How to teach pronunciation


How to teach pronunciation – 5 tips for ESL teachers.

Of the hundreds of thousands of English classes that have taken place all over the world today, only a tiny fraction of them will have contained any pronunciation training. The reason for this is not that students do not want to learn pronunciation – they do. The problem is that general English (ESL) teachers are not trained in teaching pronunciation (it is not covered on most CELTA or TEFL teacher training courses), which is a shame as the topic is challenging and rewarding for teacher and student alike.

Here I have prepared some tips for ESL teachers to incorporate pronunciation into the classroom.

1. Drill, drill, drill.

Students love being drilled – it is fun, energetic and really useful. There are three basic drills:

  • Group: everyone repeats together.
  • Individual / Scatter: teacher randomly chooses people to repeat.
  • Individual / Order: teacher goes round the group in one direction (EG left to right)

Note that students often feel that they are not drilled enough, whilst teachers often feel they are drilling too much . So drill, drill, drill – students love it more than you realise. Also note that it is absolutely essential that the group repeat together and that all the group do it – otherwise the drill will fall apart.

2. The Big 3s for Consonants, Vowels, Stress & Intonation

The four key topics in pronunciation (consonants, vowels, stress, intonation) can be taught through a simple three fork approach as follows:

    • CONSONANT SOUNDS – Place, Type, Voicing (a bi-labial, voiceless, plosive is /p/).
    • VOWEL SOUNDS – Jaw, Lips, Tongue (an open, spread, front vowel is /æ/)
    • STRESS – pitch, volume, length (a stressed syllable is higher, louder and longer)
    • INTONATION – fall, fall-rise, rise

From a teaching perspective these explanations are invaluable as they give a nice simple structure to a topic that can be very confusing.

3. IPA is your friend

Most students find IPA a wonderful tool for improving their pronunciation and most can learn it very quickly provided it is presented logically. If the teacher starts with the whole chart it can seem overwhelming, so a nice way to order it is as follows:

VOWELS – Schwa – Long Vowels – Short Vowels – Diphthong Vowels
CONSONANTS – Fricative Consonants – Plosive Consonants – Approximant Consonants – Nasal Consonants

Once students know the IPA system, you can have endless fun with games, crosswords and transcriptions which are challenging, interesting and highly rewarding classroom activities.

4. Learn your stuff

There is no getting away from the fact that English pronunciation is a huge topic, so in order to teach it well and to be able to answer questions that arise in class, it really pays to know the topic well. An excellent book that makes the whole topic very accessible and enjoyable is Roach’s ‘English Phonetics & Phonology’. A more advanced read would be Gimson’s ‘Pronunciation of English’.

5. Think (and teach) in connected speech

A lot of teachers when they first start teaching pronunciation, start to think in separate syllables, explaining that the word ‘about’ would be pronounced ‘æ’ then ‘baʊt’ therefore ignoring the weak form /ə/ at the beginning. This is not helpful for students who need to speak and hear the language in connected speech. Teach joining and weak/strong structures so that students start to experience English as a native speaker does. The best place to start is always with the schwa /ə/ sound within words and sentences.

These then, are the basics – any English teacher with teaching levels from pre-intermediate upwards can add a bit of pronunciation to spice up their classes and give students something they really want.

Pronunciation Studio’s Teach Pronunciation! course is a 5 day intensive for ESL teachers – read more here. 

What are the aims of accent reduction?


An authentic ‘English Accent’ or simply ‘Clear Speech’ – what are the aims of accent reduction?

Accent reduction is a term being used more and more frequently in the world of English speech teaching, but its goals are not necessarily clear. Over the past five to ten years numerous courses have appeared aimed at learners of English offering to ‘lose’ or ‘get rid of’ a non-native accent. The concept is strange in linguistic terms – when you learn a language, you generally ‘do’ things: you learn grammar, you memorise vocabulary, you improve your listening and speaking skills. So where does ‘losing’ anything come into this? Is it an action? Is it a lack of action? It almost suggests that an accent is something you carry around with you and by being careless with it, you might suddenly find that it has disappeared – left on a park bench, perhaps.

A clearer analogy would be to lose weight, but you won’t ‘lose’ your accent by not speaking. The term, I believe, that we are looking for is a positive one – to ‘learn’ pronunciation. When a student reaches a very high level of pronunciation, control over accent follows and therefore choice, but nothing has been ‘lost’.

Learning pronunciation is like learning any other aspect of language – when you learn grammar, you start with the basics – subject, object, verbs, nouns, adjectives, then you move on to tenses and conditionals and gradually you reach a higher level until you know all the grammatical constructions of a language, fluency ensues. Pronunciation is the same – you learn the different areas of pronunciation in roughly the following order:

  • Consonant Sounds
  • Vowel Sounds
  • Spelling to Sound Rules
  • Weak/Strong Structure
  • Joining Techniques
  • Word Stress
  • Sentence Stress
  • Intonation Patterns
  • Shifting Stress

A student who has mastered all of these areas, will have a considerable amount of control over their speech. In English, this is something that all advanced learners could benefit from but have rarely ever studied if they have learnt only through ‘General English’ classes or self study.

This explains why most of the students who come to study with us are not aiming to sound British or American or learn any other specific accent – they are simply searching for this part of the jigsaw of English language that they have never been offered in language schools. Their goals are nearly always clear speech – to communicate in English with native English speakers without having to repeat their words or speak unnaturally slowly. This is a logical part of learning English and should not be confused with the different but loosely connected (through phonetics) world of regional accent modification – where somebody (normally a first language English speaker) wants to alter a local accent.

There are a great many examples of people who use clear speech yet have a ‘non-native’ accent, and the results are wonderfully expressive – the person commands authority through clarity and confidence whilst showing their origins. Some notable examples are Tamara Rojo, the Spanish ballerina:

and Werner Herzog, the Austrian film maker:

In the clips it is clear that each would have to correct certain sounds and structures in their speech if their aim were to adopt a British accent (I will post a pronunciation analysis of each at a later date), but each one of these people speak with enviable command and clarity. An example where pronunciation skills obstruct the delivery of speech would be Marina Abramovich, the Serbian performance artist – in this example it is sometimes difficult to follow the narrative:

There is undoubtably a huge stigma attached to accents – barely a week goes by without an article in the press questioning why people want to speak like the queen or whether there is a link between xenophobia the world of elocution. Perhaps if we could move away from the idea of ‘losing’ or ‘getting rid’ of accents and into the progressive world of ‘learning’ pronunciation, gaining control of speech and clear communication, a more positive and progressive approach could be born and a greater understanding of this bizarre language we all live with reached.

English Vowel Sounds

Vowel Sounds

English Vowel Sounds (19 of them)

A neutral British English accent uses 19 vowel sounds, they are (in the order they appear in the sound chart above):

Written English has just 5 spellings – a e i o & u, through combinations of these spellings, we can produce the 19 sounds above.

Each sound uses a unique position of the mouth – with a different jaw, lip & tongue position as follows:

Jaw Position

The first point to consider for each vowel is the position of your jaw – is it nearly closed as in /i:/, half way open as in /ɜ:/ or fully open as in /ɑ:/, which is the sound your dentist will ask you to make in order to see inside your mouth.

Tongue Position

Next, we must think about the tongue – is it high at the front of the mouth, like the short vowel /e/, is it flat, like as in the long vowel /ɜ:/, or is it high at the back, as in /ɔ:/.

Lip Position

Finally we need to think about the lips – are they spread like in /i:/, relaxed as in /ɜ:/ or rounded as in /ɔ:/

Vowel Quality

On top of the position of the mouth, we need to consider the quality of the vowel – this is its length and volume. The higher the level of stress on any vowel sound, the longer it will be. The categorisation of vowels as ‘long’ and ‘short’ is therefore quite unsatisfactory – the length of a vowel is affected by its level of stress and the sounds around it.

So if you thought that ship and sheep could be distinguished by the length of the vowel, think again – you need to make 2 completely different positions with the mouth (1 and 2 in the chart).



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