Pronunciation: what, why, when and how? (an #eltchat summary)

Pronunciation wordcloud (eltchat 2nd Feb 2011)

The Wednesday 2nd February 9pm GMT #eltchat was fast and furious. Here is a summary of the main points:

Why teach pronunciation?

‘If you’re not teaching pronunciation, you’re not teaching English’

  • It can help with punctuation.
  • Learners are keen to work on pronunciation so that they can be understood.
  • It helps with listening skills, particularly features of connected speech.
  • Pronunciation, rather than grammar / vocab, is the main barrier to understanding. If learners have bad pronunciation, listeners think their English is incomprehensible even if it’s not. Can undermine SS confidence.
  • Raises awareness of sounds – learners better able to distinguish between them.
  • It’s fun!

What to teach

  • Individual sounds (perhaps using the IPA – see below)
  • Sound linking
  • Connected speech (perhaps through songs)
  • Weak forms (schwa)
  • Voice – get them to imitate English speakers mispronouncing their L1 – gives them a feel for sounds / rhythm
  • Syllable stress – highlight length, pitch, loudness, & vowel clarity
  • Intonation
  • Minimal pairs
  • Chunking
  • Pausing
  • Rhythm
  • Awareness of varieties of English.
  • Awareness and recognition – production will come later

How to teach pronunciation

  • Integrate it into your lessons as much as possible OR Have courses which are entirely pronunciation focussed.
  • Start with little steps, and build from there.
  • Keep a corner of the board for pronunciation issues which emerge during the lesson.
  • Model the shape of the mouth, and ask them to think about their tongues and lips! Even works with elementary SS.
  • Combine it with listening.
  • Use coursebook tapescripts to integrate pronunciation: mark schwas, intonation…
  • Work on pronunciation with all new lexis.
  • Record vocab covered in class and upload it for SS to listen to between classes (example here:
  • Record your students and use it to focus on pronunciation issues.
  • Get SS to record themselves on their mobile phones. (they can do this for homework too)
  • Transcribe.
  • Use chants, clapping and songs. SS often have better pronunciation when singing, so it gives them hope when speaking. (Could reflect a question of attitude – do they resist sounding English when speaking?)
  • Use games.
  • Intonation: using only the word ‘banana’, role play this situation: husband arrives home, small talk with wife, wife confronts husband about recently-discovered affair, husband denies it, husband admits it, argue, make up.
  • How many different ways can you say ‘no’ / ‘thank you’?
  • Use graded readers with small groups to focus on pronunciation and see where SS need to develop.
  • Use shadow reading with graded readers or with recorded versions of short texts e.g. (also jokes, ads, movie trailers)
  • Exaggerate sounds – it’s fun, and SS can feel the difference between them.
  • Encourage SS to mouth words silently when reading / listening (works well with YLs)
  • SS put a wrapped chocolate bar (Tatranky if you’re in the Czech Republic) in their mouth. Drill vowel sounds. The chocolate should fall out of their mouth if they’re doing it properly (open mouth)
  • Take chunks of text and look at the connected speech, including lots of drilling
  • Listen to the radio and imitate the accent
  • Cuisenaire rods fabulous for teaching word/sentence stress, intonation etc
  • Mouth exercises – SS think it’s fun to laugh at the teacher
  • Get SS to stand up and sit down to mirror the intonation as you drill.
  • Exaggerate pronunciation by putting on a ‘posh’ accent – “Hello. How are you? Haven’t seen you in aaaages.”
  • Use drama: mini scripted sketches good for practising exagerrated voice range and intonation
  • Make it fun: stress can inhibit production.
  • Use tongue twisters and limericks
  • Work on sound and spelling associations
  • Use different coloured pens, dots, connections, arrows…
  • Experiment with the Silent Way
  • Decode text messages
  • Give SS a passage to mumble on their way home

The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)

  • Opinions: Scares a lot of teachers – puts them off teaching pronunciation; can confuse things, but OK if students are comfortable with it; can make a dictionary more useful; introduce it ASAP and it becomes integral; learners may be resistant if they don’t see the point; levels the playing field in a mixed group if no-one knows it
  • Students often use their own notation, so don’t feel the need to learn IPA.
  • Can be hard to use if SS are from very different educational / language backgrounds
  • Make flashcards for the sounds from the IPA (you could use the English File sound pictures or Adrian Underhill’s chart
  • Use it to highlight differences that SS may not hear e.g. cat v. cut
  • Also to highlight differences between the variety of English you speak and other varieties SS need to be aware of
  • Highlight sounds which don’t appear in L1.
  • Use the schwa symbol – very useful – the one bit of IPA that every teacher should know.
  • Have fun with it! SS more likely to accept it this way.
  • Use games to teach the script

Issues with teaching pronunciation

  • It is very overlooked by teachers, often as coursebook syllabi are so dense, and teachers don’t think grammar / vocabulary include pronunciation.
  • It is overlooked in a lot of coursebooks – included in very small chunks, so teachers don’t see it as important.
  • Can be difficult to teach in multilingual classes unless suprasegmental.
  • If it’s not tested, it’s not important.
  • Some teachers think it will come by osmosis, but it actually needs a lot of work.
  • It’s often left until later, meaning a lot of SS have very little exposure to pronunciation work.
  • Realism is required: perfection is unnecessary and largely unobtainable.
  • Students may believe there’s no system to English pronunciation.
  • Which English? (see below)
  • Do we do our students a disservice by speaking slowly and clearly in class?
  • Teachers often aren’t trained to teach pronunciation, or training only happens later (Dip, MA) [solution: refer them to #eltchat ;)]
  • Fossilised errors take a long time correct.
  • Teens may fear being mocked by peers.
  • Intonation can be difficult to teach as the rules are hard to pin down.
  • SS attitudes to and perception of pronunciation might block them, although talking about this helps.
  • Is it important for teachers to have a working knowledge of phonology? (The answers generally were that this is something you develop as you go along)
  • HOWEVER, if you think pronunciation is important, your students will too.

Which English should we teach?

  • Accent doesn’t matter, but clear pronunciation does. Accent ≠ pronunciation. And changing your accent can mean changing your identity.
  • The English we know
  • The English our learners need! If they’re going to be exposed to non-natives more than natives, then they need to hear them more!
  • Expose SS to as many different accents as possible e.g. UK / US English is stress-timed, but Indian English is syllable-timed (Global coursebooks were recommended as providing a lot of exposure)
  • A study showed that L2 is easier to understand when spoken in the accent of the listener, not the target language.
  • The days of RP are long past.
  • Be yourself (not like this!)

Online tools

Resource books

  • English Pronunciation in Use by CUP (especially for spelling/pronunciation connectionsm, stress, emphasis)
  • Ship or Sheep and Tree or Three by Ann Baker
  • Jazz Chants by Carolyn Graham
  • English Pronunciation Illustrated by John Trim (complete with funny cartoons)
  • Global coursebooks (range of accents in listening activities)
  • Team Up coursebooks (great pronunciation activities and funny tongue twisters)

Methodology and Further Reading

  • Webinar by Adrian Underhill
  • Teaching Pronunciation using the Prosody Pyramid, a free booklet from CUP
  • Teaching Pronunciation to Adults (Australian English)
  • Adrian Underhill on an embodied approach to pronunciation teaching
  • An introduction to using the pronunciation chart by Adrian Underhill
  • Teaching Pronunciation by Keith Kelly
  • Teaching Pronunciation: A Course Book and Ref Guide by Celce-Murcia, Brinton, Goodwin (CUP 2010 2nd ed)
  • Learner English by Swan and Smith

A bit of fun

This video, shared by @harrisonmike during the chat, epitomises why we should work on pronunciation 🙂

Scottish voice recognition elevator (shared by @esolcourses) (April 2013 update: the link may not always work, because it is sometimes removed. Google ‘Scottish voice recognition elevator’ and you should find it!)

The Two Ronnies (shared by @ShaunWilden)

Update: On the 29th June 2011, we had another chat about pronunciation, including lots of new links. The summary is here.

13 thoughts on “Pronunciation: what, why, when and how? (an #eltchat summary)

  1. This is a fantastic resource for teachers. I have always taught pron and have had some really good results with it. I would recommend it to any English teacher. Thanks for sharing 🙂


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