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!?

'Dreaded'

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?

Student opinion

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?

Or never.

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 Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.


Comments

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?
Friend: Ya
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 (11 months ago)

Oh my.

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 (11 months ago)

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 (11 months ago)

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:
"eeg"
EEG
"eeg"
EEG
"leeg"
LEEG
"ah-leeg"
AH-LEEG
"ah-leeg"
AH-LEEG
"kah-leeg"
KAH-LIJ

By Joko, Yangon, Myanmar (1 year ago)

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 (1 year ago)

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 (1 year ago)

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 (1 year ago)

Post your comment

Comments are moderated and will not appear instantly.

Featured Jobs

NES Teachers for Minburi

1 day, 18 hours ago

฿40,000+ /month

Bangkok


English Conversation Teachers

1 day, 22 hours ago

฿35,000+ /month

Bangkok


Female English Teacher for Nursery Level

2 days, 3 hours ago

฿60,000+ /month

Bangkok


Teachers for Roi-et, Si Saket and Chonburi

2 days, 23 hours ago

฿30,000+ /month

Various locations


Corporate ESL Teachers

3 days, 1 hour ago

฿600+ /hour

Bangkok


Teacher - Reading Specialist

3 days, 19 hours ago

฿40,000+ /month

Bangkok


TEFL Courses & Training

Get off to a good start...

Take your course
in Thailand!

Training Directory

Featured Teachers

  • Rakhat


    Diploma

    Kazakhstan, 22 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Beverly


    MA

    Filipino, 35 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Kenneth Bryan


    Diploma

    Filipino, 28 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Robelyn


    BEd

    Filipino, 31 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Gertrude


    BA

    Kenyan, 25 years old. Currently living in Kenya

  • Jane


    BSc

    Filipino, 27 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • ROCHELLLE


    Diploma

    Filipino, 27 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • juliet


    Diploma

    Filipino, 34 years old. Currently living in Philippines

  • Philip


    BA

    British, 59 years old. Currently living in Thailand

  • Arnaud


    Diploma

    French, 39 years old. Currently living in Thailand

Sponsors

Mediakids Academy

Top TEFL job placement provider with competitive benefits and an unforgettable experience.

English Planet

To be internationally recognized as the leader in quality English language training.

Smartys

Vacancies for in-house and corporate teachers at the finest schools in Suphanburi City

Eduplus

We get you a job! Options for school placements all over Thailand

BSI Broker

Brokers for ajarn health insurance and for all your Thailand insurance needs.

Siam Computer & Language

Competitive teacher packages with benefits and bonus incentives

Kajonkietsuksa School

First bilingual school in Phuket. Vacancies for kindergarten, primary and secondary teachers.

Kasintorn St Peter School

Progressive English program school near Bangkok employing NES and Filipino teachers

Inlingua Thailand

Premier language school with many branches and corporate training.

Space available

Become an ajarn dot com sponsor

The Hot Spot


Will I find work in Thailand?

Will I find work in Thailand?

It's one of the most common questions we get e-mailed to us. So find out exactly where you stand.


Contributions welcome

Contributions welcome

If you like visiting ajarn.com and reading the content, why not get involved yourself and keep us up to date?


Teacher mistakes

Teacher mistakes

What are the most common mistakes that teachers make when they are about to embark on a teaching career in Thailand? We've got them all covered.


Renting an apartment?

Renting an apartment?

Before you go pounding the streets, check out our guide and know what to look out for.


Air your views

Air your views

Got something to say on the topic of teaching, working or living in Thailand? The Ajarn Postbox is the place. Send us your letters!


Can you hear me OK?

Can you hear me OK?

In today's modern world, the on-line interview is becoming more and more popular. How do you prepare for it?


The dreaded demo

The dreaded demo

Many schools ask for demo lessons before they hire. What should you the teacher be aware of?