In the Primary English language classroom, specific pronunciation practice often takes a back seat in respect to the practice of the other major skills, or may even be neglected completely. There seem to be a number of reasons for this. Firstly, many course books and materials do not give guidelines to the teacher on how to address pronunciation practice in the classroom. Secondly, teachers may feel that isolated pronunciation exercises would be extremely boring and laborious for both the students and themselves. Added to this, English pronunciation is often considered to be difficult, complicated and full of unfathomable rules. Last of all, and possibly most importantly, non-native English teachers may feel uncomfortable working on pronunciation with their young learners because they worry that their own pronunciation is not perfect. With all these problems in the teaching of this language area, it is quite easy to see how teachers can give up and not do it. This is a great pity as it is an essential part of learning a language well.
This article will look at the why, what and how of English pronunciation and try to demystify and simplify it and make it more accessible to the Primary English teacher.
Why is it essential to teach pronunciation?
It is true that very young children are excellent mimics and find it much easier than older learners to reproduce sounds accurately. However, it is also true that if we give specific guidance from an early age students may not make so many mistakes later on in their learning career.
If bad or wrong pronunciation is allowed to become habit, it is extremely difficult to correct.
Without instruction, learners will automatically try to fit the sound of English into already existing sound categories that they have in their own language. In other words, ‘they will hear the sounds of English in terms of the sound in their native language’ (Kenworthy). For example, without help they will not hear the difference between words such as ship and sheep, chip and cheap because this distinction between sounds does not exist in Italian. There will also be completely new sounds in English that do not exist in the learner’s mother tongue. Without assistance, children will again resort to using the phonemes that exist in their own language. However, the sounds the learner produces might cause confusion. For example, a learner hears the word three, they try to produce it but the ‘th’ sound is new so they say tree instead, using the nearest equivalent sound in Italian. The problem is that these are two different words in English. Perhaps the most important reason for addressing pronunciation for Italian children is due to graphic – phonemic interference. This basically means they say words as they appear written on the page (as they would in Italian). If we do not help children from an early age and guide them to think about pronunciation as separate from the written word in English, this problem will persist throughout their learning career.
What is good pronunciation?
First of all, good pronunciation is by no means perfect pronunciation or native speaker pronunciation. The ultimate aim of a teacher of English should be that the student will be able to communicate clearly, easily and successfully in the target language. This is not the same as sounding identical to a mother tongue speaker.
Students should obtain what is known as comfortable intelligibility.
This basically means that when speaking in English or another L2, the student would not put unnecessary strain on the native listener or non-native learner. In other words a person listens comfortably. It follows that this should be the objective of the teacher’s own pronunciation.
Other aspects of good pronunciation are, as well as making the right sounds (or as near as possible the right sounds), putting the right stress or accent on words and in sentences, using appropriate intonation and getting the rhythm right.
This last aspect is especially important in English, as it is a very rhythmic language. In fact, it is sometimes called a stress-timed language whereas Italian is a syllable-timed language. This basically means that when English people speak they emphasise only the important words in a sentence, so parts of words or some syllables are heard more than others. In Italian all syllables have more or less the same importance so they are generally all heard equally. This is why many Italian people say that English people eat their words and find them difficult to understand.
How should pronunciation be taught?
Pronunciation is not a separate skill but goes hand in hand with the other skills of speaking, listening and reading. Therefore, there would be little sense in concentrating an entire lesson on pronunciation alone or in doing isolated pronunciation drills. This would also be extremely boring! Pronunciation should be an integrated part of the lesson and should be approached only when appropriate and a little at a time. However, it should be integrated daily into classroom procedures because only constant attention will have a lasting effect on the learners. When planning lessons and, for example, introducing new vocabulary or a new structure, teachers should try to think ahead and anticipate any pronunciation problems that might occur. They should then try to incorporate short, frequent and fun activities that address the problem.
Here are some ideas to get started with:
Practicing new sounds
The ‘h’ sound in English can be problematic as it does not exist in Italian. When learners have mastered the production of this sound they tend to over use it and pronounce words that begin with vowels with ‘h’. To sensitise learners to this problem, the teacher could invent a very simple story that has a high frequency of words beginning with ‘h’ (such as horse, happy, ham, hungry, hot, holiday, hill etc.) and words beginning with vowels (such as eat, up, over, orange, apple etc.).
The teacher then tells the story to the class and asks them to put their hand up only when they hear a word beginning with ‘h’.
Students can then learn the story and have competitions on who can make the fewest pronunciation mistakes or invent their own stories to repeat to the class. A variation on this theme is to invent short tongue-twisters for the students to learn containing words with the new phoneme. This one comes from Come Along Stars, the new Primary course from LANG-Longman, to practise the ‘th’ sound: The three thin cats are thirsty!
To practice some of the English vowel sounds, students can play Pronunciation Snap. There is an example of this on the Pronunciation Worksheet - Rhyming Snap. This is a card game where learners identify monosyllabic pairs of words that rhyme.
One of the simplest ways of overcoming this problem is to introduce new vocabulary with pictures only and repeating them orally. When pronunciation is established, introduce the written word but always actually ask the students if it is written in the same way it is said. Activities using rhyming words are also useful as they may be pronounced with the same sound but written completely differently, for example – red, head, said. The Colour Pronunciation worksheet on page 16 practises this aspect. Before doing the worksheet, the teacher should make sure students are confident in pronouncing the colours. Then one colour, for example green, can be written on the board and the teacher can choose other words and ask the class if they sound the same as green or not, for example bean and seat do, but ten and heat do not.
The teacher can a take a common and known sentence, such as It’s my birthday today! and write it on the board. Students can then be sensitised to the fact that this sentence can change meaning slightly depending on how it is said. The teacher can encourage students to say the sentence in a happy, sad, excited or grumpy way to get them thinking about how it is our voice (going up or down, for example) that can change intonation and express our feelings. The teacher can then emphasise different words in the sentence to show how one sentence can change meaning slightly depending on how you say it. For example It’s MY birthday today! The teacher can then ask the students simple questions and they decide which intonation pattern would give the correct answer. For example Is it your mother’s birthday today? No, it’s MY birthday today! Is it your birthday tomorrow? No, it’s my birthday TODAY! Is it a holiday today? No, it’s my BIRTHday today!