Teaching Pronunciation (SLA)

This article is targeted toward ESL professionals. However, the principles described here could be used for teaching any language.

Disclaimer: this article contains profanity. The good stuff is at the bottom.

Pronunciation is one of the trickier parts of language teaching. What do you do when the instructor isn’t a native speaker? And when the instructor is a native speaker, what even is correct pronunciation?

British English? Which one: London, the Midlands, or the West Country? American English? West Coast or East Coast? Northern or Southern?

A simple desire to uncomplicate the issue, conventional wisdom, and the rise of task-based and communicative approaches tell us that only one thing matters: the idea. As long as the communicative objective is achieved, everything else is simply extra frosting on the cake.

I’m not here to argue with that. I’m also not here to argue that pronunciation should form a central or even significant portion of your language teaching.

What I am here to do is to shed some light on two effective methods of pronunciation instruction and one other method that is empirically and demonstrably bad.

Out With the Bad…

Excerpt from English Pronunciation Made Simple

Let’s take a critical eye at this chart. What major issues do you see? How useful would a book or chart like this be to an ESL learner?

Could you really, truly understand what the /ɪ/ phoneme is and how to produce it by looking at this chart and following along with the audio recording? To what extent will midsagittal diagrams help you pronounce foreign phonemes?

While I’m sure that some progress could be made with this technique, the truth is that this is a terrible way to learn pronunciation. And yet all too often, this is exactly how pronunciation is taught to second language learners.

They are given the IPA table and told to learn it. Such poor technique flies in the face of everything that we are taught as SLA instructors.

Using IPA is using language to describe language. You are complicating the sound-producing task by teaching something even more arcane. This becomes even more complicated when you’re teaching students to connect the travesty that is English orthography to a phoneme and then that phoneme to IPA and then from the IPA back to the original phoneme the student ought to have produced. Now say that five time fast!

Furthermore, reading an IPA symbol does not mean a holistic understanding of what that symbol means. Can you read and recognize the symbol? Perfect. Now, can you identify it in a text? When you’re listening? Can you reproduce it reliably when you speak? Can you differentiate it from other, similar sounds?

And most importantly for language instructors: can you teach all those individual skills to others? Can you successfully convey the positions of your lips, tongue, and airflow?

It would be difficult to imagine a less effective way to instruct than simply throwing an IPA chart—even a limited chart of just vowel sounds as in the book—at a group of learners, and yet in my training session several of the teachers confessed that this is exactly how they were taught American pronunciation. Appalling.

In saying this, I am doing a disservice to Dale’s book. If it’s used as advertised, as self-study literature, it’s garbage. You’d honestly be better off shadowing the pronunciation of actors on television. But if it’s used as course material in an SLA classroom, things can be done much better.

…And In With the Good

(1) Teaching individual sets of words:

Sometimes those words will have common sounds, sometimes they won’t. In either case, my recommended techniques for teaching sets of words are choral drilling and backchaining.

In choral drilling, entire words are repeated by students as a group. You can then pick individual students to produce the word or words. I’ve seen the individual part done to great effect when a teacher awarded young learners points to teams for correctly pronouncing as many words as possible.

Backchaining is a technique that exploits choral drilling to produce longer words or phrases. Here’s how it works:

—“A snowman”
—“Build a snowman.”
—“Build a”

and so on and so forth until you build up to “Do you wanna builda snowman?” with all its nuances of pronunciation (e.g., liaison and intonation).

It’s useful for teaching lexis, as in “proud of,” not just “proud;” as well as in teaching longer words like “analytical;” or words that are pronounced differently from how they’re written, as in the word “comfortable,” which many Americans pronounce “comf-ter-ble” (or /’kʌmf-tər-bəl/ for any nerds out there).

Using these two techniques, you’ll be able to quickly and efficiently move through any word list you might have. Making your word lists into lexis might be asking too much, but do be careful to teach the meaning of the words before teaching and testing students on pronunciation.

(2) Teaching individual sets of phonemes

“English” by T.S. Watt

Teaching individual sets of phonemes means that you are seeking not to teach how to pronounce an individual word but rather how to pronounce any word that contains that particular sound. It is one part ear training, one part sight reading, and a whole lot of parts fighting against the esotericism of English orthography.

There are any number of texts* remarking on the absurdities of English writing. “English” by T.S. Watt is currently making its rounds on Facebook. “The Chaos” by Gerard Nolst Trenité is probably the most famous example of the genre.

*Please don’t ever use these texts as a teaching resource. You would not be teaching pronunciation, you’d be teaching “English is difficult, woe is me!”

As these and other poems point out, the breadth of English spelling complicates the task of learning and teaching it. As teachers, it is our job to simplify this task. The techniques to do so include minimal pairs and tongue twisters.

Minimal Pairs

I’d like six. I’d like sex.
There are lots of beaches in Brazil. There are lots of bitches in Brazil.
I need to sit. I need to shit.

…I think I’ve made my point.

Minimal pairs are the bread and butter of teaching accent reduction. They provide a limited scope of immediately applicable skills that the learner can apply to their everyday life. They’re very real. Many of your students will have mispronounced exactly these words. (And you, being a professional, analyzed what minimal pairs they need to distinguish between beforehand.)

They are also devilishly tricky, because teaching them requires an intimate knowledge of not only the words and their meanings, but also stress patterns and the phonemes themselves. To quote myself from earlier in the article,

Can you read and recognize the ̶s̶y̶m̶b̶o̶l̶ phoneme?
Can you identify it in a text?
When you’re listening?
Can you reproduce it reliably when you speak?
Can you differentiate it from other, similar sounds?

These are the skills you are required to impart when teaching phonemes. Followed in order, they create a scaffolding technique that I’ve developed for teaching minimal pairs.

Putting it into practice: first, you’ll need a word list of minimal pairs. Here’s the set that I use for /ɪ/ and /i:/, the absolutely most-accessed, most-often copied-and-pasted slide of my entire Google Drive:

Scaffolding the teaching of minimal pairs happens in four steps: (1) Echo, (2) Listen and Check, (3) Echo and Check, (4) Switch.

(1) Echo is the stage where you’re getting the student to produce an approximation of the target phonemes. In a one-on-one scenario, you’d highlight “bit beat,” say the two words, get your student to repeat the words, and then continue. You might also try using four words back-to-back or changing the order to create a kind of tongue twister.

It’s important to note that stage (1) does not require 100% accuracy. You’re producing the need and establishing the pattern that the student will have to remember for the exercises that follow. If the exercise breaks down or becomes a struggle, quickly move to the next step.

In (2) Listen and Check, the instructor highlights a minimal pair, chooses one of the words at random, and then the student identifies the phoneme that they heard. This is the most important step in the entire process. If you can’t hear a sound accurately, you’re probably not going to be able to produce it accurately. Methods of identifying the correct phoneme include answering “one” or “two” or circling the word on a physical or digital whiteboard.

(3) Echo and Check follows the same steps as (2), but here the student listens, repeats the words, and then identifies the phoneme. We build learner autonomy so they can produce the sounds reliably and independently.

(4) Switch is the final step. The student and instructor reverse roles, with the student choosing a phoneme and the instructor doing the echo and check. As an additional note, at any point you might want to ask the student to produce the other phoneme.

—“‘Bit,’ was that number one?
—“And number two?”

This entire process is scaffolded. Each technique builds on the other. With a capable student, you might start at (3) and go to (4), but it wouldn’t make much sense to go in reverse oder. How much scaffolding you need to do depends on the needs of the student.

Minimal pairs are an extremely powerful tool. However, used alone they are of limited use. If nothing more, on principle we need some kind of “production.” For this, I recommend tongue twisters.

Tongue Twisters

How much would could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
—A woodchuck would chuck all that he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

without ever really being aware that it was a training exercise. It was just something funny to say.

What we need to do as language instructors is use tongue twisters that isolate specific sounds, ideally sounds that we’ve practiced through minimal pairs. You’ve probably only encountered a limited number of tongue twisters, but the truth is there are thousands of them just a Google search away.

What’s more, the creation of tongue twisters is not beyond even the most uncreative of persons. Every tongue twister follows one of two patterns: it alternates sounds (1–2–1–2), or it sets up a false pattern (1–2–2–1–2). There might be more sounds in play, but the basic principle remains the same.

If inspiration strikes, you can create your own tongue twisters to answer the needs of your students. For example (get ready for it):

Bitches on beaches knit neat pleats in the heat, piss on the peace of our neat knitless bitchless beaches.

This was a tongue twister one of my students and I wrote in a class on /ɪ/ and /i:/ pronunciation. We took a combination of her favorite words (take a guess) and the words she’d struggled the most with, deleted all other minimal pairs from the slide, and then created what we could with what was left.

To put this all into practice, I’d recommend finding tongue twisters for the minimal pairs you and your student(s) want to learn. After you’ve done targeted practice via minimal pairs, try out some tongue twisters that are available for those particular sounds. If you have a unique combination of sounds (I once had a student who needed help with wood and good), make your own. Practice the tongue twisters. Consider employing one of the techniques I mentioned earlier, backchaining, to build up speed and fluency. Then create tongue twisters independently. You can do this paired with your student in a one-on-one setting, as an independent exercise, or as a group exercise between students in a class.

Where Do We Go Now?

In this article, I’ve tried to communicate two main ideas: there are good ways and bad ways of teaching pronunciation. Stop doing the bad stuff, keep doing the good stuff.

From here on out, it’s up to you to employ (and improve on) the techniques I’ve shared. Create charts of minimal pairs or find someone who can share theirs with you. Here’s a freebie of one of my own for the main vowel sounds in English. I have others for consonants, initial consonants, final consonants, and consonant clusters.

Find a system that works for you for teaching minimal pairs, and see how creative you can be in making your own tongue twisters. Tweet them out and use #TongueTwisters on Twitter to resource share. You’ll find a few of my own.

Regularly employ techniques like backchaining in your class to teach not only pronunciation but also lexis. The more you use it, the more applications you’ll find.

Above all, find what works for you. Take some of my ideas, create some of your own, and pass it all along to the next generation.