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Pronunciation Instruction: Forgotten?

Pronunciation Instruction: Forgotten? It has been suggested that pronunciation is the forgotten orphan of language teaching (Gilbert, 2010). This is odd, isn’t it? Pronunciation is what people notice most when speaking to a non-native speaker of any language. An L2 speaker can live without perfect grammar. If she cannot say something grammatically complex, she can use simple grammar. The same is true for vocabulary. Pronunciation, however, is a different matter. If an L2 speaker’s pronunciation is bad, nothing helps. I will go out on a limb and say it is the most important thing we, teachers, can pass on to our students.


I know this from personal experience and students know this as well, which is why they hold pronunciation practice in high esteem. Unfortunately, pronunciation does not seem to be as important to teachers as it is to students. A recent study by Grim and Sturm (2015) claims students believe pronunciation practice to be more important than their teachers do. Are teachers blind to their student’s needs? I don’t think so.


The fact is teachers have not lost interest in teaching pronunciation, As Levis and LeVelle (2010) points out, sessions about teaching pronunciation at professional conferences are routinely jammed. And, pronunciation workshops at the annual TESOL convention are consistently among the most attended professional development workshops. It is not the teachers who have lost interest, it is our profession’s infrastructure that is lacking. 


A detailed account of this disconnect is beyond the scope of this post, but the marginalization of pronunciation began with the communicative approach’s emphasis on input, which did not include work on the details of pronunciation accuracy. The idea is that the best thing to do is listen to a native-speaker speak, which seems intuitive. However, the amount of input required for such implicit learning to take place is way beyond anything most learners in an EFL situation will receive. Explicit attention to certain aspects of pronunciation is essential to teaching spoken communication, but teachers are often left with nothing but their intuitions to guide them.


Some instructors can be successful under these conditions, but most of us need help and one area our profession has failed regarding pronunciation is in teacher training. There is evidence that all teachers, native English speakers and even more non-native speaking teachers, are unsure about teaching pronunciation. As noted in Derwing and Munro (2005), instructors don’t feel sufficiently trained and so are less confident in their ability to teach pronunciation than they are teaching other areas. This lack of confidence leads to a reluctance to even try. And, our texts have not been helpful.


Levis and LeVelle (2010) analyzed the top selling textbooks and claim that “the space devoted to pronunciation was often too little to command attention.” They go on to say that in most books pronunciation exercises were presented “like garnish.” One reason for this is books used internationally, with various language groups, cannot deal with the specific problems of any one group. The result is “garnish,” activities that could be of some help to all learners but do not address the most serious pronunciation problems of any specific group.


Pronunciation research has also suffered from neglect. A survey of research in 14 top professional journals showed that over a ten-year period, from 1999-2008, pronunciation-oriented articles ranged from less than 1 percent to around seven percent of all articles published (Deng et al., 2009) and several journals went for years at a time without an article relevant to pronunciation. Is this not odd, considering the importance of pronunciation to communicative competence? Teachers who looked for research, to supplement texts with little to offer, were left with few options.


There has been improvement, however. Anecdotally, I see more pronunciation activities in texts. None are specific to the language group I teach (I am mostly forced to use books sold internationally), but at least there is an increase. And while pronunciation research once seemed to be on the way to extinction, the number of published articles has increased. Levis (2015) reports that from 2009 to 2014 the publications reviewed by Deng saw the percentage of pronunciation articles climb to being consistently around 5%. Times are changing. The number is still shockingly low, but it is moving in the right direction.


I will write more about pronunciation in subsequent posts. In the meantime, if anyone has something to say, any tips or reflections on what works and what doesn’t, leave a comment or email me: If I get enough responses, I will compile and post them. And, if someone has enough to say to fill a post, you are welcome as a guest blogger.


In an earlier post, I said I would write more about reading and phonemic awareness. I’ve been working on it. I have been reading about the cognitive demands of reading different writing systems. My next post should have something to say about that.


References Deng, J., Holtby, A., Howden-Weaver, L., Nessim, L., Nicholas, B., Nickle, K., Pannekoek, C., Stephan, S., & Sun, M. (2009). English pronunciation research: The neglected orphan of second language acquisition studies. Prairie Metropolis Centre Working Paper Series, WP05- 09, Edmonton, AB.

Dewing, T. & Munro, M. (2005). Second language accent and pronunciation teaching: A research based approach. TESOL Quarterly 39(3), 379-410)

Gilbert, J. (2010). Why has pronunciation been an orphan? IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group Newsletter, 43, 3-7

Grim, F, Sturm, J (2015) Where does pronunciation stand in the 21st century foreign language classroom? Proceedings of the 7th Annual Pronunciation In Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference.

Levis, J. (2015). Pronunciation trends across journals and the Journal of Second Language Pronunciation. The Journal of Second Language Pronunciation 1:2. DOI 10.1075/jslp.1.2.001edi

Levis, J. & LeVelle, K. (2010). Rebuilding a professional space for pronunciation. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, Iowa State University, Sept. 2009. (pp. 1-9), Ames, IA: Iowa State University. 

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