13th October 2016

Does this sound right? Making the most of pronunciation

By James Pengelley

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Right?

In which case, it often makes me wonder why teaching pronunciation doesn’t take more of the focus in English language lessons.  That’s not to say that teachers don’t do it – indeed, it’s a compulsory component of most teacher training programmes. However, these often focus largely on segmental phonology (or the individual sounds of English phonemes) rather than more complex feature of phonology like connected speech and intonation.

I would add that on short training courses, teachers are under so much pressure that integrating the complexities of higher level phonology is often too much of a leap, or teachers perhaps decide to prioritise other areas of their teaching and language awareness, and leave phonology on the backburner.  In addition, short training courses are based on the assumption that teachers will continue to seek and have access to ongoing training and development – and I’m not always convinced this is the case.

So in the case of teaching pronunciation (or the lack thereof), I suspect the issue might be a complex quagmire of lack of confidence, lack of support, and gaps in language awareness created by learning new information under immense pressure.

So why should we teach more pron?

There are many reasons why pronunciation is an important aspect of communication, and at the end of the day, if you can’t pronounce things correctly then oral communication is near on impossible.
Not only can phonological errors lead to a breakdown in meaning where individual sounds have a large impact on semantic meaning (there is, afterall, a big difference between ship and a sheep!), but it can also have an impact on grammar.  Consider the difference between the various pronunciations of the word convict.  One is a noun – convict, the other is a verb – convict. As such, they require different syntactical rules in order to use them correctly.

At higher levels, a lack of control of pronunciation can cause confusions and miscommunications – who would want to make the mistake of asking shop assistant if they have “mice eyes” rather than “my size”?

Also, keep in mind that phonology can have a huge influence on the pragmatic or intended meaning behind an utterance, and that poor control of this (or poor comprehension of it at least) can lead to people being offended.  Imagine a moody teenager insisting that “I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong!” or a stranger approaching you on a dark side street and asking “what do you want?”.  So, we can see how pronunciation can have a huge impact on communication that is not necessarily indicated by the words people choose to use.

What’s the point?

One of the key aspects of pronunciation that often gets overlooked is the role pronunciation, or more precisely, receptive pronunciation (i.e the ability to deal with and comprehend the pronunciation you hear) plays in listening. 

English has such a drastically irregular sound-to-spelling relationship that often what students have in mind (i.e. their internal models or representations of how a word should sound) barely resembles the sounds they hear, and this can have a devastating effect on their ability to understand what is being said. 

As an example, consider the phrase “what do you mean I can’t do that?”.  When you say this slowly, and carefully, you might place the stress on the words what, mean, can’t, that. This could sound something like this: 

  • /wɒtdəjəmiːnaɪkɑːnduːðæt/

However, if you said this in fluent, natural speech you might reduce the stresses to include only mean, can’t, that. This would sound a bit like this: 

  • /wɒʤəmiːnaɪkɑːnduːðæt/

Both of these utterances are possible, but depend on the speed or fluency with which they’re said – the second being under greater forces of phonological destruction that occur when we speak slowly.  Note in this example how what becomes /wɒ/ and do you becomes /ʤə/.

So when teachers plan pronunciation tasks, they largely do so to prepare students for production tasks.  Whereas, as we’ve considered, pronunciation also plays a critical role in bottom-up comprehension processes that allow listeners to decode the sounds that enter their eara.

Drill, drill, drill

One of the most common ways teachers incorporate phonology work into the classroom is through the use of drills.  The rationale here lies in the fact that certain sounds in a learner’s L1 may not exist in English and so the muscles of the mouth and vocal tract are learning new movements – in much the same way as a swimmer does endless drills to improve their technique. In addition, it may be that sounds in L1 rarely occur in clusters, as they might in English, and so a learner has to learn not only new mouth positions to produce new sounds, but also unfamiliar movements of the mouth to connect the sounds of English in a way that they have never had to do in L1.

The other rationale behind drills is that if the students have practice saying or articulating something then it may facilitate their ability to recongise it when listening – this is linked to the idea that sounds in a foreign language may be difficult to recongise when listening because according to the listeners internal model of English (which is often based on assumptions “borrowed” from L1), certain combinations of sounds aren’t possible or don’t exist.

But how much fun are drills, really?  Let’s take a look at spicing up your life a little with some variations of the basic pronunciation drill.


The basic call-echo relies on the teacher modelling a word or phrase and the students repeating.  As in:

  • Teacher: I’d like a pint of beer please.

  • Students: I’d like a pint of beer please.

But why not extend this one step further after this has been established by asking students to reply with the appropriate phrase. This would look like this:

  • Teacher: I’d like a pint of beer please.

  • Students: Which one would you like?

Of course, students may continue to need additional support and input on some of these as these sequences of interactions become longer or more complex, so don’t be afraid to stop and correct where necessary.

Vary pairs

Another mantra of teacher training is to vary the way you drill students. Normally, teachers are taught to model, then drill as a whole class (choral drill), then in smaller groups or pairs, and then individually.
But why not vary this and break it down by drilling in different groups.  For example:

  • Choral > Group A > Group B > Choral
  • Choral > women > men > teacher
  • Choral > odd numbers > even numbers > Choral
  • Choral > people who didn’t do their homework > people who did do their homework > teacher

Syllable and Rhythm drilling

Once the basics of “I say now you say” become more familiar, it’s important to allow students to focus on and try to hear the way sounds change in model sentences. One of the easiest ways to do this is to ask students to count how many sounds, or how many syllables they hear.

Many teachers do this already when introducing vocabulary. So you might say:

  • Teacher: Association

  • Students: Assocaiton.

  • Teacher: How many syllables

  • Students: five

  • Teacher: (showing 5 fingers to the class) Which one is the strongest?

  • Students: number 4

  • Teacher: (Points to 4th finger)

But would this work with whole-sentence drills?  Let’s look at an example:

  • Teacher: How do you get to the post office?

  • Students: How do you get to the post office?

  • Teacher: How many words can you hear?


  • Teacher: How many syllables can you hear?


  • Teacher: How many stresses can you hear?

An easy way to make this simpler for the students is remove the words and present only the rhythm to the students.  So you would model it like this:

  • Teacher: How do you get to the post office? Listen! DA de DA de de DA DA de.

  • Students: DA de DA de de DA DA de

  • Teacher: How many syllables can you hear?

  • Students:  eight.

  • Teacher: Ok, look at the sentence. Which sounds change when you hear it. Listen! How do you get to the post office?

By removing the words from the sentence, it allows students to focus on the features of rhythm that often cause great issues with students in terms of approximating accurate stress timing and rhythm.

Back chaining

Another really convenient way to focus students on the way sounds change is to isolate difficult sounds, or parts of a phrase where there is a large difference between written and phonological forms. Take a look at the previous example: how do you get to the post office.

Here we have an example of do you becoming one syllable – which could easily be interpreted as one word by the language learner.  So let’s start with that sound and build back up to the full form:

  • Teacher: /ʤə/

  • Students: /ʤə/

  • Teacher: /haʊʤə/

  • Students: /haʊʤə/

  • Teacher: /haʊʤəgetə/

  • Students: /haʊʤəgetə/

  • Teacher: /haʊʤəgetəðəpəʊstɒfɪs/

  • Students: /haʊʤəgetəðəpəʊstɒfɪs/

Voice drilling

If drilling fulfills an important role in the classrooms in terms of preparing students to talk, and familiarizing them with moth movements, it’s also important to acknowledge the way voice control adds to the effect of accurate communication.

Encouraging students to manipulate their voice in unusual ways to convey specific emotions can distract them from over thinking the accuracy of their pronunciation, and add a bit of life into the end of a long grammar presentation.

I’ve done this with my students, especially children, by first, modelling the target form and then asking them to repeat it:

  • In a happy voice
  • In a quiet voice
  • In an angry voice
  • In a military voice
  • In a smiley, friendly voice 
  • In my voice
  • In an alien voice
  • Backwards (just for fun)

Stress drills (and unstressed drills)

This is perhaps one of the more challenging drills to try out with your students, but it can be super useful for them to attempt producing English rhythm.  The principle here is that English is stress timed, and we tend to stress the key words in a sentence.  The words that aren’t stressed add syllables between the stressed parts of a sentence, and the difference between successive stressed and unstressed syllables produces what we perceive as rhythm.

So, start by practicing the stressed elements of your target sentence:

  • Teacher: Would you like to come to my party?

  • Students: Would you like to come to me party?

Now, drill again, but this time, only say the stressed syllables.  The key to this is to maintain the same rhythm as you say it.  So, it should sound just like the original sentence, with the unstressed syllables cut out.  I find it often helps to click your fingers as your do this, a bit like setting a metronome, and to start really slowly and clearly:

  • Teacher: ….like….come…..party?

  • Students: ….like….come…party?

Now, try doing the same thing, but this time, remove the stressed syllables and insert the unstressed ones. This is where it is really important to keep the rhythm (i.e. with a finger clicking metronome) and to try and keep the pronunciation of the unstressed syllables the same as they would sound in the complete sentence:

  • Teacher: would you…(click)...to…(click)...to my…(click)...?

  • Students: would…(click)...to…(click...to my…(click)...?

It does take a bit of practice, though it can provide a lot of insight into the intricacies of English rhythm for learners.  There is an argument that students whose first language isn’t stress timed like English (or whose first language doesn’t distinguish between stress and unstress vowels to the same extent as English) often struggle with English rhythm NOT because they can’t place stress appropriately, but because they can’t reduce vowel sounds frequently enough or as easily – and so in fact, where many teachers work with students to identify and practice stress placement, they may be better off working on identifying the syllables and sounds involved in reduction.

Speed drills (slow mo drills)

Getting back to basics, the slow-mo drill is one of my favourites.  Recall that we were considering the basic function of drills earlier: to enhance students’ focus on the mechanics of pronunciation. In other words, training muscle memory of the vocal tract to enable students to move their mouths in unfamiliar ways.  One of the most effective ways to get students used to this is to slow the process down. 

Pronunciation is often difficult because it happens so fast, and once something has been articulated, the sounds are gone, making them more difficult to identify and analyse – in fact we wrote about this in last week’s post in relation to teaching writing.

So next time you drill language, why not try slowing it down – and by slow I don’t mean leisurely, I mean really slow it down. Imagine you’re using the slow-mo video function on your phone: everything slows, but the movements remain exactly the same – even the voice changes and deepens as this happens (which is always a bit of fun), but the key is to ensure all the words are produced with the same rhythm as they would be in a normal fluent sentence.

So to go back to our previous example, it might sound a bit like this:

  • Teacher: woouuldd….yyoouuu…llllliiiikkkeee…tttooo….cccoooommmeeee…tooo mmmyyy…ppaaaaarrrtttyyyyy.

Again, it can help to click your fingers to indicate clearly what the appropriate rhythm ought to be so that students can replicate this.

I would repeat this a few times, and once students sound like they are connecting the words a little more easily, you can speed it up just a little….and then a little more…and then a little more until you have approximated natural speed.

Richard Cauldwell uses a similar idea in his book Phonology for Listening, though his suggestion is a little different in that the change in speed occurs mid-sentence.  So for this you might read the first half in slow motion, but then suddenly change back to normal speed:

  • Teacher: wwwwooouuulllldddd…yyooouuuuu…llliiiikkkeee tttoooo…come to my party?

This can be particularly challenging in terms of making the switch in speed and maintaining rhythm, but it is one way to help prepare students for the irregularities in speed of delivery that they are likely to occur when listening to people using English outside the classroom.

Good luck!