Teaching Pronunciation: 5 Principles

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Teaching pronunciation is like baking a layer cake. Once you have the basics (see earlier blogposts for study sources), then you’re ready to make it an art form.  There is an art to teaching, as well as a science, and once you find your niche, you’ll find you can really “cook”!  And just like Julia Child, you’ll get great pleasure from finding more and more ways to do it well.

I have 5 principles that help me really “cook” when I teach pronunciation. They’re really about using the “science” of speaking and learning to develop your teaching pronunciation into an art.

Teaching Pronunciation Principle #1

I am a huge fan of patterns, systems, frameworks; I teach English pronunciation as a unique set of acoustic dynamics that radiate out from vowels and consonants to intonation and public speaking.

image001 Teaching Rhythm From the Inside OutNo matter how advanced my students, we start with a review of vowels and consonants. We want to  build a new English language template.

By presenting new ideas organized into a logical framework and offering tools that students can explore and use on their own, you can build student self-sufficiency and efficacy into your program.

There are 5 acoustic dynamics that I focus on as we move from sounds to syllables to words to phrases to sentences. Not all languages use the same dynamics for stress and accentuation. These are the ones English speakers use to create and control how they sound when they speak.

RHTYHM, 5 dynamics

Teaching Pronunciation Principle #2

Change is hard for many reasons, one being the limitations of our own thinking and learning processes. Something to remember about our mental patterns is this:  we have built-in blind spots based on existing ideas and beliefs. So I always look for ways to shed light on our own and our students’ habits of thought and learning. Check out this YouTube video to see how people tend to ‘overlook’ unique information and register only what confirms their own thinking. The Effectiveness of Science Videos.  Knowing that students have this problem of “noticing” only what fits into our existing frameworks, then we pronunciation teachers need to really shake things up by doing things differently. Surprise and disequilibrium are great teacher tools for igniting new neural pathways and for building new mental frameworks in the minds of our students, some of whom may have been studying English for years.

Guiding Principles for Teaching Pronunciation, Principle 2

Teaching Pronunciation Principle #3

 However, we mustn’t forget that..

Teaching Rhythm, Principle 3

speaking, and therefore pronunciation, is unconscious and physical. All the surprises, explanations and worksheets in the world may not lead to a change in a person’s sound, since they have unconscious vocalization habits from their first language. There are many, many muscles involved in speaking, and they work together, automatically, unconsciously, in our first language.

Since speaking is physical and unconscious, pronunciation teachers must physically teach English sounds and students must physically learn, unlearn, or relearn them. “Listen and repeat” is often not enough to make a permanent change in a student’s sound. Two teaching strategies take advantage of the physicality of speaking and what we know about physical training. The first strategy is “reps”.  If you want to develop bigger biceps, you do reps. You repeat and repeat and repeat something to get better at it, whatever it is. The same is true for new sounds and articulations.

The second strategy may surprise you; it’s based on the idea of physical training also.  If you want to strengthen your own training, you work with a friend or a coach or trainer. I’ve finally arrived, through trial and error, at specific movements which speed up and improve the process of mastering English sounds. I use these two ideas (repetitive movements and accompaniment) to help people change or learn pronunciation. I teach English rhythm as a physical training also.

Teaching Pronunciation Principle #4

Teaching Rhythm, Principle 4

If we make our students fully aware of a new system for English pronunciation and sounds, and we bring them to a point where they are able to consciously explore, experiment with, manipulate, and finally control sounds, then there is a good chance for permanent change in pronunciation.  Use everything you can to make them aware–listening exercises so they learn to hear and recognize the sounds, visual charts and interactive website so they can imagine or visualize the sounds, physical movements to reinforce the articulation movements–use every sense you can. Once Students are aware of the sounds, and familiar with strategies and tools you’ve given them to practice with, they’ll take ownership of their learning. (But don’t forget to keep coaching.)

Teaching Pronunciation Principle #5

Change is hard, and requires maintenance of new skill sets, or speakers will slide right back to old, familiar habits of articulation. Which brings us to principle #5: practice makes perfect.

Teaching Rhythm, Principle 5

There is no substitute for repetition and practice, and this is especially true for learning pronunciation.  If we want our tongues to move in new ways, we must “work them out” so new movements aren’t forgotten. If we want our newfound awareness and control of vowels to stick, we must apply them often and get feedback. After all, this is PHYSICAL training. If you stop going to the gym, if you stop lifting weights, what happens to the biceps? Um, hmm.  If you stop meeting up with your friend to jog, what happens?  Yep, you slide back into old habits.  Did you ever have a trainer help you with a new skill? The feedback is great, isn’t it! Having to meet them every day/week is motivating, isn’t it? You must be your students trainer and keep them working on those sounds, even after you’ve moved on to other things in class.

If you have taught your students a system, and taught them specific skill sets, and given them targeted homework practice, your students will be able to help themselves. They’ll have very specific practices to perform, and all they’ll need in the future is occasional feedback on their performance to tell them if they’re slipping back to old ways, or not.

Remember, teaching pronunciation is both an art and a science. There is science behind each of these principles…now take them and make it into an art form of your own.

Happy teaching and happy trails!