Teaching English Pronunciation

I've met teachers who believe "there's no point in teaching English pronunciation as it cannot be taught. Talented students pick it up - the rest don't." English coursebooks make the same point with their silence. Apart from a few exercises on word stress or individual sounds - and then only in the better books - they ignore pronunciation.

Despite the above comments, I know from my own experience that clear pronunciation can be taught - and that when it is taught the students listening will improve too. I want to be clear that I'm not trying to make my learners sound like the Queen of England or the President of the United States - or even like me. I'm trying to get them to speak clearly; perhaps with a British, American or any other accent, but it is not the accent that is important. It is clarity and ease of speaking and listening. That's all.

What needs teaching?

In teaching English pronunciation the students generally need work in several areas. Individual sounds - how to make the sound, whether it's a vowel or a consonant. Word stress, sentence stress, the rhythm of English, and English intonation.

Individual Sounds - Background

Teaching English pronunciation involves a giving a lot of listening practice at the beginning. Therefore many of the activities that are good for teaching English pronunciation are also good for developing a student's listening skill.

If the sound you are teaching doesn't exist in your students' language they will try to fit it into the sounds they already know. In this case you will need to help them develop the capacity to recognize new sounds. It's helpful when you teach a new sound to say it a few times yourself, and feel the position of your tongue and the shape of your mouth and lips. You can then model this for your students, using your hands to show the position of the tongue if necessary.

Remember that sounds and letters are different. When teaching English pronunciation, begin with single words and short phrases and build up to using longer utterances. Different accents are mostly caused by differences in vowel sounds - not consonants - this means that making mistakes with consonants is more likely to prevent understanding.

Individual Sounds - ESL Pronunciation Activities

Listen and say is the most basic pronunciation activity.

Listen and slap Students - in teams - slap letters or words on the board . The teacher says a word of sound, and the students slap the appropriate one. One student from each team at the same time.

Bingo Students copy a list of letters randomly onto their bingo card. Or they can use short words with the sounds in them. The teacher reads out the sounds and the students cross the ones they have, shouting bingo if they get a line. This is a very common activity in the classroom, and is always popular with younger children.

Writing Contest The students are divided into teams, and line up in their teams in front of the board. The teacher says a word and the students write it. The first one with the correct word on the board wins a point for their team. This works well when teaching minimal pairs. Spelling ability is not important if the students can sound out the words - perhaps with the teacher's guidance. Magnetic alphabet cards make this activity more fun.

Word Stress

Word stress needs to be taught as the new vocabulary is taught. You can exaggerate the word stress, or even 'sing' it to the students, and then have them copy you. Students can listen to several words being spoken with different word stress and put them into categories according to the position of the stress.

Teaching English Pronunciation - Rhythm and Stress

Some of the biggest problems in students' pronunciation arise in pieces of speech above the sentence level. English sounds - both syllables and words - sometimes become very weak, almost disappearing. Sometimes syllables lengthen or shorten themselves. And sometimes sounds join together. All of these can change the sound of English quite a lot from the full pronunciation which is how students usually learn a new word.

Can, are, is, was, and, his, her, of, from, as, to, at are just some of the words that can be pronounced with a strong or weak pronunciation. Say 'Can you swim?' and 'I can swim' at normal speed. Listen to the sound of the 'a' in can. It almost disappears. Students need an awareness that this happens at all, and then they need practice in hearing and pronouncing it.

Rhythm and Stress - ESL Pronunciation Activities

How Many Words? This is a useful and effective activity which needs almost no preparation. Simply write down three or four sentences which contain some weak forms. It's a good idea to use vocabulary the students have recently been working with, or with grammatical structures they need to practice. Read the sentence aloud quite naturally. Do not try and speak 'correctly,' but speak in a natural way, making sure you are using weak forms where they are present. The students simply have to count how many words you have said. Contractions count as two words. After they have guessed the correct number, they can try to work out the meaning of the phrase.

Telegraph or Text Messages Students write messages deleting unstressed words and send it to another student, or another pair. The teacher can 'send' the telegrams across the classroom. Or they can be texted on the students' phones - if they have them. The receivers then have to write out the message fully, putting back in the unstressed - deleted - words.

Poems/Rhymes/Limericks These can be told in class and memorized if fun for the children. With the teacher's help students can substitute words in poems. Eventually they should be able to write lines, and even whole poems themselves. Children respond naturally to rhymes and they are a powerful way of teaching English pronunciation in the classroom.

Teaching English Pronunciation - Intonation

The music of each language is different. In tonal languages such as Chinese, the music or tone, belongs to each individual word. In English it belongs to a longer word groups. When teaching English pronunciation it's important to make students aware of changes of tone - or pitch - as this carried information that can help others understand what's being said. Intonation is used to to express: emotions, attitudes, stress. It can help the listener to distinguish between statements and questions.

The tone refers to the change in pitch, and this carries information about the intent of the speaker. Pitch can be described as high or low. In English there are 5 main patterns: falling; rising; falling & rising; rising & falling; and level tone.

Falling pitch makes the speech sound more emphatic. If you say 'yes' with a falling pitch it sounds more certain, more final.

Rising pitch indicates a questioning feeling. It can also sound more polite. If you say 'thank you' with a rising pitch it sounds polite. If you say 'thank you' with a falling pitch it can sound more indifferent.

Falling-rising pitch indicates a partial agreement, the presence of some reservations. 'Yes' with falling-rising pitch, for example.

Rising-falling pitch is rarer. It gives the feeling of strong approval: 'Would you like a pay rise?' 'Yes.' 'Would you like to bungee jump out of a helicopter? 'No.'

Level tone gives a lack of feeling or emotion. For example when something is routine or boring. This might happen when taking register, or answering very routine questions at the airport for the 3rd or 4th time.

Remember, that the examples given here are examples of what is typical - but they are not fixed in stone. People sometimes have their own way of using intonation.

ESL Pronunciation Activities for Intonation

As with all aspects of teaching English pronunciation, when teaching English intonation, it's important to first build some awareness of intonation. This can be done by drawing attention to it in class, using fillers such as: uh huh, ah, um, oh...

Futtock's End was a British comedy film which was silent apart from mutterings and sound effects. The mutterings relied a lot on intonation. In class students can act out situations. Student A must discuss a problem (a role card can be given) and student B can only respond with sounds and body language. This can practice intonation and be funny too.

Extreme Opinions are made by one student in a pair. The other student disagrees politely: "That's a very extreme view don't you think?" "Is that what you really think?"

Alibi can be used in many ways - to practice reported speech, for example. Here it is used to practice English intonation. A crime is imagined to have been committed. 2 students act as police. Most other students are given cards with alibis written on them. Some other students are 'witnesses,' and their cards have information which conflicts with the alibis. The police must question everyone (this should occur in a separate room) and find differences that can prove the alibi to be false. When answering questions, a low falling intonation should be used to emphasize the certainty of the answers.

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