Tuesday, June 28, 2011

When Teaching Pronunciation, Go for the Low-Hanging Fruit

Teaching pronunciation is one of those things many teachers tend to avoid or leave out altogether. The main reason is that it can seem overwhelming. After sitting in a Phonetics & Phonology class for a whole semester, many student teachers start to wonder how they are ever even going to start teaching all this information.

However, students expect pronunciation to be taught in the classroom. When students are asked to say what they expect from their class, many of them, particularly adult students beyond the beginner level will say that one of their goals is to improve their pronunciation.

There's also a hidden bonus many of them are unaware of that comes with working on their pronunciation: their listening comprehension also improves.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when teaching pronunciation:

- Teach pronunciation when the opportunity arises. There are many classroom interactions that lend themselves to the teaching of pronunciation. So, if you have the time, take a moment to do a little pronunciation work in the middle of a lesson.

- Remember that pronunciation is not "contagious". If it were, every individual living in a foreign country would speak the foreign language with a perfect native accent. What this means in the ESL/EFL classroom is that it's not enough to expect students to improve their pronunciation by imitating their teacher. Some proactive work needs to be done.

- Explaining rules and generalizations can go a long way. Adult students in particular do better when rules are explained to them. Students can spend hours repeating the correct pronunciations of -ed endings modeled by their teacher and still not get them right in their own speech, but a few minutes spent learning the rule behind these pronunciations is usually enough to set them on the right path to eventually get them right, at least most of the time.

- Go for the low-hanging fruit. Identify those areas that are the most challenging for your students and focus on them. Keep in mind that while extensive work on an individual phoneme is unlikely to produce dramatic improvements in overall intelligibility, working on suprasegmental features, such as unstressed syllable vowel reduction can really pay off both in terms of intelligibility and listening comprehension.

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