Do you teach pronunciation?
If you choose not to, your decision is easily justified.
When the class is struggling with remembering vocabulary, fighting with grammar rules, and also grappling with the whole notion of motivation to study English, taking time to perfect pronunciation seems like a real stretch of the imagination.
And while investing time and effort in building vocabulary or grammar have very real and observable outcomes, drilling pronunciation of individual phonemes (the letter sounds) or specific tricky words can seem to be a wasteful use of classroom time. Besides, how do you actually improve someone's pronunciation anyway!?
Take the dreaded 'th' phoneme, for example. This has students all around the world sighing with despair. And teachers too. We tell students to stick their tongues out of their mouths, but this just seems to embarrass them.
The problem is that this little sound is much more than simply sticking your tongue between your teeth and blowing a lot of hot air. The 'th' is actually not one sound, but two: there is an unvoiced version (θ), which involves only sound rushing between the tongue and teeth (as in 'think'), and a voiced version (ð), which requires the addition of a sort of humming in the voice box (like the one in 'those').
Which gets used when? Well, interestingly, there are some patterns: the unvoiced 'th' is common in content words (which are words that carry meaning, like 'thank', 'thrombosis', and 'thimble'), while the voiced version is more common in function words (which serve a grammatical purpose, like 'the', 'this' and 'then'). Also, a 'th' just before 'er', like in 'another' and 'father', is generally voiced. If this interests you, have a look at this cool blog about all this 'th' stuff.
But is the learning of rules like these helpful for our students, or is it just additional complication that isn't worth the effort, especially considering that some English speakers don't bother with this phoneme at all - as with Irish English, and Cockney too! And anyway, if the students master this phoneme, will it really improve their pronunciation? Does imperfect pronunciation of 'th' really interfere in communicative comprehensibility? Shouldn't valuable classroom time be allocated to more pressing issues?
In answer to questions like these, I'd like to quote a student of mine, who wrote on this topic:
I feel the need to be accurate both in spoken and written language. If I myself cannot speak with clear and right pronunciation, how can I do well?
This sentiment is quite common with students who are given the chance to express their opinion on the subject.
Another student told me it is 'unfair' when a teacher doesn't focus on pronunciation, and that these are 'lazy' teachers who don't do their duties in promoting good pronunciation. Perhaps for students who are putting in the time and effort needed to learn English, mastering pronunciation as far as is possible matters a lot. Are these students anomalies, or are they representative of students' opinion in general? I don't know - but perhaps it's worth finding out.
If you do decide to teach pronunciation, there are lots of issues to consider:
What accent - Texan? Geordie? Kiwi?
As a South African, am I qualified to teach pronunciation? (real question!)
How 'good' should we aim to have the students' pronunciation of the language? Is there such a thing as 'good enough' pronunciation?
How exactly do you teach pronunciation - is there a way? Should we focus on microphonological issues like the teaching of individual phonemes; or macro issues like intonation and rhythm? In which order?
Should we ignore those sounds that the students simply can't manage (like the 'r' and 'l' headache). This is a thorny issue: as an exercise in empathy, consider the problems Americans learning Cambodian have with the awful 'jrl' cluster, or the subtle difference between the Thai words for 'bee' and 'just' which some non-Thai ears simply can't seem to hear, or perhaps the abominable difficulty in hearing the difference between the second and third tones in Mandarin.
How much should we bow before the demigod of embarrassment that inevitably comes from students' failure to hear or produce specific sounds?
And finally, when should we teach pronunciation - in a specific lesson all on its own, or just whenever it comes up? Or perhaps all the time?
If you don't already have some beliefs about teaching pronunciation in the classroom, these are questions that are worth some attention. Perhaps let me introduce you to the guru of pronunciation in the English language classroom, Adrian Underhill, who has written extensively on all of these issues. If you have time, watch this video or others like it by Underhill on how to teach pronunciation. Or even better, read one of his books.
Ultimately, we need to remember that one of the reasons native English speakers are valued as teachers in Thailand (and elsewhere) is this question of pronunciation - so ignoring it in your classroom may amount to a dereliction of duty. Naughty you.
Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.
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I think teaching pronunciation is very important, but not everyone can do it. There is a standardised way to pronounce things. There's the official British and American way. Now don't get me wrong, I love accents. Not all, but most. I find accents charming. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don't have a strong accent. I'm from the south of England where it can be harder to pinpoint exactly where someone is from. I have a real broadcaster's accent with the non-rhotic /r/.
It's always good for the students to hear different accents. There are not many accents I have difficulty understanding. But when teaching in class, if you have a strong accent, you do have to tone it down. That's why we have a standardised pronunciation as to not convolute things.
Native-speakers often get uptight when they see non-natives teaching. I say the more the merrier. English isn't only spoken by native speakers. Thais often struggle understanding English from non-native speakers. It's good to have the practice. I think it's great to have non-native English speakers like Filipinos and South Africans teaching in Thailand. It's good to hear the more difficult non-natives speaking so Thais can practise their listening skills.
I remember when I first met my South African friend at work. This is how the conversation went:
Friend: You've run? (This is what I though I heard)
Me: Run? What? (completely bewildered)
Friend: Aav yoo eaten?
Me: Ah! Have I had lunch? Yes, I have
Friend: Ya! Yoo speak English, don't yoo. boy?
Me: I'm learning
Now when my friend speaks, I very rarely misunderstand. It's been good for me.
By Francis, London (13th January 2017)
Mark, you write about "the phonetic skills" of your students. "Phonetics" is a branch of linguistics involving the scientific study of the sounds of human language. I don't mean to be a stickler or seem like a terminology nazi here, but doesn't it make sense to have more awareness of accurate ways to describe what it is we do?
You also write: "Many older students were not taught phonics and that is why they remember the word and not the meaning." What does a phonics approach have to do with this exactly? And what do you mean by "remember the word and not the meaning? To 'know a word' means to have processes the meaning, pron, form, use of that item. Which leaves your statement wanting, and confusing.
You write: "Than there is sentence context which is also helpful in understanding a word's pronounciation." The than-then slip is common enough, but the pronunciation-pronounciation thing is likely a knowledge error on your part. All it takes, often, is a single clear correction to fix something like that up. Hope that helps!
"So those people worrying about accents really need to give up. We do not speak in words. We speak in a sentences." Again it's unclear how the former statement logically leads to the latter. How does it? What am I missing?
You then write "So teaching single letter sounds, digraphs, trigraphs and other sounds of more than 1 letter are important as a building block to help when the student gets older and are able to learn for themselves." What in the world do you mean by 'sounds of more than one letter'? Consonant clusters? Long vowel sounds? It's hard to say based on how you describe things.
"What does not help is when a teacher always follows the teacher book and have students completing text books on phonetics expecting students to learn a single answer for all questions." Again you seem to be piling up very different, unconnected things and then pointing towards them as if they were parts of a recognizable whole. I'm trying here, but having a hard time recognizing what it is you're talking about, Mark!
"Adjusting pedagogies and having the students practicing methods of creating information, based on previous knowledge, is much more useful." Now that is clearly just gobbledeegook, isn't it!
"Role play and writing stories are far more interesting and fun for the students. This is also the true meaning of Sunook. Interesting and fun." And we arrive at...a place pretty odd essentialistic trip about 'role play and writing stories' as the true meaning of a uniquely Thai social construct, all quite disconnected from where we began or indeed the topic of this post.
The mind boggles.
By Matthew, United States (17th December 2016)
Don't get distracted by the issue of "accent". Any teacher with a bit of training and some basic awareness should be able to model standard international spoken English for learners in Thai classrooms. Some 44 sounds, no matter what accent you might have. If you don't already see, hear, and feel that - you probably ought to study phonology & English pronunciation a bit more first before you get into teaching it much anyway.
That really is the key that unlocks all of this: teachers work. Good teachers study so they can teach. :)
By Matthew, United States (17th December 2016)
I do a lot of backchaining, which I think is a particularly effective drilling technique. It can be amazing at times when the students are able to reproduce the correct pronunciation throughout the entire chain, and then when you cap it off with the beginning sound, they revert to their previous mispronunciation. For example, I think it has something to do with how they've been taught by their L1 teachers growing up, but here in Myanmar, the word "colleague" is commonly pronounced "college"...
I'll drill them:
By Joko, Yangon, Myanmar (14th December 2016)
Steve has a point, though, which nobody has addressed in these comments: which accent?
Presumably, the answer is that you'll teach them to pronounce in your own accent. But are you the only teacher that they're ever going to have in the future? Are you the only teacher that they're even going to have this week?
By Clifford, Bangkok (6th December 2016)
It does sound as if Stephen is teaching students to pass a test instead of communicate in a second language. Worrying about absolutes instead of fact based opinions like those required in the major testing systems such as IELTS.
I am with Shireen but I will take it further.
Part of learning is how to learn. Phonetics allow the word to be pronounced even if the spelling is wrong. As the phonetic skills improve the student is able to adjust their spelling.
Many older students were not taught phonics and that is why they remember the word and not the meaning.
Than there is sentence context which is also helpful in understanding a word's pronounciation.
So those people worrying about accents really need to give up. We do not speak in words. We speak in a sentences. So teaching single letter sounds, digraphs, trigraphs and other sounds of more than 1 letter are important as a building block to help when the student gets older and are able to learn for themselves.
What does not help is when a teacher always follows the teacher book and have students completing text books on phonetics expecting students to learn a single answer for all questions. Adjusting pedagogies and having the students practicing methods of creating information, based on previous knowledge, is much more useful.
Role play and writing stories are far more interesting and fun for the students. This is also the true meaning of Sunook. Interesting and fun.
I hope your teaching is also true sunook. Give the students a chance to create and see just how sunook teaching becomes.
By T mark, chantaburi (5th December 2016)
I teach English to Pratom 2 students and I do a lot of pronunciation with them, mainly the th, Sh, and ch sounds. I do this not necessarily for their pronunciation but more for their spelling, if they say dis instead of this then dis is how they spell it. Also the sawimming, sachool sounds I correct although it was funny when I said some more and they corrected me saying it is smore!! Also I find Thais don't finish a word, like motorcy for motorcycle and fi for five. I do try to make it fun when I correct them, I'll write out half the number five and ask them what number it is. Pronunciation is important but just not to get so hung up on it that they are too embarrassed to speak.
By Shireen fillbrook, Phangnga (5th December 2016)