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‘What is “language”?’ asked the teacher trainer.
The diligent trainee replied: ‘Well, it’s four things:
grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and discourse.’ Well done, good answer. By
the way, ‘discourse’ is the organization of language above sentence level. And
some people would add ‘pragmatics’ as a fifth area – how context affects
meaning (Social English, all that intercultural stuff, politeness, etc).
Okay. Grammar and vocabulary are familiar. And let’s leave discourse and
pragmatics until another day (or until we teach writing or social English). But
pronunciation we can’t leave, and there is a problem: it’s becoming an
endangered species in many classrooms and most coursebooks. Why?
• For classrooms, I think it’s because it involves a lot of ‘listen and repeat’ and
teachers feel this is old-fashioned.
• For coursebooks, it’s because pronunciation problems tend to be quite L1specific and coursebooks are aimed at a global market.
I want you to consider the following.
1. Think about your students in the real world speaking English. As a percentage,
very roughly how much of their communication problems are due to:
a) poor grammar b) lack of vocab c) poor pronunciation
d) poor discourse management e) poor pragmatics
2. Now think about your teaching. As a percentage, very roughly how much time
do you spend on:
a) grammar b) vocab c) pronunciation d) discourse e) pragmatics
Yes, I know you also spend time in class on speaking, listening, reading and
writing. Good. But I want you to think about language input right now.
Comment. I bet that the % for pronunciation was far higher in #1 than in #2. Draw
your own conclusion.
That means we’re going to have to remind ourselves to do more work on
pronunciation. Because nobody else will.
And we’re going to have to get over the idea that ‘listen and repeat’ is oldfashioned. Because it isn’t. 30 years ago language schools had language labs with
tape cassettes and headphones and you listened and repeated. When the
internet arrived that equipment was ripped out and computers were installed in
the same room. Much was gained but something was lost.
Here’s the point about ‘repetition’. There are two types (thanks to Adrian
Underhill for this point). The first is bad repetition. This is where we do
something over and over mechanically, without attention, uncritically. The mind
can day dream. The second is good repetition. This is where we do something
over and over attentively, critically, getting feedback on each attempt and altering
the next in the light of it. The feedback can come externally from the teacher, or
internally from the inner ear, or by self recording with an app that allows playback
and comparison with a model. Here the mind does not wander.
Just one more thing before we start on the activities.
Below I will use the term drilling, a normal word from teacher training of 30 years
ago but almost extinct now. The word comes from the military (marching up and
down the parade ground with the sergeant shouting orders). In a teaching context
it means ‘to fix something in the mind - or fix something as a habit - by repetitive
instruction’. Remember that this means good repetition, not bad repetition.
Look at the best language learners in your class: you’ll see them repeat a new
word to themselves several times in a low voice. They are self-drilling, and they
do it naturally and automatically.
You drill when you practice reversing round a corner in your driving lessons, or
when you play a chord pattern over and over again when learning the guitar.
Drilling is one type of practice, and helps to make things automatic. But it has to
be done critically, with attention, with an attempt to improve each time round.
In the language classroom drilling means:
1. Teacher gives a model, saying the word (or phrase) several times in a loud,
2. Teacher ‘conducts’ choral repetition by saying the word again, then indicating
with a long sweep of the hand around the room that the class are to chant
the word in unison. The students chant simultaneously with the hand sweep.
Repeat this choral repetition several times for each word.
3. Teacher says the word again, this time gesturing in turn to a couple of
individuals for them to repeat. This should encourage the others (choose
students who have ‘got it’).
4. Teacher quickly indicates pairs around the room with clear hand signals (but
no voice) and says ‘now say it to each other’. Students have a go and there is
Let’s do some activities.
Skip activity 1 if you don’t know the phonemic chart. But notice
that here only you need to know the symbols, not the students.
Activity 1: start with the chart
This is the ‘phonemic chart’. There are several
versions, but this one - designed by Adrian
Underhill - is the best. You’ll see why in a moment.
This chart was very familiar to teachers 30 years
ago. Vowels top left, dipthongs (two vowel sounds
together) top right, consonants below. Nowadays
the phonemes live on, just, in online dictionaries.
‘But this is irrelevant with speaking dictionaries on smartphones.’ Maybe. But do
your students with smartphones really listen and repeat? with critical attention?
enough times? with you to monitor and help? Hmmm.
I still have a chart on the wall in my classroom. Here are some of the things I do …
The top left hand corner of the chart shows the
simple vowel sounds. It’s geographical: the sounds
fit into your mouth as shown. So /u:/ is produced top
back, /i:/ is produced top front etc.
I turn sideways to the students (so they see me like
in the diagram) and I make the sounds while I point
to the mouth area for the sound. I move in
sequence back to front top, back to front middle,
and back to front bottom.
Then the students repeat, row by row, also using
finger movements to accompany the sounds. Each
time they first hear my model phoneme again.
It’s a lot of fun, and can be used diagnostically to see
where the problems are.
Next, in another class, I move on to the dipthongs. Here I copy a
lesson that I saw on video when I did my CELTA initial teacher
training many years ago. It was given by Adrian Underhill.
He said the first part of the dipthong and ‘caught it’ in his right hand. Then
he said the second part and caught that in his left. Then he moved his two
fists closer and closer together, saying each separate vowel sound as he
moved them. Finally the two fists touched and he said the dipthong.
Then came the fun part. He ‘threw’ the first vowel sound through the air
to a student, indicating that they should catch it. Then he threw the
second sound into their other hand. He invited them through gestures to
bring their hands closer and closer, saying the sounds, just as he had done,
until they said the dipthong. Very easy to do in class and so much fun.
Next, in another class, the consonants.
See the first two rows? The phonemes alternate unvoiced and voiced
sounds, with everything else the same. So /p/ and /b/ have exactly the same
mouth/lips/tongue/teeth etc., but the first has no vibration of the vocal
chords, and the second does have vibration. Ditto for every pair on the first two
I say them in their pairs, pointing to my lips as I say the first and to my throat as I
say the second. The students listen and repeat.
No tricks for the third row, sorry.
Generate phonemic symbols and
insert them into docs/web pages
And here’s a special treat for the pron fans amongst you.
First, two tools that transcribe words into their phonemic versions:
And if you are having problems inserting phonemic symbols into a
word processor or a web page, try this:
Activity 2: funny phonemes
Different L1s have problems with different phonemes. For example, German /v/
and /w/ or Japanese /r/ and /l/. I like to make up funny short sentences that
deliberately use the problem sounds. My example below is for Germans, but the
activity works for any L1. Just change to other problem phonemes.
1. Write up on the board the following words:
Walter Vera went vacation Vienna wonderful time
Then say to the class, in a deliberately exaggerated way for the problem
sounds, ‘Walter and Vera went on vacation to Vienna – they had a wonderful
time’. There will be a lot of laughter.
2. Choral drilling, bit by bit. Then divide the students into pairs and they say the
sentence to each other. More laughter.
3. Repeat next lesson, and the next, with the same sentence. The sounds are
going to need a lot of fixing in the students’ vocal repertoire.
Activity 3: up-close mouth settings
For any sound that is difficult, I like to give a very clear model of the mouth
settings: shape of mouth, teeth, lips, tongue, how air is expelled. Check your
teeth for bits of food before this activity.
1. Say: ‘have you ever wanted to be a dentist?’
Then ask the students to gather round you and look closely at your mouth.
Say the phoneme, several times, showing the mouth settings very clearly and
a bit exaggerated. If you do this confidently the students won’t be
2. While they are still gathered round, ask them to have a go. Let laughter
happen and keep the atmosphere very light.
3. Repeat next lesson.
Activity 4: language feedback
After speaking activities you give feedback, and the tendency is to focus on lexical
lacks and grammatical mistakes. That’s fine, but don’t forget pronunciation.
Following a discussion, word stress is a good area for feedback. Write the words
from your feedback notes on the board as below, and drill. Beat the stress with
your hand, like conducting an orchestra:
a-na-ly-sis suc-cess pur-cha-sing
Following a role-play, functional expressions are a natural area for feedback:
Can I just read that back to you?
Here you can use ‘back chaining’, drilling each line as you go:
… back to you? / … read that back to you? / Can I just read that back to you?
With functional phrases, an incomplete sentence head such as ‘Sorry, what do
you mean by …’ does not make sense when you drill it. And you may not get a
clear context for the ‘dot dot dot’ part from what the student actually said.
Also, the target phrase may have been said wrongly, for example the student may
have said ‘Sorry, what means …’ or ‘What do you mean with …’.
So be flexible here. Drill with a whole sentence that is close to the original, even if
not exactly the same. Keep it simple. Just make it close enough for the feedback
to appear relevant to the role-play they just did. For example:
Sorry, what do you mean by ‘a few days late’?
Activity 5: Social English phrases
This activity comes from Dr. Stacia Levy, and was originally posted on
Key phrases are a great way to teach pronunciation. Not only are individual
phonemes practised in context, but sentence stress and intonation arise naturally
as areas to work on. And what better context for key phrases than Social English?
It’s an important topic for all levels and gives the students something to take out
of the classroom and use tomorrow.
The phrases that Dr Stacia Levy suggests are coming up on the next slide, with
some short commentary. After that I’ll paraphrase some points about teaching
Social English key phrases that she makes in her post.
Social English phrases to drill:
1. How’s It Going? / How Are You?
Used as greetings said in passing, not as questions needing a real answer.
2. Are You Busy? / Got a Minute?
Used to open a conversation when there is a serious matter to discuss.
3. What I Want to Say Is … / The Thing Is …
Used to signal the arrival of the main point, after talking around the topic.
4. Well, It’s Getting Late … / I Should Be Going
Used to finish a conversation, and said just before the next two phrases.
5. See You Soon / Let’s Get Together Soon
Used in place of ‘good-bye’, which is rarely used amongst friends these days.
And some comments on teaching Social English phrases through pronunciation:
1. Teach the Context. Social English phrases have a specific function, such as
introducing the main point or bringing the conversation to a close.
2. Teach the Meaning. Related to point #1, the pragmatic use of a Social English
phrase is usually different to its literal meaning. So ‘How are you?’ is not
literally a question about someone’s health. If you did want to know about
their health, you could ask: ‘How are you feeling today?’.
3. Teach the Pronunciation in Connected Speech. Most Social English phrases
are fixed or semi-fixed expressions. This has a knock-on effect to
pronunciation, where they are often said as a single ‘word’, such as
Teach the Stress. Teach this explicitly, by talking about (and letting students
practice) making the main syllable of the main word louder and longer.
Teach how Stress changes Meaning. For example, ‘She said she was coming’
is just a normal, everyday comment. But ‘She SAID she was coming’ means
that there is some doubt in your mind and she may not do what she said.
Teach the Intonation. Use your hand to conduct this, showing the intonation
as you model the phrase. Remember to do the movement in the air right to
left so that your students see it left to right.
[#5 and #6 are my own points, adapted from the original blog post]
Activity 6: exploit a reading or
After doing any reading or listening task the students will have a written text in
front of them (back of the book in the case of a listening). After doing all the
exercises in the book, you can drill key words and phrases as a round-up.
I suggest focussing on topic lexis here – collocations as well as single words – to
keep the ‘face validity’ of the exercise. Just choosing random words from the text
will seem a bit arbitrary. This is also a good time for you to do language
development by feeding in some synonyms and opposites. For example, imagine
that you were working with a text that included the phrase ‘They achieved their
success by focussing on a small market niche’. You could direct attention to this
phrase, elicit the opposite of ‘success’ and a synonym for ‘market niche’, and then
drill them all in turn:
success / failure
market niche / market segment
Activity 7: grammar presentation
It’s always good to integrate some drilling of grammar forms when presenting
new grammar. It helps memory of course (big time), and fluency (big time), and
also changes the mood in class from heads-down to heads-up.
Wait until after you’ve clarified form and meaning, but before you do controlled
You need the grammar form contextualized in a short sentence. This is a good
time to work on contractions, and on connected speech (but don’t mention
technical words like this – just say the whole sentence at natural speed).
I’ll get back to you later today.
I’ve been writing this report all morning.
What would’ve happened if we’d said ‘yes’?
Activity 8: connected speech
Connected speech is one of the main reasons why learners find it difficult to
understand native speakers (another being the use of low-frequency lexis). There
are five features to connected speech:
a) Juncture. This is where a pause in speech does not come at the same place
as a break between words. So the other person said ice cream but we hear I
scream; the other person said great ape but we hear grey tape.
b) Reduction. This is when we substitute a ‘schwa’ (written /ə/ and said like a
weak ‘uh’) in place of other syllables. If you say the phrase ’two or
three’ slowly, you clearly hear the word ‘or’; but if you say it at normal speed
the ‘or’ becomes a tiny ‘uh’, barely audible. This little ‘schwa’ sound occurs all
through connected speech, and is associated with unstressed vowels.
Elision. This is where a sound is omitted. We say and hear:
fam-lee not fam-i-ly
sep-rat not sep-are-rate.
Elision is particularly common at the end of words. The pronunciation of ’I
walked to work’ and ’I walk to work’ are actually the same. Similarly, the ‘t’
in ’next please’ disappears.
d) Liaison. This is where a sound is introduced at word boundaries. If a native
speaker says ’law and order’ you will hear a ‘r’ before ‘and’ to make ‘rand’.
(There will also be elision here: the ‘d’ of ‘and’ disappears.)
Assimilation. This is where a sound is modified by a neighbouring sound – it’s a
technical point that doesn’t need classroom attention. Say ‘handbag’. Sure, there is
elision as the ‘d’ disappears. But you actually say ‘hambag’. The mouth takes a short
cut to save energy: ‘m’ has mouth settings close to ‘b’, whereas ‘n’ doesn’t.
Students do not need to know the technical words on the
last two slides, and they do not need to produce accurate
connected speech in class. If they are going to produce it,
they will do so naturally in their own time.
However, it does help if they are aware of it. Why?
Because it should help them to decode the sounds they
hear when native speakers talk.
1. Write this phrase on the board, and ask students to say it at normal speed.
The Tower of London
Now say you are going to write it in phonemic script. Explain that this is the
script shown in dictionaries (print and online) that is written after the
headword between two ‘slash’ symbols. Write up:
/ðə taʊərəv lʌndən/
(Speakers of American English and other Englishes will have to modify the
phonemic script here according to your own accent).
2. Say the phrase yourself at normal speed several times. Point at the
phonemes as you say them.
Tell the students that they don’t need to understand the symbols. What
matters is the following:
They should first notice, and then try to produce:
- the disappearance of the ‘w’ and ‘r’ of ‘tower’
- the two little weak schwa sounds in ‘tower of’
- the way that ‘of’ links with ‘tower’ and is not pronounced as a separate
- the little schwa at the end of ‘London’
- and, at fast speeds, the virtual disappearance of both the ‘n’s in ‘London’
Conclude by saying that it is because of things like this that native speakers
are hard to understand.
Activity 9: pausing and sentence
stress to bring out meaning
Here is a short activity I do with every single class. I usually include it as a part of
Presentations, although it is useful for Meetings as well.
1. I write ‘Pausing and stress' on the board, and quickly clarify the meaning of
‘stress’ here. Then I look around the room for a notice on the wall (or I grab a
random document on the table) and read a part of it slowly and dramatically.
I use lots of pauses and hit the main stresses strongly. It’s meant to be funny.
I ask students: Who uses this kind of technique? The answers are (for this
slightly exaggerated usage): actors, politicians, preachers.
Then I ask: Why do they do it? I accept whatever answers they give but keep
the discussion short. The main discussion will be at stage 5 later.
Now I direct the class to a short piece of text. One paragraph - three or four
sentences - is about right. It could be a presentation extract (part of the
audio script in a coursebook), or part of a reading text. The text doesn’t
matter as long as it has some juicy, interesting information. And everyone
needs the same text.
I read it aloud myself, as a model, exactly as I did at stage 1. It’s another
example of the same thing. I pause in an exaggerated way. I hit the stressed
syllables of key words with extra stress.
Then I repeat, reading the same extract again, but now with different pauses
and stressing different words. I bring out the meaning in a different way. I do
all this very spontaneously, establishing an atmosphere of fun.
We discuss what I just did. Now the students realize there is no one ‘right’
way. The points to bring out are that techniques of pausing and stressing :
a) create interest (by avoiding a flat, boring voice)
b) direct attention to key points and make them more memorable
c) help to persuade listeners
d) can be used by anyone, no matter what their language level
e) are useful in meetings and presentations, not just for actors/politicians.
So far it’s all been modelling by me. Now I ask the students to stand up, take
their copy of the same text in their hands, and spread themselves around the
edge of the room. They should face the walls, looking away from their
colleagues as much as possible. This is to create a safe personal space for
experimentation and avoid embarrassment.
I explain that they are now going to read the text aloud themselves, several
times, experimenting with different pauses and stresses. They should
ignore the other people in the room.
I give a signal to start, staggering the starts (so that they don’t all begin with
the same words at the same time). I go round student to student,
encouraging and monitoring. There is always lots of concentration and lots of
At the end the students go back to their seats, and I choose a couple of them
to go to the front, stand up, and deliver their mini 'presentations'.
Tip. I love ‘Presenting In English’ by Mark Powell (section 3) for
activities to practise using your voice to bring out meaning.
Activity 10: remembering topic lexis
through word stress
Thanks to Lisa Pick for this longer activity that is a warmer for any topic.
There is a lot of evidence that words are stored in the brain along with their
stress, and that incorrect word stress fossilizes very quickly (you probably know
this from your own experience with students).
To avoid problems in this area it is important to drill any new words that are likely
to present problems immediately, and/or to return to them as revision.
As part of your lesson preparation, make a list of all the topic lexis you want
to focus on. Avoid single-syllable words as the activity is about word stress.
Do not show the list to the students yet. Below is an example list for the
topic of ‘financial statements’, but any topic can be used.
Explain to the students that you are going to repeat some words round the
class as a pronunciation exercise. You are not going to show them the words
yet so they will have to concentrate on listening. And for now the meanings
don’t matter – you’ll explain later.
Say the first item yourself as a model, then indicate for the student to your
left to repeat it, then the student to their left etc. until it comes back round
to you. Repeat for all the other items. Keep the activity fun and very fastpaced.
Now write up all the words on the board: students can copy into their
notebooks as you do so. Establish the idea of word stress: that when words
have more than one syllable, one of the syllables will be said more strongly.
Give a few examples, choosing words with different stress patterns, and show
the stress on the board using circles like this:
Divide the students into pairs and ask them to work out and write down the
stress patterns of all the words in the list. Circulate and monitor.
As a round-up and memory aid, the students need to say all the items one
more time. So return to a whole-class setting and conduct listen and repeat
choral drilling of everything.
You may want to show how word stress is indicated in an English-English
dictionary (print and online) with a ′ symbol just before the stressed syllable.
In advanced learner dictionaries the secondary stress is also shown:
Now you can get on with your lesson and start explaining the words, putting
them in a context, etc.
This whole activity could be easily adapted for revision rather than
Make a photocopy with all the topic lexis and ask students to mark
the stress. They can do this in class or for homework.
Then they work in pairs to:
1. Say the words to each other.
2. Explain the words to each other!
Activity 11: It might rain this
The modal verb 'might' (used to show 50/50 probability) is one of the commonest
words in English, but also one that learners fail to use. This is because they
translate from L1 and say things like: 'It is possible that it will' or 'Perhaps it will'.
Now, the really fun thing about 'might' is that the % probability can change a lot
depending on our intonation. The activity I describe below takes about 3 minutes
of class time, and I do it on nearly every course I teach (as part of a review of
modals - always welcomed by students).
Look out of the window and say: 'It might rain this afternoon'. Do this like
you are making a matter-of-fact comment in a conversation. The probability
should sound about 50%, but don’t mention this % yet.
Now look out of the window and say the same phrase again. But this time
say: 'It miiiiight rain this afternoon'. So: pause for a microsecond before the
word, extend the vowel, and say the word with a slightly higher pitch. Try it
and you'll find yourself also with slightly closed eyes and head slightly to one
side - like you're evaluating something. Now the probability should sound
about 5%-20%, but again don’t mention this %.
Ask the students: 'What is the difference between the two versions?' They'll
quickly say that with the second one there is less chance of rain. You can ask
for approximate probabilities.
Drill both versions, alternating between them. Remember to give a clear
model first, then choral repetition on your hand command.
Now ask one particular student: “What are you going to do at the weekend?
Choose something with a 50/50 probability and use ‘might’”. Let them
answer – this one is easy. Then ask the same student: “Now think of another
weekend plan where the probability is much lower; use ‘might’ again”. The
student will have a lot of fun trying to get the intonation, and everyone will
laugh. Keep it light-hearted, and ask a few more students the same question.
Finish by encouraging students to use 'I might' more often, in place of
'Perhaps I will' or 'It is possible that I will' or 'There is a possibility that I will'.
Activity 12: listen to your inner voice
Thanks to Adrian Underhill for this activity . Students can try it for themselves and
it involves no teacher or classroom. My students love it.
It is easy to think of pronunciation as a speaking skill. But pronunciation activity
also takes place internally, in your mind, when you do other language activities.
• When you read, your inner voice may be saying, and therefore pronouncing,
• When you prepare to speak, an inner voice may be rehearsing the words, and
therefore of course the pronunciation.
• When you write, you may be saying the phrases internally with your inner
voice, and without thinking about it you are practising your pronunciation.
Pronunciation is everywhere!
Say the following to your students:
1. Whenever you hear a word in English that interests you (on TV, in a shop, at a
movie, in school, in a song) let your inner voice repeat that word a few times,
so that you are hearing it internally. Make no external sound. Just let the
word repeat in your mind’s ear, as if you are tasting it. Do this for 5 or 10
seconds, no longer. After you have done this a few times you may notice that
you get better at hearing the word internally, without it changing.
2. Now slow the word down in your inner ear, and count how many individual
sounds it contains (for example the word ‘many’ has 4 sounds). It doesn’t
matter if you are wrong or right – just make yourself listen to the sounds of
your inner voice. Again, don’t take longer than 10 seconds.
[Note: the sounds being counted here are of course the phonemes]
Now return to normal speed in your inner voice as you put the sounds
together again to ‘say’ the word. Listen again internally a couple of times.
Finally, and only now, say the word aloud quietly to yourself.
Practice this several times a day, for different words. See what changes you
Tip. Further great ideas for teaching pronunciation appear regularly
on Adrian's blog. Highly recommended.
And to finish, a plea…
Please, please, please …
No reading aloud of a long text paragraph by paragraph, student by
student, round the group. This is not pronunciation practice.
It is a pointless waste of time. It is just students waiting for their
turn with lowered gaze, heart beating and no chance to practise
Teacher feedback causes the student to lose face in front of their
colleagues. Lack of teacher feedback is equally bad.
No-one learns anything.
No-one has any idea what the text was about at the end.
Thanks for reading.
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