Getting a class full of students with varied first language backgrounds is a dream come true, but not when you’re teaching pronunciation. If it’s a grammar or vocabulary class, they all have to make a greater effort to understand and be understood by each other. They can’t just revert to their first language. So, usually, I LOVE super-diverse classes.
Diverse classes aren’t such a blessing when teaching pronunciation.
I LOVED having classes with all Saudi students, for example. I knew exactly what their pronunciation difficulties were, and I could target them specifically. This wasn’t true when my classroom was filled with students who spoke Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, French, Japanese, and Russian. (But oh my! The discussions we had!)
Although I wasn’t teaching pronunciation in grammar class, they needed it. With that many different first languages, spending five minutes of every class targeting a sound was out. Everyone was NOT going to feel like they were getting something from it. Instead of trying to do it all, delegate!
Tip 1: Put YouTube Teachers to Work for You
I started creating lists of YouTube links for videos that targeting specific sounds. Then I gave specific lists to specific students. They would watch and practice at home. I always knew who was using the videos and who wasn’t. No, it wasn’t always because of an immediate improvement in their pronunciation. Almost everyone who practiced with the videos started slowing down. They tried to say the sound correctly instead of just speeding up and hoping no one would notice.
Now, my favorite YouTube pronunciation teachers don’t focus exclusively on pronunciation. However, you can run a search on their page for a particular sound. They probably have a video on it. Sometimes teaching pronunciation involves a little delegating. These were my go-to channels whenever I needed a particular sound covered:
All the Students Speak the Same First Language
Your YouTube co-teachers can lift a lot of weight off your shoulders when you have to meet the needs of students of many language backgrounds. For many teachers, a variety of first languages tell the story of their classes, but maybe that’s not your classroom. If all your students share the same first language, you can probably provide all the practice they need by yourself. Implement that age-old technique of repetition. It’s vital for teaching pronunciation.
Repetition’s Bad Rep
Repetition, while not glamorous, is crucial when it comes to reducing an accent. We usually associate doing something over and over again with boredom. However, students need to hear a sound many, many times. They need to have MANY chances to reproduce it before it becomes natural to them. Sometimes it’ll never become natural, and instead, they have to shoot for “possible”.
Tip 2: Hold Pronunciation Workshops
The necessity for repetition is one reason I started to tackle sounds mostly two at a time. When I knew I would have a bunch of Arabic speakers, I knew which sounds would be problematic. They would not be the same ones as a group of Vietnamese or Spanish speakers would struggle with. Targeting specific sounds and focusing entirely on them produced a highly intensive pronunciation workshop type of class. This tended to get faster results with more staying power.
Try it. Choose ONE pronunciation difficulty your students have and tackle it from every angle you can. Drill, drill, drill, and DRILL them on the sound. Yes, repetition is not glamorous, but it CAN be effective. You can even have them listen and repeat the sound set to a currently popular song.
Pronunciation lessons aren’t just about speaking.
Remember that the drills don’t have to be all oral ones. Hearing the sounds making producing the sounds easier, so check to see if they can even hear them. Again, this is where minimal pairs come in handy. Try doing a quick spelling quiz to see if they can hear the sound before drilling them on the sound’s production. Drill them with same/different pairs. To do this, get or make a list of minimal pairs for the sounds you want to work with. Then write them in another list. This time, have some of them as minimal pairs and some as same word pairs. For example, fan/van, ferry/ferry, vine/fine, wave/wave. The students indicate whether you just said two words with the same sound or with different sounds. Use listening labyrinths.
Of course, almost any activity for listening can be transformed into a speaking one. Just pair up the students and have one student do the speaking and the other do the listening.
Pronunciation/Accent IS Important
I’ve had co-workers who believe so strongly in preserving accents that they never even correct a student’s mispronunciation of a word. I think this is a mistake. Whether we’re working in conjunction with YouTube teachers or alone, we owe it to students to help them communicate in a way that ensures people see them for who they want to be seen as.
I first learned Saudis have difficulties with vowel sounds during a vocabulary lesson. A new student loudly and enthusiastically yelled out “seks” to identify the socks pictured on the clothing digital presentation. When his friends told him what it sounded like he’d said, he was so embarrassed he skipped the next three days. It took a lot of persuasion to get him back into class.
He later acknowledged being grateful that he’d made that mistake in English class rather than at university or out in the community. While they may never acquire native-like pronunciation and most likely not need it (depending on their goals), we can and should help them speak clearly enough for any social or professional setting they might find themselves in. So, don’t shy away from helping them control their pronunciation/accent.
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