How to Teach Pronunciation to EFL Students
Getting English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students to correctly wrap their tongues around English words can be a puzzle for teachers just learning the ropes of teaching English abroad.
But even though pronunciation is an area of difficulty for the untrained teacher, a little training and practice will soon have you giving very productive pronunciation lessons to your students.
In this post we’re looking at Pronunciation and especially the importance of Stress, Rhythm and Intonation.
Pronunciation problems are no laughing matter– though ordering “flied lice” in an Asian restaurant may be the English-speaking world’s most universal joke. Usually the reason that EFL students have problems with pronunciation and stress is because their first language may lack certain sounds. Many languages don’t have the same strings of consonants (“consonant clusters”) that we do in English. For your students, the phrase “tongue twister” may apply to the whole language!
Not Sure How to Say It? Respell It.
A good technique to get closer to native-level pronunciation for your students is for them to use a respelling system. There are several different methods for respelling words so that the students memorize a closer approximate to the spoken word.
One famous method is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). However, this system is complicated, and only a few students will know it before coming to class. Unless you work in a school that uses the IPA across the board, you may have to spend a lot of valuable class time pre-teaching the IPA to your students. That’s fine if it helps them learn better pronunciation—but if their next teachers don’t use it as consistently as you did, the students may feel that time was wasted.
In addition, there are at least ten other major phonetic systems you can find in dictionaries and books on pronunciation and listening. Unfortunately, the English-speaking world has never gotten together to agree on something to use universally.
I recommend the simple system author Stacy A. Hagen uses in the listening book Sound Advice and in the pronunciation book Sound Advantage.
You’ll notice I’ll use this system below, and it will be in some of the downloads available at the end of both this post and the next one, Pronunciation Part Two.
Whichever system you choose, it’s critical that you pick one that is intuitive and easy to use. Without learning correct pronunciation, students learn the language but can’t verbalize it properly. Every EFL teacher has had the experience of a student speaking clearly, but incomprehensibly, because of poor pronunciation.
All a student’s listening comprehension and vocabulary skills will be for naught if they can’t communicate verbally because of poor pronunciation. But don’t worry—this is where you come in!
Don’t Talk Down to your Students
Speak normally to your students. They MUST hear natural, even quick, pronunciation. This will help them learn. Speak as you would every day, and save the one-word-by-one-word speaking for badly acted movies. Slow, emphatic speech is unnatural and is a sign of a poor teacher.
Talking too slowly or with strange emphasis will harm your students for two reasons.
First, of course, the students are going to mimic your style of speech. If you speak unnaturally, then it follows that they will as well. Secondly, the moment they meet another English speaker outside the classroom, they will be at a disadvantage because they won’t understand what they hear.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t slow down a little to make sure your students have understood the basics of your lesson. However, it does mean you should strive to speak naturally for the bulk of your class time.
To help your students understand native speakers when they actually hear them in real life, you are going to have to TEACH natural speech during your classroom time.
Link it Up — Words Don’t Stand Alone When You Say Them Naturally
Think about this:
The sentence ‘My name is Fred,’ really sounds like Mi naeh miz Fred.
And, ‘How much is it?’ really sounds like How muh chi zit?
When the ending sound of one word attaches itself to the beginning of the next word, we call this “linking.” Take a look at the bottom of this post for some more information on this.
“Linking” is important for students to listen for–but if you as the teacher make a habit of over-enunciating words and speaking mega-slowly, then the students will only be listening to hear the text-book clear ‘How much is it?’ They won’t be able to comprehend the real-life speech sounds of ‘How muh chi zit?’
Coaching students in linking and how to recognize and use it is one of the responsibilities of the professional EFL teacher.
Another example to ponder:
Take a deep breath and say the following sentence quickly and naturally several times: Sue wants to get a better water heater. Listen to yourself repeat it.
Rather than a clear, crisp eight words, you’ll probably hear yourself say something like:
Sue wuhnstuh gettuh bedder wadder heeder.
The above sentence is an example not only of linking but also of “reduction.” Reduction occurs when some words glue themselves together and some sounds shrink. You can find out more about reductions at the bottom of this post.
Resist the urge to dismiss respelling as unimportant. Many untrained EFL teachers have said “But, I don’t talk that way,” missing the point that, well, yes they do—you do, I do, all of us English speakers do.
To IPA or not to IPA
Coming into teaching English for the first time, many teachers wonder if they should put the time in to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) by heart so they can fill up their classroom boardwork with respellings using it.
The quick answer to that idea is a big old No—it’s most likely the students won’t know the IPA to begin with, so if you start using it in class they will be confused.
Instead, I recommend browsing through different texts and then adopting a method that’s simple and clear—like the system I illustrated above.
Newbie teachers may be worried that their students will begin to write using respellings instead of the correct spelling of words. This won’t happen though, if when introducing a new word you make it clear that the respelling sounds like this, but is written like that. It’s as easy as pointing at the respelled word and telling them, “Class, it sounds like this.” Most of your class will “get it” intuitively.
Now, about accuracy in your respellings. Is it dire if you can’t figure out how to respell something completely correctly? Of course not, but be as sound-perfect as you can. All of us native speakers have differences in how we pronounce words and so the respellings may come out differently too. You’ll get better at it as you practice it.
Want to explore more about this? Here are some good Internet resources on the topic:
Linking – downloads as a Word document.
Pronunciation Notes – another Word document.
Here are some basics from English Club on Linking.
TED’s Tips™ #1: To teach pronunciation, you need to develop an ear for how you and other people speak. Listen to yourself and others—not how you think they speak – but how they truly speak. I bet you’ll be surprised, and this is what teaching pronunciation is really about – the reality of what spoken words and phrases really sound like.
TED’s Tips™ #2: Find and practice your own simple respelling system. Test it out before bringing it into the classroom. A good simple system will help your students more than you can guess.