How can you teach vowel sounds?
- It is important to become familiar with the vowel sounds in the phonemic chart. Vowel length has an impact on intelligibility, by vowel quality does not. This means we should not strive for vowel quality perfection (native-like pronunciation), but for making sure students can distinguish and pronounce long and short vowel sounds correctly. However, you might come across students (such as actors or voice artists) whose learning goal is to acquire a very specific accent in which case we would also need to pay attention to both vowel and consonant quality.
- Exercises involving minimal pairs and tongue twisters (this would also apply to consonant sounds) and the corresponding drilling are highly beneficial. You can also incorporate quizzes, idioms, and fixed phrases to make it more dynamic. You should emphasize the sound difference as well as the difference in the shape and position of the mouth when saying them.
- Gathering information about common pronunciation problems for speakers of a certain L1 helps anticipate specific weak areas and therefore prepare bespoke materials for a particular student. Carrying out a pronunciation assessment would also help you prepare your pronunciation practice.
- Syllable and vowel combination practice is also recommended: “ea”, “ee”, “ie”, ei”, “ough”...
- Dealing with homophones would help learners understand that there are patterns, but not pronunciation rules in English.
- In the case of Portuguese first language learners, you should pay special attention to drilling the letters [e] and [i] because the pronunciation for [i] in Portuguese is the same as [e] in English in most cases. Portuguese first language speakers from Brazil tend to pronounce vowels at the end of a word as this is how Brazilian Portuguese is spoken, e.g. make, cake, take is pronounced “makey”, “cakey” and “takey” and care must be taken to correct and drill pronunciation with this.
- Those students whose first language is Spanish struggle to identify and produce short vs. long vowel sounds.
- Identifying the sounds shared by English and their first language is enlightening for students and helps them tackle the new ones with less stress.
How can you teach consonant sounds?
- Practicing fricative and affricate letter combinations is useful for proficient native Mandarin Chinese speakers.
- Helping students identify voiced and voiceless consonant sounds by putting their fingers on their throat so that they can feel the difference. If there’s a vibration, the consonant sound is voiced and, otherwise it is voiceless.
- Consonant clusters are one of the key areas, especially RL, RN, SK, CL, NK, NG, WK, TW, TR, NT, CH, SHR, STR, RST… etc. If nasality needs to be addressed, adding NG, ING, and AIN would help.
- When dealing with [-ed] endings (regular past forms), there is no point in teaching students the difference between /d/ as in played and /t/ as in walked since this does not interfere with comprehension. However, /id/ as in stated should be practiced and corrected.
- Drilling the letters [h], [k], [j], [q], and [x] and [y] is recommended for Portuguese first language learners given that the pronunciation for these is very different in Portuguese and students find it hard to remember these.
- With Spanish speaking students, encourage them to drop the /e/ sound from those words beginning with [s] + consonant, such as Spain, stellar, or space. Depending on the learner’s goal, we might wish to condense the sounds of hard consonant words like big or dog by avoiding pronouncing them as “bijhe” and “dojhe”.
- It’s a good idea to teach pronunciation embedded in the context of the lesson to allow for a more natural inclusion.
- Pairs of sounds that require attention include /s/ and /z/ , /p/ and /b/ , /k/ and /g/.
How can you deal with the different features of connected speech?
- By practicing mediums that have varying inflectional usage, pacing, and humor, the student experiments with a spectrum of oral pronunciation styles. You can use songs, the student’s own writing, famous speeches...
- You could start out with consonant to vowel blending, then move to consonant to vowel, vowel to vowel… etc.
- Reading aloud is an excellent way for students to practice their intonation. The intonation or rhythm of a sentence changes depending on whether it’s an open-ended question, a question requiring a yes or no answer, a statement, or a specific point is being made and needs to be emphasized. Stress and intonation are used to convey differences of meaning.
- Because English is a stress-timed language, words have both weak and full forms. And being stress-timed means we make the intervals between stressed syllables equal. We do that by “swallowing” non-essential words, such as conjunctions, pronouns, prepositions, auxiliaries and articles. This is what causes comprehension problems for students, particularly for those whose language is syllable timed. The way English speakers link words also creates challenges. Both of these features cause learners to protest that teachers speak too fast. They can be approached with slowed-down recognition exercises and dictations. If necessary, students should slow their own speech until they have become more comfortable with the rhythm and linkages. This perfectly describes the thin line between pronunciation and listening skills. These should be practiced together as often as possible.
- Homework assignments are highly recommended. When it comes to connected speech, regular practice outside the lesson is vital for natural acquisition.
How can you approach error correction?
- It is common to hear students say “I will never sound like a native speaker”, but we need to let them know that that is perfectly fine. They can still become proficient speakers of English. English is a global language, a lingua franca, and there are more non-native speakers of English than native. Unless a mistake does not interfere with intelligibility, we should avoid correcting it. This will also boost their confidence tremendously, which will result in a more positive attitude towards the learning process and greater progress. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, if the student had a specific goal or request (acquiring a certain accent, for instance) this point would not apply.
- Should we correct on the spot or should we leave it until the end? There really is no right or wrong answer. The key here is to check with your student. If you feel correcting on the spot could demotivate them, take note of those things you wish to draw attention to and discuss them at the end of the activity or lesson.
- Echo reading or Shadowing are excellent tools to spot weak areas. There is a great variety of shadowing resources online.
- Be encouraging and stress the importance of making mistakes as part of the learning process. Make sure you highlight the student’s strengths as well.
What type of feedback can you provide?
- It’s important to remind students that some concepts will be learned and mastered over a period of time, so they shouldn't stress over learning it perfectly right away.
- Acknowledge where some mistakes come from (e.g. direct translation from L1) so students are more aware of this factor and suggest what they can do to improve in a specific area.
- Provide a full written assessment after their first lesson. Explain that they don’t need to acquire a native-like pronunciation in order to become a proficient user of English. Take note of their particular concerns and agree on a plan to achieve the student’s short and long term goals.
- Tailor the exercises and the homework assignments in order to tackle specific pronunciation problems. For example, write out a story of a few paragraphs that really exercises the student’s weak areas. Then send the student a transcript of the text along with a video of yourself reading the passage aloud and practice this at the beginning of every lesson.
- Compliment students on how hard they tried. Always give positive feedback first: “You are doing great!”, “That was a great class!”, “You’ve worked really hard”, “Step by step”, “Keep up the great work!”.
- It helps to be very culturally attuned to students and to what learning looks like from their perspective. Be sensitive to the mistakes and difficulties that are typical for learners of the particular first language group that you are teaching.
- Learning a new language is daunting and creating a positive can-do environment helps students remain encouraged to continue learning.
- The sooner pronunciation issues are dealt with, the less possibilities there are of encountering fossilized patterns of speech.
Our thanks go to:
Francis Oliver Walsh