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Teaching tips - Teaching pronunciation

As busy teachers it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips are aimed at those of you who are teaching and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes. Our teaching tips will feature in the Language Teacher Education (LTE) newsletter and will be posted on the Teacher’s Resources page on the Wits Language School website.  

If you have any teaching tips or ideas that you would like to share with us, or questions please send them to Bill at bill.farquharson@wits.ac.za

Teaching Pronunciation

By Loren Townshend
24 May 2014


Bridging the gap between the somewhat intimidating theoretical study of phonology offered in teacher-training courses and implementing techniques on how to teach pronunciation in your classroom, seems a daunting task. One glance at the phonetic alphabetic and a mouthful of unfamiliar terms like ‘The labiodental fricative’ and you are left with a class of panic- stricken faces glaring back at you! That mouthful of jargon ‘labiodental fricative’, in laymen’s terms simply refers to the sounds of /f/ and /v/, formed by placing your top teeth on your lower lip and releasing air. The point is that many teachers find the study of phonology totally intimidating, and thus, not knowing how to implement it into their classrooms, simply shy away from it. So how can we achieve this task without having the fear factor from both teacher and student?

Does teaching pronunciation have to be so complicated?

The simple answer to this is ‘No!’ Teaching pronunciation in the foreign language classroom can be achieved through small, simple implementations while simultaneously bringing a lot of joy laughter and unity to your language learners.  What is key here is simply being able to determine what it is that your learners need to know and how to make this knowledge accessible in the most practical and effective way.

It’s All in The Mouth (or is it?)

Starting off your lesson to non-native speakers of English with highly-saluted language and specific jargon like ‘plosive’, ‘fricatives’ and ‘glides’ is never a good idea. It will fly right over the learners’ heads and is probably a waste of time. On the opposite end of the axis, simply repeating sound that may not exist in the mother-tongue language of your students is also not going to bring you much success.

Students cannot simply copy the teacher and suddenly be able to make a specific sound. If a particular phoneme doesn’t exist in a learner’s native language, the learner may actually struggle to hear that sound, let alone reproduce it accurately.

One way to draw attention to foreign sounds is to show your students how to form the sounds in their mouths.  Sounds are formed by using the ‘articulators’ or organs of the mouth, nose and throat. These include the upper and lower lips, the teeth, the tongue, the larynx, the pharynx, the hard and soft palates and the uneven tissue positioned   behind the top teeth, called the alveolar ridge.   When teaching pronunciation, one can show students exactly how to form sounds by using these organs.

Why do Non-native speakers make pronunciation errors and what do these students typically struggle with?

As a native speaker of a language, one does not question where and how sounds are formed in the mouth. Non-native speakers come from a linguistic background composed of many different sound patterns and may not naturally be able to handle English phonology quite as well. This usually happens because a specific sound that a learner cannot produce does not exist in their native language, such as the /p/ sound for native Arabic speakers learning English.  Another common problem that leads to the mispronunciation of English words is that not all languages have the same stress patterns.  Learners of English as a foreign language often transfer the stress patterns from their first language onto their foreign language without realising it. Putting the stress of the second syllable of the word ‘management’ or the second syllable in ‘Europe’ can distort these words completely, deeming then unintelligible.  This illustrates that correct pronunciation cannot solely be picked up - stress patterns of single words, intonation of sentences, connected speech and place and manner of articulation need to be taught in the language classroom.  Additional aspects pf pronunciation that English foreign language  learners make is the misuse of long versus short vowel sounds , such as in the words ‘chip’ or ‘cheap’, and consonant clusters, like ‘str’ in ‘street’.

Teaching Tips: Implementing sounds and pronunciation in the classroom.

Tip 1: Loosen up!

Get your class ready to exercise their speech organs by doing some tongue-twisters as a fun way to start off your lesson. As speech sound are often over exaggerated when they are taught and can feel rather silly to make, it is important to get your students relaxed, loosened up and ready to practice making sounds in isolation without feeling idiotic!

Tip 2: Humming

When teaching stress patterns, try humming the pattern after you say the word. Stress patterns are much harder for foreign language learners to hear. They appear more obvious and easy to identify when hummed rather than when you just say the word.

Tip 3: Sound/Context Association

Students need to learn how exactly various sounds are formed in their mouths. These need a lot of practice and are often difficult to remember.  Creating scenarios and movements that can be associated with the different sounds enable your students to retain these tricks and use them to practice on their own. A good example of this is teaching the minimal pairs   /w/ in ‘wet’ and /j/ in ‘yes’. The lips are rounded and as the air pushes through the mouth, the lips part. Get your students to pretend that they are blowing a kiss to someone, by covering their mouth with their hand and then, as they make the sound, opening up their hands to let the sound out, just like one would do when blowing someone a kiss. To teach the sound /e/ as in the word ‘egg’, ask your students to imagine that there is a fine piece of line attached to their mouths that someone is gently pulling outwards at the sides when they say this sound. The mouth therefore opens lengthwise to the sides, as if being pulled. The more students have a scenario to relate the sound to, the better they can use them independently.

Tip 4: Games.

Pronunciation needs to be taught in an exciting way that wills your students to participate. Create games that test pronunciation indirectly. Look for teaching pronunciation books that have ready-made games in them, such as ‘Pronunciation Games’ by Mark Hancock .

Teaching pronunciation is an important part of language development. It need not be difficult to approach. By eliminating theoretical jargon and contextualising your activities, teaching the sounds of the English language can be fun, easy and effective!

References

Roach, P. (1991) English Phonetics and Phonology. A Practical Course. Second Edition. Cambridge University Press: 8
2 Thornbury, S. (2007) How to Teach English. Pearson & Longman: 37
3 Bangkok, M.(1995) Cambridge University Press. United Kingdom.