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Pronunciation for Young Learners

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To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, author of the pronunciation SIG journal, Robin Walker explores the place of pronunciation in the upper primary classroom.

A few years ago I was crossing the playground in Spain, on my way to a training session with local teachers. As I was going past two young girls I heard one of them say ¿Jugamos al inglés? (Lets play English). The idea of ‘playing English’ roused my curiosity, and I stopped and eavesdropped. What followed was a stream of sh- and z-like sounds with not a word of actual English among them. But the rhythm was very English, and very un-Spanish.

By the time they get to the 9-15 age group, young learners are usually very aware that English feels and sounds different to their mother tongue. This makes this a great age for working on pronunciation, and offers us an opportunity to sow seeds that will produce very tangible benefits. We know from experience, for example, that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get a short phrase out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce, and as teachers we are sometimes guilty of misinterpreting these ‘gaps’ in production as gaps in a learner’s knowledge or understanding.

But poor fluency isn’t the only outcome of poor pronunciation. Listening is a nightmare for students with limited pronunciation skills, either because they simply don’t recognise key sounds or words in their spoken form, or because they have to concentrate so hard when listening that their brains very quickly overload and ‘block’. When we spot problems with listening we are tempted to respond by doing more listening work, and are frustrated when this has no effect. What is need, of course, is focused pronunciation work.

Although problems with speaking and listening are obvious to us, poor pronunciation can also badly affect reading and writing. At the level of writing, for example, students might write coffee instead of copy, or berry instead of very. My tourism students used to write Festival at the beginning of a series of points in favour of an argument. At first I didn’t understand where this was coming from. Then they told me that I said this a lot in class. What do you think I was saying? (Answer below*)

More important than writing, however, is the dramatic impact of poor pronunciation on reading. At the end of her talk at the 2008 IATEFL Conference, researcher and OUP author Catherine Walter told the audience that if they wanted their learners to read better, they would have to improve their pronunciation. She was basing this invaluable piece of advice on academic research into how we read in English as an additional language.

Speaking, listening, writing, reading – competence is all four skills is closely related to competence in pronunciation. The same is obviously true for learning vocabulary, where doubts about the pronunciation of words make it very difficult for learners to remember them. Even grammar is related to good pronunciation, which is why the Oxford English Grammar Course is accompanied by a pronunciation CD.

What can we do on a daily basis to help our students with pronunciation? Well festival first of all, show your learners that pronunciation matters. Don’t skip the pronunciation exercises in your coursebook because of lack of time. They are too important. At the same time, don’t do exercises that aren’t relevant to your students. The difference between /b/ and /v/ matters for Spanish students of English, but not for students of many other first language backgrounds. Stick to what matters.

Integrate pronunciation into normal lessons. Don’t leave it for Friday afternoons because we all know that what we do then isn’t important. (This may not be true for you but it’s what learners often think). Integrate pronunciation into learning new vocabulary, or learning a new structure. If you are teaching advice with ‘If I were you’, insist on good sentence stress and rhythm, so that students say if I were you and not if I were YOU. If you are teaching frequency adverbs make sure that your learners are saying SOMEtimes or OFten as opposed to someTIMES and ofTEN. In other words, insist on correct word stress.

Insist on accuracy but don’t demand perfection. Insisting on good pronunciation is the first way of showing that it matters. Demanding perfection is the best way of failing, since many learners lose interest in pronunciation on seeing that they can never get it right. And what is perfect, any way? The identical imitation of the voice on the CD? Out of necessity, coursebooks model pronunciation using a standard accent, but we mustn’t confuse the CD model with our learners’ goal, which is to be intelligible. Intelligibility is something that something that you can achieve in many different accents, both native speaker and non-native speaker.

Work on pronunciation, then. And enjoy working on it. But most of all, make sure your learners enjoy working with you.

(*Answer. In class I often begin a sequence of instructions by saying ‘First of all’, which my students heard as ‘Festival’.)

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17 thoughts on “Pronunciation for Young Learners

  1. Very relevant! I´m going to look over some of my lesson plans.

  2. Great post. I definitely agree that pronunciation should be much more than an optional add on. Also, a very good point about the impact of poor pronunciation on reading and writing, as well as speaking and listening.
    In a strange bit of synchronicity, I posted earlier this week about connected speech (http://elt-resourceful.com/2012/10/24/helping-students-with-connected-speech/) and used exactly the same example of ‘festival’- it happened in a class at IH London, some years ago.

  3. Yours is a great post, too. Rachael. And, yes, Mark Hancock’s activities and pronunciation publications are excellent, which is why he writes a regular column for Speak Out!, the newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group.

  4. Thank you for this post.

    I’m pleased you mentioned the fact that often standard accents are used in educational material. As a teacher of more mature students ( 18 +), I ensure that students also have access to authentic listening material. This means listening to a broad range of genres and accents. I find this enhances my students’ listening and speaking skills and makes them feel less self-confident about speaking English with an accent.

    Yes, working on stress and rhythm is an important factor which contributes to better fluency. I work with colour codes to illustrate where a syllable should be stressed and use chants to assist with improving fluency of speech. By using this method vocabulary is used in context; the fun factor is a motivator and students can take away whole syntactical structures to practice outside, instead of isolated vocabulary out of context.

    • Congratulations Patricia (if Imay) on using a range of accents. It’s very hard (impossible) to separate listening from pronunciation, and whilst it’s important to use a single stable model for learners’ production, it’s equally important to expose them to a range of accents to prepare them for the variety that’s out there in the real world.

      Using whole syntactic structures is also really beneficial. There’s quite a history of dealing with lexical chunks in language learning, and on their impact on fluency, but that impact is limited if these lexical chunks aren’t practised for pronunciation.

      • Thank you for the reply Robin.

        I wish just reading your article again and thinking about how it was for me when I moved to Switzerland and had to learn German and Swiss-German (quickly, as I was working). I found from personal experience, as you mention, that the symbiotic relationship between ‘speaking, listening, writing and reading,’ really does play a role in improving pronunciation. My first couple of days in Switzerland were spent trying to decipher when a word started and finished, as sounds just seemed to merge into a sing-song rhythm. However, as I commenced language lessons and started reading and writing etc my speaking skills improved quite quickly.

        I find that training all four skills in relation to pronunciation also means empowering students with autonomy, as they can check things for themselves e.g. if they hear a word spoken outside the classroom but aren’t sure what it is they can ask someone to write it down, then read and repeat it or even get a native speaker friend to record it for them for later revision. (Thinking of the benefits of mobile devices here.)

        Your point brings to the fore that language skills can’t really be treated as separate entities as such, as there are interrelated. However, in my opinion, through well structured activities and planned objectives we can place a higher emphasis on a particular skill so that it becomes the focus of a set task.

        • I couldn’t agree more wth what you say here, patricia, and in fact the IATEFL PronSIG is now contemplating a significant change in focus so as to bring the teaching of listening within the SIG’s brief as it’s patently clear to members that this is a minimum step towards responding to the way pronunciation intertwines with the other language skills.

          • Wow. That’s interesting and certainly a step forward. Just goes to show that we can’t stand still as language teachers. I find by engaging in discussions such as these and reading other practitioners’ blogs as well as attending Webinars, Seminars etc is a great way of keeping in touch with what is happening around the world in this particular field.

            Thanks so much for the exchange Robin.

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  10. Thanks for your interesting post Mr. Walker.

    I am a training teacher, and I write from Chile. Here the interest for pronunciation to be taught in primary schools has almost disappeared due to the emphasis put on reading skills. This happens due to the importance for developing this skill in order to get better results in international English exams required by the Gov. My undergraduate Thesis is related to this issue. I think that in order to improve one skill it is necessary to do an integral work considering all of them as you pointed out in your post. Some universities seem to have this idea very clear and apply this principle, but it is in the public sector of primary education where the problem is.

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