Why teach pronunciation?

“But, teacher, why do I need to learn those funny symbols? It only makes it a lot more complicated.” This is a question I’ve been asked quite often, and not only by students, but also by teachers. I must say I myself failed to see the purpose of learning the phonemic chart when I was a learner, and even in my early teaching career. Let’s face it, none of my teachers had taught me those “funky letters”, and I was rarely encouraged to look them up in a dictionary whenever I needed to check the correct pronunciation of a word. In those days, I couldn’t see any difference between the pronunciation of close as an adjective or as a verb, basic was pronounced with the sound of /z/, and all words ending with an /s/ were pronounced with, well, the sound of a final /s/ – who would possibly be able to end a word with a /z/ sound?

This all happened a long, long, long time ago. But it was only as a teacher that I finally understood that there was something else to pronunciation than merely trying really hard to listen, observe, and repeat. More often than not, actually, I found myself making the same mistakes over and over again when I thought I had finally got the correct pronunciation of a word. It is as if the brain is split into compartments for each separate sound, and if such sound is never uttered, the brain automatically shuts that compartment and naturally places the sounds you hear in different compartments based on how close that particular sound is to a sound that is already familiar to the brain. Hence, if I had never produced the sound of TH, the brain automatically changes think to sink (way to go, Titanic!), something to some sing (and others dance), third to turd, and so on and so forth.

As Nick Jaworski said on this post of his on pronunciation,

There are no final consonants in Vietnamese so their brains actually never developed the ability to hear a consonant at the end of a word.  Since they can’t hear it, they can’t say it.  Since they can’t say it, they can’t hear it.

I have, as I said above, quickly learned that this was also the case for me, and for lots of learners as well. If you don’t know how to utter a sound, you will hardly ever be able to hear it. It was back in 2000 when I attended Adrian Underhill‘s session about his phonemic chart that I saw a silver lining. I was a student who was also influenced by the commonly held belief that the only way for you to truly become fluent in a language and sound natural speaking it is by living abroad. Well, I had never lived abroad, nor had I been an exchange student as most of my co-workers until that time. To be fair, my only experience abroad is limited to a family trip to Disney wen I was 11 years old and had just started learning English, and later on another 2-week family trip to New York. Anyway, up until that time, I felt that I had to work on what I could improve as a non-native English speaking teacher – I quickly became a grammar buff. I simply had to be able to do one thing well if I wanted to be an English teacher as pronunciation wasn’t my forte. I’ll just leave vocabulary aside from this post.

It was only after Underhill’s session, then, that I realized that, yes, there was something I could do about my pronunciation even though I wasn’t planning on living abroad anytime soon. Ten years have passed and this still hasn’t happened. Anyhow, I started studying more and more about phonetics and phonology, and when I took the course that goes by that very name at university, I found out I had really learned quite a lot on my own. I did buy many books, and despite my “change of accent”, I clearly remember Ann Cook’s American Accent Training did wonders for my consciousness raising regarding pronunciation. I started paying closer attention to the sounds of the language, consciously trying to understand whatever it is that was going on when I heard someone speaking English – segmental and supra-segmental features alike.

The idea of using the phonemic chart as a teaching aid from the very beginning simply made sense. If we make use of the phonemic chart to raise our students’ awareness to how the sounds are pronounced instead of expecting them to be able to transcribe words using the IPA, it can certainly be helpful. If they understand that there is such a thing as a labio-dental sound (needless to say, teachers use a much more learner-friendly explanation), their brains might just pop open the lid for such compartment, enabling them to both listen and speak the sound. Learners will eventually be able to look at the IPA and reproduce the sounds, but this is not the main goal. We make pronunciation physical and visual through the use of the chart in order to cater for visual and kinesthetic learners as well as the auditory ones.

We are also fostering autonomy and independent learning. Students no longer rely solely on a teacher for the correct pronunciation of a word. They are finally capable to correct themselves simply by using a learner’s dictionary – just the paper version of it. They might finally be able to appreciate subtle differences which may make a difference in connected speech. However, I’ll go back to a point I made above. I truly think it’s important for teachers to have a sound knowledge of phonetics and phonology in order to show learners what they’re doing wrong and teach them how to correctly position their tongue in their mouth, for instance, in order to get a sound right. The phonemic chart is, thus, used as a teaching aid, and not as a teaching goal in itself.

Oh, and I don’t know whether you’ll agree with me or not, but learners do seem to have a lot of fun when learning correct pronunciation. They also see how much their listening benefits from pronunciation teaching. They are a lot more engaged and eager to learn pronunciation than other areas. Why is it, then, that pronunciation is so often overlooked in the language classroom? As a non-NEST who also knows lots of other non-NESTs who can speak English extremely well, I don’t think we can use the NESTs x non-NESTs dichotomy to explain this. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I see pronunciation and listening as skills that depend on one another, and we won’t get our learners to be better listeners if we don’t teach pronunciation properly – recycling, revising, and constantly correcting it.

22 thoughts on “Why teach pronunciation?

  1. Dear Henrick,

    What an insightful post! I agree with you, students should be aware of the quality of sounds from the very beginning. I teach my students the correct pronunciation os the different sounds and the symbols that represent those sounds.

    At the school of English where I work, I teach intermediate and upper intermediate students and I realise there has been little or no pronunciation practice. In those cases I apply remedial work to help those students polish the quality of the sounds they produce.

    I attended Adrian Underhill’s lectures in International House in Hastings. They proved very helpful for my professional development.

    Regards from Argentina,

    1. Hi Marisa,

      I guess we’re both on the same boat, then. It’s taken me a lot of hard work to get teachers to actually teach pronunciation in a more systematic way, and a lot of remedial work is necessary as well, especially when it comes to supra-segmental features.

      Underhill does a wonderful job when talking to teachers about the importance of making pronunciation physical and using the IPA, which is why so many people have become believers in its effectiveness. It’s definitely not the only alternative, but it’s a lot better than not doing anything else, right?!

      On a final note, we see eye to eye on the fact that learners should be taught the sounds from the very beginning. When should we teach them that? When grammar and vocabulary also get complicated?

      Many thanks for the comment!! 🙂

      PS: Are you looking forward to the football match as well? Brazil x Argentina? Messi x Neymar and Ronaldinho Gaúcho? 🙂

      1. Thanks for your supportive reply!
        You’re right, I’m looking forward to the football match. It won’t be easy for either teams! May the better prepared team win!

  2. Thanks for mentioning me Henrick. I agree with you for the most part, but I’m still not convinced on the phonemic chart. What’s the difference between seeing /z/ and told it’s a z sound and “es” and told it’s a z sound?

    You’re spot on about the L1 throwing up blocks though. I think it really goes back to awareness raising as you said, especially physically. Maybe you’re right that if they can check the phonemic pronunciation they can listen for it better and practice its pronunciation on their own.

    I’ll have to think on it some more.

    I also think it’s really important for non-natives to realize they can better pronunciation without going to a native speaking country. Thanks for the post

    1. Hi Nick,

      That post of yours was just awesome! I see your point when it comes to the phonemic chart, but I still think its useful in a different way. I tend to make use of it as a visual aid in addition to showing the students the sound. I guess it’s not about using it all the time, but simply showing the learner that the sound he or she is producing at a certain time is not the right one, and helping them noticing how to correctly position their speech apparatus in order to make this or that sound. It’s just an easier way to show them that they’re touching their lower lips on their upper teeth when they should be touching their teeth with their tongue and leaving the lower lip alone. That’s also when I think the mirror might be useful.

      Many thanks for the comment! I firmly believe that it’s possible for non-natives to improve their pronunciation if they really want to based on my personal experience and also on the many non-natives I know who can certainly pass as native speakers despite never having set foot in an English speaking country. 🙂

  3. Hi Henrick,

    I’ve struggled with teaching the IPA and pronunciation too. Initially because like you I hadn’t been taught the IPA, so I had to learn it first. And then the struggle is to make the students see what an incredibly valuable tool it is for them. I find it super useful especially for Brazilian students (even though I’ve never had students of other nationalities, but for the little I know about the phonetics of other languages and what I’ve seen/heard from English speakers of other nationalities) because most sounds of IPA’s symbols are extremely close to our own sounds for the letters. When we are able to make them see it, it’s groundbreaking for them. Showing them how much pronunciation helps listening sure helps motivating them. All teachers should remember to show the different applications of pronunciation. Maybe then it wouldn’t be as overlooked or undermined.

    1. Hi Cecília,

      I wonder if you also felt like I did when you first learned about the IPA. Something like, “why on earth would my teachers NOT teach me this when I mispronounced so many sounds?” Brazilians have what it takes to speak English quite well, but I think we sometimes get too lazy on this account. Why not pushing learners a bit harder, right? Maybe we would have complained when we were students, but would we still have complained if ALL teachers were equally demanding? Hmm…

      Hopefully we’ll succeed in our quest of showing people that pronunciation is linked to many other different areas of ELT. 🙂

  4. Hi Rick,
    I heard of your article via Twitter, and I really enjoyed the way you presented your point of view on using a phonemic chart.

    I’m all for raising the awareness of students, even more so after a more or less recent incident occurred: someone called me on a pronunciation mistake I was making fairly often, and I started self-correcting immediately. Also, in a similar way to what happened to you, I started really noticing the way natives pronounce that word. The result? I’d guess I’m saying that word the right way at least 90% of the time, without having to slow down my speech, etc.

    I’ve been using the same “technique” with my online students: every once in a while I’ll insert some commentary on the pronunciation of particular words into my audio classes.

    I’ll admit that I’ve always been more than a little reticent to use anything similar to a pronunciation or phonemic chart in class – and the reason for that is, to me that type of chart evokes images of students working long hours to memorize symbols. Also, I have to admit I sort of fear that many students would consider the charts a learning goal instead of a learning aid, to (sort of) paraphrase what you said.

    So again I’m really grateful for your account, which to me put this topic in a different light. Since it’s the first time I’ve been to your blog I’ll look around for more of your experience with phonemic charts. Like I said, I’m all for raising awareness re. pronunciation (I’ve seen it produce good results too many times to think otherwise) and right now I’m actively looking for other ways of doing just that with my students.


    1. Hi Ana,

      Welcome to the blog! I hope you like it as much as I enjoyed your site! Great job with it! 🙂

      What happened to you is exactly what happened to me. It’s been a while since I started being annoying when it came to my pronunciation. I mean, if we’re not told that we’re recurrently mispronouncing a certain word, or an individual sound, we’ll never be able to correct ourselves. We need someone else to raise our awareness to the fact that we’ve been doing that.

      Many students do feel that they’ll have to learn the chart once they’re shown to it. However, a lot of this initial misconception can be worked out if teachers present it differently – it’s much more about making pronunciation physical than introducing a new alphabet. They’ll eventually pick up the ‘symbols’, but that’ll come naturally.

      Looking forward to exchanging more ideas!

      Cheers! 🙂

  5. Hi Henrick,

    Thanks for this post. I’m one of those teachers ‘guilty’ of neglecting pronunciation (deliberately? perhaps ;)). However, I’m always interested in hearing the thoughts of those who see it as an intergral part of language learning. We can’t progress professionally without challenging our own beliefs every now and then, right?

    I especially liked the story of how you learned and later honed your skills. I always enjoy picking the brains of people who have become fluent in English (or any other langauge) – it’s fascinating how everyone’s story is different!

    While my views on pronunciation are slowly changing these days, like Nick, I remain unconvinced by the role of the phonemic chart and individual symbols. I’m not sure that it would work in my context of young learners (although I always like to test out such assumptions before accepting them) as I feel they have enough on their plate with getting their head around the regular alphabet and the fact that the language is not written as spoken (as is the case in Turkish). Again like Nick, after reeading your post, I’ll have to think about it some more. 🙂

    1. Hi Dave,

      That’s one of the best features of the blogosphere, isn’t it? We can share our thoughts, talk to other people who think differently, and constantly validate what we’ve been doing or change our beliefs having better support for doing so after it’s been discussed. 🙂

      Everyone’s story is different, and, let’s face it, learning is rather unique experience. It’s only that we’re used to do it in batches and expect everyone to respond the same way. I’m also very interested in reading about other people’s experiences. Glad to hear my experience is also interesting. Thanks! 🙂

      One of the things I’ve learned is that the very first thing we need to observe is the context we’re inserted in. I’ve never been a regular young learners’ teacher, but I can see YLs in Brazil having fun trying to learn how to position their mouth correctly in order to differentiate man and men, for instance. I wouldn’t teach the chart, though. I’d use the chart as a way to help them remember how to position their mouth. Adrian has kept, I believe, this in mind when designing the chart as it is. If done with this purpose in mind, I’m all in favour of using it. However, if teaching the funny symbols is the goal, I’d tell the teacher to throw it in the bin. How meaningful is learning the IPA for its sake, after all?

      The comments have been giving me lots of food for thought as well. Many thanks!! 🙂

  6. Hi Henrick….

    Great post. Please let me add one other reason why teaching pronunciation is important: refining and improving listening skills is extremely difficult if you don’t understand how the sound system works. How are you going to know what people are saying to you if you don’t know what the sounds are?

    I’ve been teaching in Spain for ten years, and in that time, I can’t tell you how many students have insisted that “chocolate” should be pronounced with four syllables, that a certain female is a total beach…and when the moment comes to do listening in class, eighty percent of students (especially adult ones) will dig in their heels and refuse to do it, because they think it’s too hard. Which is no wonder: of course it’s hard, if you keep expecting native speakers of English to produce English words with a Spanish accent.

    Spaniards will blame this on the over-reliance of dubbing used in broadcast media, but the question is even more simple than that: they don’t understand how the sound system works because the vast majority of them have never been shown how sounds work.

    I’m with you: I don’t think students should memorize vast quantities of IPA characters, but there are things they can and should do in class to reinforce basic abilities.

    1. Hi Dawn,

      We definitely see eye to eye on this, then! I could see Brazilian learners making the same mistakes you mentioned in your comments. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like this as well, but I sometimes had to refrain myself from asking questions such as “And what did you say to her?” when students say they went to the bitch. Depending on the group, the age of learners, the cultural values, and on your rapport with the group, this remark could even help them remember that they’ve been mispronouncing the word. Nevertheless, showing them, and exaggerating on spreading your lips, how to make the correct consonant sound in beach also does wonders. And if we do it while showing them the symbol, simply pointing at it does the trick when they mispronounce it again.

      Pronunciation and listening walk hand in hand, and the best way to work on listening skills is by working on pronunciation. I’m with you there!

      Many thanks for the comments! 🙂

  7. Hi Rick. This splits people. Dave’s point about teaching the chart is echoed by many and I agree as well, it’s a maze of symbols, but I have found that learners really appreciate it when you focus on pronunciation, especially if they’ve never done it before.

    There is/was a programme that you could copy yourself with your own key words if you wished. Each sound has a key word, so /^/ could be “gun”. Then, if a learner says a word with a wrong sound, you don’t need to refer to a chart, but the key word. If they say “month” with an /o/, you can say the vowel is pronunced like “gun”. The system also helps with spelling when they spell a word phonemically, e.g. “dolfin”. You can say: “Well done, you’ve got the right sound, but it’s a /f/ like the key word “dolphin”.

    When I do teach the chart, I really go to town on it. “How many vowels are there in English?” “5 or 6” is always the answer. I say “ahhh” “ooo” “eeee” and they know these are vowels. Then: “gggg”, “bbbb” etc and they know they are consonants. So they realise that we are talking about sounds not letters, which is a revelation. I get them to blow over one of their water bottles to make a sound, then change the volume and the pitch lowers. That’s what the tongue does. And by using the position chart, the one where you plot the vowels in the mouth, draw a dot or a line if it’s a diphthong, they can hazzard a guess, and a good one too. Then they suggest words with each sound. They get lots right, but lots wrong, usually suggesting minimal pairs.

    The aim is not native-like pronunciation, but I think out of all the hours and hours they spend learning English, to never know that there are lots more sounds then letters seems to be handicapping them. The question is then, how to do it!!


    1. Hi David,

      I guess I like the IPA because it’s the same wherever you go. I really don’t like it when dictionaries come up with their own symbols for pronunciation. How helpful can that be when there already is a standard? I think it’s somewhat similar to the idea of world Englishes to me – there’s got to be a certain standard. Otherwise, we’ll end up being a whole bunch of people separated by the same language. 🙂

      I also think that we can’t teach the chart superficially – we’ve got to go all the way with it. Most importantly, though, is being consistent. If teachers choose to make use of the chart, they’ve got to have a copy of it in the classroom and refer to it whenever it’s necessary.

      I agree with you when you say most learners have a revelation when they see we’re speaking of sounds, and not letters, and when you say most of them enjoy working on pronunciation. Teaching the individual sounds, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got to work on connected speech as well. In my view, connected speech is even more important than individual sounds, but maybe this could come on another post on pronunciation, huh?! 🙂

      I’m still trying to find out how to do it. So far, this has worked fairly well, but I’m open to new ideas!

      Many thanks for the comments! Insightful! 🙂

  8. Hey Rick!
    Second time here but first time commenting!
    Very insightful and extremely sharp your post on teaching pronunciation by using the Phonemic Chart. I myself was inspired by your belief and nowadays I cannot see myself helping a student out on how to pronounce a certain word without helping him go through the chart him/herself.

    Due to you, I strongly believe in all the points you mentioned. Learner’s authonomy is one of my goals, and using the Chart is one way of achieving this.

    Thanks for blogging!

    I’ll be paying u a vist more often than not!

    CONGRATS, once again on this innitiative on blogging!

    1. Hi Thiago,

      Thanks for your visit! 🙂
      I’m really happy to see you’ve enjoyed the post and the initiative. When we worked together, we got to talk a bit about blogging, and I still remember it was you who first showed me that famous cartoon with Shakespeare asking himself, “to blog or not to blog?”.

      I’m also happy to see the time we worked together was profitable for both of us!

      Your visits and comments are more than welcome! 🙂

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