How do you say that? 13 ways to work on pronunciation in second language classes.

During my years as a second language teacher, I have learned some things about my student’s struggles with pronunciation. This scene from My Fair Lady shows poorEliza struggling to master one lesson right after another, using a bewildering and changing array of learning strategies.

First, I’ve learned that despite many teachers’ complaints to the contrary (including mine), students do transfer skills. For most of my students, English is either their first language, or the language they speak in their everyday communication. The English pronunciation patterns that they use in that communication usually form their first attempts at pronouncing French words.

Second, pronunciation challenges can form a real obstacle to communication. If I or another student can’t understand what is being said, it becomes very difficult (although not impossible) to build understanding.

Third, pronunciation is hard to teach in an engaging way. It can come across as needlessly picky or focused on small details unless it’s presented as part of a cohesive piece of communication or a range of skills.

Fourth, it’s difficult to give meaningful feedback on pronunciation that moves student learning forward. Most of us have difficulty “hearing” ourselves as we speak, and once a word has been said, it is often forgotten unless it has been captured in a recording.

And yet, as any language teacher or student will tell you, pronunciation is a critical component of learning a second language. This article discusses many of the challenges associated with teaching pronunciation. Importantly, pronunciation is not just transfer. It is one of a group of skills working together to support communication. This group of skills includes pronunciation, stress, intonation, accent, and rhythm (sometimes also referred to as fluency). In my experience, teaching an “accent” of any type has not really helped my students in their communication, but exposing them to audio recordings of a variety of accents has helped to develop their comprehension. Once students view pronunciation as part of the range of skills listed above, it becomes much easier to develop objective language to describe individual performances or strategies for improvement. It also helps me as a teacher to design instructional strategies or experiences for my students that will help them learn.

  1. Teach, give feedback on, and assess pronunciation as part of a group of skills that work together to support communication. Do this before a longer oral production piece that students will work on if they are working with structures that will require them to use new sounds, such as new verb tenses, new questioning structures, or integration of pronouns. The instruction works best if focused on a limited range of the sounds or pronunciation patterns that students will need to use. I have created my own rubric for this, using resources such as the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and an updated resource for the CEFR titled Collated Representative Samples of Descriptors of Language Competences Developed for Young Learners Aged 11-15 Years.
  2. Create an atmosphere where it’s okay to make mistakes, and students have an opportunity to correct them. Add assessment criteria that rewards corrections and application of previously learned patterns, and talk explicitly about the corrections as attempts to repair communication.
  3. Focus on growth, not perfection. I mispronounce things on a regular basis, and mistakes in this area are a normal part of human communication.
  4. Encourage students to coach each other once they have learned a pronunciation pattern. Doing this reinforces their own learning and helps them articulate what works for them or how they learned a particular skill.
  5. Find ways to talk about movements that are used to make a given sound. For example, I often explain to students whether or not my tongue touches the roof of my mouth or the back of my teeth as I make a sound, or whether my lips close as I say a word. Thinking about these movements often helps them to at least begin to have success with a word. I learned the International Phonetic Alphabet while I was in university. While I don’t think it’s important or especially helpful for my students to learn it, I do think it can be helpful to talk about similar sounds and patterns learned in one word that can be helpful in another. Videos such as this one can be helpful in both describing and illustrating the movements required to make certain sounds.
  6. Go slow. Students sometimes aren’t sure where one word or syllable starts and another ends when sounds are pronounced quickly. Slowing down sounds and using mindful practice of its components helps them to think about the sounds as they make them.
  7. Leverage technology to provide supports and opportunities for feedback. This can be done in multiple ways. One of my favourite apps to support pronunciation is called “How to Pronounce”. It’s only available on an iOS platform, but supports multiple languages and offers learners the option of slowing down a phrase that is being read back to them, as well as creating a bank of favourite or frequently used phrases. I strongly encourage my students to make use of the video and audio recording capabilities of their devices. They make video of themselves regularly for their digital portfolios, and can then go back and use feedback to move their learning forward. I encourage them to record audio of themselves if they are trying to learn a phrase or remember ideas for a conversation or presentation. They can listen to that recording as many times as needed during the day (outside of class) to reinforce learning. I can also use technology to provide links of audio recordings that I want my students to listen to and practice in the same way.
  8. Teach note taking strategies that support pronunciation. When introducing new vocabulary, I encourage my students to write down what a word sounds like to them. Their phonetic spelling doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but them, because it’s part of their personal engagement in their own learning process. For example, they may choose to represent the word “qui” as “key” or “kee”, or may draw a picture of a key beside the word to remind themselves of how to say it.
  9. Connect pronunciation to unit vocabulary and content, and use listening or reading tasks to encourage students to engage with the sounds in multiple ways. I look for reading selections that have an accompanying audio recording, and often ask students to practice reading along with the original. This works best if the recording can be broken up into chunks or paused, and if students can replay it for themselves as many times as necessary to improve pronunciation.
  10. Help students identify patterns and incorporate interaction or movement for active learning. Using the illustrations and some key vocabulary from a unit I do in French 9, I made the resource shown here to practice some common spelling patterns and their pronunciation. Students cut out around the shape, cut the flaps apart, and glued the centre (dark) strip into their notebooks. Under the flaps they had created, they listed words from the unit that used those spelling and pronunciation patterns. In a contrasting colour, they also wrote what those words sounded like to them, so that they could practice them outside of class as well. I assessed their pronunciation using videos they created and uploaded to FreshGrade, saying phrases using the pictures shown in the second image.

11. Provide repeated opportunities for students to practice pronunciation in short, focused learning experiences. This can take the form of stations, or can include a range of other in-class opportunities. I encourage my students to make connections between old and new pronunciation patterns whenever introducing new vocabulary, and often use pairings with familiar words to help support the acquisition of new information and intentionally associate it with something they have already learned.
12. Find engaging activities that students like to work on for pronunciation. This can include things like lip sync battles, adaptations of the whisper challenge (you can see an example featuring two different accents and starring Jimmy Fallon and Margot Robbie here), identifying rhyming sounds in poetry or song lyrics, using physical response strategies like clapping or standing when students hear a sound, alternating pictures and words and asking students to guess the missing word, and so on.
13. Use critical thinking strategies paired with listening or speaking exercises.Include questions that ask students to write down words they heard that helped them to find an answer or make a choice, or ask them to justify their thinking by writing down a key word they heard and used. At a beginner level I might include some options for students to choose from, but at an intermediate or advanced level I am interested to see what they will come up with independently. Doing this gives me good feedback as a teacher and helps me know what pronunciation patterns my students are connecting with their listening and knowledge of spelling and writing, and can inform future directions in my instructional strategies.

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