How do you deal with pronunciation in class? Moving from sounds to systems

Pronunciation is one of the fundamentals of language learning. It is the primary factor in spoken language when it comes to understanding and being understood by others. However, it is often given a much lower priority in the language classroom as compared to the more ‘teachable’ aspects of language such as grammar and vocabulary. Pronunciation, like grammar and vocabulary, is a language system. It operates under rules, structures and patterns, so can be taught using much the same methodologies as for other types of language lesson. So why is pronunciation in most classes limited to closed, ‘repeat after me’ drills, which focus on individual words and phrases being taught?

One reason for this is that drilling can be built into any lesson, and so it appears that by including some call-and-response work, error correction and spoken forms, valuable pronunciation work is being done. Fine, drilling has its place, and there are creative and well-designed ways of doing this to help students with their pronunciation of target grammar and vocabulary items. But does drilling teach pronunciation as a wider feature of language? In my opinion, it does not. It teaches how to say specific words and structures, not how to apply patterns to any word or structure. We need to go beyond simple drills and teach our students how to fish, giving them the structural knowledge to apply to any language they come across, and to integrate into their own way of saying things.


This article will attempt to show some methods for approaching pronunciation as a language system, and as a system which operates through the physiology of the mouth, meaning that it can be taught through physical exercises as well as theoretical tasks.


1) Pronunciation as a language system


I think everyone agrees that pronunciation has ‘rules’ (I don’t like the word, as every rule has an exception, especially in English), which can be isolated and taught as such. Take the rhotic /r/, for example. One ‘rule’ is that in Standard British English pronunciation, speakers only pronounce the /r/ before a vowel and never after one (with the exception (!) of certain regional accents), whereas in Standard American English, the rhotic /r/ sound is pronounced in both positions, both before and after vowels. Test this out - Americans, this is a surefire way to sound British, and Brits, if you want to put on a better American accent, that’s one way of doing it! This is a watertight pattern which follows a set of systemic features.


Go back to the last lesson that you taught which focused on a specific grammar point - a tense, verb form or structural item. How did you teach that lesson? Did you present the target structure first, or did you ask your learners to read a text containing that language and ask them to ‘discover’ it inductively? Then what did the learners do with this structure? Perhaps some exercises or further examples? Did they get the chance to try it out in their own language, through a discussion, dialogue or role-play? The structure of a systems-focused lesson often includes these methods and techniques, helping students to develop and take ownership of the language they are learning.


Now replace the grammar point with a pronunciation feature (perhaps the rhotic /r/ from the example above). Rerun the lesson you just considered, only this time think about how you would present the presence or absence of /r/ in British and American English. Planning a presentation, or guided discovery stage, asking students to engage with other examples and starting them using the form for themselves are all very possible with a pronunciation feature such as this.


Let’s go a little further and think about the systems and patterns behind a larger feature of pronunciation: the use of schwa (the relaxed-mouth sound represented by the phoneme /ə/) in reduced or weak syllables. Rather than simply presenting a list of words which have this sound in them, think about the different functions of schwa, and present this as a pattern to be learnt and applied to any word or phrase. Just as you wouldn’t teach a piece of grammar through a single example sentence, don’t restrict pronunciation teaching to a closed set of words and phrases. This just limits what your learners can do with the form you are teaching.


2) Methodologies for teaching pronunciation systems


Staying with the schwa example, here is a procedure for teaching the pattern of pronunciation as both a segmental (focusing on single phonemes in words) and a suprasegmental feature of pronunciation (focusing on the sound’s broader effect on rhythm, pace and connected speech)


i) Identify the target sound (in this case, schwa)

This is an important step, and is often trickier than it seems, as in English we do not always hear the sounds of the letters in words. At this stage, we do need a set of words to work with, but one which is carefully selected to represent the range of positions where the target sound can be found. If possible, it is also useful to select a set of words where the sound is represented by different spellings, reducing the connection in students’ minds between sound and spelling. For schwa, a good set of words might be:


waiter, doctor, procedure, information, listen, forget, condition


Ask the students to identify one sound which appears in all of these words. As a trick, you may want to give these words out on paper first, to further highlight (later in the lesson) the weak relationship between the spelling of the words and their pronunciation. Be careful, though, as students will often rely on written forms if they have them, which will detract from the focus on pure sound when the time comes.


To present the pure pronunciation of these words, ask students to hide the written form (or rub out the words from the board), and to listen to you dictate the words. This works best if students also close their eyes, to focus on pure sound input. Reinforce that there is one sound which appears in every one of these words, sometimes twice.


When students notice the schwa, do a quick drill of the sound in isolation, focusing on the relaxed mouth, tongue and lips, and then in a few example words from the list, to check they can form the sound realistically.


ii) Identify the system at work

Once students have been drilled with the target sound (this may take a couple of dictations), focus on why that sound appears where and how it does. Dictate the words again, and this time ask students to listen for the stress pattern of each word - where is the ‘strong’ sound in each case?


When working with noticing stress, I like to use some kind of physical reinforcement such as large and small blocks, game pieces, coins or other physical markers. Students must ‘transcribe’ the word into its stress patterns by showing the strong (big marker) and weak (small marker) syllables in front of them on the desk. This is the clearest way of getting evidence of whether they are hearing the stress correctly.


Ask students what they notice about the placement of schwa (in weak syllables only), and ‘transcribe’ the set of words from the beginning of the lesson onto the board, using big and small circles, squares or whatever to show the strong and weak syllables. Ask students to come to the board and write the symbol ‘ə’ in the shape where it appears in the word. Don’t be too quick to validate correct or incorrect placements; ask around the room for the students to confirm whether it is correct by sounding out the word in each case and peer-correcting.


When the schwa(s) in each word have been shown on the board, without any words or language to get in the way, the pure pattern of pronunciation has been identified! Ask students to describe the pattern: schwa only appears in weak syllables, and often appears in prefixes and suffixes.


iii) Apply the pattern

Now that students have a handle on where and why schwa often appears, they can start widening their understanding by applying the pattern to other weak syllables, especially prefixes and suffixes. To guide them into this, isolate the prefixes and suffixes from the example words from the beginning of the lesson, and ask students to brainstorm 3 more words which contain the same pre- and suffixes as the words presented at the beginning of the lesson, for example procedure can generate produce, propose and promote, all of which use the weak prefix pronounced as /prə/, followed by a strong syllable in the word stem.


Students should now be able to apply the pattern to these known words, before moving on to some harder, unknown words and applying the pronunciation pattern for real. The best evidence that a pure pronunciation pattern is being applied is if a student can correctly pronounce a word that they have never seen before. Remember, when we are focusing on pure pronunciation, understanding meaning is not so important, as long as the pattern we are teaching can be demonstrated accurately. For the ‘pro-’ prefix, words like ‘proselytise’, ‘progenitor’ and ‘propinquity’ work well, and with the application of ‘weak pro- followed by strong syllable’, can be pronounced accurately without too much effort, despite being incredibly high-level words.


As a final activity, to let the learners run freer with this pattern, I like to get them writing songs or poetry to a set rhythm, using as many words which demonstrate the pattern as possible. Poetry is great for pronunciation classes as it does not require too much focus on grammar or logical meaning, as long as it scans well, it’s good for the purpose of the class and proves that students are continuing to apply the pattern in their own language choices.


3) Pronunciation as a set of physiological patterns


Certain patterns of pronunciation relate to the amount of effort which is taken to produce the sounds we speak. English is an especially lazy language in this respect, and some pronunciation features have evolved into the language in order to reduce the effort of flipping from sound to sound with the different parts of the mouth used in speech. Many of the features of connected speech operate in this way, and can serve students well in (eventually) reducing the amount of effort taken in the production of speech, and increasing fluency and ‘flow’ of language when they speak.


Let’s take the connected speech feature assimilation as an example. Assimilation is where one sound takes on qualities of the sounds which appear around it, to make it more similar (and therefore less effortful to pronounce) in the flow of speech. Many sounds are produced as completely different sounds because of this feature, and we may not even know ourselves that we are using a certain sound in natural connected speech, as it is so counterintuitive.


For example (forgive me for getting technical), in the phrase ‘boys and girls’, the /ndg/ sequence of sounds, pronounced fully, takes a lot of effort. Try it, and you will feel the awkwardness of producing these sounds in quick succession This is because /n/, /d/ and /g/ are produced using different areas of the mouth and in different ways. To compensate for this, we often drop the /d/ sound from the end of ‘and’, leaving the phrase sounding like ‘boys ’n’ girls’. However, the sequence /ng/ (spoken as two distinct sounds) still requires effort for the tongue to flip quickly from touching the front of the mouth to closing off the back of the mouth. To compensate for this effort, the nasal sound /n/ assimilates with the position of the /g/ of ‘girls’ and takes on that feature, becoming a different sound altogether: /ŋ/. This new sound combines the nasal manner of /n/ and the velar (top of the throat) position of /g/. For students, this is a useful aid to fluency in that the amount of effort involved in the production of this (and similar) sequences of sound, and the risk of getting tongue-tied and miscommunicating the message are greatly reduced.


This seems like an incredibly specific pronunciation situation, but if you consider that this happens every time the words ‘and’ or ‘in’ are followed by a word beginning with a /g/ or /k/ sound, you can see how common this is in communication (there’s an example right there!). The less effort is taken to speak such troublesome sequences of sounds, the more brain focus can be dedicated to retrieving grammar or vocabulary, thinking about the message being spoken, or working out what to say next. Reducing effort has benefits across the board in language use, so this is something worth some focus in the ‘laboratory’ environment of the language classroom.


As an extra note, other features of connected speech which operate on a physiological basis in this way are catenation, insertion and intrusion. Searching for these linguistic terms will throw up lots of examples that you can choose from to work with in class.


4) Methodologies for teaching the physiology of pronunciation


When working with any of the above features of connected speech, I like to take a bottom-up approach, starting with the minimum chunks of sounds to highlight what the form sounds like. This often means starting with some ‘nonsense drills’, where meaningless sequences of sounds are drilled to fix their forms and so that students know what they are dealing with. Nonsense drills also work well as a kind of ‘mouth gym’ warmer, which limber up the muscles of the mouth and are a bit of fun to start a lesson.

i) Identify the sound sequences

Once you have selected a set of example phrases which contain the feature you are teaching, for example (using the assimilation feature we looked at above): ‘boys and girls’, ‘in conclusion’, ‘believe in god’, ‘cheese and onion crisps’, ‘handgun’, ’pancake’, ‘kind girl’ and ‘brown car’, isolate the sequences of sounds that will be the focus of the lesson:


/nk/ /ŋk/ /ng/ and /ŋg/


Drill these sequences of sounds, ensuring that students are all producing the correct sounds (/ŋ/ not /n/, in the correct sequences, for example). Ask students to rate how difficult they feel each sequence of sounds is to produce (you could ask them to order the sequences from 1-4 to show which are more or less effortful). More often than not, they will rate the discrete sound sequences (not the assimilated /ŋg/ and /ŋk/) as more difficult to produce.


Show the students the selected target phrases and ask them to identify which phrases contain each sequence of sounds (using some more than once). You may need to prompt (or check) where the students are looking in the phrases, highlighting that they should be focusing on the boundaries of the words, where one word finishes and another begins. When they have matched the sounds to the phrases, ask how many of them matched the /ŋg/ and /ŋk/ sequences to anything. There are likely to be very few who touched these two sequences, as they appear quite different from the spellings in the written phrases.


ii) Identify the physiological benefit

To introduce the assimilated sequences, I like to point out that the students have more often than not used the most difficult sequences of sounds - why make it so difficult? If only there were a way of simplifying this and making it easier to say…


At this point, I use dictation again, to highlight the assimilated sounds in context. As a dictation exercise, students should have a small task to do while they listen to you read out the target phrases at natural speed; a simple ‘same or different?’ task works well for this. If the student hears you say what they have written as the sequence of sounds at the word boundary, they write ’S’. If it is different, they write ‘D’. In feedback to the task, explore what is different in the sound sequences they wrote, the sounds you spoke, and why they might be different, highlighting the ‘effort-saving’ rule of /n/ and /nd/ assimilate to /ŋ/ when followed by /k/ or /g/.


As with the procedure for schwa, above, it is important that students are given the opportunity to try out these new forms in wider examples, and eventually in their own language. An effective way of doing this for ‘effort-saving’ features of pronunciation is to challenge each other to a tongue twister competition. Normally, I do not like using tongue twisters in class, as they are designed to be deliberately difficult to say (the opposite of what we are trying to achieve here!). However, a deliberately difficult sentence, designed with an effort-saving pronunciation feature, can demonstrate how even the trickiest bits of speech can be made easier with application of what we are learning. Thus, the feature you are teaching is helping the students, rather than the sentence hindering them in their learning.


To generate the tongue twister, students should brainstorm as many sequences of the target sounds /n/ , /k/, /nd/ and /g/ as they can in phrases, and put them together into a sentence of 15-20 words. Once they are prepared, they can compete in timed speaking, to see who can get their sentences out the quickest.


As a note, in tasks like this, it is always a good idea to have a few prepared examples in case no-one can generate a sentence which works for the exercise. Hopefully, with judicious application of the connected speech feature you have been teaching, it should get easier to speak through tricky sequences of sounds without getting tongue-tied.


In summary, it is important to think about not just which words and phrases you are using to help your students work on their pronunciation, but how you are presenting sounds and patterns of pronunciation in class. Try to mirror the way you teach grammar in your pronunciation work, get students identifying, analysing and applying the sounds you teach, and they will be able to incorporate these new patterns into their own speech with less and less effort going forward.


Tom Garside is a teacher, trainer and staff developer with a specialism in phonology and pronunciation teaching. His resource pack for pronunciation teaching: Pronunciation Card Games, brings a game-based element to this important area of study by using phoneme cards to help students take hold of their own pronunciation and develop awareness of the sound changes in the English language as it is spoken authentically.


Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a training event at your centre, or Sign up to the Language Point newsletter ‘From the Training Room’ for articles, resources and offers on Language Point products.

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