How to Teach English Pronunciation Using Phonemes and Games

Proper pronunciation is often overlooked in the language teaching field. English textbooks and instruction manuals barely touch on the subject.

Yet proper pronunciation is a major part of learning the English language! The number of words with similar sounds but utterly different meanings can cause much confusion if correct pronunciation is not taught.

Can pronunciation be taught at all? Yes! Just realize that textbooks may not always cover all approaches to teaching this important language skill.

Wrong ways to teach pronunciation

Teaching pronunciation alongside the introduction of vocabulary is a common mistake. Auditory learners and EFL students who speak a related language may be able to pick up pronunciation readily with this method, but those with a markedly different mother tongue will struggle.

Learning pronunciation by drill is another popular method, and can be effective for some – particularly when combined with the study of the inconsistent patterns of English spelling. Handicaps, however, still apply to some learners.

Can we effectively teach these students for whom traditional textbook suggestions fall short? Again, yes! There is a starting point that can benefit all students, and that is the study of phonemes.

Step one – Introducing phonemes

The phoneme is the one sound which makes the distinct difference between similar words. For example, in the ‘at’ family of words (cat, fat, mat, sat) the phoneme is the beginning letter (/c/, /f/, /m/, /s/). Using phonemes to teach pronunciation focuses on these distinct units of sound. The best way to begin is by having students listen for and identify these differential sounds.

Introduce phonemes in pairs for the best results, like /t/ and /d/. Have the students repeat the sound, then simple words: ‘tip’, ‘dip’, ‘tuck’, ‘duck’. Drawn diagrams of how to hold the lips and tongue can also be helpful. Visual learners may also benefit from the symbols of the phonetic language to help differentiate between phonemes that are written the same but sound different; the ‘th’ in the two words ‘thanks’ and ‘there’, for example.

Step two – Practicing phonemes

Once students have grasped the concept of and can identify phonemes, they will need to practice making the sounds accurately. This is where pronunciation diagrams can be helpful. Many sounds like ‘r’ and soft ‘g’ are articulated inside the mouth and they can be frustrating for students to try and duplicate. Diagrams of the correct positioning of the mouth and tongue for these sounds can be found in many books, and blown up for larger classrooms.

By now you have probably realized that teaching pronunciation to ESL learners is going to take time. Learning a second language requires, to an extent, a reprogramming of the brain; new neural paths must be created to process the new information. It is like a baby learning to talk at an accelerated pace – new facial expressions and sounds have to be learned and applied.

Step three – Word pronunciation

When teaching on the phoneme level, we take noises and make them significant. When we work on pronunciation at the level of conversational dialogue, a new set of barriers appears.

Anxiety is a common enough symptom among ESL students. Fear of failure makes them stiff and nervous, and this is often readily apparent in their demeanor. Repetitive verbal games such as Jazz Chants, handclap rhymes and other structured activities can relieve much of this pressure and allow the students to concentrate on the pronunciation and intonation Classroom rituals, like learning a short greeting to use at the beginning of each class will help boost self confidence.

Learned helplessness is a less easily spotted hindrance. This refers to our psychological tendency to ‘give up’ after a few failed attempts, especially if there is negative feedback from the teacher or classmates. The solution is simple – keep it positive! Praise each advancement, no matter how small, tape the students progress so he/she can hear their improvement on a regular basis, and don’t forget to award the slow learners as much recognition as the rapid ones!

Finally – a word on accents

Cultural identity is the last and perhaps the most important question to be dealt with. ESL and EFL students who are learning English merely for business often do not intend to assimilate, and will not wish to completely give up their accent as it sends a clear message about their roots and history.

The main objective here is not to attain some hypothetical standard of English pronunciation, but to merely ensure that all students can be readily understood. Any ‘foreign’ accent, in the end, will probably not be any more distracting than ones of native English speakers from varying parts of the world.

Games can be useful here as well, to break the ice and lessen tension about accents. Impersonations are a wonderful way to help students improve their pronunciation, and have a fun as well. Many famous personalities can be used as models and the students will have a terrific time guessing who they are. Often the students will find that their pronunciation will markedly improve as they mimic the speech patterns of their favorite actors and celebrities. They can even imitate the teacher for an added note of hilarity!

All of these ideas can be expanded on and modified to fit the needs of your particular class. Teaching pronunciation to ESL students is very necessary, but it doesn’t have to be nerve-wracking. Just work on it a little during each class, and see your students’ abilities grow!

About the author: Shelley Vernon, conscious of the vital role teachers can play in the lives of their pupils, promotes learning through encouragement and games.

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