Confession time: I’m not very good at pronouncing English words, and I’m a native speaker! I have a pretty extensive vocabulary when it comes to recognition and definitions, but pronunciation always gets me. I think that is largely due to the fact that English pronunciation isn’t very logical. It's confusing even for people who have been speaking the language their entire life.
If that’s the case, then how do we teach our students who are non-native speakers? If you’ve studied ESL pronunciation, you may be aware of the phonemic alphabet. While incredibly useful to those who are familiar with it, it can seem like a pain to teach a whole new alphabet in order to speak the intended one! You could definitely study the phonology or sound systems of English, but that takes some individuals years upon years and degrees upon degrees.
Some students elect to watch a ton of English movies and shows and listen to music or podcasts, and that is definitely helpful for some. However, it isn’t always a sure bet. After all, when was the last time you heard a rapper, pop artist, or tv personality and said, “Wow! That’s some great pronunciation!”
If you’re overwhelmed at the thought of teaching pronunciation to your learners, you may want to start broader. Instead of focusing on the individual sounds of a word, it can be more productive and less overwhelming to focus on the intonation and stress of a sentence or paragraph. Check out this article, titled English Pronunciation Guide: Thought Groups for more information.
There are so many resources in textbooks, curriculums, and on the internet for teaching pronunciation, but many can feel unproductive, repetitive, and pointless. I recommend you keep the real world in mind. What I mean by this is, you don’t want to lose sight of why students need pronunciation. If they’re learning pronunciation to be able to communicate well, then make sure your activities reflect that need and purpose.
Check out the activities below for some quick tips and tricks to keep you and your students sane while practicing pronunciation!
Model New Words in Context
One of the first things you should do whenever you’re teaching English, no matter the subject matter, is check for context. Context brings so much understanding, and it’s not any different with pronunciation.
Give your students a chance to hear you saying the sound, digraph, or word that you’re focusing on naturally and within context. If you’re focusing on the ‘sh’ digraph, allow your students to hear you say things like “I went shopping today” or “You’re being too loud. Shh..”
Natural stress and natural contexts are much more helpful than an isolated ‘sh’ sound. After your students have heard a few examples of the focus sound or word in context, give them time to repeat it back to you a few times.
This is the most important part: give honest feedback. Don’t tell you're students they’re doing great if their ‘sh’ sounds more like a ‘juh’ sound. You obviously don’t want to discourage them, but let them know if they need more practice and find ways to help them do so. You may have to remodel the sound/word a few times.
Everything needs to be modelled, including intonation. Intonation and feeling are extremely important in communication. A sentence such as, “Wow, that’s a lovely dress!” can either be a nice complement or a really rude and sarcastic comment all depending upon intonation and feeling.
In my experience, students can have a lot of fun playing around with feelings and emotions when speaking. One of my favorite things to do with those boring dialogues in textbooks is to have students practice them with one another with a specific emotion, such as anger, sadness, jealousy, etc.
Likewise, when you’re modelling intonation, try out different emotions and feelings. Have your students guess which one you’re using and what you might actually mean. It’s great for making your students more aware of the power of intonation, but also for teaching them how to recognize the meaning behind the words.
Encourage your students to speak all dialogues and example sentences with emotion. Don’t let them get away with dull, flat intonation. If your practice session is built around a text between a husband and wife over whose turn it is to do the dishes, that should be evident in the tone and intonation of the sentences.
If you’re anything like me, you don’t have to be told twice to use a dialogue. For me, it’s a default that I’m trying to get away from, but they can be really useful if used a little more creatively (and in moderation).
Instead of simply having students read a dialogue silently or to one another with emphasis on intonation, lead your students through some pre-task work. Instruct them to think a little bit about how to say the dialogue before saying it, and mark the text for the stressed syllables. In the sentence, “I need to go to the grocery store,” which syllable or word do they think should be the most stressed? That is obviously going to change depending upon context and even their own opinion, but it’s good to give students time to ponder these questions.
Another thing you’re going to want to do while using a dialogue is to not use them. Use them to practice, but then ‘perform’ or practice some more without the script. It can be really difficult to speak naturally while reading. Many individuals have a ‘speaking voice’ and a ‘reading voice.’ Include some textless work in order to improve the speaking voice.
Finally, stress to your students that it’s more important, especially at first, to focus on getting the feeling right. The individual sounds, words, and overall grammar will come later, but it’s most important to get the feeling right when speaking. It may be surprising, but it’s much easier to understand a student who can’t pronounce individual sounds in English, but who has the correct feeling and intonation than the other way around.
Have you ever heard of chants? They’re great to use in an ESL classroom to practice pronunciation and fluency. A chant is basically a poem or dialogue that was written for reading out loud. It probably will have a strong rhythm, clear everyday conversation, exaggerated feeling, and a ton of repetition. If you want to know more, I found this great resource at One Stop English.
Nevertheless, I’ve used a few jazz chants to help my students practice individual sounds as well as overall intonation and feeling. They’re a great resource to use with learners who may be too afraid to speak on their own. The momentum of the group reciting something is a great cover for poor pronunciation, and, consequently, a great time to practice!
One thing to remember with chants, though, is that your aim should be to have your students learn them by heart. You want your learners to get to a point where they can confidently recite them without hesitation and with appropriate pronunciation and intonation. Notice how I said ‘appropriate’ and not ‘perfect.’ This is another article for another time, but perfection in pronunciation is a tricky (if not impossible) thing.
One thing that I keep trying to stress is that teaching the English language, especially when it comes to pronunciation, doesn't have to be overwhelming and difficult! Start small and look for little ways to instruct and guide your students.
A few fun activities (such as guessing the emotion or doing a chant) and some key strategies (such as modelling and context) can make a world of a difference in your students' pronunciation.
I Want to Hear From You!
Which one of these tips/tricks do you find most helpful? How will you incorporate it into your classroom?
What are some of your biggest struggles with teaching pronunciation? What types of struggles do your students have with the subject?