Part One: The Basics
Pronunciation. It’s often the area most avoided by new teachers for lack of confidence, and also the first thing experienced teachers leave out due to lack of time and a desire to get on with the “meatier” issues of vocabulary, grammar and skills work. But like it or not our students are aware of the importance of pronunciation and will expect us to work on it with them, so getting comfortable with it and finding the time should be one of our priorities as teachers.
The following is the first part in a three-part series outlining some basic tips for successfully integrating pronunciation in your classes.
Two basic angles to teaching pronunciation
As with many areas of language teaching there is a bottom-up and a top-down approach. Starting from the bottom one might see the basic sounds or phonemes as the building blocks of good pronunciation. At the other extreme a suprasegmental or top-down approach would start with longer utterances and focus on sentence stress, rhythm and intonation.
The important thing to note is that there is no right place to start when teaching pronunciation. Much of this will have to do with the comfort level of each individual teacher. But eventually you will begin to see that these two approaches are simply extremes on a continuum and that as you become more adept at teaching pronunciation one approach will inform the other. For example, looking at sentence stress will inevitably lead to issues of connected speech where specific phonemes pop up. Similarly, words pronounced on their own will often change considerably in context. So be flexible and notice how both styles complement one another. These two approaches will make up the focus of my next posts on the subject.
Listen to yourself and feel what’s going on with your body
No two people (not even teachers, thank goodness!) pronounce things in exactly the same way. Since you’ll be the principal model for your students you’ll need to get in touch with how you are making the sounds coming out of your mouth. Don’t worry too much about teaching your students about “fricatives”, or “plosives” or “voiced or unvoiced” sounds, this is all pretty much useless and forgettable metalanguage for them anyway.
The important thing is to be able to describe to your students how those sounds are being manufactured in order to give them a reasonable shot at approximating them. So, is your throat vibrating? Does your jaw drop? Is there air coming out of your mouth? What are your tongue and teeth doing? These are the kinds of things you’ll need to watch out for. I’ll be referring to some of them in the upcoming posts.
Listen to your students and deal with their needs
Obviously if you aren’t listening to your students you won’t be effective no matter what you’re teaching, and pronunciation is no exception. No doubt this will be easier in a class where the L1 is the same for all students, but classes with a variety of L1s should not only be thought of as a challenge, but as an opportunity. Different pronunciation needs mean your students can help one another based on strengths and weaknesses as well, providing, of course, you have established a sense of trust among them.
Adrian Underhill is often quoted as saying that “mistakes are curriculum,” so how will this affect how you teach pronunciation? Perhaps you will choose to do it more as it comes up in class. This is what Jeremy Harmer refers to as “opportunistic teaching” in The Practice of English Language Teaching. But as you gain in confidence and see areas of general concern for your students you may wish to integrate pronunciation into your classes more consistently with what he calls “discrete slots” or even “whole lessons” dedicated to pronunciation. It really depends on you – and your students of course.
Find your own style
Finally the main point I would like to make is that there really is no secret formula. In the end each teacher is going to find their own best way to helping improve their students’ pronunciation. Some teachers love drilling. Others love using the phonemic chart. Most of us are somewhere in between. But make no mistake, our students expect help getting their mouths around the language we are teaching them, so find what you like and stick to it for the most part, but also challenge yourself from time to time as well. I hope the following posts in this series will help you to do just that.