How can you teach vowel sounds?
- We should not strive for vowel quality perfection (native-like pronunciation), but for making sure it doesn’t interfere with comprehensibility. 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.
- A good starting point is dealing with the Hellwag triangle. In other words, the 3 types of vowels: abiertas, cerradas and medias. For speakers of certain languages, closed vowel sounds will still sound open if they compare them with sounds in their first language (for example, the schwa /ə/ in English and French), so it is important to draw attention to mouth openness and tongue position.
- Fortunately, vowel pronunciation remains the same regardless of the consonant they are preceded by. It is therefore helpful to practice syllable combinations (“ma”, “la”, “sa”... etc.). You can do this using minimal pairs, rhymes, tongue twisters… and even using the same consonant with different sounds (“ma”, “me”, “mi”, “mo”, “mu”).
- Some students may struggle with diphthong pronunciation, so it is recommended that the diphthong be broken into two separate syllables for easier practice: “a-bi-er-to” instead of “a-bier-to”, “mi-en-te” instead of “mien-te”.
- When teaching children and teenagers, you might want to do association activities. This will help them relate a particular sound to an image. For instance, by using a poster or a big flashcard containing different pictures of the vocabulary they know and grouping them by the first vowel or last vowel sound (estrella, elefante, estantería, or pelo, oso, polvo).
- If you teach English and/or Portuguese L1 speakers, emphasize the pronunciation of [o], since they are likely to close their mouths at the end causing this to sound like /ou/.
- Drill the different sounds and letter combinations using short phrases, tongue twisters, or songs students like.
How can you teach consonant sounds?
- You should start by teaching the alphabet and then move on to each individual sound. Make sure you teach them in batches, otherwise it could be overwhelming and therefore demotivating. Then separate words into syllables by saying them slowly and ask your student to write them. Once the student can recognize the sounds, practice them in real speech using simple dialogues, picture descriptions, short sentences… using a selection of words.
- Explaining the position of the tongue, lips, and teeth when uttering a sound could help. However, the reality is students will not be thinking of what they do with their tongue, lips, and teeth when they talk. It is therefore more effective to drill the sounds, give corrections, and let students take them in naturally.
- Role-playing and dramatization are great tools. By exaggerating the pronunciation of certain sounds, students will eventually find these easier to pronounce.
- Of course, any game you can come up with or find online will contribute to the dynamics of the lesson.
- Group consonant sounds by category: (/p/, /t/, /k/) (/b/, /d/, /g/).
- Unlike English, Spanish has some pronunciation rules you should address. For example:
[g] + a, o, u,
[g] + e, i
[gu] + e, i
[gu] a, o
[r] at the beginning or in the middle of a word
[rr] in the middle of a word
- Those speakers whose L1 is English are likely to have difficulty pronouncing /j/, /g/, /r/ (at the beginning of a word), and /rr/ in the middle of a word.
- Become familiar with the sounds existing in the learner’s L1. This will help you anticipate which sounds and sound combinations they could struggle with.
- In order to improve their listening skills, drawing their attention to key differences in pronunciation between Castilian Spanish and the different Latin American Spanish varieties is highly recommended. For example, /s/, /z/, /c/, /g/, /j/.
- Use sound repetition to introduce new vocabulary and kill two birds with one stone.
How can you deal with the different features of connected speech?
- Same as dealing with vowel and consonant sounds, it really is not important for students to be able to connect words in a native-like manner. The focus should therefore be on intelligibility.
- If you are teaching a beginner or a lower intermediate student, be mindful of your speech. Make sure you grade it accordingly and avoid using connected speech to benefit comprehension and motivation.
- Practice needs to be slowly built up. You can start with repetition exercises of short phrases including sounds you’ve recently addressed. You can continue by recording a short paragraph for your student to practice as homework. First record it slowly exaggerating the pronunciation of key words and then repeat it in a more natural way. You can correct it on your next lesson and highlight areas of improvement.
- Bear in mind that the student’s L1 will play a role in how quickly or skillfully your student deals with connected speech. Set realistic, achievable goals in order not to discourage them.
- For listening comprehension purposes, it is important to draw the student’s attention to contraction and assimilation features such as sinalefa. You can use songs, audiobooks, speeches, or dialogues.
- Echo reading or Shadowing are excellent tools to spot weak areas and practice connected speech. There is a great variety of shadowing and repetition resources online.
- Connected speech may be approached differently depending on the variety of Spanish you teach. Dealing with different accents will help improve the student’s listening skills.
- Use role-plays to practice intonation and stress. Choose dialogues that show speakers being angry, excited, surprised…
- Homework assignments are strongly 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 Spanish.
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. If you decide to address error correction at the end of the lesson or an activity, type down the words or sentences the student has difficulty with and come back to them at the end. Provide examples and do some drilling.
- 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.
- Downplay it by showing your student you also have a foreign accent when pronouncing a word in their first language and let them know that is OK.
- You can use techniques such as recast, metalinguistic clues, and elicitation.
- When teaching children, teenagers, and particularly shy students you have to be extra cautious in order not to interfere with the student’s confidence. Ask them questions and that will help spot the mistake and correct it themselves. This will also give them a sense of accomplishment.
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. Note 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.
- Record your student reading a short text. Take note of areas of improvement and draw the student’s attention to them by playing it back and drilling the correct pronunciation.
- 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!”.
- Agree on a plan to work on weak areas and remain positive about the student meeting their goals.
- 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.
- Forget about a cookie-cutter approach to teaching pronunciation. Every lesson should be prepared bearing in mind the student’s weaknesses, strengths, goals, and interests.
- 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 patterns of speech that stem from L1 transfer.
- Create a database of common pronunciation mistakes depending on the student’s L1.
- Work on your professional development. Take some proper training on phonetics and phonology in order to deliver better pronunciation lessons, expand your skills and therefore increase your lesson bookings.
- Read fun and interesting literature with your students, as well as listen to audiobooks together. Listening to and imitating proficient speakers of Spanish is a great way to improve your pronunciation.
Our thanks go to:
Carlos García de Castro, Noemy García, Antonio Alegret, Ana González, Camino, Nathaly, Virginia, Beatriz, Vera, Ana Reyes, Víctor Rodríguez, Mayra, Dylan Welch.