How to Teach ESL Pronunciation and Phonics

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October 1, 2020

Helping students improve their ESL pronunciation and phonics is an essential part of any English language teacher’s job. Yet, particularly for new teachers, it’s not always obvious how to incorporate pronunciation practice and assessment (let alone the phonemic chart!) into lessons. To help, we’ll explore the ways pronunciation and phonics lead to effective communication and share some English pronunciation tips you can use in your classroom or when teaching English online.

Why is it important to teach ESL pronunciation and phonics to students?

Effective communication

No matter what level your students are, no matter how advanced or fluent they are, if their pronunciation of certain key sounds is incorrect, they’ll be misunderstood by other speakers of English. For example, if an English learner talks about owning three ship (/ʃɪp/), but actually means three sheep (/ʃi:p/), the listener might assume that he or she is a very rich person, while the speaker in fact just wants to talk about his private little farm.

In such a case, the purpose of learning English to effectively communicate with other people around the world is not fulfilled. This can be extremely demotivating for learners of a language and it can also cause students to hesitate to speak.

The same goes, of course, for students’ listening skills. If your English students misunderstand the word ship (/ʃɪp/) as sheep (/ʃi:p/) when they hear it, similar confusion will arise.

For effective communication, both receptive and productive skills are equally important. This is why we need to equip our students with the necessary tools to speak and listen, right from the beginning of their lessons.

Teaching English sounds in the classroom

Teaching the different sounds for the simple past tense “-ed” ending in English  

Differences in phonemic script

If you’re teaching students whose first language does not use the same alphabet as English, such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Arab students, they will have an extra obstacle to overcome as they learn English. Your students are not just learning new words and grammar, but also a new alphabet and the sounds that each letter makes. For these students, adding some phonics lessons to your curriculum can be a great help. Phonics refers to the sound system of a language and includes how sounds are pronounced, how syllables or words are stressed, and intonation.

  • If students learn early on what sounds each letter or combination of letters makes, it helps them improve their reading, listening, and speaking skills.
  • Since learning phonics and ESL pronunciation also helps students break down words into their components, your students will also become better spellers.
  • They will be able to sound through each part of a word and determine the letters needed to write it.
  • Phonics can also help students read an unfamiliar word or write a new word that they heard.

All of these advantages will boost your students’ confidence and motivation to keep learning!

I’m lost in terminology! What do the different pronunciation-related terms mean?

We’ve touched on the concept of phonics, but the terminology surrounding ESL pronunciation can be confusing at times, especially if you’re a native English-speaking teacher and you’re expected to teach the rules and patterns of your mother tongue that just come naturally to you. Therefore, let’s review a list of the most important vocabulary and buzzwords you will need to prepare for your ESL pronunciation lessons.

  • Consonants  Sounds such as b, c, d, f, etc. The letters of the alphabet that are not vowels. The consonants are produced by some constriction of the air passages in the production of the sound.
  • Consonant Clusters  Pairs of consonants such as “sh” and “ch” that represent a particular phoneme.
  • Diphthong – Two vowels sounded together, one of which glides into the other, as in the “oi” sound of “boy.”
  • International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) – A chart comprised of standardized symbols representing the sounds (phonemes) of a language.
  • Minimal Pair  Two words in which only one phoneme varies, such as “cat” and “cab” (the final sound is the only difference in these words). Minimal pairs are often used in pronunciation exercises. At times, minimal sentences are also used: I caught a (cat/cab) outside my house.
  • Phonemes – Individual sounds in a language. English has about 45 distinct sounds with which we communicate meaning. A letter in the alphabet does not necessarily represent a phoneme as it may have more than one sound as “c” does in “cat,” “face,” and “watch.”
  • Phonemic Chart – A chart such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (see definition above). A set of symbols that represent all the sounds in spoken English. By knowing the chart, you can tell which sounds are “voiced” (use vocal chords for sound) or “unvoiced.”
  • Phonemic Script  A system for writing and portraying the individual phonemes (sounds) of a language as symbols (such as on a phonemic chart).
  • Phonics – The sound system of a language that relates sounds to spellings in order to develop reading and writing skills.
  • Phonology – The study of the sounds (or phonemes) of a language.
  • Voiced Consonants Consonant sounds which are produced by the vocal cords when pronounced, like the “th” in “bathe.” Put your hand to your throat when you pronounce this word and you can feel the vibration when sounding the “th.”
  • Voiceless Consonants – Consonant sounds that are produced by the lips and teeth and not the vocal cords when pronounced, such as the “th” in “bath.” Put your hand to your throat when you pronounce this word and you will feel no vibration when sounding the “th.”
  • Vowels – Those sounds, like a, e, i, o, and u, which are not consonants and which are produced without any constriction of the air passageways.
Phonics teacher Uchechukwu, from Nigeria, teaching the phonemic chart

Phonics teacher Uchechukwu, from Nigeria, teaching the phonemic chart

Okay, I’ve got the terminology down, but how do I actually teach ESL pronunciation?

Teaching phonics can be daunting, but with the right tricks and ESL pronunciation activities, your students’ ESL pronunciation practice can be smooth, and even fun! The basic goal is to help your students connect letters and letter compounds with sounds to produce audible language. So, how can you approach a phonics lesson?

The phonemic chart

A basic tool in the ESL classroom is the phonemic chart. Referring to the chart on a regular basis can help your students get familiar with new words quickly, and they can sound out new words by themselves by looking at the chart. Keep a poster-sized chart in your classroom (or in the background of your screen if you’re teaching online) so your students’ have easy access to it!

Tongue positions and mouth movement

Using pictures of the position of the tongue and the movement of the mouth for each phoneme will help your students understand the physical aspect of language production. By giving a live example yourself and going through the movements with your students, they might feel more comfortable copying you, rather than trying only by themselves.

If you’re teaching online, you can also demonstrate the sound, but be careful about the angle and zoom of your camera. You don’t want to scare off your students by showing them a close-up of the inside of your mouth! While this might work for younger students by making them laugh, adult students may feel uncomfortable. In many cases, referring to a picture can be enough.

Word stress, sentence stress, and intonation

English is a stress-timed language, so it is very important to put the stress in the right place in a word and on the right words in a sentence in order to convey the intended message. (An ESL student whose language is syllable-timed rather than stress-timed needs a lot of ESL pronunciation practice to stress English sounds correctly.)

This focus on stress goes for both productive speaking skills as well as for receptive listening skills. Including intonation and stress practice in your lessons right from the beginning is very important in order to prepare your students to deal with English as it is regularly used by other speakers of English.

Check out these ESL pronunciation games and activities for all ages. 

How do you assess your ESL students’ pronunciation?

Assessment and feedback play an important role in any ESL classroom. If you are teaching ESL pronunciation, you will need to assess your students’ progress at some point, too. Here are some ideas on how to assess and give feedback to your ESL students.

Monitoring

During a group speaking activity, walk around the room and listen, taking notes on your students’ pronunciation errors. Later, you can organize your notes and give individual error correction feedback (in written form or during a personal meeting) or create a lesson for the whole class based on common errors you observed.

Student presentations

Have your students do individual or group presentations in front of the class. Ask the rest of the class to take notes, fill out a rubric sheet, or write a comment on each presentation, focusing on pronunciation and intonation. After each presentation, students can give each other feedback. This works well if the students are comfortable with each other and are motivated to participate in class. You can also add your own comments afterward.

Learn more about error correction in the EFL classroom with this 20-Hour TEFL/TESOL Micro-credential course.

Audio/Video recording

If you’re teaching English online, having your students hand in audio or video recordings is a convenient way to assess their ESL pronunciation. Some ways you can do this are:

  • Give students a reading passage to read out loud and record, and then send them a sample of you reading the same passage to compare.
  • Give free-speech assignments and give students feedback on individual words and sentence stress.
  • Send your students digital handouts and ask them to read the target words on it, and give points or stars for each word.

Regardless of the activity, you can play their recordings over and over in order to write extensive feedback.

Practicing an interview during an English class

Practicing an interview during an English class

Interview

If you’re teaching English for Specific Purposes, creating an interview test that includes the target language and is set in a specific context is a good way to assess more advanced students. During the interview, you can repeat the incorrectly pronounced words back to your student and give them a chance to self-correct.

Graded paper test

If you are working in a public or private school, you might be asked to do some grading based on paper tests, or similarly easy-to-process assessments. In that case, you can create tests on minimal pairs, word stress, sentence stress, and intonation, and if possible, include a listening section with your own voice recordings.

Teaching ESL pronunciation is a challenging part of English language teaching. However, including ESL phonics practice in your lessons and helping your students produce intelligible language will improve their ability to communicate effectively with people around the world and help to fulfill the purpose of learning English.

Explore this topic further: The Case for Teaching Students Different Accents and Dialects.