In this blog post, Jonathan Marks explores the writing of materials designed to teach pronunciation.

Coursebooks are a powerful influence on teachers’ professional awareness and practice – even, perhaps, for a lot of teachers, the most powerful agent of teacher training. Faced with the day-to-day demands of their work, teachers understandably tend to rely on a coursebook as a short-cut to making decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. Recent years have seen an upsurge in the publishing of supplementary materials for pronunciation work, but as far as coursebooks are concerned there’s still a long way to go.

A paradox of the communicative approach propagated from the late 1970s onwards is that in downplaying the importance of ‘accuracy’ in general (as opposed to ‘fluency’), it somehow overlooked the fact that pronunciation is an immediate barrier to communication unless it’s characterised by a certain degree of accuracy. Accuracy is defined in terms of conformity to some recognised, or at least recognisable, system – ‘recognised’ in the sense of standard, codified, widely-circulated, and ‘recognisable’ in the sense that listeners can tune in and perceive systematicity even if the details of the system are initially unfamiliar.

For example, the teacher’s book for Studying Strategies (1982), the upper-intermediate level of the trail-blazing Strategies series, has only this to say about pronunciation: ‘Obviously, the recorded models provided on the accompanying cassette are invaluable for developing accuracy in stress and pronunciation.’ Similarly, the teacher’s book for Meanings into Words Intermediate (1983) states: ‘The course does not contain any formal teaching of pronunciation or intonation. However, students are given plenty of exposure to spoken English in the form of listening comprehension passages, listening models, recorded examples and the drills.’ It continues: ‘It is assumed that teachers can deal with any particular pronunciation and intonation problems as they arise.’ Such faith in teachers’ abilities was, and is, certainly misplaced.

Do present-day coursebooks do better when it comes to dealing with pronunciation? Well, yes, to some extent, but they could still do a lot better.
During a lesson, a need for a particular focus on pronunciation can arise in three ways:

  1. It can emerge from the ongoing classroom discourse. Example A: A geographical name (Kiev, Haiti, Tehran ….) has turned up in the day’s news, and the class want to know how to pronounce it in English.Example B: In a discussion activity, the words ‘honest’ and ‘honesty’ become important and used repeatedly, and the learners consistently pronounce them with an initial /h/, so the teacher decides to intervene and establish an /h/-less pronunciation.Example A is unpredictable, so teaching materials can’t make any specific provision for it. Example B might be predictable to some extent, and the words ‘honest’ and ‘honesty’ might have been previously introduced and practised, but they might also emerge unexpectedly.
  2. It can be prompted by a persistent difficulty the learners are having during a course with a broader aspect of pronunciation, such as linking words together, contrastive stress, long sequences of unstressed syllables at the end of a tone unit, consonant clusters or the distinction between /p/ and /b/. Some teachers will be able to produce their own practice activities to work on the problem; others will want to search through printed and online pronunciation resources to find something suitable.
  3. It can be directly related to a language point which is being introduced or practised. Here are a few examples:
  • weak forms of ‘as’ and ‘than’ in comparatives;
  • differing stress in members of a word family (e.g. PHOto, phoTOgrapher, photoGRAphic)
  • stress shift (e.g. THIRteen PEOple vs. NUMber thirTEEN, AMnesty interNAtional vs. INternational reLAtions);
  • differing intonation structure in defining and non-defining relative clauses;
  • a fall-rise for backgrounding or given information followed by a fall for new or highlighted information in conditionals, in past continuous + past simple structures, etc.; and
  • stress and intonation of idioms (some idioms, e.g. ‘You must be joking!’ or ‘He’s got a chip on his shoulder’, have characteristic patterns without which they don’t quite ‘work’).

Ideally, such pronunciation aspects as the ones listed under category 3 above should be included as an integral part of the presentation of language points in coursebooks. And to some extent they are, but I think there’s still a lot more scope for coursebooks to offer learners guidance in how to pronounce new language.

When I observe language-focus lessons I often see teachers including a ‘pronunciation stage’, which generally includes some analysis, modelling and drilling, and which is useful to some extent, but which often tends to suffer from some or all of the following drawbacks:

  • It comes too late in the lesson and is dissociated from the initial introduction of the language point.
  • It gets curtailed (or even omitted completely!) owing to lack of time.
  • It’s done rather half-heartedly, the learners don’t really get sufficient opportunity to practise and improve, and the teacher isn’t sufficiently demanding or critical of their efforts.
  • The teacher doesn’t really have any methodology for helping the learners to improve beyond listen and repeat, and repeat again, and again …
  • The information and models given by teachers aren’t always entirely accurate.
  • It contradicts what’s already been done in the lesson, and the learners think, perhaps, ‘We’ve been saying these sentences for quarter of an hour, and now we’re suddenly supposed to say them with contractions, or weak forms, or linking …’

If coursebooks were more consistent in integrating pronunciation into other work, perhaps teachers would be less willing to be satisfied if learners can merely produce the right words in the right order, and perhaps they would have higher expectations of the quality of learners’ pronunciation.

And perhaps learners would feel an enhanced sense of confidence in their spoken English.

What are your experiences of writing pronunciation material for publication? How do you think coursebooks can most effectively deal with pronunciation?

Jonathan Marks is a teacher trainer, translator and writer based in Poland. He has also worked in the UK, Germany and Sweden. His publications include Inside Teaching (Macmillan), English Pronunciation in Use Elementary (CUP) and The Book of Pronunciation (Delta Publishing). He has also contributed to coursebooks, monolingual and bilingual dictionaries and online teacher training courses.

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