I recall watching a film, as a child, about Alexander Graham Bell instructing his deaf students to feel the vibrations their throat made when they pronounced a specific sound. In this way, they could intuitively know whether they had produced the appropriate sound by stressing the correct syllables and understanding how the vocal cords produce sounds. Learning correct English pronunciation is imperative for ESL students as mispronunciation can impede fluency and, in some cases, alter the meanings of words. Learning the proper way to pronounce words can help your students become more relaxed when speaking English and sound less awkward or uncertain of word choice. I have encountered several students who, afraid of mispronouncing the best choice for a word, will choose another word that either alters or confuses the meaning of their conversation. Not to despair, however, as there are numerous teaching methods to help your ESL students improve their pronunciation of English words. For those teaching Chinese students online, you need to familiarize yourself with the most common pronunciation problems exhibited among Chinese ESL learners.1 The next step will involve utilizing a variety of methods to help students improve pronunciation, such as minimal pairs, syllable stress, voiced and voiceless consonants, phonics, etc. Let us examine five techniques that are especially useful for teaching English pronunciation to online learners.
1: Teaching English pronunciation with phonics exercises:
Perhaps the most obvious and conventional method for teaching English pronunciation is through phonics. Phonics focuses on learning the individual sound of a letter or set of letters, vowels, and consonants when learning to read. One website has developed a useful diagram for understanding the process of phonics in learning pronunciation: “letters form sounds, sounds form words, words form sentences, sentences form stories, stories form meaning, meaning forms reading.”2 A new frontier for learning to pronounce words is through “visual phonics,” which teaches English pronunciation with animated texts, videos, and songs. Visual phonics physically animates sounds and words to help ESL learners internalize what they see and hear, distinguishing between different sounds, words, and meanings. According to one source, “visual phonics shows various reading skills, such as isolating sounds and syllables, segmentation, rhyming, and substitution, to help children visualize relationships between letters and sounds, sounds and words, and words and syllables.”3 Visual phonics lends a fun and creative atmosphere for learning English pronunciation.
For older students, however, focusing on the pronunciation of keywords (content vs. function words) in a sentence is of greater importance because distinguishing between the two is critical for understanding the meaning of a sentence. Teach your older students to stress content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) in a sentence as function words (auxiliary verbs, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, and pronouns) are not stressed. According to one source, “knowing the difference between content and function words can help you in understanding, and, most importantly, in pronunciation skills.”4 There are various pronunciation exercises you can do with your students that distinguish between content vs. function words in a sentence. For my older students, I usually have them read a sentence or ask them to make their own sentence stressing the appropriate words. For example, I had one group of students practice saying this sentence: She’s going to fly to England next week. I then encourage my students to act out the sentence by pretending to fly, or I ask them where they want to fly.
Teaching phonics to younger students should include pronunciation games (such as clapping the hands when a student hears a specific sound or acting out a word or letter sound), videos, and songs (perhaps singing a word or drawing out the sound of a letter) that incorporate animations, graphics, and total physical response to sounds. FluentU has an extensive list of ESL pronunciation games that involve movement, repetition, interaction, and creativity.5 Another useful phonics game is having the students create their own words from individual letters or groups of letters. For example, I use the annotate feature of Zoom to write the sentence Mary sat on the fat rat. I may even draw a picture or have a ready illustration to show the students. Then I may take the word “rat” and ask the students what other words rhyme with rat or end or begin with “at” such as bat or cat. For the younger students, I may take a single letter, such as “r” from rat, and ask them what other words begin with, end with or contain the letter “r” such as rope, rain, or rabbit. Another curriculum, Jolly Phonics, draws heavily on TPR by using actions (with the hands) that are associated with the 42 letter sounds. These actions help younger students remember how to produce the appropriate sound and then associate specific words with sounds.6 There are numerous pronunciation exercises and teaching methods for phonics, but I have outlined the simpler techniques.
2: Use the different mouth positions to master English pronunciation:
Voicing should be an active process in your student’s learning to pronounce words correctly. It is important for non-native speakers to master the different vowel phonemes in English as they may not be present in your student’s primary language. One teacher notes, “1.) Show them what they need to do with their mouth to make the sound, 2.) Create/give drills for them to build muscle memory, and 3.) Give feedback throughout the process.”7 For your older students, it may be helpful to show illustrations or to demonstrate with your mouth where to properly place the tongue and lips to create a specific sound. One source suggests, “have students use a mirror to see their mouth, lips, and tongue while they imitate you.”8 You need to ensure that your students know the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants. The voiced sounds (which include vowels and diphthongs) should produce a vibration in the throat whereas the voiceless sounds will not. You should encourage them to touch their throats to ensure that vibration occurs only with the voiced sounds. A potential game to help master this skill is to have students compare voiced and voiceless consonants such as ‘z’ and’s’ by repeating both and then creating sentences or words with the letters. You can even encourage them to act out the sentence, or you can provide illustrations or props modeling the sentence or sounds: ex. I went to the zoo and saw a zebra and a snake. You may find it helpful to teach the phonemic chart to your older students or those students who can understand it.9 One website advises, “instead of spelling new vocabulary out on the white board, try using phonetic symbols (ex. seat would be written /si:t/) to represent the sounds (rather than the alphabet to represent the spelling).”10 Aspiration is another pronunciation technique which involves a puff of air occurring with such sounds as /p/, /t/, /k/, and /ch/ (which are most commonly aspirated at the beginning of a word). Encourage your students to hold a tissue in front of their mouth to see it move when the puff of air is produced from a word containing an aspirated sound.11 Tongue twisters or alliterations are excellent for mimicking and memorizing the pronunciation of aspirated sounds: ex. Petey the peacock baked a pepper pie, or Two tigers are taking the train. An excellent book that includes engaging and colorful alliterations and tongue twisters is Animalia by Graeme Base, a book I was positively fascinated with during my childhood. Tongue twisters help non-native speakers distinguish between similar sounds such as “pen” and “pin” or “pan” and help them understand how to use the muscles in their mouth to create specific sounds and pronunciations.
3: Teaching methods for intonation, syllable stress, and vowel length:
I have already touched on which words to stress in the discussion of content vs. function words (ex. Leon has lived in Spain for six months). Intonation indicates the way in which our voices rise or fall when speaking certain phrases or sentences to evoke a certain emotion or meaning. For example, when you ask the question “Did you eat breakfast this morning?” your voice should rise when you ask a yes or no question or when you are showing disbelief (He didn’t go to school today? Really?)12 Your voice should fall with regular statements or questions that expect more than a one-word answer.
Syllable stress requires special attention. Specific activities and pronunciation exercises should be developed for mastering syllable stress. You should begin by teaching your students how to count the number of syllables in a word by clapping them out or singing along as each syllable is counted out. Another method is placing your hand under your chin, repeating the word, and taking note of how many times your chin touches your hand. This indicates the number of syllables in a word. There is a website called “How Many Syllables” that allows you to type in a word and see how many syllables there are if you struggle with counting syllables yourself.13 For your younger students, if you want to incorporate TPR, you can have your students act out the syllables with hand actions, call on them to hold up the correct amount of syllables on their fingers or ask them to represent the number of syllables with toys, pencils, stickers or other objects. You can teach vowel length with the same methods such as clapping hands to count out the length of a vowel or singing out the full length of a vowel. Teaching your students vowel songs are an excellent tool for learning to pronounce a vowel with the correct length.14 You can even try creating your own vowel songs and syllable songs using pictures, videos, props, and dance movements that the students can associate with the sound. The important thing to remember is to teach with creativity, engagement, and repetition so that your students exercise their mouth muscles and memorize the sounds.
4: Teach students to pronounce words by cross-referencing minimal pairs:
Minimal pairs are useful for distinguishing between the sounds of two similar words that have different spellings. One source notes, “words such as ‘bit/bat’ that differ by only one sound…can be used to illustrate voicing (‘curl/girl’) or commonly confused sounds (‘play/pray’).”15 Once again, tongue twisters or alliterations are excellent and fun activities for distinguishing between similar sounds. For your Chinese students, it will be most helpful to find tongue twisters with the minimal pairs “w” and “v” or “l” and “r” such as “Red lorry, yellow lorry” and “wild vines make fine vintage wines.” Another complicated activity would be to try and have your students sing a tongue twister or try and repeat the tongue twister together without falling out of sync. There are numerous websites with a comprehensive list of minimal pairs.16
5: Use pronunciation exercises and teaching methods that address connected speech:
I will make this topic quite brief. Connected speech refers to how words run together in conversational English that often confuses non-native speakers. For example: ‘wanna’ instead of ‘want to’ or ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to.’ For a non-native speaker, this can sound quite confusing because there are no pauses, and the words run together, which confuses the meaning. If you are able to do so, you should teach your students how to hear and recognize connected speech. For example, linking is a common form of connected speech where the end of one word melds into another such as “cats or dogs” which becomes “Catserdogs?”17 Other forms of connection speech include intrusion, elision, assimilation, and geminates.18 Being able to recognize the way connected speech sounds and being able to reproduce connected speech will help your students speak more fluently and feel more confident about their English speaking skills. Hold up flash cards with the different forms of connected speech and have students form sentences, answer questions, or talk using connected speech.
Final thoughts for ESL teachers
English is a challenging language with many rules. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in all the rules governing pronunciation. The most important thing to remember is to ensure that your students feel confident in their English skills and to teach pronunciation using fun, creative, and engaging material and activities. I struggle with pronunciation myself, especially counting syllables and keeping track of stressed and unstressed words. There are endless resources; thankfully, that can help you improve your student’s ability to pronounce different words and create sounds. Other techniques to reinforce pronunciation are drilling games, listen and repeat, isolating sounds, and word games. You will be surprised at how much your own pronunciation of words and sounds and understanding their meaning will improve as you teach your students using these five methods.
Citations for 5 Techniques For Teaching English Pronunciation
1 “Chinese Pronunciation Problems and Solutions in English.” Speak English Like A Native, englishspeaklikenative.com/resources/common-pronunciation-problems/chinese-pronunciation-problems/
2, 3 “What Is Phonics.” Hooked on Phonics – Learn to Read, www.hookedonphonics.com/what-is-phonics/
4 Beare, Kenneth. “Content and Function Words in English.” ThoughtCo, 23 May 2019, www.thoughtco.com/content-and-function-words-1211726
5 Ruthwickham. “10 ESL Activities for Powerful Pronunciation Progress.” FluentU English Educator Blog, 3 May 2019, www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/esl-pronunciation-activities/
6 “Jolly Phonics Actions.” Jolly Learning, www.jollylearning.co.uk/free-parent-teacher-resources/jolly-phonics-actions/
7 Jack. “Three Tools to Help You Teach English Pronunciation (and How to Do This Asynchronously).” Teaching ESL Online, 6 Dec. 2016, www.teachingeslonline.com/teach-english-pronunciation-online/
8, 11, 15 “Teaching Pronunciation.” Writing@CSU | the Writing Studio, Colorado State University, writing.colostate.edu/guides/teaching/esl/pronunciation.cfm
9 “Phonemic Chart Keyboard.” Phonemic Chart, www.phonemicchart.com/
10 “Top 10 Ways to Teach Vowel Pronunciation in English.” Busy Teacher, 23 Nov. 2016, busyteacher.org/8168-top-10-ways-teach-vowel-pronunciation-in-english.html
12 Geikhman, Yuliya. “Intonation for English Learners: When to Change It and How to Learn It.” FluentU, 28 Apr. 2019, www.fluentu.com/blog/english/english-intonation/
13 “Syllable Rules: How to Count Syllables.” How Many Syllables, www.howmanysyllables.com/howtocountsyllables.
14 Garden, Scratch. “The Vowel Song: Long and Short Vowel Sounds | English Songs | Scratch Garden.” YouTube, 13 May 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TjcT7Gto3U.
16 Bowen, Caroline. “Word Lists: Minimal Pairs .” Speech Language Therapy, 18 Feb. 2012, www.speech-language-therapy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=134:mp2&catid=9
17, 18 “5 Connected Speech Secrets for Fast Native English Pronunciation.” Go Natural English, 12 July 2019, www.gonaturalenglish.com/connected-speech-fast-native-english-pronunciation/
Laura Johnson, a Kentucky native, is a graduate of Asbury University in Wilmore, KY, and holds a bachelor’s degree in History with a strong background in French and Latin. She is currently working on her master’s degree in Medieval Studies at the University of Wales Trinity St. David with a focus on Medieval history and literature. She is a member of the Phi Alpha Theta National History Honor Society and the Medieval Society and Classics Society at Lampeter, Wales. She holds a TESOL certificate and has experience teaching with ALO7.
Laura believes in the timeless value of literature as a voice for the past, present, and future. In her spare time, she enjoys reading folktales from around the world and dabbling in Russian and Eastern Studies. Her hobbies include creative writing (fiction and poetry), drawing, illustration, photography and learning new languages. She is an advocate for higher education and believes in the cultural preservation of folklore and history. Her pets include a rambunctious Carolina dog named Niki and a positively perfect cat name Sylvester.