Pronunciation work has traditionally taken a secondary role in language teaching to work on grammar and more recently lexis. In my work as a teacher trainer I have been surprised at how often experienced teachers are reluctant to tackle pronunciation issues in class. I can think of at least two reasons why pronunciation tends to be neglected: firstly, the lack of clear guidelines and rules available in course books, and secondly the fact that isolated exercises once a month do not seem to have much of an effect. This is not surprising, however; like all other areas of language teaching, pronunciation needs constant attention for it to have a lasting effect on students, which means integrating it into daily classroom procedures. I find that addressing issues regularly during the language feedback or group correction stage of a lesson helps to focus learners' attention on its importance and leads to more positive experiences.
- Using student talk to teach pronunciation
- Word stress
- Vowel sounds
- Weak forms
- Sentence stress
Using student talk to teach pronunciation
Pronunciation work can be kept simple and employ exercises which are both accessible and enjoyable for students, whatever their level. Whenever students do a freer speaking activity, the main aim is usually for them to develop their spoken fluency in the language. However, the activity also serves to work on students' accuracy through the feedback we give them on their use of language.
- When my students do such a group or pair work activity at any level I listen in and take notes which are divided into three areas of language: pronunciation, grammar and lexis. Within the latter, as well as unknown lexis I will also include areas such as register, function, set phrases…and within the former I will include notes on any area of pronunciation that leads to miscommunication. This includes diphthongs, vowel sounds (including weak forms), consonant sounds, word stress and sentence stress. All of these areas can be dealt with quickly and efficiently by having some simple exercises ready which require nothing more than the board and a basic knowledge of the phonemic chart.
- If learners are introduced to the phonemic chart one phoneme at a time, it can be introduced from beginner level and students are quick to appreciate its value. A rule for when 'ea' is pronounced /e/ (head) and when it is pronounced /i:/ (bead) will not necessarily aid production, whereas the activities I propose here will. Once your students get used to the exercises, pronunciation work becomes even more efficient and, dare I say it, effective.
Here is a simple exercise I repeat regularly for work on word stress and individual sounds.
- I hear a pre-intermediate learner say: 'I suppose (pronounced with stress on first syllable) I will see her tonight'. The listener doesn't understand because of the mispronunciation and asks the other student to repeat until finally they write it down and we see what the word was.
- After the activity, on the board I put a column with two bubbles to represent word stress, the first small, the second much larger. I write 'suppose' under the bubbles and drill it before asking students to think of other two-syllable words with second-syllable stress.
- I get 'outside', 'today', 'below' and 'behind', which I accept as correct before asking for verbs only. I then get 'accept', 'believe', 'forget'….and these go in the same column.
- If a student asks for rules during this exercise, in this case 'Do all 2-syllable verbs have this stress pattern?', for example, I either ask them to think of examples that contradict their rule to give myself time to consider it or I tell them we will look at rules for this the following lesson. As a general rule I find that this procedure encourages learner autonomy by having learners form their own hypotheses which are then confirmed or disproved by the teacher in the following lesson.
I hear a pre-intermediate learner say: 'Not now because he is did (dead)'.
- After the activity, on the board I draw a column with the heading /e/. In this column I write the word 'dead' and have students repeat it. I then ask for examples of words which rhyme with this, which students find easy ('red', 'bed', etc.).
- I do not write these, however. I then ask for words which rhyme and have the same vowel spelling, i.e. 'ea'. I put students in pairs or groups to think of words, giving myself some thinking time, too. In this case, depending on the level I will get 'head', 'bread', 'read', 'lead',… and we end up with an extendable list of words with the same spelling and sound.
- It is the cognitive work of trying to think of similar words, writing them down and their organisation into columns that helps learners retain sounds and spellings, rather than their simply revising the lists. This is why all students should be encouraged to copy the list into their notebooks.
- If the classroom allows it, it's also a great idea to have students pin posters with sound columns up on the wall and add to them whenever a new item comes up for that sound, particularly if it is a strange or different spelling.
- The idea is to get a basic poster with a phoneme at the top and various columns with different spellings.
/e/ 'e' 'ea' 'ai' bed dead said pen head
I hear an intermediate learner say: 'I didn't find (pronounced / f i: n d /) it anywhere'.
- I make a column with /ai/, drill 'find' and my students give me 'fight', 'bike', 'buy', 'eye','my', etc. for the sound.
- I accept these without writing them and then encourage students to think of other words spelt like 'find'. I get 'mind' and 'kind'.
- There may be only one or two for any given pattern. If I have thought of any other words myself I add them to the column, ensuring that they are not obscure words or too high for this particular level (in this case I might choose to introduce 'bind' and 'grind', but probably not 'rind' or 'hind').
I hear an elementary learner say: 'I will buy vegetables (pronouncing 'table' at the end)'. I note that this is also an opportunity to work on word stress.
- I make a column with a schwa, and drill 'vegetable', marking the word stress.
- With an elementary class there is a case for simply teaching this point rather than eliciting known words, so I point out the number of syllables and the stress on the beginning of the word, explaining that this makes the final syllable weak and not pronounced as the word 'table'.
- I add to the list 'comfortable' and 'presentable' as further examples, but avoid adding more so as not to overwhelm students at this level.
- For the second example I point out that the stress is on the second syllable. I can think of objections teachers have made to my suggesting this, such as students' confusion at the lack of a steadfast rule or the non-uniformity of the examples, for example, but to cater to this merely serves to reinforce students' belief that a language always obeys a strict set of rules. In my experience this approach is not a useful one. The only way to learn these fundamental pronunciation points is to notice them, note them down and practise them regularly.
I use fluency drills to work on sentence stress. I hear an intermediate learner say: 'He told me I couldn't have a holiday' (bold words are stressed). This causes confusion due to the stress being placed on the wrong words in the sentence, i.e. the pronouns, or grammar words, as opposed to the content words.
- The activity is simply a choral drill, but of the whole sentence and maintaining an English rhythm. 'He told me I couldn't have a holiday'.
- The trick here is not to over-exaggerate on the stressed words, but keep the stress and rhythm natural. Think in terms of modelling a rhythm, rather than a stress pattern. Using gesture like the conductor of an orchestra or tapping on the board to show the rhythm is especially helpful for students who cannot hear it easily.
Admittedly, this latter exercise on sentence stress does seem to take longer to have an effect, but if highlighted early on and practised relatively often, students do seem to internalise how English stress differs from their own language and helps overcome what in later stages of learning becomes a fossilised way of speaking. Sentence stress causes more communication problems for a fluent speaker than any number of grammatical errors.
One of the beauties of using student speech for pronunciation work is that it directly addresses students' problems. I have attempted to provide a couple of very simple exercises here to help teachers integrate pronunciation into their classes on a regular basis. Regular work in this area helps learners to develop their own hypotheses and gut-feeling for English pronunciation, something experts and researchers have long emphasised as an essential skill of a good language learner.
Barney Griffiths, Teacher trainer, Teacher, Materials writer, Spain