English has become indisputably a language of global communication or an international language in the 21st century. As a result of the rapid and unprecedented pace of globalisation, English is now spoken by far more non-native speakers using a variety of different accents than native speakers. As such, for effective and successful communication in English, pronunciation skills are key. The major goal which is considered relevant and achievable for pronunciation teaching and learning is to achieve international intelligibility. One way of teaching international intelligibility is to focus on the features that comprise the Lingua Franca Core (LFC). These features collectively constitute what it means to adopt an English as in International Language (EIL) approach to pronunciation teaching and learning. Effective pronunciation instruction involves helping learners negotiate the multiple native and non-native accents that they hear and integrating pronunciation alongside other language skills and assessment.
This blog post explores some key ideas about the EIL approach and offers practical tips on how to implement it in pronunciation teaching and learning. If you want to find out more, you can download our recent position paper, English Pronunciation for a Global World, which explores five key aspects of effective pronunciation teaching, including:
- the importance of pronunciation.
- the models that should be used to teach pronunciation.
- how to teach and how to assess pronunciation.
- the importance of teachers’ continual professional development.
So what do you need to know about teaching English pronunciation for a global world?
Pronunciation impacts other linguistic skills
Pronunciation skills are critical for effective English communication in today’s globalised world. They not only contribute significantly to learners’ communicative competence and their ability to achieve international intelligibility but positively impact the development of other linguistic skills like speaking and listening, vocabulary learning, and reading. To elaborate, pronunciation skills help in the development of learners’ speaking skills. Deliberate pronunciation instruction has been shown to increase learners’ confidence when speaking English. Pronunciation skills also help bolster learners’ listening skills. More recently, experts who research the listening skills of English as a foreign language (EFL) learners have advocated that greater emphasis should be placed on bottom-up processing, which involves decoding the individual phrases, words, and sounds that learners hear. Pronunciation and listening share commonalities in that both require an understanding of the modifications to words that speakers make in connected speech – through phonological processes like assimilation, elision, or coalescence for example.
Pronunciation skills also aid in vocabulary learning. Learners need coaching on correctly pronouncing new vocabulary items encountered as they tend to apply L1 sound-spelling conventions to unfamiliar English words. Additionally, neurolinguistic data shows the critical role of good pronunciation in the retention of L2 vocabulary. Recent research findings suggest that good pronunciation aids the phonological loop in successfully preparing new vocabulary for storage in long-term memory, for retrieval if needed. Finally, pronunciation skills also benefit the development of reading skills. According to studies on English as a second language (ESL) reading, reading difficulties emerged as a consequence of inaccurate pronunciation of English sounds. Assisting these learners in improving their pronunciation may therefore help them to become more effective readers.
What models should be used to teach English pronunciation?
For starters, teachers must be aware of the diverse learning goals of their students. Within a single classroom, teachers may discover that some students aim for a native-speaker accent while others strive for international intelligibility. Fortunately, there is a great deal of overlap between these two objectives. Experts are investigating how pronunciation might be taught in such a manner that learners can initially follow the same path but subsequently branch out to seek their own unique long-term objectives, whether they be achieving a near native-speaker accent or international intelligibility.
Additionally, teachers need to be aware of adopting realistic models for teaching pronunciation. A common concern expressed by teachers about an EIL approach to pronunciation instruction is the lack of clear models of English. Opponents of this approach argue that without native-speaker models for learners to emulate, pronunciation standards would deteriorate to the point where communication will break down. By comparison, proponents of EIL offer three feasible models:
- established native-speaker models for pronunciation instruction, avoiding elements not included in the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) (Jenkins, 2000).
- recordings of expert users of EIL.
- the teacher’s own pronunciation.
Model 1 is a convenient and practical alternative, given the abundance of pronunciation practice material readily available in ELT resources, often adopting either British Received Pronunciation (RP) and/or General American (GA). Model 2 is made accessible via websites and mobile applications that provide access to the speech of expert users of EIL. The last model suggests that in an EIL-based approach to pronunciation, all teachers with globally intelligible pronunciation serve as good models for their students. Consequently, an EIL approach empowers instructors and puts non-native English speakers on an equal footing with their native English speaker counterparts.
Furthermore, in order to be internationally intelligible, teachers must assist students in prioritising the pronunciation features described in the LFC that are necessary for the development of their basic productive competence. Numerous studies find that since weak forms and vowel reduction do not contribute to EIL intelligibility and may even impair it, they should not be taught as a prerequisite for productive competence in EIL. Once learners have mastered the fundamentals of EIL, they may begin the process of accent addition, focusing on the aspects of their chosen accent that they have not yet mastered.
Finally, instructors need to assist students in developing their receptive competence (i.e. the ability to understand when listening) in addition to achieving productive competence. Due to the diversity of EIL speakers’ linguistic backgrounds, learners will experience a broad variety of non-native speaker accents in EIL settings. Additionally, there are characteristics of native-speaker connected speech that EIL speakers do not need to be able to produce but must comprehend in order to attain international intelligibility. Pronunciation instruction plays a critical role in preparing students to cope with both of these issues as competent EIL listeners.
How to teach English pronunciation?
Here are some effective methods for pronunciation teaching and learning. You can find more in our latest position paper.
Emphasising the relevance of pronunciation
By emphasising the relevance of pronunciation, instructors are better able to tap on their students’ motivation and help them progress towards their pronunciation goals. This may be accomplished by educating learners about the critical role of pronunciation in achieving effective communication, discussing their specific goals concerning international intelligibility and thereafter, helping them to prioritize these goals.
Adopting an integrated approach
As earlier established, pronunciation is integral to the teaching of other language skills, especially speaking and listening, therefore, pronunciation activities need to be integrated with one or more of the other language skills being taught.
Integrating pronunciation with speaking. Pronunciation facilitates communication in a variety of ways. While activities concentrating on the correct pronunciation of plural -s or regular past tense -ed endings are abundant in ELT coursebooks, other syntactic structures may also be considered. For example, practising the production of consonant clusters through designing conditional structures that end in words with consonant clusters or practising producing lexical chunks fluently will help in enhancing learners’ overall speaking fluency.
Integrating pronunciation with listening. Pronunciation may assist learners in more efficiently meeting the bottom-up processing demands imposed by listening. Working with minimal pairs will assist learners in differentiating between sounds they have trouble with. Additionally, targeted pronunciation training may assist learners in identifying the weak forms of function words, such as the difference between ‘I’ll go’ and ‘I’d go’ or ‘she’s gone’ and ‘she’d gone’.
Integrating pronunciation with vocabulary. Vocabulary knowledge is necessary for success in both speaking and listening, and vocabulary instruction is an effective vehicle for incorporating pronunciation into classes focusing on language or skills. By checking on vocabulary before the speaking exercises, teachers may identify and address specific pronunciation issues before they distract students during the speaking practice. At this level, difficulties with consonant and vowel sounds, consonant clusters, and word stress may all be addressed in a manner that highlights the importance of accurate pronunciation for the acquisition of new vocabulary items.
Incorporating technologies for pronunciation teaching
A variety of technologies and digital resources are now available to enhance pronunciation teaching, including computer-assisted pronunciation teaching (CAPT) and automated speech recognition (ASR). CAPT resources offer a wide variety of speaker models, which provides the necessary exposure to EIL settings. ASR is an important component of CAPT, and much research has been conducted on its usability for pronunciation teaching. Teachers must guide students in determining which applications and resources are the most beneficial and pertinent to their requirements, as well as how to fix an incorrect pronunciation feature detected by the app or CAPT resource they are utilising.
How to assess English pronunciation?
The importance of EIL is considered in newer approaches to pronunciation assessment. In terms of summative assessment, the majority of examination boards today conceive of pronunciation targets in terms of attainment of international intelligibility rather than the production of a near native-speaker accent.
Summative assessment of pronunciation
All major international tests in English involve a summative assessment of pronunciation. These tests now place a greater emphasis on the holistic evaluation of pronunciation as a component of speaking and assess applicants on their adherence to ‘an internationally intelligible model,’ rather than the attainment of a native-speaker accent. However, assessing speaking proficiency using international intelligibility as a construct is not straightforward.
Classroom assessment of pronunciation
Experts and skilled practitioners generally believe that classroom assessment should involve diagnostic testing at the start of the course and during the course to offer learners continuing feedback and to assist them in tracking their progress.
For diagnostic testing, some pronunciation specialists propose gathering and recording samples of two kinds of learners’ spoken output: reading aloud a set text and spontaneous speech. Using a set text ensures that all students in the group can demonstrate the pronunciation of the target items in the same controlled context. Progress testing can now be facilitated by digital technologies which enable students to record and email speech samples to their teachers for evaluation. One of the most critical roles of teachers is to offer learners immediate, meaningful feedback when they learn a new pronunciation feature. Additionally, learners can be encouraged to provide peer feedback and correction.
One way of combining both diagnostic and progress testing and both holistic and discrete item testing is through the use of learner portfolios which may be viewed as a more holistic assessment tool where learners set their own pronunciation goals and monitor how far they are from the goals. Teachers then offer assistance on the type of pronunciation activities that can help the learner upon reading their portfolios.
Continual professional development is important
Teachers need up-to-date knowledge
In recent years, the English language has undergone major changes which are hugely significant to the teaching of pronunciation. It is only through professional development in pronunciation that English teachers can keep up with the latest advancements and adapt their classroom practices accordingly.
Many teachers, both native and non-native speakers, are insecure about their accents, especially if they are markedly different from the accents featured in the instructional materials they use. Additionally, teachers often express uncertainty about their grasp of English pronunciation and the lack of training to teach pronunciation effectively. Continuing professional development in EIL may assist teachers in overcoming these issues and boost their professional self-esteem and help improve their classroom practice.
Helping learners succeed in assessments
Teachers who understand English pronunciation and the notion of international intelligibility are better suited to prepare students efficiently and successfully for external assessments, which now assess pronunciation in terms of the ability to achieve international intelligibility rather than a native-speaker accent.
Many students place a premium on pronunciation and are likely to react favourably if their teachers demonstrate knowledge and pedagogical competence in their English pronunciation.
With the globalisation of the English language, the objectives of English pronunciation teaching have changed. While EFL learners used to strive for a native-speaker accent, EIL learners are urged to focus on international intelligibility. Thus, modern approaches to pronunciation teaching aim to provide students with the ability to interact successfully with English speakers from a variety of linguistic backgrounds. Indeed, many international examination boards have now embraced international intelligibility as the foundation for their evaluation of pronunciation.
Want to know more? Download our latest position paper and empower your teaching with practical tips and advice to help you teach pronunciation more effectively.
Ee-Ling Low is Dean, Academic and Faculty Affairs and the immediate past Teacher Education, and Professor of Education (Applied Linguistics and Teacher Learning) at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She obtained a PhD in Linguistics (Acoustic Phonetics) from the University of Cambridge, UK. She is an internationally renowned expert in teacher education and pronunciation research in relation to world Englishes and applied linguistics, and has been invited to deliver keynote addresses to educational policymakers and stakeholders in the US, UK, Jamaica, Australia, South Africa, and Namibia, as well as in Asia. She is the author of Pronunciation for English as an International Language: From Research to Practice (2015). Ee-Ling is a consultant on this paper.
Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Walker, R., Low, E., & Setter, J. (2021). English pronunciation for a global world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.