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How to teach pronunciation

It’s not easy to teach pronunciation and it’s usually not a priority when there are so many other things to teach out there. But if you adopt the right method it is possible and very worthwhile. First, you need to understand the gaps between English and the first language of your students. When that happens, you’ll need to figure out a way to explain to them what to do with their speech organs: their lips, their tongue, their vocal cords, etc. You’ll need to know how to prioritize their phonetic challenges, and to know which feedback is crucial and which is better left for the future.

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Hey there. It’s Hadar, and this is The Accent’s Way. 

Thank you for joining me. And today we’re going to talk about how to teach American pronunciation. This video is for you if you are an English teacher looking to improve the way you teach pronunciation, and you’d like to use my framework that has been working for me for over 10 years.

But this video is also for you if you’re an English learner looking to improve your pronunciation, and you need to know what are the steps that you need to take in order to improve your clarity and confidence in English. 

So let’s get started. Let’s begin with the fact that pronunciation is an essential component of learning a new language. First, because it increases the intelligibility of the speaker. So the speaker is clear, and actually all the knowledge of English is conveyed in a way that people can understand. 

Second, it really improves and increases the confidence of the speaker. The speaker feels better and more empowered when speaking, but also when listening to native speakers. Because when you understand pronunciation, or the pronunciation of the language, you understand the native speakers better. 

Another reason is that when students are able to achieve something that seems unattainable. Like mastering pronunciation or sounding really, really clear in English, it makes them feel competent and capable and that will keep motivating them on their way to achieving their goals. 

Now while a lot of teachers want and know that they should incorporate pronunciation more in their teaching and their classes, they fail to do so.

One of the reasons is that pronunciation is kind of vague and more challenging to teach. Because on one hand you have to teach them how to recognize those sounds and to even hear them, and at the same time, how to apply them properly. 

And then, once they apply the sounds you have to give them precise feedback and to be able to recognize their mistakes. And that’s when you, as a teacher, may doubt yourself in your ability to actually give concise and concrete feedback. 

Also, you have time constraints. You have the materials that you need to teach, you have the curriculum and you don’t know how to incorporate that in your day-to-day teaching because you have to go through certain materials and there is not enough time for everything.

So, let’s begin with the teaching pronunciation framework that I’ve developed of the 8 P’s that has served me well in the 10 years that I’ve been teaching the American accent. 

The first P is Perception. 

You have to teach them how to recognize the sound before you start teaching them how to make the sound. You want to make sure that they see that there is a difference between what they hear and what they perceive. Because while they may hear the actual sound, they may categorize it as another sound, a sound that does exist in their native tongue. 

So for example, when trying to teach, let’s say, a French speaker. In French, there is no difference between the two ‘i’ sounds like in American English or in English. For example, the tense ‘i’ as in ‘sheep’ and the relaxed ‘ɪ’ if as in ship. There is only one ‘i’. 

So, it is very likely that a French speaker won’t immediately recognize that there is a difference between ‘sheep’ and how he or she may be pronouncing it as ‘ship’. And you want to say it clearly or show them examples till they hear that there is a difference.

i – ɪ. Or the difference between ‘sheep’ and ‘ship’. And it’s not ‘sheep’ and ‘sheep’, right? So when you do that slowly and you first, you’re not asking them to make any sounds just to hear the difference, you’re developing their perception. Which is the first and more fundamental stage of teaching pronunciation, because if they can’t hear it, they can’t make it.

Even if they can imitate the sound, but they still don’t hear it on a regular basis, it won’t be effective. They won’t be able to implement it in their day-to-day speech. There’ll be able to imitate your clearly, but they won’t be able to transform the way they pronounce the sound. So you really have to focus on perception before starting anything else.

The 2nd P is Pronunciation. 

This is a place where you teach them exactly what they need to do physically inside their mouth to make the sound. But it doesn’t end there. Because when I teach pronunciation, I first start with the basics: your jaw is open, the tongue is forward, the lips pull to the sides, and the back of the tongue is high, the front of the tongue is low. 

But for most students, that’s just not going to mean anything to them. They’d be like, uh, okay, let me try to do this thing with my mouth. And the thing that they around the lips, but they don’t really. So just telling them what they need to do is not enough. 

It’s a great starting point and you have to understand what the mouth is doing and to communicate that clearly, but you need to understand that that’s not going to cut it for most students. So you might want to use some imageries or ways for them to measure their progress. 

For example, I tell my students to use a mirror to see that they actually round their lips when they pronounce the sound. Or I may tell them, imagine like you have a hot potato in your mouth, and that immediately gets them to open the mouth. And they don’t need to focus so much on the position of the jaw and the tongue because that imagery just completely help them get to that position without being too physical.

So start with the physical aspects of pronouncing the sounds, but give them other ways to understand how to pronounce and make a certain sound that will work for them. 

The next P is Predict. 

Predict the pitfalls of your students by knowing what your student is likely to do, you are able to give them feedback before even making the mistake.

For example, if you have an Arabic-speaking student and you’re trying to teach them how to pronounce the American R. Now in Arabic, the R is trilled in comparison to American English where the tongue pulls back for the R – UR. 

So when teaching them how to pronounce the American R, you want to tell them something like, “Make sure if the tip of the tongue doesn’t touch the upper palate ever for the R, this is an indication that you are pronouncing the right sound.”

This is how I predicted their possible mistake by understanding their tendencies. So I need to understand something about my students to be able to give them feedback before even making the mistake or the mispronunciation. 

Let me give you an example. I once had a student who used to speak with his job really, really close. It was really hard for him to open the mouth, and he used to do that for all sounds, both in English and in Hebrew. He was a Hebrew speaker. 

And when I started teaching him the A in cat and the AH as in father – the two open vowel sounds – the first thing I said before even hearing him:  “You need to make sure that your mouth is super relaxed here and that you drop your jaw and you create more space. You want to see it. You want to use your fingers to make sure you create space, otherwise you won’t be able to pronounce the sound clearly.” 

So I gave him feedback before even having heard him because I predicted what his possible mistakes are going to be and that gave him focus. He was able to just work on that aspect and come a lot closer to the target pronunciation. It was a lot easier for him to finally pronounce a sound, then trying it out himself without concrete feedback, to begin with. 

Or without something to hold onto as he’s working towards finding the right placement for the sound. So predicting the possible pitfalls is something that is extremely helpful when coaching your students.

The next P is Performance. 

Here, you want to observe the performance of your students and to give them precise and concrete feedback. You don’t want to just tell them, “This is not good enough. It’s close, but it’s not there yet.” Or something like, “It’s just doesn’t sound right” because that’s vague feedback.

Like they won’t be able, it’s not tangible. They won’t know what to do with it. You’ve got to give them concrete and precise feedback. Like, “Your tongue is too far back. You’ve got to push it a bit more forward.” Or “round your lips a bit more, your lips are completely relaxed, or “your mouth is really closed, open it a bit more.” 

Even if you’re uncertain with the exact feedback should be, you kinda try different things. One of the things that I do, if I don’t know what to say exactly, I try to imitate the sound and to make it myself. And then I tried to understand what my mouth is doing. And from there what they need to do in order to pronounce the right sound.

And this was one of the ways that I discover what feedback to actually give. Either way, you’ve got to give them something to work with, so don’t be vague, and don’t say general comments like, “it’s not good enough” or “it doesn’t sound right”. 

Because it will just overwhelm them and make them feel discouraged, and when they feel discouraged, you lose them. They won’t be motivated, and then they won’t want to continue on doing this work. So you’ve got to give them hope. 

The next P is Practice. 

Of course, practice makes better. Better – because perfection is overrated, and we want to communicate that to our students. That whenever they practice this sound, it does not need to be perfect, especially when they’re first starting out. They got to test it and try it and see how it works for them, and then train the tongue to do different things as they’re practicing because practice makes better. 

So, first of all, you’ve got to communicate why it’s so important to practice. Because if they want to use the sound spontaneously, they have to develop the muscle memory, and it only happens with practice.

Also, if the way they pronounce the sound is not great yet, practice will solve it. It’ll help them understand what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and gradually move into the place or the placement of the target sound. 

Also, you want to develop realistic expectations. If your students work 14- hour days and you ask them to practice for one hour every single day, it’s just not going to happen. And then they’ll feel like they’re always behind, like they’re not doing what they need to do. They’ll feel overwhelmed and then they’ll quit. 

If your students feel overwhelmed, they’ll quit, that’s just how it works. So you want to make sure that they’re constantly feeling capable. One of the things that I do is I just create really short recordings and practices for my students to work with, and then I tell them, “even if you have 10 minutes a day, then just go into the drive and listen to those recordings, and work with the recordings, and do the work.

They’ll feel accomplished because they’ve done something. It will help them improve because they practice, and, also, it’s possible. They’ll come back to it the next day because they know it’s not a big deal to do that. So set realistic expectations and understand your students’ schedule and work around it.

But the most important thing is that you gotta be very clear about what they need to practice exactly, where are they going to find those resources, and how much time they need to spend every single day. 

People need those guidelines. And when you give them guidelines they’ll be like, “okay, I think I can come into it, I think I can do it”. And make it a dialogue. So, ask them, “does this sound feasible to you?” And if they say ‘no’, you have to work with them to see what needs to be done in order for them to actually follow through and do the work. 

Now, as I’ve told you, my framework consists of 8 P’s, and so far we’ve covered 5. Do you remember where they were? Perception, Pronunciation, Predict – predict the mistakes – Performance, and the 5th – Practice. 

If you want to find out what the other 3 P’s are, you’ll have to go and download my PDF sheet with my teaching pronunciation framework. It’s completely free, and you can download it by clicking the link in the description below or right up here. And you will have the 8 P’s with my insights and thoughts, and notes. 

Okay, that’s it. Thank you so, so much for watching. If you’re an English teacher, let me know in the comments below. What is the one thing that you love most about teaching English? 

And if you’re an English learner, put ‘yes’ in the comments below if you’ve been following this framework that I suggested of the 5 P’s. Or ‘no’ if you’ve skipped some of the P’s, and let me know which one you skipped and you haven’t done, whether it’s Perception, or Predict, or Practice. 

Also, I wanted to let you know that I’m starting a membership program for English teachers called “English Teachers Academy”. And if you’re an English teacher and you want to improve your skills as a teacher, you want to become more confident, you want to ask questions, you want to find a community around you that will support you with any question or struggle that you may have. 

If you want to save time and get done for you lesson plans and practice exercises and slides, and you want to learn how to teach pronunciation with confidence. And how to give feedback, and how to teach in a classroom, and how to start your own business – all of that is going to be in my fun and valuable program.

So, if that seems exciting to you and you want to learn more, then you get on the list to be notified when I open doors to “English Teachers Academy”. 

Thank you so much for watching. Have a beautiful, beautiful week and I’ll see you next week in the next video.

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3 Responses

  1. Dear Hadar! Thank you so much for your English! I live in America many years but still now people asking me where I from after few words. I am from Russia. Your lessons so helpful and interesting. Thanks

  2. Hi Hadar ! I have just finished watching your new video as exquisite and outstanding as all your videos. But prior of watching this video I was carefully listening to your breathtaking podcast.

    Dear Hadar ! May I ask you, are you aware that you created here a quite general intellectual system to influence other human beings’ both cognitive and emotional psyche. To influence their psyche for corrections making possible them for easier emerging above herself/himself to achieve her/his goals. (That is to accomplish that Goethe has dreamed about in his “Wilhelm Meister”.)

    Each of the 13 points would need a detailed analysis. (Perhaps, besides learning English language and English accent some of your University students may decide to work on one of these points for a PhD.) For me the podcast was particularly important because of my “dry eyes” handicap. Thank you so much for your clear, absolutely understandable talking. If I may suggest anything, in the future the podcast may be one of you important tool in accomplishing your so valuable and important aims. Laszlo Latzkovits

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