Tuesday, 8 February 2011

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Reflections on last weeks #ELTchat: Pronunciation

speak no evil

Last Thursday I participated in the ELTchat discussing pronunciation, and as usual there was a general consensus, in this case regarding the treatment of the subject, and the lack of time it is generally perceived as being given in the average class room.

The thing thing that struck me was that while there was the usual fertile and fascinating discussion, generally I found myself disagreeing with a considerable number of the tweets. I was surprised with the number of people who were advocating 100 % pronunciation focused activities and classes. They just didn’t seem to tally with my experience at all. Now I should state as a caveat that this opinion is based on my experience of teaching adults in Brazil and Korea and I accept that in other situations, such as with young learners and with other nationalities, it is entirely possible that the circumstances may be completely different.

My approach to pronunciation has always been more hands-off than hands-on because I have rarely, if ever, met a student who had such problems with pronunciation so that they could not be understood even though they had acquired the other skills required to express themselves. I have never thought that it required anything other than the occasional focus. 

That is not to say it should be forgotten about. The teacher should be aware of it and tackle issues if and when they arise, but having a ‘pronunciation class’ seems as anachronistic to me as having a ‘grammar class’. Yes, the students need to need to know how to pronounce “tough and bough and cough and dough” but only when those words appear in a natural context, and certainly not lined up together, their only connection being how irritatingly inconsistent they are.

Surely the primary objective of what we are trying to achieve in regard to pronunciation is comprehensibility. What other priority can there be? The specific needs of the student must, as always, be taken into account. When I was teaching Korean English teachers, their aim was to be become better at their jobs. Consequently, I didn’t spend any time teaching vocabulary related to business meetings or international politics because it wasn’t relevant to them. When it came to speaking, what they needed in regard to pronunciation was for them to be able to teach their kids with enough accuracy and confidence to do a good job. The time could be better spent on other areas where they needed more assistance.

It was stated in the #eltchat that:

“‘If you’re not teaching pronunciation, you’re not teaching English”.

I would prefer to say:

“If you’re teaching English, you’re teaching pronunciation (assuming that you’re teaching it well of course!)"

Every listening and speaking activity is a pronunciation practice. Just as reading can greatly improve a learner’s vocabulary, I believe that the simple act of listening to a variety of speakers can help the students improve their own pronunciation. This belief comes from my own experience with my students that I have taught for longer periods, particularly in one to one classes. They were exposed to an amount of authentic listening that I would make equivalent, in my own non-scientific way, with reading a novella or short story every week, and, over time, I could hear the improvements. Just as immigrants to a particular city eventually start to speak with that particular accent, my students would, less dramatically, become clearer in their speech.

As teachers it is our responsibility to make sure we help the students reach of level of intelligibility that will enable them to use their English as they require it. This isn’t about shirking my responsibilities, but rather it’s to do with simple pragmatism. In our attempts to rectify the perceived imbalance in the quantity of teaching time given over to pronunciation, we must be careful not to overstep the mark and move towards a prescribed, teacher-led array of activities that often have, in my view, a limited effect and an overambitious objective.


  1. I love the emphasis on listening - I totally agree that exposure to the sounds and the "sound" of a language are vital - but some training in noticing features of the sound system I think is also very valid - just as we train learners to notice patterns in written language when they read.

  2. A very useful reflection on the timing and amount of pronunciation practice in lessons which did not perhaps come through #ELTchat - but it's too fast a stream of a conversation to be really reflective, isn't it?

    I think whichever way you want to turn that particular phrase which you are thinking about, it seems to me that pronunciation is an area that needs to be looked after, at various moments taking opportunities presented during lessons where it can be either integrated or focused on, depending on the needs of the particular class or individual students.

    Some classes or Ss will need more, some less work on this, some may wish for a perfect accent, some won't mind it at all if people can guess their nationality; in fact, some people do want to be known as non-native users.

    But a good or clearer accent does not come to all automatically - not everyone has a good ear and knowing how to help one's learners can be important in a variety of cases.

    I am not sure I agree with you on your conclusion about the limited effects of focussed pronunciation practice (if it is needed, done properly and not overdone).

    You may be thinking about accent/individual sounds articulation but there are other aspects of pronunciation that do require some "scientific", as you call it, knowledge and to suggest that this is an unnecessary skill in a teacher is something I disagree with.

    And to judge the need or otherwise of a whole area of teaching because you have had success with your one-to-one students is not actually fair to all other teachers and all other teaching contexts possible.

    One's accent and overall pronunciation, stress, intonation make up a phonetic profile which is often misunderstood by the native speaker non-teacher and there are many people whose persona is grossly misunderstood because of a poor accent.

    So, although, overall, I appreciate your questioning attitude and I agree that we should not go overboard, I do think that both noticing (through listening as you suggest) and practising are both necessary!


  3. @ Ceri - That's a good point, and I think this kind of learner training could be useful at the beginning of the learning process. Any suggestions for how you would go about it?

    @Marisa - Thanks for this fascinating response.

    Firstly, let me say that this is very much based on my own experiences and I am happy to concede there are circumstances where I may be completely wrong, but I just haven't encountered them yet. Time will tell. It certainly wasn't my intention to "judge" or dismiss the teachers that feel differently to me on this subject, and have different experiences that could challenge my viewpoint. Alternative viewpoints are actively encouraged around here.

    The point about my one-to-one learners, which perhaps I could have expressed more clearly, was that they have been exposed to an intense amount of listening due to the nature of their classes, and I believe this has been the biggest aid to improving their pronunciation. However, this is not an option exclusively for them, but is available to any student who chooses to listen to podcasts and the radio and watch TV and films for further self-study. I believe these students will improve their pronunciation just as the students that read the most will have the best vocabulary.

    I do think we share some common ground, however, in that I would acknowledge that there are a range of learners and styles, and we may encounter different needs at different times. The teacher needs to be acutely aware of local needs as well the requirements of the students.

    This post was written in response to ELTchat, which while I found interesting and thought provoking, I found to be one sided. I was surprised at the lack of debate on this occasion and my attempts to provoke some discussion were lost in the morass of tweets (which is completely understandable). I felt the need to "put the other side of the story" as it were, flawed as it may be.

    Comments like yours are precisely why I write this blog, because by questioning and challenging my opinions, I in turn begin a process of self examination, which is incredibly valuable for my development as a teacher. Thanks for your help.

  4. Dear James,

    I appreciate that what you have written is based on your own experience - I have no problem with that whatsoever, apologies if it looks as if I do.

    I responded because I thought you were inviting some dialogue - and indeed you do, which is great. That's what blogging means to me, too.

    Of course, you don't have to agree with anything I say either! :-)


  5. Hi James,

    For a long time I was of the same opinion as you that 100% pronunciation classes are simply not the reality of the routine of an English teacher but some time ago I watched a webinar of Adrian Underhill on teaching pronunciation. You can watch it on the Macmillan website:http://www.macmillanenglish.com/BlankTemplate.aspx?id=43108
    Following his advice - if I have a new group, or a 1 to 1 student - I often start with an almost 100% pronunciation lesson, especially with adult beginners. I make use of the phonetic chart that comes with the OUP coursebook New English File, which shows the phonetic symbols with a drawing of a word (I am sure you are familiar with it so no need to describe in detail (if not, check out the N.E. File website) We play around with the sounds and it is very easy to refer back to this initial lesson if mispronounced words need correction later on. And - as Adrian says in his talk - it gives beginners a good start, a bit of self-confidence, a chance to compare their mother tongue with English, so I think sometimes it is worth dedicating longer periods of class time to pronunciation.

    The other point I would like to make is - and here I have to admit that I could not participate in the chat so I don`t know if anything has been said about this or not (could not even find the tapescript of the chat for some strange reason) - I find that even though several coursebooks have pronuciation sections in them, these sections hardly ever focus on intonation of longer sentences, let alone longer texts. Well, maybe some striking differences like the rising or falling intonation of Yes/No and Wh/questions are dealt with , but not overall intonation. For example my mother tongue is Hungarian, which has a much smaller amplitude (is this the correct word?) compared to English, so often Hungarians sound very flat and dull when speaking English. A great tip on illustrating how important intonation is, is the youtube video on fake Spanish and other languages. If the intonation is OK, you have the feeling they are talking real English/Spanish etc. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6C5EZmyJ9ik

    Aniko from Budapest

  6. Hi Aniko,

    Thanks for your contribution. I particularly liked your point about pronunciation in coursebooks. I'd never thought about this before, but you're absolutely right. It echoes the other ways we are approaching language now, rather than being concerned about individual words we are thinking about chunks, so why shouldn't this also apply to pronunciation? And yes, intonation is often neglected too.

    Thanks for you thoughts about the phonetic chart. Despite various arguments to the contrary, I just can't imagine using it. Maybe it's because I'm a native speaker and that's not how I learned, or it's a reflection of my learning style, but I just don't get it. Maybe one day!

    There is an excellent summary of the #eltchat here, if you want to read it:


  7. Hi James,
    In my opinion, pronunciation can't be at the core of language learning - unless you're studying English to marry a British duke/duchess. I've never devoted a whole lesson to it, but I am a non native teacher (and learner) and I acknowledge the benefits of becoming familiar with Phonetics to overcome problems somehow common to Spanish students. For instance, we normally find it hard to make difference between the pair /ʌ/ and /æ/, as in cat, cut. Learners normally get along by relying on context, but when words are decontextualized (which, in fact, hardly occurs in real life situations) and they happen to belong to the same grammatical category - say, putt/pat -, well, then we're in trouble. And things can only get worse when we're exposed to other spoken varieties (yummy... allophones): when I first visited Dublin (inner city, just off O'Connell St) I had a tough tough time trying to pick out the /ʌ/ sound...
    I normally keep a phonetic chart pinned down on a classroom wall, just in case. Eventually, we rarely use it, but it sometimes helps.
    Anyway, I prefer students to be able to ask for clarifications or to reformulate messages when they're at a loss, rather than phoneticians unable to be minimally fluent when real communication comes into play.
    I must say that, personally, I find it very entertaining to study Phonetics - phonetic transcription is as pleasant as a good sudoku -, but that is not what most secondary students learn English for.

  8. Thanks for your comment Paco, I think you and I are singing from the same hymn sheet on this one.

    As you point out, the occasional problems that your students have with pronunciation can normally be dealt with in the context in which they are presented. As you say, the decontextualisation of the problem words hardly ever happens.

    The example you give of visiting Ireland is a very likely situation that most learners will not have been adequately prepared for. However, how many of them should be ready for that situation from a listening perspective? It hardly seems like a useful way of spending precious classroom time to me. Rather, I'd prefer to train them in coping strategies so they can deal with this situation as and when it arises, whether that's in Dublin, Shanghai or Montevideo. Seems much more useful to me, especially as I'm a native English speaker and sometimes I struggle to understand the Dublin accent too!

  9. I think you are completely right! I'm now studying to become an English teacher and my problem is my pronunciation. I tried to correct it, but it's only possible when you are talking all the time. We are not some parrots that have to repeat a few words every time. We need to use these words in different contexts. This way, the pupils will know when and how to use it and how to pronounce it. I take extra courses in which I have to talk a lot so I can fix my mistakes (Communication in English by John Arnold). I just have to make sure that my lessons are perfect with a good pronunciation of the vocabulary. Then, my lessons would be great!

    The problem with comparing dough and cough is the fact that the pupils are not masters in English and as result, they will mix up these pronunciations if you put them together. I attended a webinar a few weeks ago that treated the course books. They also said that pronunciation can't be a chapter on its own, but it should be integrated just like all the other skills and this emphasizes your point once again!

    I love the picture on this page as well. Pupils are trapped in the thinking of the teacher and they can't say what they want. Using pronunciation in the wrong way would stress this even more. I still think pupils are free in their way of talking. As long as they can learn.

  10. Thank you Amelie, I'm happy I gave you something to think about! As I always say to my students, accent is not important but intelligibility is. Key to this is knowing who you will be communicating with. If you intend to speak English with Americans, there will be certain points in the language that are required to be pronounced in a certain way in order for them to understand you, and there will be certain other points that will change depending on where in the US they are from. But if your students will be using to communicate with people from Egypt, Japan and Poland, they have a quite different set of needs.

    Of course this becomes more complicated when you are non-native English teacher, and you feel the pressure that comes with the idea that you must be a model of perfect pronunciation. I don't think this is what the students what or expect, and if they do, it needs to be dispelled as soon as possible because it is unfair and unrealistic.



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