Writing pronunciation activities – 5 things to consider

I’ve written quite a few pronunciation activities this year for a regional product (Asia). Here are a few random thoughts on the process…

Pronunciation for… what?

As Laura Patsko mentions in this interesting Pedagogy Pop-up, pronunciation is important for all skills, not just speaking.

A lot of the pronunciation stages in our materials focus on connected speech. The aim of these activities (IMO) is more to help learners decode natural speech rather than to produce a certain pronunciation feature accurately themselves. Of course, it would be nice if they could do both…

If the purpose of a pronunciation activity isn’t clearly communicated to teachers (and to learners) then this could lead to either having the wrong expectations. There is always a production element in our pronunciation activities, but accurate production of a certain feature might not be the primary aim of an activity.

What problems do the learners have?

This year I’ve been writing a regional product. I’ve taught in 3 of the 15 or so countries where the materials are used. I’ve found it’s pretty tough to address the needs of every learner with a regional product. Resources like Swan’s Learner English have been really useful for understanding common pronunciation problems faced by learners across a region. It’s always worth asking other teachers too – I’m pretty sure that our teachers have taught across the whole region between them.

Of course, it’s worth asking the learners themselves what difficulties they have, but there are practical issues. It might be hard to do this across a whole region, plus they might not actually know what they have difficulties with!

What problems are most important to address?

Swan’s Learner English highlights these typical errors (at a segmental level) for various learners in my region:

  • Confusion between /æ/ and /e/ (South Asian languages, Korea)
  • Conflation of /æ/ and /e/ into /e:/ (Malay)
  • Issues with long/short vowels (Korea, Thailand)
  • Noticeable lip rounding for /ɒ/ (Malay)

Writing an activity that addresses all these issues would be a pretty broad. Also, not all these features might cause a barrier to mutual intelligibility. According to Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core (good post here), something like long/short vowel distinction would be worth addressing. This might not be an issue for all the students in a region, but if that’s the case then teachers can opt to skip the task or replace it with something more relevant.

Do I listen to my own advice? Of course I don’t! We all make mistakes. Here’s a discrimination activity I made where I tried to address the issues above. I don’t think this made the final cut…

Explore or instruct?

An exploratory approach to phonology works well. It’s good for learners to notice features of pronunciation themselves (or maybe with a bit of guidance). However, you need to cover both angles by providing clear explanations in the teacher’s notes should learners require explicit instruction or more support. That doesn’t just apply to pronunciation activities…

 Example exploratory task

What about the teachers?

I know that some of our teachers are less comfortable teaching pronunciation. Giving clear procedural details in teachers notes helps with this, as does providing links which will help teachers develop their subject knowledge. I also highlight whether a pronunciation activity addresses a specific problem for a group of learners in our region, as opposed to a more general feature of pronunciation. That way, teachers will develop their knowledge of the typical problems our learners encounter.

Some expert advice…

I saw on Facebook that ELT Teacher 2 Writer are bringing out a new book – ‘How to Write Pronunciation Activities’. The authors run a good ELF Pronunciation blog (also see vid at start of post). Hopefully it will be useful for my next materials writing venture!

Example activities here are (c) British Council

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3 comments

  1. Here in Nigeria, there are error peculiarities depending on ones region.
    In Southwest Nigeria, that is the Yoruba speaking people, we have the error of /h/. Many times, the /h/ sound is not made in words like ‘happy’ but it is used where it is absolutely not needed such as ‘hour’ instead of ‘our’, ‘hunder’ instead of ‘under’. In the Northern region of the country, /f/ and /p/ is also confused. How does one teach pronunciation to reduce this errors?

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    1. Hi Bimpe, cheers for your comment! I think this is the first time I’ve had a comment from someone in Nigeria – welcome!
      These are interesting examples you bring up, but would you class them all as errors? The /h/-fronting (I’m guessing it would be called something like that, right?!) seems unusual at first, but does it hinder intelligibility? If it does then I guess it’s something to address, but if not then it might just be variation? Tough to say, I don’t know the context at all!
      I’d say dropping the /h/ sound is an accepted variation and pretty common where I’m from (southern England).
      The /f/ and /p/ confusion does sound problematic though. Do the languages in the Northern regions of the country use both these sounds? If not then I guess focusing on the mechanics of producing both sounds might be a starting point. They have a different manner and place of articulation so are quite distinct (well, that’s easy for me to say I guess!). Mechanics, discrimination tasks to notice the difference, this type of thing might help.
      Sorry I can’t help more, just giving my opinion basically! Would love to know more about your context – are you a teacher in Nigeria?

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      1. Hi Peter, no, I’m not a teacher yet but I hope to become one. I’m a broadcaster in Lagos. The ‘errors’ are mainly mispronunciations that are affected by each region’s dialect or language. The Hausa language does not have ‘p’ in its alphabets while the Yoruba language has ‘h’ but it’s not pronounced /h/ like the English consonant.

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