Teaching pronunciation can be intimidating, especially if you are technically teaching other areas of the English language.
But every ESL teacher should make pronunciation instruction a part of their class. Here are some top tips for teaching pronunciation to ESL students.
Top 10 Tips for Teaching Pronunciation in ESL classes
Teach Listening First
It is virtually impossible for students to produce the right sounds for English words when they cannot hear and distinguish those sounds from one another first. So to teach pronunciation well means starting with teaching listening and making sure your students can distinguish the sounds they will soon be producing themselves.
Teach the Phonetic Alphabet
I am a firm believer that every ESL student should know the phonetic alphabet. Rather than depending on spelling, it is used to transcribe the exact sounds in English words. Students who know the phonetic alphabet and whose teachers use it get additional input when they are learning the correct pronunciation of words. They not only hear the correct pronunciation, but they see it, too. Phonetic transcriptions show students, even those who are struggling to hear the correct pronunciation, exactly how an English word is supposed to sound.
Teach Minimal Pairs
Minimal pairs are words that differ in only one sound. When you teach English words in groups that point out differences as well as similarities, your students will be able to hear the differences and then produce the differences that distinguish words from one another.
Know Cultural Pronunciation Patterns
Speakers of the same native language often have mispronunciation patterns that are recognizable and predictable. Spanish speakers often struggle with the difference between the long and short i sounds such as those in city and seedy. Speakers of Japanese will often struggle to hear and produce the difference between /l/ and /r/. If you know the common pronunciations your students are likely to struggle with, you can better prepare and instruct them in correct English pronunciation.
Let Your Students Look at Your Mouth
I know this may be uncomfortable for you, especially if you have never done it before, but it is important. The reason is this: speakers of different languages actually hold and move the muscles of the mouth in different ways. For correct pronunciation, students will have to hold their mouth properly. Additionally, some students will not be able to produce a sound simply because they can hear and identify it. They will need the visual input that comes from looking closely at you while you produce certain sounds. Once you have let your students look at your mouth as you pronounce certain words and sounds, have them look at their own mouths. You can do this with mirrors or with the reverse camera on most smart phones. If students can see how your muscles move as you pronounce English sounds and words, they can see if they are moving their muscles in the same manner and can hear if they are producing the same sound as you.
Group Students by Native Language and against Native Language
Grouping students with the same native language can be very helpful for correcting some of those predictable pronunciation struggles, so you should try it if you teach a class of internationals. They will often be able to help each other achieve more accurate pronunciation. It is also helpful to group students with speakers of different native languages. When students have to make themselves understood to someone not familiar with their accent, they will have to achieve more standard pronunciation to get their meaning across. So make sure when you group your students that you switch things up and sometimes group by native language and sometimes against it.
Let Them Mock You (and Others)
Well, mock may not be the right word, but mimic is. Have your students listen to what you say and repeat it like a good younger brother loves to do to older siblings. Don’t stop with your own speech, though. Have students copy the speech of newscasters, actors, and English speakers who are not also teachers. When they do, they will ingrain correct pronunciation and intonation into their own spoken English.
Combat Anxiety with Games
Games make everything more fun, don’t they? And you will want to make pronunciation instruction as fun for your students as possible. They will need it since working on correct pronunciation is stressful and can cause anxiety in even the best students. So make sure you have some great pronunciation games you can play as you work with your students. If you are stuck for ideas, Busy Teacher has lots of ideas to share.
Record and Rerecord Your Students
It may come slower than they would like, but your students will make progress in their pronunciation of English. You can give them clear cut evidence of their progress if you take the time to record them reading the same English passage at the beginning of your school year, in the middle, and again at the end. When you record your students’ pronunciation, you can play the tapes one after another to show their progress. This is important for increasing your students’ confidence and bolstering their self-esteem. If your students are like most language learners, they will need encouragement and boosts to keep going when it feels like they are making no progress at all. Your recordings can do just that. In addition, it gives you material on which to base their grade when it comes to their final evaluations on pronunciation.
Don’t Get Hung up on Accent
Teaching good pronunciation skills in English is not the same thing as eradicating a first language influenced accent. ESL teachers walk a fine line when addressing pronunciation issues of English. Ultimately, the goal is for your students to speak so they can be understood by native English speakers. For some students, they will be able to communicate clearly even if they retain part of their native accent, and your students may want it there. When the accent becomes too strong, however, it becomes a barrier to communication. So focus more on communication rather than perfect pronunciation, and you and your students will both be happy.
Pronunciation is important, but it is also difficult both to teach and to learn. Perhaps that is why every ESL teacher should make it a part of what they teach their students. If you haven’t been teaching pronunciation for whatever reason, I hope these ideas get you started and help you see that teaching pronunciation doesn’t have to be as intimidating as one might think.