Pronunciation is an important aspect of communication. After all, if you aren’t pronouncing a word correctly, you are more likely to be misunderstood. So, for ESL teachers, it’s really important to practice proper pronunciation with your students.
Unfortunately, pronunciation isn’t a skill you can just pick up by studying a book. It’s a little more complicated than that, and it takes some work to improve. You’ve been pronouncing words a certain way since you started speaking and you probably don’t even think about it. But, for non-native speakers, pronunciation is an important tool for fluency.
Think of pronunciation as going to a gym. You’ll likely only see improvements in your body after working out for an extended period of time. It’s the same with pronunciation. Because it is based on the physical act of moving your vocal muscles in a particular way, pronunciation is a skill you need to practice to get it right.
Having native speaker pronunciation isn’t important or even possible for your ESL students in some cases. However, you can focus on pronunciation so that your students understand and communicate better. When foreigners speak English, their speech shows patterns that are characteristic of their native languages. Think about it. Can you identify where a non-native speaker is from based on their accent? In some cases, you can, based on the deviations in their speech.
As teachers, you can use these known speech patterns in your students’ native languages to your advantage. If you know where the common pronunciation errors lie, you can get a jump start on helping your students improve. Here are some tips and pronunciation exercises to help minimize errors, in and out of the classroom. But, remember. These should be done over and over again- like lifting weights at the gym- to make a noticeable difference.
Practice with minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are two words that vary by a single sound. It’s often difficult for English learners to differentiate between minimal pairs. To improve pronunciation, practice repeating minimal pairs at the beginning of every class. By hearing the difference between similar sounds, your students will improve their pronunciation in no time.
You can choose sounds that might be difficult for your students based on their native languages. For example, Korean speakers of English have a hard time with the /l/ and /r/ sounds, especially at the beginning of a word. That’s because in Korean, these sounds are represented by one single symbol, ㄹ.
To practice the different sounds, explain to the students how to produce /r/ versus /l/. Images work really nicely so that students can see the actual place of articulation. Then, go through a list of minimal pairs several times: rice, lice, rack, lack, rope, lope, etc.
You can find lists of minimal pairs online; https://www.speech-language-therapy.com is a great resource to get you started. You can even play minimal pair games, like the ones on fluentu.com.
Listen to yourself.
Another great way to improve pronunciation is to record and listen to your own speech. It’s often difficult to recognize the mistakes you’re making until you hear your own voice. You can easily use a phone or PC to listen to your own pronunciation and identify the errors.
Similarly, you can take a video of your pronunciation or practice by watching yourself in the mirror. Because pronunciation is a physical skill, you might notice the way you say a word looks different than a native speaker.
Use Google to your advantage.
A great, easily accessible tool is Google. You can search “pronunciation” followed by any word in English, and you’ll see a google pronunciation tool. You can listen to the word in American or British English as you watch an animation pronounce the word. If you want to practice and get feedback on your own pronunciation, click the mic icon and say the word. If your pronunciation doesn’t match, you’ll be given tips to improve. This is a great tool for students to use while they’re doing homework or in their own time. And best of all, it’s free!
Practice pronunciation with an app.
If you’d rather have a real person give you feedback, you can use a language-learning application, such as Speechling. Speechling has real coaches who can help you one-on-one. Just record your speech and submit it, and you’ll get real feedback in no time at all.
Focus on intonation
Another important aspect of pronunciation is intonation or the way your voice rises and falls as you speak. Reading poems or song lyrics is a great way to practice intonation in English. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate the intonation; get dramatic! In class, students can practice intonation by acting and participating in role plays.
A fun way to get your students to speak in role plays is by assigning each group a random year, genre, and object that needs to be included in their script. The creativity might surprise you!
Doing these activities once or twice probably won’t fix any pronunciation errors. But by putting in small efforts daily, you will notice some improvement in yourself or in your students over time. You can integrate some of these tips into your classroom or have your students’ complete pronunciation tasks for homework. Most importantly, practice what you’ve focused on in conversation so that students can hear the pronunciation in context.