Mind Your Ps and Qs: Teaching Pronunciation at the Segmental Level

Mind Your Ps and Qs: Teaching Pronunciation at the Segmental Level

Any English speaker who has ever tried to perfect the trilled ‘r’ in Spanish knows that learning individual sounds can be a frustrating experience.

What’s even more frustrating? Trying to teach that learner how to make the sound correctly. Add to that trying to teach a classroom full of students, all with their own unique pronunciation problems, and you have a very difficult task ahead of you. Here are a few tricks and tips for helping students with the most basic level of pronunciation instruction:

How to Teach Pronunciation at the Segmental Level

  1. 1

    Know Your Students

    Each language has its own set of phonological sounds, and as we grow as children, we only recognize and produce the sounds of our own language; our minds sort of tune out the ones that are irrelevant to our everyday life. This is where the rumor comes in that people who learn second languages as adults will never sound like a native-speaker. While it is increasingly hard to perfect pronunciation as an adult learner, it is possible to improve significantly.

    As a language teacher, you can help by recognizing the common English sounds missing from your students’ native language inventories. Knowing which sounds are most difficult for your students can help you to plan lessons useful to the majority of your students.

    A few common pronunciation difficulties by language group:

    Arabic p/b w/v f/v
    Spanish th sh/ch s/z
    French th r n/ng (like sing)
    Chinese l/r b/d w/v
    Korean p/f f/v th
    Japanese l/r f/v th
    Turkish th w/v n/ng (like sing)

    It’s important to note that these are not all of the problem sounds for each language group, but just three examples from each. Just about every language could also add vowels to their list of problematic sounds. Also, keep in mind that each individual speaker may have variations based on dialect and how long they’ve been learning English, so it’s critical to get to analyze your students individually.

  2. 2

    Listening Practice

    Research has shown that perception of sounds often precedes production of sounds; in other words, your students have to know that there is a difference between the sounds and be able to perceive that difference before they can be instructed to make the different sound.

    Do lots of minimal pairs practice to help with listening (rake-lake; peach-beach; very-weary; etc…) There are lots of good minimal pairs resources available. You can use a note card activity where you give students a different-colored note card to represent each sound that you’re practicing. Read off minimal pairs and have students raise the appropriate color of note card when they hear the sound.

  3. 3

    Be Explicit

    If we were trying to retrain students in how to hold a pencil in their non-dominant hand, we could teach them by showing how to hold the pencil and even moving their hands for them. We can’t do that when teaching pronunciation, yet we still have to retrain their tongue and mouth muscles to move differently than they ever have before. The next best thing is to show pictures and videos of what the tongue position should be and how the mouth should be shaped. These are easily accessible through free websites and YouTube.

  4. 4

    Use Some Sort of Universal Alphabet

    We all know that we learn best when we can build on pre-existing knowledge. If students can see the relationship between a sound in their language and the target English sound, they will more readily recognize the differences in sounds. They don’t have to become expert linguists, but having a universal alphabet will help them to draw connections to sounds in English words. IPA is the most common and probably most prolific on the Internet, but it can be confusing (e.g. the symbol /i/ makes the [eee] sound and can be confused with the English letter ‘e’.) The benefit to IPA is that it shows the relationship in terms of how to pronounce the sounds; for example, the vowel chart explains how the vowel sounds are related to each other as far as being front, back, high or low.

    Other programs use color to help separate the sounds across languages which may be easier for your students to see and visualize. Rather than learning a new alphabet, color coding words in English will help them to pronounce new words based on their existing knowledge of familiar words because of the similar colors.

  5. 5

    Give tips and tricks

    Showing your students pictures of the position of the mouth is good, but giving them some tangible tricks they can put into practice immediately will help them advance more quickly.

    A few tricks for tricky pronunciation sounds:

    /l/ and /r/
    For American /r/, the tongue should be flexed and the tip pointing upwards towards the back of the mouth. It is not trilled or rolled like in other languages.
    The easiest way to distinguish /l/ from /r/ is to stick the tongue between the teeth when producing /l/. Most American speakers will produce the /l/ sound in this way and it is visually different from the /r/.

    /p/ and /b/
    Have students dangle a piece of paper loosely in front of their mouth. Tell them that when they produce /p/, there should be an extra puff of air that they don’t have when they produce /b/. Explain that when they produce /p/, the paper in front of their mouth should move with the extra airflow, but the paper should remain still when they produce /b/.

    All voiced and voiceless sounds
    Have students place their hand on their throat. Tell them to say “I” – they should feel vibration in their throat coming from their vocal cords. Next, tell them to make the “s” sound; there should be no vibration as this is a voiceless sound. Now you can introduce voiced/voiceless contrasts and tell students to feel for vibration. While there aren’t many languages that struggle with differentiating voiced from voiceless sounds, knowing when a word ends with a voiced or voiceless consonant can be important for other word endings (like adding either /s/, /z/, or /iz/ for plurals and /d/, /t/, or /Id/ for regular past tense).

    /th/ sound
    This sound not found in a lot of our students’ first languages, but it is relatively easy to correct. Tell students to stick out their tongue (don’t be afraid- it’s not rude in this context!) Tell them to bite down (gently!) on their tongue and blow air between their teeth. Practice turning on and off voicing (in the previous activity) to get the voiced and voiceless /th/ sound.

  6. 6

    Practice, Practice, Practice

    As with any skill, the best way to get them to learn is to practice- a lot! Students may be shy at first about trying to pronounce these sounds as they don’t want to make mistakes. Use tongue twisters as a fun activity to help students loosen up and feel more comfortable trying sounds. Make sure that you practice sounds in all word positions- beginning, middle, and end. Also, try it with some different letter combinations (for example, the word beard is considerably easier to say than world).

Young students can pick up pronunciation like sponges, but if you teach older students, you may find yourself with frustrated learners.

Try these tips and activities in your class and watch as they improve their skills!

How do you approach pronunciation with your students?

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