Students often worry about their pronunciation and ask for help with it. Most of the time, though, we’re focused on getting through the assigned Ventures lesson, and no time is set aside for work on pronunciation. Or maybe we overlook it because we’re so used to hearing our students speak that we hardly notice their accents anymore.
Or maybe it’s just all so overwhelming. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet but at least 40 phonemes (a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that is distinguishable from all other sounds). There’s seldom a precise correspondence of one letter to one sound, the way there is in Spanish. What rules can we possibly tell them? English is, to put it bluntly, crazy when it comes to phonetics. How do you pronounce ou? Well, would that be the ou in out, thought, dough, soup, could, or country?
Help is available, but there are dozens of websites offering advice on teaching English pronunciation to nonnative speakers. Where to begin?
My co-teacher Alex and I had an open hour before language lab recently, and we decided to try some pronunciation exercises with our 3B students. Rather than try to figure out rules, we took what seemed to be the simplest approach: minimal pairs.
Minimal pairs are pairs of words that are similar or identical except for the target sound. If you want to help students differentiate the b and v sounds, for example, you can have them practice bat and vat, boat and vote, best and vest. Other pairs illustrate vowel sounds, like tail and tell, sale and sell. It’s not hard to come up with these pairs, and there are lists on the Web (try shiporsheep.com or manythings.org).
We divided the class of seven into two small groups, each group facilitated by a teacher. Though we didn’t plan on separating men from women, they happened to be sitting that way, and it worked out well. Pronunciation practice is inherently physical and somewhat intimate — you are looking up close at people’s lips, tongues, and teeth. The women clearly enjoyed it, but it was a little more embarrassing for the guys, and I think single-sex groups made everyone a bit less self-conscious.
We showed them that certain consonants, like v, are “voiced” — you can feel the vibration if you touch your fingers to your throat. Others, like f, are unvoiced — no vibration. And for certain consonants, like p and k, you make a little puff of air that you can feel if you put your hand in front of your mouth.
We also gave them hand mirrors to check the position of their tongues when pronouncing th (it should be sticking out between the teeth). Th seems to be an especially difficult sound for students. It doesn’t exist in Latin American Spanish, nor in Amharic (according to my Ethiopian student), and it seems unlikely in most of the Asian languages, though I really wouldn’t know. Moreover, there are two th sounds in English: voiced (as in there, that, though) and unvoiced (as in three, thin, thanks).
Our students were enthusiastic about the pronunciation work, and they seemed grateful for the help with what is for them a very big issue. We dealt with consonants one week and vowels the following week, allowing for a relaxed pace and lots of individual attention. In the future I’d like to incorporate regular pronunciation practice into our classes.
After the classroom work, we went to language lab and they practiced minimal pairs on the interactive manythings.org website. They liked this a lot and several asked for the website address so they could continue working on pronunciation at home.
There are several books on pronunciation available in the volunteer room:
- Ann Baker and Sharon Goldstein, Pronunciation Pairs (student’s book and teacher’s manual)
- Paulette Dale and Lillian Poms, English Pronunciation for Spanish Speakers (two volumes, on consonants and vowels)
- Joanne Kenworthy, Teaching English Pronunciation