How to teach pronunciation




In this article I will concern myself with the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills (i.e. the transformation of L2 graphemes into sounds) within a typical secondary school setting where teacher contact time is limited (e.g. 2-3 hours per week). The present post should be considered as a sequel to a previous blog (‘Nine research facts on the teaching of L2 phonology teaching and learning’) in which I discussed the theoretical background to what I will propose below. Hence, the reading of that post is recommended if you want to have a better grasp of some of the points made below.

  1. Approaches to pronunciation instruction

I could not locate much research on the teaching of pronunciation as integrated within a typical primary or secondary Modern Foreign Language curriculum. This is possibly due to the fact that the Communicative Language Teaching approach does not lay much emphasis on pronunciation and, consequently, many teachers see as the least useful of language skills (Elliott, 1995). In fact, the typical French, Spanish, German or Italian textbooks currently in use in the UK or US hardly deal with the teaching of the L2 phonology system; when they do concern themselves with pronunciation or decoding instruction, they do so superficially never going beyond the mere awareness-raising of key features and providing very limited practice -if any at all –  in the oral production of the target phonemes. Recycling of the target phonemes is also a very rare feature.

In deciding on how to integrate the teaching of pronunciation in the curriculum language instructors ought to consider which one of the following approaches best suits their learning context:

2.1 Accuracy vs Intelligibility – This is the most important decision to make at the very outset of a language course. Curriculum designers must decide what degree of pronunciation/decoding accuracy they aim at. Is it just for students to be understood by an empathetic native speaker? Is near-native accent the aspirational goal? Or are we aiming at a level of mastery somewhere in between? The answer to these questions will determine the emphasis L2 instruction will lay on pronunciation.

In most secondary schools, as far as I know, curriculum designers do not often ask themselves the above questions; yet, in view of the effects that bad pronunciation can have on effective oral communication, listening and reading comprehension and language acquisition in general (Walter, 2008), they really should.

2.2 Intensive vs Extensive instruction – teachers may decide to teach the pronunciation of a specific set of L2 phonemes intensively over a period of a few weeks or whether to do it extensively (a little bit every day) over a period of several months. Whereas I am inclined to opt for the latter approach based on what we know about L2-phonology acquisition, one may want to implement the former in the run-up to a high-stake examination as part of a remedial program (e.g. on realizing that the pronunciation of specific phonemes may seriously impair the students’ performance).

2.3 Deductive vs Inductive – Deductive teaching involves the traditional approach whereby the teacher presents and explains the phoneme(s) to the students – often in a PPP instructional sequence. Inductive approaches (e.g. guided discovery), on the other hand, are student-led; the students are in charge of describing and/or analyzing the target L2 phoneme(s) and/or discriminating between them and similar L1 sounds. The teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding the students with open questioning as they ‘work out’ how the pronunciation of the target sound(s) works . The latter approach has the merit of eliciting greater cognitive investment on the part of the learner, but it is also more time-consuming. I personally like to alternate both.

2.4 Spontaneous vs Planned – A planned approach implements pronunciation instruction in a systematic way, considering the way the target phonemes could be recycled across the various units of work. In this approach the teaching of the target phonemes is carefully embedded in the schemes of work, which is a more pain-staking process, but one that allows for more effective integration within each topic covered.

Spontaneous instruction, on the other hand, is less time-consuming and is based on a ‘if ain’t broke don’t fix it approach’; in other words, if a teacher notices that their students are making mistakes with a particular L2 phonemes in a given lesson, they will impart instruction on that phoneme ad-hoc, on the spot. This approach can work quite well with more advanced classes which generally display good pronunciation and may occasionally exhibit minor flaws here and there. In this approach, the teacher must have an in-depth knowledge of the target language phonology so as to be able to improvise. Ideally they would also have a readily available bank of resources to drawn upon impromptu.

I personally prefer a planned approach with a very prompt start from the very early days of instruction. But do not refrain from spontaneous instruction when the need arises.

2.5 Contextualised vs Discrete – Another decision to be made is as to whether the teaching will be carried out through (1) stand-alone pronunciation lessons; (2) lessons in which pronunciation instruction is embedded within the teaching of other linguistic content; (3) a mix of both. In view of the curricular and time constraints of typical secondary school courses, I suggest following the third approach using the framework I will outline below, as it allows for systematic recycling but also with some degree of flexibility.

2.6 Awareness-raising vs Automatisation – A lot of the pronunciation teaching I have seen in 25 years of career did not consciously aim at automatization, but rather at awareness-raising. Typically, the teacher shows presentations through which they model the pronunciation of the target phonemes first in isolation and then within words; the students repeat the sounds and words aloud. In the best-case scenario they practise the words through tongue-twisters or other drills, and that’s it!

The problem is that the acquisition of L2 pronunciation requires the automatization of at least three sets of skills: (1) being able to discriminate between the L2 target phoneme and the similar L1 sounds in the receptive phase; (2) being able to reproduce the target phonemes accurately in isolation and (3) in combination with other phonemes at word/phrase level in the context of spontaneous oral communication. With this in mind, it is clear that the approach I have just described will never result into acquisition.

In order to develop the three sets of skills just alluded to, pronunciation/decoding instruction should include the following phases:

  • A modelling phase in which the teacher models the target phoneme and/or how to transform the target graphemes into sound;
  • (when necessary) A description and analysis phase in which the differences between similar (but not identical) L1 and L2 phonemes and/or the L1 and L2 allophones of specific graphemes are clearly explained (or arrived at inductively). For instance, when teaching the differences between the Spanish and English pronunciation of ‘t’ the teacher will show how the Spanish ‘t’ is not a plosive sound and how the tongue hits the tooth in Spanish and the pre-alveolar area in English, etc.
  • A receptive awareness-raising and discrimination phase in which the learners receive practice in: (1) matching the target L2 phonemes with letters/combination of letters (i.e. that the sound /uah/ matches the letter cluster ‘oi’); (2) discriminating between the L2 target phonemes and the similar L1 sounds (for instance: students listen to the word ‘bonjour’ first uttered by a French native speaker and subsequently by a non-native speaker pronouncing ‘J’ the English way. The task: to identify the difference). The micro-listening-skills enhancing tasks I described in detail in two previous posts of mine can be used here. Transcription tasks, short dictations on MWBs and songs with transcript can be used, too.
  • A productive phase involving controlled practice in which the target phonemes (pronunciation) and/or related graphemes (decoding) are practised in the context of drills designed in such a way as to elicit a narrow focus on the target sounds (e.g. short and easy role plays and simple tongue twisters).
  • A productive communicative practice phase. This is crucial in bringing about automatization as it is all very well to know how to pronounce sound /decode letters in isolation; but, ultimately, it is the ability of doing that under Real Operating Conditions in the context of words, phrases and sentences that matters. Semi-structured communicative tasks such as surveys, interviews, role-plays, ‘find someone who’, ‘find out what’ , ‘fill in the information gaps’ or oral picture tasks are invaluable ways to train students in pronunciation and decoding. Before engaging the students in the communicative task, the teacher will focus her attention/feedback and her students’ on the target phonemes.

As I will point out below, for the acquisition of L2 pronunciation to occur, the teaching of pronunciation cannot stop at modelling sounds through a few minutes of choral repetition and some tongue-twister practice. Whatever the target phoneme is, it must be practised extensively in the context of oral production tasks which are at the highly-controlled end of the spectrum first and become incrementally more unstructured.

  1. Factors to consider

In implementing pronunciation instruction as embedded in a typical secondary curriculum, instructors must consider a number of important contextual factors (e.g. contact time; examination board assessment criteria; methodology espoused by the institution you work at) and individual and affective variables (e.g. age of learners; levels of motivation; relevance of pronunciation accuracy to their personal goals; ability).

  1. What we know about the acquisition of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills

4.1 The brain ‘hears’ sounds using the L1 phonological filter; hence, an L2 learner will match the L2 sound they hear to the closest approximation they find in their Long Term Memory. For instance, a French or German native speaker will hear the English word ‘thirsty as ‘sirsty’) whilst an Italian will hear ‘Tirsty’ (this phenomenon was discussed at length in my previous post on pronunciation).

4.2 L2 graphemes automatically activate the L1 phonological system in the L2-leaner’s Long-term Memory (also discussed in my previous post). So, words should be taught using visuals or gestures before they are presented in their written form.

4.3 It is better to start teaching pronunciation when the articulators are more ‘plastic’, before puberty. Some research would suggest starting learning pronunciation before the age of 7 (Lennenberg, 1967).

4.4 Pronunciation errors are difficult to correct when they are fossilized (Ellis, 1996) – L1 transfer in pronunciation is a major threat to the acquisition of accurate L2 pronunciation for the reasons alluded in 4.1 and 4.2 above. Hence, pronunciation instruction should be particularly intensive an extensive in the first two or three years of language learning. Students should receive feedback on their pronunciation from the very early stages of instruction in order to avoid fossilization.

4.5 As already discussed above, L2 phonemes require masses of distributed practice in order to be automatized. Learners’ acquisition of the target phonemes usually follows a U shaped developmental curve with a backsliding phase half-way through the process (Pech et al., 2011)

4.6 Working memory resources are limited both in terms of capacity and duration of storage. For instance, we know that words are phonologically stored in working memory for only a few seconds (Walter, 2008). Hence, unless we focus students on the importance of accurate pronunciation and place it firmly in their focal awareness, most of them will not be able to consciously invest their attentional resources long and deeply enough to notice and learn L2 phonemes.

4.7 Pronunciation and decoding skills must be automatized if we want our students to acquire effective speaking and reading skills. Moreover, better pronunciation and decoding skills result in better acquisition of grammar and syntax. As already discussed in my previous post, more effective pronunciation and decoding skills enhance reading and listening comprehension. Finally, as it is obvious, an L2 speaker who struggles to pronounce L2 words for lack of knowledge of the L2 phonology system and pronunciation/decoding practice is likely to experience serious processing inefficiency issues in L2 oral production.

4.8 Some L2 students are genetically more predisposed than others to notice and acquire foreign language sounds (Nardo et al, 2009).

4.9 A positive orientation towards the target language and the target language culture(s) seem to correlate positively with better pronunciation.Marinova-Todd et al. (2000) posit that motivation may play an even more important role than age in the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

  1. My tips for pronunciation teaching

The following tips are based on my review of the existing literature on the subject, Skill-theories of language acquisition and most importantly, on my classroom experience. Here they go.

5.1 Start pronunciation instruction very early – in Primary – not only because the learners are more developmentally receptive to it, but also so that you will not have to deal with it any longer later on, when you need to focus on higher order skills. It is also crucial to sensitize the students to the importance of accurate pronunciation at this stage so as to place it firmly into their focal awareness and forge sound learning habits. Students should be given examples of how inaccurate pronunciation can lead to communication breakdown, embarrassing misunderstandings and stigmatization.

5.3 In order to prevent cognitive overload adopt a narrow focus. Select only one phoneme or maximum two per lesson and dwell on it/them for several lessons, whilst recycling the ones you will have taught before in order to keep them in the students’ peripheral awareness at all times. Before any oral communicative activities do ask and frequently remind the students to pay selective attention to the pronunciation of the target phonemes both in production and peer- feedback.

5.4 Integrate pronunciation and decoding instruction in the topic-at-hand using the five-step framework outlined above (Paragraph 2.6). The adoption of a narrow-focus approach means that whilst the first lesson on a given phoneme will be a bit longer, the reinforcement of the same one/two target phonemes over a period of three or four weeks will be much shorter, five to ten minutes every day. The most important thing will be, as suggested in the previous point, to keep the students’ focus on the target phoneme(s) during any oral communicative activities staged in class during the entire reinforcement/recycling period.

5.5 Plan integration opportunistically but judiciously. By this I mean that whilst planning a unit of work, you may find that the vocabulary or grammar structure you intend to teach lends itself beautifully to the teaching of specific sounds. For instance, in teaching animals in French, a few weeks ago, the words ‘chat’, ‘chien’, ‘cochon d’Inde’ and ‘cheval’ prompted me to decide to teach that ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘sh’ in French. However, opportunism should not be the only criterion to be used in selecting the target phonemes: intelligibility impact (the extent to which the sound may affect understanding); learnability (how ready the students are to pick it up) and frequency (how often they are likely to come across that sound) should also be taken into consideration.

5.6. Prefer extensive distributed practice (a little every day over a longish period of time) over massed practice. Extensive practice which recycles the target sounds for a few minutes every day is crucial to the success of pronunciation instruction as L2 phoneme acquisition requires a lot of time and contextualized practice. I keep a chart, on a google doc, in which I tally all the phonemes I teach so as to have an overview of how many times I have recycled each sound.

5.7 Model through detailed description and analysis. In the modelling phase take the learners, possibly using audio-visuals, through every single step involved in the production of the target L2 phoneme. There are plenty of charts available online showing how the different sounds are produced in various languages. Remember: effective modelling and analysis require good knowledge of the target language phonology system. Heads of Depatment ought to provide staff with adequate specialised training.

5.8 Stage critical listening activities with narrow focus. These can be modelled in class and then flipped. They consist of getting students to listen to a peer reading aloud (if the focus is on decoding) or talking in the L2  whilst one or more peers focus their attention and provide feedback on two or three phonemes. Alternatively, you can get the students to record themselves and each other. Critical listening fosters collaborative learning, social strategies and metacognition whilst bringing about deep cognitive investment.

5.9 Alternate inductive and deductive approaches for the sake of variety, but also to foster healthy inquiry skills.

5.10. Prevent automatic activation of L1 sounds as much as possible. Keep pictures on the walls which refer to words containing the key L2 phonemes and most students know very well (e.g. numbers); it is important that they did not learn to pronounce these words through the written medium in the first place. These pictures will be a valuable aid each time you will want to correct phonetic mistakes made by your students without providing them with a written example (as this would automatically activate the student’s L1 decoding system possibly causing L1 transfer issues). So for instance, when reminding a student of the decoding of the consonant cluster ‘oi’ you will point to the number ‘3’ on the wall, ‘trois’, which contains those letters.

5.11 Teach and practise the target phonemes in accessible linguistic contexts. When teaching new phonemes it is vital that the students have enough cognitive space available to focus on them. If the ‘drills’ or communicative tasks are complex, contain masses of new vocabulary, challenging L2 structures or even other difficult sounds they have not yet mastered, this will impact very negatively on learning. Some teachers give fun but very phonetically complex tongue twisters to novice L2 learners who do enjoy the challenge and often have a  real blast in the process, but frequently end up making a complete mess of it. When selecting tongue twisters or any other material for the initial modelling and controlled practice phases, choose texts which pose very little cognitive and phonetic challenge.

5.12 Correct judiciously. Feedback is very important in the teaching of pronunciation and may need to be more frequent than the correction teachers provide on other aspects of performance. This is because pronunciation mistakes tend to fossilize more easily. Hence, teachers need to monitor oral communicative activities very closely and step in – even interrupting – when errors made with the target phoneme(s) (1) are made publically and consequently may affect several students’ perception of what is correct/incorrect; (2) impede intelligibility; (3) are made frequently. However, do not overdo correction as it may affect motivation.

Concluding remarks

In this post I have attempted to provide some tips on the pronunciation of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills. The most important point is that teachers should sensitize their students to the importance of accurate L2 pronunciation from the very early days of instruction. A principled approach to the planning and classroom delivery of L2 pronunciation instruction should be devised which provides extensive distributed practice through a mix of inductive and deductive learning and adopts a narrow focus, i.e. one or two phonemes are taught each time. Last but not least, this approach, which integrates pronunciation instruction within most lessons (a few minutes per session) cannot lead to acquisition of the target phonemes unless these are practised in the context of structured and unstructured communicative activities.

In this post I have also recommended the following framework that I have used successfully over the years and integrates the teaching of pronunciation with communicative language teaching and serve the goals of the curriculum I am charged with delivering. This framework includes five phases

(1) A modelling phase

(2) A description and analysis phase in which the differences between similar (but not identical) L1 and L2 phonemes and/or the L1 and L2 allophones of specific graphemes are clearly explained;

(3) A receptive awareness-raising and discrimination phase;

(4) A highly structured productive  phase;

(5) A productive semi-structured to unstructured communicative practice phase.

It should be reiterated that in the fifth phase, crucial in bringing about automatization, the role of the teacher in monitoring and providing feedback on the phonological level of student output is crucial. Also pivotal is the level of student focus on pronunciation that the teacher will have generated; unless the students are encouraged and motivated to keep the importance of pronunciation in their focal awareness no pronunciation instruction will ever succeed. Unfortunately, these days, pronunciation is but a peripheral concern in most Modern Language classrooms.

You can find more on this in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ that I have co-authored with Steve Smith, available here


5 thoughts on “How to teach pronunciation

  1. Nice article… many of the (adult) students who come to my pronunciation course are very conscious of the fact that when they learnt English in school in the 60s 70s and the 80s the focus was on listening, reading and writing with few, if any, oral production activities. The overwhelming majority of the students coming on that course tell me that their pronunciation was NEVER corrected in class at school. So, I totally agree that early learning is key here. I also agree that motivation is critical and I have been amazed at how some of my dedicated students have managed to neutralise their accents (one Russian lady in particular achieved astonishing results.

    I was wondering if you use the same 5-phase framework teaching suprasegmental aspects of pronunciation. The focus of your article seems to be on phonemes; I’d be interested on reading more about how you deal with intonation, prominence etc which are very much an issue here (in Finland).


    Liked by 1 person

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