5 Not-so-small Details of English Pronunciation That ESL Students Need to Know

English language learners come in all shapes and sizes. But there’s one thing that they all have in common.

They want to understand spoken English and be understood by the people they speak to.

ESL students who haven’t learned proper English pronunciation often feel like a huge brick wall is standing between them and native speakers, blocking them from understanding English and being understood in English.

Wouldn’t teachers’ and learners’ lives be easier if English were a perfectly phonetic language in which every word was spelled exactly how it’s pronounced? Those languages exist.

Unfortunately, English isn’t one of them.

Our beloved English language has phonetic hoops to jump through that make it difficult for even the most talented language learner to master!

And teaching English pronunciation? It can feel just as tricky. But it doesn’t have to be!

There are some key areas of pronunciation that are often ignored—but they actually hold the keys to understanding English and being understood.

So, what areas of pronunciation should we start paying more attention to?

5 Essential Areas of English Pronunciation You Don’t Want to Let Slip Through the Cracks

1. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The IPA came to life in 1888 when a group of teachers (who were probably fed up with their students’ pronunciation problems) got together and invented a new alphabet. This alphabet was a game-changer. It can tell you how to pronounce a word in any language regardless of whether you speak it or not.

I know the IPA can be intimidating. A lot of teachers avoid it altogether. It’s full of unfamiliar letters and symbols. The vowels and dipthongs are especially easy to confuse. You might think that it’s too hard for you to decipher, no less for your English students.

But I have good news for you!

Right now it’s easier than ever to figure out IPA with online resources like this downloadable phonemic chart for Windows. Using an iPad instead? The chart is available as an app too! If you’re making worksheets or otherwise need to type IPA into any document you’re working on, there’s also this handy tool. It made my life so much easier, and I know it’ll do the same for you.

Okay, feel a little more comfortable with IPA now? Good! Now you can use it to create activities in class.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Flashcards are always useful. Print these ones out and play a myriad of flashcard games. For example, you could give one set to each pair of students and have them race to find the flashcard with the correct symbol for a letter or a diphthong you’ve underlined in a word on the board.
  • Practice minimal pairs. Write target words of the ship/sheep variety on the board along with the IPA transcription of the sounds that you want to focus on (in this case /I/ and /i:/). Get your students slapping the right IPA flashcard or competing to write the symbol faster than the others. Don’t forget to have them say the word aloud after they get it right! The bonus? They will learn some new vocabulary in the process.

2. Mouth Positioning

The mouth positions your students use in their native language are unfortunately not the same positions learners need to use for speaking English. Depending on what their first language is, they may have an easier or harder time getting used to positioning their mouth in certain ways.

To pronounce English sounds correctly, learners have to get out of their comfort zones.

Have you ever done yoga? The first time you try a new position it’s hard. Your muscles protest and you’re absolutely convinced that you look ridiculous. But after a while it gets easier…and easier…and finally, you’ve mastered a new position.

It’s exactly like that when students learn how to pronounce new sounds.

Some tips for helping students practice:

  • Draw pictures of the correct mouth position on the board. If you want to get really into the nitty gritty you can use vowel trapezoids that represent where in the mouth the vowel is produced.
  • Try out this fantastic series of videos that focuses on mouth position for different English sounds.
  • Take small mirrors into class and have students watch themselves while they practice the target sounds. This builds awareness of what the position should actually feel like when it’s being produced.

3. Stress

For some reason, this is one of the areas of pronunciation that English teachers tend to focus on least, which is odd, because it’s actually one of the most important.

Word stress doesn’t exist in every language. In some languages, every syllable carries the same amount of weight.

If your students pronounce English like this, they’ll sounds like robots. Even worse, if they put the stress on the wrong syllable, the word might be misunderstood (the difference between RE-cord and re-CORD) or even rendered unintelligible.

And unfortunately…it’s not only word stress.

Sentence stress is a whole other problem. One of the biggest reasons that English learners have difficulty understanding native speakers is that they aren’t aware enough of the patterns of stressed and unstressed words in sentences. Stressing different words in the same sentence can result in some very different meanings.

Luckily, there are lots of fun ways you can get your students practicing word and sentence stress. In your next class, try these ideas out:

  • Visual representations of stress: Try this worksheet or use physical representations, like Cuisenaire rods. Never used Cuisenaire rods? Check out this video tutorial specifically on using them for stress.
  • Rhythm: You know that student who’s always tapping on his desk? Channel that energy into practicing stress by having your students tap out the rhythm of a word or sentence with their hand, foot, or even a drum!
  • Limericks: Short rhyming poems are ideal for practicing both word and sentence stress. Not only this, but your students will learn extra vocabulary and get a laugh out of the joke. You could even follow up by having them write their own!

4. Intonation

An eternal truth: “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”

Intonation is the melody of the language. But melody isn’t limited to music. You can hear it in speech whether you understand the language you’re listening to or not, and it changes what you think about the speaker. It might strike you that certain languages sound inherently more happy, romantic or angry than others to your ear.

If students don’t use proper intonation in English, they risk boring their listener or even giving off a bad impression. Need some ways you get your students practicing?

  • Draw your students’ attention to the different tones of English by modeling how the way you say a sentence can change its meaning. Take the sentence “He doesn’t like cheese,” for example. First, say it as a fact, next as a question and, finally, as if you were surprised. Get your students to tell you which it is, then repeat.
  • Use diagrams: Draw arrows on the board to show whether the voice should be rising, flat or falling.
  • Humor goes a long way! Practice exaggerated intonation by telling your students to say a silly sentence such as “he stole the banana” with different emotions. I’ve never had students laugh harder than when trying to say “he stole my banana” while pretending to be depressed.

5. Connected Speech

As if English pronunciation wasn’t hard enough already, do your students know that the pronunciation of individual letters and the stress of words changes depending on the words that surround it?

Wait, what?!

You mean all that work on the IPA and word stress can change? Well…in a nutshell, yes.

Essentially, connected speech is the idea that speech is a continuous stream of sound.

Need an example?

When you say, “At twelve,” do you pronounce both Ts separately or just one? My bet is just one.

Getting your students to master the production of connected speech shouldn’t be your goal, especially when teaching lower levels. However, raising awareness of its features can help your students’ listening comprehension immensely, as well as help them gain more natural-sounding speech patterns.

Incorporate connected speech into your lessons by:

  • Giving your students a visual. Just like for stress, a lot of students need to see the concept. Show them how words connect. Write the sentence out with no breaks between words. For example “Do you want to go?” becomes “D’juwannago?” You can also draw arrows in the sentence to show which letters connect with which.
  • Transcribing. With higher level students who are comfortable with IPA, you can transcribe the new sound that should be produced when two sounds meet. For example, when we say “Did you go?” The final D of “did” and the initial Y from “you” come together to make the sound /dʒ/.
  • Using dictations. I know, I know. Soooo old fashioned. Forget that for a minute though. This is really one of the best ways to get students to notice and get comfortable with how native speakers really talk. The most important thing to remember is that when you’re reading a sentence for students to write out, you need to speak at a normal speed in as natural a way as you can.

More knowledge about the specific features of English pronunciation lead to better listening comprehension skills. This means your students will be able to watch English movies and actually start understanding the speakers!

More accurate and natural pronunciation will also improve your students’ self-confidence when speaking English as well as their listeners’ perceptions of them.

But most importantly, focusing on pronunciation increases your students’ communicative ability.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Aimee Enders has been traveling the world teaching English since 2007. She has lived and worked in Spain, Argentina and Vietnam, and writes about language teaching and travel at www.tefladventures.com

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