Teaching Pronunciation in an ESOL Classroom
This article discusses tactics and tips for teaching pronunciation to advanced learners of English.
Why, Where and How to Start
Native speakers of English enjoy the accents of non-native speakers of English. An accent is not the problem, but comprehensibility is. Teaching pronunciation requires understanding and patience as well as know how.
Teaching pronunciation in an ESOL classroom can be uncomfortable for students and teachers alike. Everyone is a little self-conscious – even the teacher – as they imitate and exaggerate sounds and manipulate speech organs such as the tongue, the lips, and the jaw. There can be uncomfortable giggles, but there can sometimes be a good old belly laugh, especially if they’re laughing at the teacher! It’s often difficult to know when one should address pronunciation in a classroom and how much time one should spend on it. With beginning and low-intermediate students, we often tackle individual sounds by practicing minimal pairs of isolated words such as /bIt/ vs. /bɛt/ or the three final endings of the past tense marker. As students become more advanced, however, a different approach must be taken.
Analyzing sounds is helpful but not basic to teaching pronunciation. Imitating the pronunciation of native speakers through direct imitation is most effective but not always practical. Our students can’t be in a conversation with someone and always imitate them. It’s also a fact that some individuals have a better ear than others. They pick up the sounds and rhythm of a language more easily. For most learners of English, however, indirect imitation is necessary. Indirect imitation can occur in a language laboratory, a classroom, or on their own with apps or CDs (Prator, Jr. and Robinett). As I mentioned earlier, for high-intermediate to advanced speakers, we need to address pronunciation issues differently. Every language has a melody or a song to it. This is what teachers and their more fluent students need to address first. What gives a language its “song” is the thought groups, sentence stress, and intonation. It’s true, however, that to learn these we must first begin with word stress and the weakening of unstressed vowels. These are the foundation of when our voices go up and down in a sentence.
Regarding thought groups, an Indian student of mine, who was unintelligible to his coworkers, especially in a meeting, had tremendous success focusing on this. After I completed an accent inventory on him, I decided to concentrate initially on thought groups as Indian speakers tend not to pause and breathe where native speakers would pause in the middle of a sentence. After only two lessons, this gentleman described a meeting he attended. He said that as he began to speak in the meeting, everyone tensed up and leaned forward, anticipating not being able to understand him. However, as he began to speak, pausing and breathing, they relaxed and sat back in their chairs. Success!
Mastering thought groups, sentence stress, and intonation, will have more impact on becoming intelligible to native speakers than focusing on individual sounds through drilling on minimal pairs of isolated words. The general process one wants to take with more advanced speakers of English is:
1. Weakening of unstressed vowels
2. Word stress
3. Thought Groups
4. Sentence Stress
5. Intonation Patterns (University of Helsinki)
To sound more natural and less bookish, students must first conquer the music of the language. Next week I would like to talk about specific methods of teaching pronunciation as well as how to reduce inhibition in the accent-reduction classroom. Any ideas, experiences, or suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated!
University of Helsinki. "Science Daily." 2 May 2017.sciencedaily.com. on-line. 1 January 2023
Prator, Jr., Clifford H. and Betty Wallace Robinett. Manual of American English Pronunciation. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company,1985.