In the test-based school environment that surrounds our classrooms, the skills of reading, writing, and grammar are increasingly important to our EFL students and to us as teachers.
Whether preparing for the TOEFL, IELTS, or a state-achievement test, we focus on developing our students’ reading and writing skills. In the meantime, speaking skills get pushed to the back burner in the classroom as they’re not frequently formally assessed. And yet, when our students interact with others in their daily life, whether interviewing for a job, asking for directions, or ordering at a restaurant, their speaking is constantly being assessed by those around them.
Speaking in a foreign language is stressful. When you think you’re misunderstood and have to repeat your self, you become even more stressed. As your stress level rises, the quality of pronunciation tends to decrease. In order to give our students the confidence they need to face the real world, we need to teach practical ways to teach clear pronunciation. Here are a few teaching tips when working on pronunciation with your students.
How to Work on Pronunciation Effectively
One of the biggest difficulties in clear pronunciation is vowel length. Short vowels aren’t short enough and long vowels aren’t long enough. Do contrasting exercises where long vowels are extra long (e.g. ‘seeeeeat’) and short vowels are very abrupt (e.g. ‘sit’). This is especially great if you are doing short/long minimal pair exercises. It’s important to exaggerate in the beginning so that students can hear the difference more clearly. Do competitions where students see who can hold the sound the longest. Over time, make the vowels shorter and shorter until they are the appropriate length.
Long vowels (& dipthongs)
The vowels in: beat, boat, boot, bait, bite
Short vowels: bet, bot, but , bat, bit
Studies have shown that explicit instruction in how to position the mouth while speaking greatly helps learners tackling difficult sounds. First, demonstrate with videos and exaggerate making the sounds yourself. Then pass out mirrors and have students observe their own mouth positions while forming the sounds. Here are some of the most important mouth positions for tricky English sounds:
Open mouth: bot, bought (note: for some English dialects, there is no distinction between these vowels)
Round mouth: boat, boot,
Neutral position: but, bit, bet
Corners of mouth pointed down (makes a frown): beat / bat
Tongue between teeth: threat; let
You need to hear it before you can say it. Encourage students to get as much listening experience outside of the classroom as possible. Assign listening reports in order to check in and see what kinds of English students are listening to outside of class. Listening doesn’t have to be boring; tell students to listen to popular music, TV shows, movies, anything in English will work!
Write Tongue Twisters
Everyone knows that tongue twisters are a great way to practice pronunciation, but instead of doing all the work, share the load with your students. Having students create their own tongue twisters helps them to not only practice their pronunciation, but be more aware of which sounds are in the words they know. They will have to really think about how to say words to know which ones to include in their tongue twister, and everyone will have a laugh sharing the crazy sentences that result.
It’s incredibly important that students get feedback early and often before they begin bad pronunciation habits that are difficult to adjust as later learners. As a teacher, it can be difficult to maintain a large classroom and give individualized pronunciation feedback to many students. A good way to manage a large classroom is to make notes while students are speaking, for example during role plays or individual presentations. Make note of specific words/sounds that students struggle with while speaking in front of the class, and after the class, focus on the most frequent pattern of errors for that particular student. Keep a note card for each student that you can make notes on and then give to the student. You can also have the students keep track of errors on their note card; for example, if you correct them during class, they can make a note of the mispronounced word on their card so they can remember to practice later.
Alternatively, you can seek outside help for pronunciation feedback. There are some software programs and websites that can evaluate pronunciation. One of the best ones is www.EnglishCentral.com. The website is has a few free features, but as a paying subscriber, students can receive individualized feedback on their spoken pronunciation. The subscription fee is quite reasonable for the services it provides, and if you sign up as a class, you can get reports on all of your students.
Self-reflection feedback is also critical. If you’re working with more advanced students, have them record themselves speaking and ask them to evaluate their own speech. If you’re working with lower level learners, record yourself reading a passage or give them a recording of a native speaker reading a passage. Give them the same passage and have them record it. Tell them to listen to the two recordings multiple times to identify any words that don’t sound the same. Repeating this task often will help them to monitor and be more aware of common errors.
Put the Stress on Stress
Often times, our students are misunderstood when speaking not because of the individual sounds, but because of inappropriate stress. Think about the word “A-luh-BAM-uh.” Now, try saying it with inappropriately placed reduced syllables “AL-uh-buhm-uh.” The word is essentially unrecognizable. Do stress marking activities where you can give students a list of words they already know and have them identify stressed and unstressed syllables until they understand the idea of stress. Practice knocking on the desks for each syllable; knocking extra loudly on the stress syllables and very gently for unstressed.
Practice Word Stress with Vocabulary
English has incredibly erratic word stress patterns which are rather difficult to learn due to all of the exceptions to the rules. The best way to learn word stress is to practice as you introduce new vocabulary words. As students study their new vocabulary, tell them which syllable to place the stress mark on so they can practice accurate pronunciation while learning the word.
Young learners tend to develop great pronunciation skills; however, the older the learner gets (high school and beyond), the more difficult it can be to have good pronunciation habits.
While they may not develop a native-like accent, the tips of above can help make them comprehensible and clear!