How important is pronunciation for the teacher’s and student’s confidence?
A year or so ago, I met my partner in a conversational class while I was teaching in Scotland. Ever since, we’ve been continuously exchanging languages. She’s learning English and I’m learning Italian. We’ve spent hours talking about English and Italian grammar, vocabulary, literature and of course pronunciation!
Pronunciation has been a nemesis for many language learners out there. Often overlooked, in English language classes for a number of reasons; sometimes due to the teacher’s fear of teaching pronunciation, some other times because we are running out of teaching time and we need finish the book and so we skip the pronunciation parts. Ultimately, all language learners I’ve met in my life, agree that when they moved to an English-speaking country, and they felt people couldn’t understand them and vice versa. This is how important pronunciation is.
Fast-forward to the present, we moved to Rome. She thought that her level of English was going to get worse because she doesn’t live in Scotland anymore. So, she decided to start an English course to which I was very supportive! In the meantime, I’ve been torturing her about the qualities of a good teacher and the CELTA course so she knows what to expect from a good teacher.
After she came back from the lesson, she had a big smile on her face to which I responded with some questions about the teacher’s teaching style. It was a reading lesson, so the amount of input was limited but there one thing that grabbed my attention. She said that she learned a new word. For the first 30 seconds we were repeating the ‘same’ sound without understanding each other! The word was /flɔːd/; the word she was saying was /fləʊd/; the word is of course flawed. It goes without saying that my first questions was ‘did the teacher write the word using the phonemic script’. The answer was clearly no. Maybe the teacher mispronounced the word, or the student didn’t hear it properly, or even the student just forgot the word because there was little or insufficient drilling of the word or finally not a visual reference (phonemic script). Personally speaking, I’ve mispronounced words before in English while teaching. It happens and it shouldn’t be something we get stressed about. As non-native teacher we usually get self-critical, so we don’t need any more extra pressure.
What I want to highlight with this introduction, is the importance of using the phonemic script while teaching new lexis. Because like my partner some students will return home happy after having learned a new word…wrongly.
What follows is 4 easy tips to improve your student’s pronunciation and your own confidence as a teacher.
- Use Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart
Get a copy and stick it somewhere in your classroom. It’s super easy to get used the Underhill’s chart. It was meant to be used by teachers and so it’s super intuitive. The more you use it the more confident you will become and you will surely catch yourself practising some of the sounds by repeating the words in the chart!
- Teach the sounds separately and one at a time
Don’t expect that your learners will transcribe words using the phonemic script in a day (exercises that ask students to identify words written in phonemic and vice versa are super useful but need prior exposure to the chart). Start with one vowel sound every second day. You can teach start with the short and long vowels like /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ and highlight the way your mouth moves when pronouncing each vowel sound.
- Level up your board work
I usually have a little space either on the right or left side of my board with the new vocabulary. I keep it there for as long as it is useful, and I highly suggest my students to take a picture of it or transfer it to their notebook on the spot. This the pattern I follow for the new vocabulary
Word (type of word) – phonemic representation
Flawed (adjective) / flɔːd /
Of course, I also include the meaning of the word by using a synonym, antonym, definition, or a sentence with the word in context if the word is more difficult.
Also, don’t forget to use different colours. I usually use blue for the actual word, black for the type and green for the phonemic transcript. Of course, you can use whichever colour combination you prefer but make sure you’re consistent with what each colour represents. It will help you and your students get used to the system and in no time, if you are missing one of the components you will all feel its absence!
- Employ some pronunciation games!
One of the games, I usually play with my students to consolidate the pronunciation of new lexis is what I call silent words. Start by choosing a word from the board. Say the word silently while looking at your students. Exaggerate your mouth movements and have your students guess which word it is! After you practised all the target vocabulary, have some of your students take turns saying the words silently while their peers are guessing the correct word! You can always add a competition element by counting the correct guesses!
Some final thoughts
Like every teacher, over the years I’ve consolidated or even learned so many new words and structures because I had to teach them. Similarly, it was a Eureka moment for me when I was asked to explicitly teach pronunciation. My own ability improved by miles and my confidence as an English language speaker/teacher increased too. For these reasons, I urge you to enter your class tomorrow and focus on those longer vowels; the open / æ / as in cat and the close / ʌ / as in cut. Play some games with them and your students will return home happier and when time comes for them to move to an English-speaking country, they will be more confident and of course thankful for your lessons.