of topic, or meaningful context. There are many ways to link the above words together, and some of these will be quite surreal, but that’s fine - in a pronunciation lesson, we can make the context as fun as we can, to encourage the learners to get involved and try out the sounds, no matter how random it may seem, so here goes:
From the above lists, I would probably go with an owl with proud eyebrows and a round mouth, sitting with a cloud around him. He shouts out loud “NO CLOUDS ALLOWED!” …and the cloud bows down.
It makes little sense, but you can see the possibilities for pronunciation practice, without it being too much of a tongue twister. The context makes it memorable, and therefore the shapes of the target words are more likely to stick.
With a story-based context like this, the opportunities grow for reading, writing and speaking work around a pronunciation focus, as you and your learners have something meaningful to base your activities on. As you work with the story, more and more opportunities will emerge for students to ay the target words in different ways, and for the problem sound to get incorporated into their natural speech.
The next time you notice an issue with a specific sound in your learners’ speech, follow the procedure above and gather a list of target words, where the sound appears in different phonological contexts, and move towards a meaningful context to work with the words (and therefore sounds) further. A little planning can go a long way in focused pronunciation teaching.
If you would like some tried-and-tested pronunciation activities to work with these sounds and others, Pronunciation Card Games is a teacher-friendly resource pack which is adaptable to any set of sounds in the language classroom.
Pronunciation Card Games includes:
A phonology primer, including example words and phonemes
A guide to the features of connected speech, to increase fluency and confidence in student production
10 starter activities to engage your learners
Activity instructions and variations for teachers
44 cut-out-and-use British English phoneme cards, printed on sturdy card
Expansion set of cards including stress and intonation marks, American English sounds and reduced sounds for higher-level teaching of connected speech
A full glossary of phonological terminology
Go to https://www.languagepointtraining.com/product-page/learn-english-pronunciation-with-pronunciation-card-games for more information and to buy a copy for your students.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF 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.