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Pronunciation Matters – Part 2

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Continuing from last week’s post about teaching pronunciation, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, talks to us about the challenges of teaching and learning pronunciation.

Q: What are the challenges for teachers when teaching pronunciation?

RW: The main challenge is the need to gain and maintain an adequate level of pronunciation knowledge and competence in each of three areas:

  • your own competence in the pronunciation of English. This doesn’t mean having a perfect accent (whatever that means), but there is obviously a minimum competence with pronunciation, just as there is with grammar or vocabulary.
  • your knowledge of how the pronunciation of English works. Obviously if you don’t understand this, it’s unlikely that you’ll be very effective in helping your learners to improve their pronunciation.
  • your competence in terms of teaching strategies and techniques. It’s not enough to know ‘about’ pronunciation, or even to be a native speaker. You also need to know as much as you can about teaching pronunciation to others.

Q: What challenges do students face when learning pronunciation?

RW: The first challenge is to do with the distance between their mother-tongue pronunciation and that of English. In that respect Dutch, Polish, or Scandinavian students, for example, have a lot less of a mountain to climb than Spanish, Greek, or Japanese learners.

A major challenge for most adult learners of English, however, is to ‘re-tune’ their ears so that they become sensitive to sounds and other features of English that don’t exist in their mother tongue pronunciation. I’m struggling right now with some of the consonants of Polish precisely because we don’t have these sounds in English. And if you can’t hear a sound, you’re not going to be able to pronounce it.

And an increasing challenge now that English is a lingua franca is the variation in accents – both non-native speaker and native speaker – that learners will encounter as they travel around the world and put their English to use.

Q: How do you think the English File approach helps teachers and students to tackle these challenges?

RW: When you open a copy of English File at the Syllabus checklist, the first thing you see running right down the centre of the page is a column with the pronunciation contents of each unit. You then notice that this pronunciation column sits strategically between the grammar and vocabulary contents on the one hand, and the skills contents on the other. This central position is a great help to teachers and learners because it flags up the pivotal importance of pronunciation in learning English successfully.

When you take a closer look at the pronunciation contents you find a very good balance between work on sounds and work at the level of words and whole sentences. Equally important is the fact that the pronunciation work is perfectly integrated into each unit, and that focused pronunciation work always leads to a communicative task of some sort. It’s pronunciation with a purpose.

And of course, in the Teacher’s Book there are not just notes telling the teacher what to do; there is also a brief explanation of how the exercises contribute to the learner’s English.

A new edition of the best-selling English File, improved throughout with brand new digital components to use inside and outside the classroom, will be available in Spring 2012. English File Third edition – the best way to get your students talking.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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