Your highly-motivated student is eager to talk and capitalizes on every opportunity to speak. The problem? You can’t understand what she says. Bigger problem? Neither can the rest of your class! Time to tackle English pronunciation challenges!
The Otherwise Perfect Student No One Understood
“Shimin,” a 19-year-old, started in our lowest level class, but it took only an hour or so to realize that his biggest challenge was going to be his accent. Unlike our other Chinese student, Shimin DEVOURED everything I threw at him. He loved grammar. He loved vocabulary. Shimin loved listening exercises. He loved reading and writing. However, also unlike Zhang, speaking was a different story. Shimin’s accent made his English incomprehensible to me as well as his classmates. He and Zhang came from different regions of China and spoke different dialects. Zhang’s dialect happened to use sounds more similar to English sounds than Shimin’s dialect, making English pronunciation easier for him.
How can we help students overcome strong accents to improve their pronunciation?
Shimin was a bit unique in that he didn’t have just a few sounds that were difficult for him. He struggled to wrap his tongue around the sound of English itself. This meant that all of my usual resources I turned to when I had a student with English pronunciation difficulties were of no help. Instead, I did this:
- I gave him one-on-one intensive practice every spare moment we could find. He always finished all his work way ahead of his classmates, so I would sit next to him and have him READ his assignments to me. I would say a sentence, tapping out the rhythm on his desk as I said the words, and then he would repeat it. Sometimes I had to break the sentence down further into word chunks so he could get through the sentence, but we kept at it.
- Whenever possible, I’d record myself reading whatever he’d written in his notebook and then send him the audio so he could listen to it and practice at home.
- I encouraged him to WRITE what he wanted to say and then show it to his classmates, BUT STILL say it to them. They would often correct him and make him repeat it until they could make out what he was saying.
- I made him “interview” students in other classes. I’d have him write questions using either the vocabulary he was studying or the grammar structures he was learning, and then go to another class and interview another student. (There are always students who finish early—they are perfect for this!)
As his accent became less severe, I gave him lists of minimal pairs to practice, targeting the sounds he struggled with the most.
Gaining Control of the Strength of an Accent
I still remember the day I was conversing with him when I suddenly realized I WAS HAVING A CONVERSATION WITH HIM! We were talking with no paper or pencil involved. Understanding him hadn’t become easy yet, but it was now possible with his improvement in his English pronunciation. He also proudly reported that he was now able to interpret for his mother.
Shimin became the class tutor. With his accent more under his control, he was able to share his strong skills in everything else to help his classmates improve their own weak areas.
Drop me a line to tell me about one of your favorite strategies for helping a student improve his pronunciation.
English Pronunciation Freebie Alert!
The unvoiced th sound was one of the obstacles Shimin overcame. Click the image below to sign up to grab a set of th/t and th/s minimal pair flashcards to use with your students and help them master the tricky θ sound. You’ll also get on the list for future freebies, as well as get the password to my Freebie Library!