Did you like studying pronunciation? How about teaching it?
Somehow I have a feeling that the answers to both questions would be ‘No, not really’. Somehow we all believe that pronunciation is not as important as vocabulary or grammar and that we’ll somehow be understood despite our accents or occasional mistakes in pronunciation. Well, guess what? It is exactly problems with pronunciation that most EFL students (and teachers ☺) report as causing misunderstandings.
So how can we help our students sound better and understand others in the real world?
1. Never omit pronunciation step while teaching new vocab/grammar
It is easy to just focus on meaning and form, and let pronunciation be figured out by students themselves. Instead, try to create a habit of always including pronunciation into your teaching. It may be as simple as asking students to repeat the word/sentence after you when you are presenting it.
2. Do not let pronunciation mistakes pass unnoticed
Again, we tend to notice grammar, spelling or vocabulary errors far more often than phonetical ones. Do pay attention to students’ pronunciation and provide necessary corrections when needed. Or praise when they sound just like native speakers! ☺
3. Focus on their chosen version of English (if applicable)
Since English has so many varieties, it is only natural to narrow down to one specific accent or dialect if your student needs it. For example, if your learners are preparing for the TOEFL test, it might be better to focus on American English, while if immigration to Canada is your student’s ultimate goal, you might need to do your research into Canadian English.
4. Provide practice for chunks, phrases, and sentences, rather than individual words
We are all too familiar with a situation when students simply do not recognize a word they know in connected speech. The only thing that may help is to provide practice on pronouncing chunks of speech and to train their ears, perhaps implicitly, to hear the changes that occur there. For example, it might be difficult for students to recognize individual words in ‘You must tell him’ when they hear ‘Youmustelim’, unless you teach them that.
5. Draw their attention to contractions
Students often tend to learn full versions of grammar forms as it makes more sense to them that way. However, in real world speakers are too lazy to pronounce everything and make an awful lot of contractions. It is therefore vital to teach students understand and use contracted forms as well, from simple ‘isn’t’, ‘I’ll’ and ‘mustn’t’ to more complicated ‘twas’, ‘gonna’, ‘must’ve’ or ‘musta’, gotcha’ and ‘y’all’.
6. Practice both slow and fast versions
Remember how you feel when you meet a foreigner and ask them to teach you a simple phrase in their language, such as ‘My name is…’? When you first hear it, it sounds, well, like it’s impossible to repeat. But after you hear it several times and slowly, you feel like it might eventually fit into your mouth. So do not rush things with your students either, pronounce things slowly for them, perhaps even exaggerating the sounds at first, to make sure they hear it clearly before you move on to natural speed.
7. Provide memorable examples and motivate to master pronunciation
Most students don’t like activities on pronunciation. But there’s so much fun you can have with pronunciation in your lessons! You can easily convince your learners that correct stress, pronunciation or intonation matter a lot, and motivate them to study it. Use different memes, pictures, short videos, and fun sentences.
And tongue twisters, of course! -- ‘English is weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though’
There are also tons of funny activities online. Check out this test for your advanced students, for example. Or enjoy this video with your intermediate students just so they have an idea of how different American pronunciation is from British one:
8. Recommend watching TV series
Personally, I always recommend my students to watch TV series rather than listen to podcasts or watch films in English. The reason? It takes time to adjust your ears and get used to a specific accent, voice or manner of speech. TV series give students that time, as they get to know the characters episode after episode and notice their individual pronunciation features, which eventually makes it easier to understand them.
9. Don’t be ashamed and have fun!
Many learners are ashamed and embarrassed when it comes to correcting their pronunciation while their tongue just wouldn’t twist the way it should. Do not give up easily; encouragement, praise, and occasional push will produce the desired results sooner or later. Just make sure you laugh WITH the students, not AT them, and any pronunciation activity will be as enjoyable as it may be.
Teaching pronunciation is tedious, they say. You’ll always have an accent anyways, they say. Perhaps, but weren’t we all hypnotized by the music of English when we just started learning it? And don’t your students still struggle with understanding fast connected speech or with pronunciation and intonation, even having mastered some advanced vocabulary and grammar? Language started with sounds, and it will always be worth going back to that foundation to fully understand how it works.