Teaching Pronunciation to EFL Students

Written by: Mike Turner



Time to read 8 min

Barriers to Teaching Pronunciation

Pronunciation is often neglected by teachers of English language. Sometimes it is not taught at all and, when it is, it is often relegated to the status of an optional extra. Certainly, the time devoted to pronunciation work is insignificant when compared to the time spent on grammar, vocabulary-building and communication activities. There are a number of potential reasons for this, including:

  • In an immersion class, it is often assumed that students will assimilate the correct pronunciation as part of the learning process.

  • There are so many varieties and accents of English out there, that teachers feel that it doesn’t matter if students’ English is strongly accented – and anyway, how do you choose which variety you should use as a model?

  • There is often a focus on communicative fluency activities - and teachers don’t want to interrupt these to constantly model and correct.

  • Many teachers don’t feel confident teaching pronunciation. They may simply lack the formal knowledge of phonology required to teach it well.

  • Teachers whose first language is not English, are often self-conscious about their own accent, or maybe put off by aspects of pronunciation they find challenging – for example, English accentuation, particularly if their L1 is syllable-timed rather than a stress-timed language.

Why Teaching Pronunciation is Important

Teaching pronunciation is important for a number of reasons, and I will lay out some of them below. First, however, let’s deal with some of the issues outlined in the opening section of this article:

  • Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that the ‘assimilation’ argument is fallacious. Without help, students simply don’t just pick up good pronunciation -even if they have a native-speaker teacher.

  • Whilst it is true that there are many national and regional accents, they are not a barrier to communication if they are common to most speakers in a particular region or country. However, once speakers move outside of their community, even native English speakers may find a regional accent is a barrier to communication - and may modify certain elements of their speech in order to function effectively in environments with more diverse accents and idiolects. In terms of choosing which variety to teach, later in this article, we will look at some principles we hope will help.

  • If you use a communicative approach to language learning and teaching, pronunciation is arguably even more important – particularly if poor pronunciation interferes with comprehension. Also, as with all other error corrections, remedial work on pronunciation does not have to be done on the spot but can be re-visited after an activity has finished, or at the end of the lesson.

  • If you are a teacher of English and your knowledge in this area is sketchy, then this is something you need to work on. Not just as a matter of professional development, but as a matter of personal pride. You wouldn’t just not teach conditionals if you didn’t fully understand their structure and function – you would go away and learn enough to be able to teach them. You become a better teacher as you build your knowledge and skills - and your confidence will also grow with your knowledge.

  • In almost all circumstances, even teachers who have not grown up speaking English as a First Language will have a much better grasp of pronunciation than their students. Exceptionally, teachers may have a student in a class who has grown up in an English-speaking country or who has English-speaking parents. If so, great – use this student to help model the language for other learners.

Other than making students’ spoken language more comprehensible, there are a number of other reasons why teaching pronunciation is important:

  • Better pronunciation will help students become more confident in speaking the language.

  • Learning about pronunciation will help students’ listening comprehension.

  • Whether or not it should, it will positively affect other speakers’ perception of the student’s language ability.

Choosing a Variety of English as a Model

This is really a pragmatic choice, and you should be guided by the context in which your learners are likely to be using their English. For example, if you want to choose between British and American English, what is the dominant form in the society where you are teaching? This is easy if you are teaching English in the UK or the States, but what about elsewhere? In other English-speaking countries, the same principle applies – for example, if you are teaching English in Australia, there’s nothing wrong with your students leaving with an Australian accent.

In countries where English is a second or a foreign language, there will be (probably for geographical or historical reasons) a dominant form. For example, in Europe, this will probably be British English, in Mexico, American English; in Japan, the prestige form is British English, whilst in Taiwan, Korea or Vietnam, US English is more common. Once you have a national variety in mind, try to go for an ‘unmarked’ or neutral form – in British English, this will probably be something close to Received Pronunciation (RP); in the US it is likely to be General American English (GA or GenAm).

Of course, the other thing to take into account is your own background and accent. If your first language is English, most institutions will be happy for you to take your own accent as a touchstone for teaching pronunciation in your classes – in the knowledge that learners may encounter other varieties in your textbook or materials.

Learning and Teaching the English Phonemes

As we touched on previously, before you start teaching pronunciation, you will need to feel confident in your ability.

The first thing you will need is a knowledge of the phonemes of English. You need to know the symbols, and the sound each represents, be able to describe how each sound is made, and be able to model it. This is not quite as daunting as it sounds. We have produced a series of posters that you can use to help teach pronunciation - but you can also use them to help you learn or revise your own knowledge of English phonology. With or without the help of these resources, here is a step-by-step approach:

There are 44 basic sounds in English, which seems like a lot. However, many of these have symbols that correspond to the letters and sounds of the English alphabet. Start with the consonants:

  • Of the 24 consonants, 16 fall into the alphabetical category: /h/,/b/,/p/,/m/,/v/,/f/,/n/,/d/,/t/,/r/,/l/,/z/,/s/,/w/,/g/,/k/. If you familiarise yourself with these, you are already two-thirds of the way there! Incidentally, it may help to learn the voiced and voiceless versions together.

  • Now focus on learning the other 8 consonant symbols and three have a voiced and a voiceless version. Here are the 8 symbols: /ŋ/,/ð/,/θ/,/ʤ/,/ʧ/,/ʒ/,/ʃ/,/j/.

  • Once you have learnt the consonants, move on to the pure vowels. There are 12 of these. It may help to learn them with their tongue positions, starting with the front vowels and moving back, or starting with the close vowels and moving towards the more open ones: /æ/,/e/,/i:/,/ʌ/,/ə/,/ɪ/,/ɑ:/,/ɜ:/,/ʊ/,/ɒ/,/ɔ:/,/u:/.

  • All you are left with then are the 8 diphthongs. Again, visualising them with the physical movement between the two vowel positions may help you remember them: /eə/,/ʊə/,/ɪə/,/aɪ/,/ɔɪ/,/eɪ/,/aʊ/,/əʊ/.

This will all take a little while, and you will need to look some symbols up from time to time, but the more you use them, the more confident you will become.

What else You Need to Know

In addition to the 44 phonemes, you also need:

  • A handful of common technical terms that you can use to talk about pronunciation – in particular, the parts of the mouth and tongue.

  • A knowledge of some of the common problems encountered by your students – if you teach single-nationality classes, you will find that focusing on one or two specific sounds can make a big difference. A good standard reference for this is Learner English by Michael Swan, published by the CUP. It not only covers pronunciation issues for speakers of a wide range of L2 languages but also common problems of grammar and vocabulary.

  • A collection of strategies and exercises for helping your students, particularly in relation to remedial work. These can be simple things, such as:

    • Modelling and Drilling.

    • Exaggeration of features and over-articulation.

    • Using minimal pairs to differentiate between sounds.

    • Physical techniques. For example, work on tongue placement for /ð/ and /θ/ by having students place their fingers to their lips and asking them to touch their fingers with the tips of their tongues when they form the sound.

    • Simple bio-feedback techniques, such as having students place their fingers on the larynx to feel the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

    • Using props. For example, having students hold tissues in front of their mouths to differentiate between aspirated and unaspirated sounds. The tissues should move if sounds are properly aspirated.

    • Visual techniques, such as using hand mirrors to help visualise lip rounding and spreading, or to help with tongue placement.

  • Once you are comfortable with working on individual sounds, you can think about working on words, including word stress and dealing with consonant clusters.

Developing your own Approach, Activities and Materials

These are just some examples, and you will, over time, develop your own materials and ways of working with your students. You will need to decide how much you want to integrate your pronunciation work into your teaching and how much you want to spend dedicated time on pronunciation. Most good teachers of pronunciation use a combination of the two, but it will be for you to find your own balance.

You should also think about the levels of your students. With beginners, you may focus on the sounds, modelling and drills, without reference to phonemes or technical language. With more advanced students, you may want them to go so far as learning the entire phonemic alphabet - it will enable them to become more autonomous since they will be able to look up and check the pronunciation of any new word.

There are a whole variety of fun activities you can build around pronunciation and we have provided a download with a few ideas for activities to get you started. As you begin to produce your own materials, you should check out Phonemic Chart a site that allows you to quickly and easily transcribe words and sentences into a phonemic script and paste them into handouts and presentations.

Sentence Stress and Intonation

At some stage, you will probably want to move on to sentence-level pronunciation work. It is beyond the scope of this article to look at this in detail, but we will leave you with a preview of where you might want to direct your attention once you are confident with working at sound and word level.

English is a stress-timed language. This means that, unlike syllable-timed languages, which give equal weight to every syllable, the rhythm of English comes from keeping a fairly regular beat between stressed syllables. This, in turn, means that, where there are multiple syllables between two stresses, these are squashed together. In order to do this, English speakers weaken and centralise a lot of the vowel sounds to the /ə/ sound (also known as the shwa). This is an area that is worth spending some time on, particularly with students whose L1 is syllable-timed since poor stress-timing can cause as many comprehension difficulties as individual pronunciation errors.

Finally, you may want to do some work on intonation. This can be a difficult and very technical subject area. However, it is relatively easy to get students to play with intonation as a way of identifying a speaker's attitude and emotional content. You can also examine basic end-fall and end-rise intonations and show how these are associated with statements and question forms. Practising question tags is another pretty easy way into intonation – linking into genuine questions versus rhetorical questions.

We hope this short article will inspire you to get hands-on with pronunciation and enjoy what is sometimes thought of as a daunting aspect of language teaching.