Misconception #1: Pronunciation is just a small part of speaking so you don’t need to focus on it too much.
While pronunciation is perhaps not the only important part about speaking, it is certainly still necessary to teach. When you teach pronunciation you need to hone in on two essential skills of communication: speaking (of course) and listening. Together, these two skills form an essential speech loop; without one, the other doesn’t happy--at least not easily or naturally. You don’t want your students to just sound good, you want them to understand native-like, natural speech when they encounter it. In real life, nobody talks like many traditional textbooks would have you believe. The only way to truly become proficient in a language is if you can successfully communicate with others who speak the language.
A general rule of thumb for a student learning pronunciation is:
Ears - Students should be able to hear the sound/pattern.
Mouth - Students should be able to produce the sound.
Eyes - Students should recognize the word and its spelling on paper.
Misconception # 2: Teaching pronunciation means teaching phonetics.
This is not completely false, but it completely true either. Teaching phonetics--individual speech sounds--is certainly part of teaching pronunciation, but it isn’t everything. A lot more goes into using correct pronunciation when speaking a language.
In fact, pronunciation is divided into two big categories: segmentals and suprasegmentals. Segmentals are probably what first comes to mind when you think about pronunciation: consonants and vowels. These are definitely important to teach, but the main purpose in teaching them is to avoid a student being misunderstood.
Because of this, we also need to teach suprasegmentals: word stress, sentence stress/rhythm, and intonation. These 3 aspects will often make or break communication. They are the “non-verbal cues” of pronunciation. What I mean by that is that successful communication mostly comes from non-verbal gestures facial expressions, etc. AS WELL AS certain vocal elements--wait for it--suprasegmentals. Now, you can find research listing exact percentages for this anywhere from 75%-95%, but the truth of the matter is that the exact number doesn’t matter. What matters is that we acknowledge that being fluent in a language is more than picking the right vocabulary words and stringing them together using correct grammar.
Misconception #3: Pronunciation only needs to be taught as errors arise.
To be clear, you definitely SHOULD address incorrect pronunciations when you hear your student using them. However, don’t wait for the problem to occur before you address it. Be proactive, and give your students a head start.
Your student’s first language (or second or third or fourth...you get the idea) will often have a direct effect on their pronunciation in English. Luckily for you, that means there is research out there that tells you what to look out for. For example, b vs v, w vs g (would vs good), sh vs ch, and long and short vowels. If you know your student’s first language, you can covertly add these into your lesson plans before you even know your student or have had time to observe their current language patterns.
Apart from predicting pronunciation errors, part of your job as a language teacher is to take running observations of your students. Don’t leave pronunciation errors out of these observations. Keep a running list--literally or just in your mind--and do a bit of the error analysis game. This means you look at words or phrases where you student makes an error and try to find a pattern. Using these theories, you can test out different explanations and strategies to “fix” the problem.
Misconception #4: There’s no time to teach a pronunciation lesson, and besides, pronunciation lessons are boring.
First things first, please don’t isolate language aspects completely. This is not to say that you can’t focus in on a certain aspect or skill from time to time because obviously you should do that. Rather than only teaching pronunciation this lesson, grammar the next, vocabulary the next, etc., teach language holistically. Teacher language as a whole, not just a collection of parts. When you think about a lesson you should include all of the following in some way: grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and function. This may or may not mean that you are teaching each of these directly, but nevertheless they should be present. Perhaps one day you do a mini-lesson on pronunciation, but you are also correcting a grammar structure you reviewed in an earlier class; or vice versa.
When you do find your student in need of some direct teaching on pronunciation, try to follow this structure for the lesson:
Introduction: How is the sound or stress made by a native speaker? This may include mouth placement, individual sound practice, looking in a mirror, using rubber bands or balloons, etc.
Controlled practice: The student should practice the pronunciation component in a focused activity. Plenty of feedback and correction should be given.
Communicative activity: Practice the component within a conversational, real-life activity.
You can find several example lesson plans with this structure here:
***** WARNING: Pronunciation errors often sneak back into spontaneous speech even when they are eradicated from controlled practice. *****
Misconception #5: The goal of teaching pronunciation is for a student to sound native-like. Beginners shouldn’t worry about this.
There are actually for main goals of teaching pronunciation: intelligibility, comprehensibility, accent, and voice quality. First and foremost, you want the people listening to your students to recognize the words, phrase, and utterances they make (intelligibility) and you want them to understand this with ease (comprehensibility). Speaking of being understood, as a language teacher you are probably not the best judge of this because you are used to hearing non-native speech and may accommodate the student more without realizing it. For this reason, set your standards high, and give them plenty of corrective feedback! (#cornellnotes)
Second, you can’t wave a magic wand and make a non-native speaker sound like a native speaker. It’s possible if someone learns from a young age and continually uses the language in a variety of contexts, but later in life, it’s not usually a realistic goal. Instead, you should focus on reducing misunderstandings because of accent or providing your students to insights to how certain words said with a non-native accent might sound funny or even offensive to a native speaker--i.e. focus, beach, and sheet. Additionally, you need to pay attention to a student’s voice quality in terms of their overall volume and pitch as well as how they use those tools to stress words or syllables. All of these little nuances will help students to be more easily understood.
Finally, don’t wait to start teaching and correcting pronunciation. This should be taught from the beginning because if a student gets too used to saying a word or sound a certain way, this may become fossilized. This means that changing it is going to be as complicated as trying to carefully excavate a fossil from a rock without breaking it. It’s not impossible, but it is certainly difficult and time-consuming. It will take not only your coaching, but your student’s patience, desire, and determination to put in the extra practice to change it.
To find more resources on teaching pronunciation including books and lesson plans, check out the link to the Dynamic Teacher Resource Drive below:
Also be sure to check out the Pronunciation (KEPHAM) app for Android or Phonetics app for iPhones. (See picture for reference). Here you can practice segmentals and suprasegmentals by listening to words, phrases, or sentences as well as watching videos