Getting Started, Getting Understood: Issues for Beginning ESL Pronunciation

Getting Started, Getting Understood: Issues for Beginning ESL Pronunciation

Taking on a beginning-level ESL class can seem overwhelming: the students seem to know be able to produce such little language.

They may have very limited vocabulary and numerous individual speech sound as well as inflectional and intonational issues. In addition, their needs may be very diverse, with some students desperately needing work on intonation and sentence stress while others need more work on just pronouncing even simple English words. Where do you even start? There are some guiding principles.

ESL Pronunciation Basics: How to Proceed

  1. 1

    Teach Actual Language Use

    Teach in context. Relate pronunciation exercises to actual conversations students might have. Very little is as unmotivating to the adult learner in particular to learn material that has no or little relation to anything used outside the classroom, such as repeated drills of words that have the same vowel sound (“beat, seat, eat”). Instead, focus on pronunciation within actual situations students will be using language: the language for greetings, for example. How well do your students use question stress on an information question like “How are you?” What about word endings in a conversation about what students are studying currently and studied in the past? Contextualize points of pronunciation instruction.

  2. 2

    Introduce American English Vowel and Consonant Sounds

    The common sounds of the English language should be introduced in the context of common words and phrases. Teach that the way words are written is not necessarily strongly related to how they are pronounced, especially in English. For example, teaching the pronunciation of “California” should focus on the should include instruction of the “shwa” sound (“uh”), one of the most common sounds in American English, as nearly all unstressed vowels are reduced to schwa. For example, there are schwas in “California”: the first “i” and final “a,” so that the word is actually pronounced “KaluhFORnyuh.”

  3. 3

    Teach Basic Principles of Liaison, Stress, and Intonation

    Sometimes beginning pronunciation classes will focus on more “discrete” points of instruction, such as the “correct” pronunciation of the “l” sound or the “r” sound. Often the “suprasegmentals,” the pronunciation across syllables, words, and phrases, are saved until more advanced pronunciation levels. These issues, however, should be addressed from the very beginning as they contribute greatly to a speaker’s general intelligibility. Teach syllables, syllable length, stressed and unstressed syllables, and connections or liaison between words as you introduce common vocabulary and phrases.

Methods of Instruction

The overarching instructional principle for any language class should be teaching language as it is actually used and related to that are supplemental activities.

  1. 1

    Charts of Sounds

    When introducing specific speech sounds in English, vowels and consonants, it’s very helpful to also introduce a chart that gives an overview of the vowels and consonants because this will show students graphically where each sound in placed in the mouth and therefore gives a more concrete demonstration of the pronunciation of the sounds. For example, the “ee” sound, as in “cheese” is a “front vowel,” pronounced in the front of the mouth (which is why photographers tell people to say “cheese” when having their picture taken--it is difficult to say “cheese” without smiling.) This graphic portrayal helps students who have trouble distinguishing between “beat” (“ee” a “front vowel”) and “bit” (“ih,” a “middle vowel”).

  2. 2

    Beating the Rhythm

    Something as simple as beating the rhythm of a word or sentence out on their desks can help students with beginning understanding of word and sentence stress, as they begin to understand syllables, and syllable length, by the number of beats in a sentence or phrases, or which syllables get “longer” and/or louder beats: stressed syllables. So in just taking the word “interesting,” for example, by beating it out, students can hear that there are really three syllables in pronunciation, not four, as the written form might indicate, and that the stress is on the first syllable, as it is louder and longer than the others.

  3. 3

    Use of Mirrors and Kazoos

    Pronunciation can be further explored through the use of small hand mirror and kazoos (a small wind instrument that can be spoken into.) If students have individual mirrors, they can look into them as they articulate various speech sounds and really see the positioning of their tongues, for example, when pronouncing “thigh” in contrast to “tie.” Kazoos are great for teaching intonation--because it is a musical instrument that students speak into, it highlights the various pitch and intonation patterns of speech.

  4. 4

    Poems and Songs

    Finally, popular songs and poetry are a natural for teaching pronunciation because both genres focus on the sound of the language--through devices such as rhyming and assonance (similarity of vowel sounds) and alliteration (similarity of consonant sounds). When reading aloud a poem or singing a song together, there can be short class discussion on the various poetic devices used and what they contribute to the work as a whole, and then students can break into groups, practicing the song or poem while working on their pronunciation.


It may seem difficult to even know where to start with a beginning level ESL pronunciation class. However, by focusing on such foundational skills as stress and intonation and speech sounds, applied to everyday conversations, as well as incorporating some more tactile strategies, such as use of kazoos and mirrors, students can begin developing their awareness of and skill in pronunciation in English.

What are some methods you use to teach beginning ESL pronunciation?

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