Pronunciation involves far more than individual sounds. Word stress, sentence
stress, intonation, and word linking all influence the sound of spoken English,
not to mention the way we often slur words and phrases together in casual
speech. 'What are you going to do?' becomes 'Whaddaya gonna do?' English pronunciation involves too many
complexities for learners to strive for a complete elimination of accent, but
improving pronunciation will boost self esteem, facilitate communication, and
possibly lead to a better job or a least more respect in the workplace.
Effective communication is of greatest importance, so choose first to work on
problems that significantly hinder communication and let the rest go. Remember
that your students also need to learn strategies for dealing with
misunderstandings, since native pronunciation is for most an unrealistic goal.
A student's first language often interferes with English pronunciation. For
example, /p/ is aspirated in English but not in Spanish, so when a Spanish
speaker pronounces 'pig' without a puff of air on the /p/, an American may hear
'big' instead. Sometimes the students will be able to identify specific problem
sounds and sometimes they won't. You can ask them for suggestions, but you will
also need to observe them over time and make note of problem sounds. Another
challenge resulting from differences in the first language is the inability to
hear certain English sounds that the native language does not contain. Often
these are vowels, as in 'ship' and 'sheep,' which many learners cannot
distinguish. The Japanese are known for confusing /r/ and /l/, as their language
contains neither of these but instead has one sound somewhere between the two.
For problems such as these, listening is crucial because students can't produce
a sound they can't hear. Descriptions of the sound and mouth position can help
students increase their awareness of subtle sound differences.
Here are some ideas for focusing on specific pronunciation features.
Voiced sounds will make the throat vibrate. For example, /g/ is a voiced
sound while /k/ is not, even though the mouth is in the same position for both
sounds. Have your students touch their throats while pronouncing voiced and
voiceless sounds. They should feel vibration with the voiced sounds only.
Aspiration refers to a puff of air when a sound is produced. Many
languages have far fewer aspirated sounds than English, and students may have
trouble hearing the aspiration. The English /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ch/ are some
of the more commonly aspirated sounds. Although these are not always
aspirated, at the beginning of a word they usually are. To illustrate
aspiration, have your students hold up a piece of facial tissue a few inches
away from their mouths and push it with a puff of air while pronouncing a word
containing the target sound.
- Mouth Position
Draw simple diagrams of tongue and lip positions. Make sure all students
can clearly see your mouth while you model sounds. Have students use a mirror
to see their mouth, lips, and tongue while they imitate you.
Word or sentence intonation can be mimicked with a kazoo, or alternatively
by humming. This will take the students' attention off of the meaning of a
word or sentence and help them focus on the intonation.
We pronounce phrases and even whole sentences as one smooth sound instead
of a series of separate words. 'Will Amy go away,' is rendered 'Willaymeegowaway.'
To help learners link words, try starting at the end of a sentence and have
them repeat a phrase, adding more of the sentence as they can master it. For
example, 'gowaway,' then 'aymeegowaway,' and finally 'Willaymeegowaway'
without any pauses between words.
- Vowel Length
You can demonstrate varying vowel lengths within a word by stretching
rubber bands on the longer vowels and letting them contract on shorter ones.
Then let the students try it. For example, the word 'fifteen' would have the
rubber band stretched for the 'ee' vowel, but the word 'fifty' would not have
the band stretched because both of its vowels are spoken quickly.
- Have students count syllables in a word and hold up the correct number
of fingers, or place objects on table to represent each syllable.
- Illustrate syllable stress by clapping softly and loudly corresponding
to the syllables of a word. For example, the word 'beautiful' would be
loud-soft-soft. Practice with short lists of words with the same syllabic
stress pattern ('beautiful,' 'telephone,' 'Florida') and then see if your
learners can list other words with that pattern.
- Specific Sounds
- Minimal pairs, or words such as 'bit/bat' that differ by only one sound,
are useful for helping students distinguish similar sounds. They can be used
to illustrate voicing ('curl/girl') or commonly confused sounds
('play/pray'). Remember that it's the sound and not the spelling you are
- Tongue twisters are useful for practicing specific target sounds, plus
they're fun. Make sure the vocabulary isn't too difficult.
- The Sounds of English, American Accent Training, and
EnglishClub.com websites below offer guidelines for describing how to
produce various English sounds. You can find representative practice words
for every English sound on the English is Soup site.
Here are some resources for teaching pronunciation.