3 Ways KK Can Save the Day: Using the KK Pronunciation Guide in Your ESL Class

I’m sorry, could you repeat that?

We’ve all had to say that to students at times because we’re not sure what they said.

If we can’t understand our students, how will people outside the class react when our students speak?

That’s one big question on all our minds. But it’s not the only one.

Sometimes it’s a grammar or vocabulary issue, but often it’s a problem of pronunciation that causes confusion for the listener.

Mispronunciation of words can lead ESL students to future frustration and more mistakes. In the encouraging environment of a classroom, ESL teachers can improve student pronunciation, which can lead to greater confidence throughout the learning process.

That sounds great, but how can we approach this practically?

We always teach phonics to students, particularly to beginners, but how often do we reinforce and correct pronunciation errors? How can we develop clear pronunciation among our ESL students? 

The questions about teaching pronunciation in the ESL classroom never seem to end.

Where can we find the answers?

All we want is to better serve students throughout their English education.

The answers to our pronunciation questions may well lie in the KK pronunciation guide.

3 Ways KK Can Save the Day: Using the KK Pronunciation Guide in Your ESL Class

What Is KK Pronunciation?

KK is the abbreviation for Kenyon and Knott.

The KK pronunciation guide was created by John Samuel Kenyon and Thomas A. Knott, and it’s used for general American pronunciation, or what many people outside the US refer to as a standard American accent or General American. Most of the symbols used in KK are similar to the IPA pronunciation guide. There are a few exceptions that are intended to avoid ambiguity. It’s been steadily gaining an international reputation and is the preferred English pronunciation guide in Taiwan.

You can read Kenyon and Knott’s explanation of how the guide works here.

It’s important to recognize the symbols used in KK to help students differentiate the sounds, and it’s also particularly important to know the sounds that are most often confused by English students.

For instance, many students will pronounce the letter i with a long E sound, represented by the symbol /i/, when it should be pronounced with a short I sound, represented by the symbol /I/.

There are also many cases of students pronouncing a short E as a long A, represented by /ɛ/ and /e/ respectively. Sometimes that short E is instead pronounced as a short A, represented by /æ/.

When combined with the rules of phonics, the KK pronunciation guide will better allow students to recognize the sounds that comprise English words, particularly when using dictionaries on their own.

For many ESL students, learning pronunciation with the KK guide will require instruction on mouth movement and tongue placement.

There will also be students who will require special attention, or who may require services better handled by professional speech therapists.

How Does KK Help ESL Students?

The primary focus of improving pronunciation is that it improves student confidence.

Many ESL students are self-conscious about their pronunciation when speaking outside the classroom (sometimes even in class). Clear pronunciation will give them the confidence they need to practice speaking with others.

Using KK in the classroom gives students a visual guide to improve pronunciation.

If you write the symbols for the sounds, the students will know exactly how they’re supposed to pronounce the words rather than guessing.

If you write the correct pronunciation symbol next to the sound they’re saying, they’ll begin to think about the differences in the sounds and try to correct it on their own. They’ll still need instruction on tongue placement and mouth movement to enhance the sounds they need to pronounce (i.e. lips should be closed when pronouncing /m/, but lips shouldn’t be closed for /n/).

One advantage to teaching KK pronunciation to students is that it’s linked to spelling. When ESL students mispronounce the vowel sound in a word, such as bedroom, they may begin substituting the e with an a when writing. The same thing can happen if students have difficulty differentiating the ch sound /ʈʃ / from sh /ʃ/, or even /m/ from /n/.

There are many students from Chinese and Spanish language backgrounds who may pronounce “live” as “leave.” Over time, the students might confuse the words, causing more problems in writing, speaking and even reading.

Just as the students create more problems with writing when they mispronounce words, they may also have problems listening. The confusion with spelling will create confusion in listening—students will assume the speaker says one word when it is, in fact, another word. If they never nailed the difference between live and leave due to their incorrect spelling, students may think someone says “live” when the word was actually “leave.”

3 Ways to Incorporate KK in ESL Lessons

The KK pronunciation guide isn’t meant to be used as an entire lesson, except when starting out with explaining what the symbols and sounds are. Once your students have grasped the concept of the symbols and their relationships to sounds, you can pepper your lessons with some KK pronunciation instruction and exercises.

1. Reading Aloud

The easiest way to use KK pronunciation in your ESL classroom is to utilize group activities, individual speaking assignments and reading exercises that include words that most students will find difficult to say. This usually works best with students from similar linguistic backgrounds. You can also use this to target a specific sound that students are having difficulty with or you can have fun with tongue twisters.

Some Spanish-speaking students will have a problem with the -ed ending for verbs in the past tense. They tend to pronounce all the words with /ɛd/, which should be /Id/ according to KK. The students may use this sound even when some words should be pronounced with /t/.

Providing these students with a few sentences or a paragraph that’s loaded with past tense verbs will force them to think about the pronunciation of each word. As the students read through the text, you should stop and correct them as soon as they make mistakes. 

2. Dictation

Most ESL teachers and students dislike dictation. It can, however, help students with listening, spelling and pronunciation.

You can also use this as a vocabulary exercise. Use words that are commonly mispronounced by your students. To reinforce the vocabulary you want the students to remember, you can go through four steps for this exercise.

  • Say the vocabulary word you want the class to write.
  • Read the definition for the vocabulary word.
  • Read a sentence that uses the word.
  • Repeat the vocabulary word you want the class to write.

3. Enhanced vocabulary lessons

ESL students should learn new vocabulary during every class. This doesn’t mean that the students will always remember the words they’ve learned. They might also forget how to pronounce a word that they’ve written in their notebooks.

How can a student remember how to say a word hours after class?

If you’ve taught your ESL students the KK symbols and written those symbols to help them pronounce a word during class, they should have that guide written with the new vocabulary. As long as the students remember how each symbol is pronounced, they’ll have an easier time reviewing pronunciation when not in the classroom.

You can also combine the vocabulary lessons with dictation exercises. If you want to ensure that your students know how to pronounce the words, you can ask them to write the word and its corresponding KK symbols.

By using the KK pronunciation guide in class, you’ll help your students improve their English skills. More importantly, you’ll build their confidence in speaking clearly outside class, which encourages them to learn more.

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