David Dodgson: Pronunciation - no big deal

In my first teaching job at a language school in Turkey, there was only one thing that really mattered – grammar.

Students judged you by how confidently you could explain different uses of the passive voice, colleagues respected you if you knew your relative clauses, and when the DoS observed you, you would be evaluated on how well you had addressed the focal grammar point.

I knew of course that there was more to teaching English than grammar but the demands of my immediate context dictated that I had to get a sound grasp of the mechanics of the language as quickly as possible. Along the way, I experimented with some teaching techniques too (in order to help me teach the grammar better!) but almost everything else was overlooked, including pronunciation.

Very soon, the phonology input sessions of my Trinity Cert course became a distant memory. I would, of course, address problems with saying individual words when they came up but there was no thinking behind it, just ‘listen and repeat.’ It was no big deal.
The only time pronunciation ever came up in the staffroom was when all those grammar-hardened teachers roundly dismissed it. “Waste of time,” they would say. “Why spend ages on all those funny symbols when what the students really need is to understand the difference between first and second conditional?” Grammar was the big deal; pronunciation was not.

I later started to teach young learners. I was initially told one of my roles as a ‘native speaker’ teacher would be to help the children attain ‘accent free pronunciation’ whatever that was supposed to mean... Not much in practice as it turned out. The coursebooks we used never explicitly mentioned pronunciation and the syllabus had no space for phonemes, word stress, or linked speech. If anything, it was just as heavily grammar-based as my previous job (the only difference being that less grammar was ‘covered’ over a longer period of time).

In short, over the first decade I spent teaching, I had developed no special techniques or ideas for teaching any aspect of pronunciation apart from choral drilling of vocabulary (born out of necessity when trying to keep the attention of thirty plus 3rd graders in one class!) and the /t/ /d/ /ɪd/ regular past simple endings. But, no worries, I had got this far without ever worrying about it too much. It was, after all, no big deal.

Except that I was starting to see an increasing amount of evidence that it might in fact possibly be a big deal. Around the time I started going to conferences, I noticed that people were giving full-length workshops on pronunciation. There were other people who had even written entire books on it. And there were actually coursebooks and learning programmes that I had never encountered that had a seemingly heavy focus on the sounds of English

Was I being too readily dismissive? Was I overly wary of focusing on this area of language learning? Possibly… But how could I know without trying it out? And so I resolved to incorporate pronunciation into my teaching more. I would experiment, reflect, refine my approach and then begin the cycle again.

One of the first things I learned on this cycle was that focusing on pronunciation doesn’t really work for an entire lesson. It is hard work to solely focus on individual sounds or word/sentence stress for a long period. I soon came to realise that my doubts about pronunciation work being repetitive and boring were misconstrued from the idea that they had to be the main driving force of the lesson. A ‘little and often’ approach works much better. Focusing on pronunciation problem areas after a speaking activity, in much the same way you might focus on grammar and vocabulary errors after a writing task, is a good idea. Contrasting different/similar sounds in words that come up in texts is another. Teaching the stress and intonation patterns of a lexical chunk or grammatical structure as you introduce it is yet another.
But something else I came to realise much later than I ever should have is that explicitly focusing on pronunciation can actually help students improve not only their intelligibility and comprehension but also their spelling and grammar. When we focus on vowel sounds and diphthongs, students soon start to recognise patterns in the way sounds correlate with different combinations of letters (it’s not an exact science of course but it helps). Awareness of stress patterns (particularly unstressed sounds and occurrences of /ə/) and how and when elision affects what we say and hear helps them with their listening comprehension and even their (big deal) grammar!

I was reminded of this the other day when going over conditionals with a B2 level business English group. They were tasked with listening to two people in a meeting and identifying when they used conditionals and which ones (first or second) they were using.
The following sentence was part of the recorded dialogue:

“If you guaranteed David’s availability, we’d be happy to sign up.”

All of my students agreed without hesitation that this was an example of the first conditional…
In the past, I would have corrected them and focused on the grammatical features of the sentence, all the time wondering why these high intermediate level learners were still getting their conditionals mixed up.

But the ‘post-pronunciation’ me was able to recognise that this was actually a problem of sounds linking together – the ‘d’ at the end of ‘guaranteed’ was merging with the ‘d’ at the start of ‘David’ and the students were unaware of it. They were hearing ‘if you guarantee-David’s availability…’ They were also not hearing the ‘d’ of ‘we’d be…’ (understandable as it’s not really there to be heard!) and I guess they were then just assuming it was supposed to be ‘we’ll be…’

So, I solved this misunderstanding by focusing on how the utterance was pronounced rather than the grammar of it. My students were happy (another thing I have come to realise is that students more often than not are very keen to focus on pronunciation) and I thought of those ‘grammar crazy’ students and teachers from my first job all those years ago. Now that I see how a working knowledge of pronunciation can actually help explain seemingly simple errors (that have been wrongly identified as grammar problems) and now that I see how pronunciation can easily and effectively be incorporated into a lesson without taking a huge chunk of time, I would tell them “Pronunciation? It’s no big deal.” ☺

Dave Dodgson is a teacher, language programme coordinator, and freelance teacher trainer currently based in Gabon. He has also worked extensively in Turkey and has experience of working with children, teens, and adults both in general English, ESP and EAP. He believes personalising the learning process is the key to success in the language classroom and has a strong interest in using and adapting authentic input for learners of all levels. He blogs at davedodgson.com and also runs eltsandbox.weebly.com, a site dedicated to game-based learning.

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