Category Archives: teaching ideas

How to teach pronunciation: 5 steps

I have been teaching pronunciation to students for about 17 years or more. I’ve learnt what works and what doesn’t, especially for East Asian students, and Japanese in particular. Here are five easy steps to teach pronunciation.

Follow a routine

I cannot emphasize this enough. If you’re going to teach English, in English, you must follow a routine that your students can quickly pick up and understand easily. The routine could be a standardised lesson plan, of your own design; but it should be a routine for teaching pronunciation, another routine for teaching vocabulary, and another for teaching grammar, and so on. This way, students can understand what is happening now, what is happening next, and they can see how each step of the lesson is integrated, because they’ve become accustomed to your routines. This makes it easier for students to focus, follow, and participate positively.

The 5 Steps

Your routine for a pronunciation segment of your class would be:

  1. Introduce
  2. Demonstrate
  3. Main activity
  4. Wrap up
  5. Segue to the next activity

Step 1: Introduce

Socrates said that every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. That is, all successful narratives follow this, and it is a structure that humans can easily understand. A simple introduction could be to list some key words on the board (pictured), and elicit some features about them. The key words should be the first few moves of the main activity you will do.

  1. Do a listen and repeat drill of the words, and always, always give students time to…
  2. Rehearse the words with their partner.
Teaching two-syllable pronunciation. The blue is the list of examples, the black is the information elicited from students, and green is the explanation of the parts of the input students get.
Teaching two-syllable pronunciation. The blue is the list of examples, the black is the information elicited from students, and green is the explanation of the parts of the input students get.

Features of the input phase, as can be seen in the image, there are:

  • The first few moves included
  • Information about the pronunciation is elicited from students
  • Extra information so that students can work autonomously (with their smartphones) is included.
  • Examples and anti-examples are included. Anti-examples show what an answer would be unacceptable in the activity.

Step 2: Demonstrate

This is especially important for language learners. All students understand things better when they can see it being done; also they can understand your verbal instructions better. Simply walk through the first three moves of the activity eliciting from the students each move/step (see picture below). If it’s a pair work activity, choose a capable student to partner with you. My preferred option is to elicit the first, second, and third moves from the class, just to get them started on an activity.

Always, always, after giving a set of instructions, always, always say:

  1. “Check with your partner, what did I say?” (give half a minute for them to talk & confirm things with each other)
  2. “Do you understand?”
Example of a pronunciation activity that students would work together on.
Example of a pronunciation activity that students would work together on.

Step 3: Main activity

After eliciting the first few moves, I say, “Now continue with your partner”, and most students usually know what to do with no problems.

I prefer to use paper-based pair work activities. This way, they can see their progress, and you can see where they are going wrong. Also, working with a partner helps students have more confidence in their answers, and the social situation lightens the classroom anyway. Walk around and check to see how they are doing.

Most pronunciation activities can be repeated or reviewed in the next lesson. Simply by having students remind each other what the main point is, and “test each other”. For instance, demonstrate with a dichotomous choice question, giving yes-no, same-different, i-i:, æ-ə type of responses. For instance, “Does it have two syllables that are big-small? ‘really’ – yes, ‘zero’ – yes, ‘again’ –  no; great, now ‘test’ your partner”. This would be your demonstration, and so students can now understand what to do, and can review with each other.

Step 4: Wrap up

Simply follow these steps:

  1. elicit the answers from students / or “test” them if it’s a review
  2. Have them listen and repeat your pronunciation
  3. Give them a minute to review the pronunciation in pairs

Step 5: Segue

Some how make a link between this activity and the next. Or else say, “Next, as usual, is grammar…”. Having a segue creates a cognitive link, and a flow in the lesson. Without segues, lessons seem stop-start, or fragmented. Create some flow or continuity, so things seem smooth.

Key points

At the appropriate times, always ask these questions:

  • Do you understand?
  • Check with your partner, “what did I say?” / Summarise what I said with your partner
  • Practice together
  • Any questions?

The example above came from my own book, however, the procedure still holds well if you use a great book called Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock.

First Day activity with Kit Kats

For the first day of classes in April (the Japanese academic year starts then), teachers need a nice idea to relax the students, break the ice, and help everyone get to know each other. From talking with a colleague about how Kit Kat has taken to community service; giving people inspirational messages; how you can write your own or put your name on them; a new teaching idea evolved. If you have a stationary/research budget, you can do this.

First day activity using Kit Kats.
First day activity using Kit Kats.
  1. Before class get bags of Kit Kats
  2. Write the names of each student in your class on each Kit Kat wrapper as shown.
  3. First, practice a typical small talk or get to know you activity.
  4. Tell your class you’ll hand out Kit Kats, but do not eat them, do not open them, do not give them to anyone else. Just wait.
  5. Then in class, randomly distribute the Kit Kats so there’s one per student, but not their own.
  6. Demonstrate how to find the owner, what to say, and how to transition to small talk, and a short small talk demo.
  7. Then say, find the owner of the Kit Kat, and say “Here’s a little present for you”, and then they are to get to know each other a little. Then change, so that they have another chance to receive their own Kit Kat. Otherwise, find a new partner and get to know them, too.

End of course activity: Final messages

I first heard about this idea in the early 2000’s when I was still teaching in Taiwan. It sounded meaningful, helpful, and potentially the most important thing to come from a class; or rather, classmates. I have since lost the original text; I found it somewhere on the internet, either via email or some website. The original story went something like this:

A teacher in the 1960’s asked his class in their final week of high school to write a one-line message to each classmate. The teacher cut these into strips and reorganised them so that each student would receive all the messages intended for themselves. This was done anonymously, and with one rule: it had to be true. On the last day of classes, each student got a piece of paper with all of these anonymous messages for them. One of these students was a boy, who put his into his wallet and forgot about it. He joined the army and was sent to the Vietnam war. In amongst the horrors of war, at his lowest point in his life, when all hope seemed lost, when death could happen at any moment, with bombs, rockets, grenades, and bullets were a daily threat. He remembered his messages paper. In a lull in the fighting, he took out his paper and began to read it. He began to cry uncontrollably. All of the messages were sincere, nice, thoughtful, and full of admiration for him. He never knew how his classmates felt about him. This changed him. He gained new courage and need for life.

Today, I do something similar to this with my classes with the hope that at the student’s lowest point in their life, this paper could help them out of whatever hole he or she might find themselves in. Let’s face it, everyone will have sunny days, and dark dark nights; we all need a light in times that seem darkest.

A4 paper prepared for the Messages activity. A.Blyth 2017.
A4 paper prepared for the Messages activity. A.Blyth 2017.

When

Final day of class/course.

Time

It takes about seven minutes to set up, and allow about two minutes per student in your class, but you don’t have to complete this (read below for more on this). A class of fifteen students would need about 37 minutes.

Equipment

  • One quarter of an A4 paper per student.
  • A timer

How

Of course there are many ways to conduct these activity; this is just one possible way.

  1. Cut up clean A4 paper into quarters, so you have enough sheets for each student.
  2. Have them write their name, date, and class name on it.
  3. Pass it on. Go around to each individual student, and tell them to pass the paper onto the next person. Specify who to give it to. Organise this so that each paper will travel around the whole room to every student in turn. Clearly tell them that it is really super important that:
    • Papers never get mixed up and out of order
    • When the timer goes off they pass the paper on as soon as possible
    • Don’t have any papers pile up on one person (thereby depriving the next few people from being able to write a message)
  4. Concept check: Ask, “Talk with your partner, what do you need to do?”

Point out the rules:

Messages activity: Rules and how. A.Blyth, 2017.
Messages activity: Rules and how written on the whiteboard. A.Blyth, 2017.

The rules are:

  1. Should write something nice.
  2. It must be true.
  3. Must be anonymous.

Concept check: Anonymous.

Funnily enough, I have never had to specify that it should be in English, but students automatically write in English. This might be because in the previous lesson we do a short activity on describing their personal gains in terms of personality, achievements, and any funny or nice memories through the year. That way, they have some ideas and vocabulary to use.

First give three minutes to write something (without the owner of the paper seeing). After the timer goes off, pass the paper and write for two minutes. Then each turn thereafter is about one and half minutes. It takes a few iterations for students to get into the swing of things. They only need to write one or two sentences anyway.

After the first turn on this. Point out that most people probably wrote in the “first person” place. The second person shouldn’t write in the “second person” place, but somewhere different. Otherwise, the paper owner can count around and match the comment with the author. Instead, they should write in various places on the paper, and write on both sides.

As they are doing this, don’t read their messages, and don’t add your own. Keep an eye on how close the paper is to the owner near the end of the activity.

If you have time for each paper to go around the whole class, then you’ve done well. Ideally, it should stop at the final person before the owner. Then you say, “don’t pass it on to the owner just yet. Wait!”. It’s ok if you run out of time and finish early, as long as there’s quite a few messages to act as a sample of the class consensus.

Messages Activity: Putting the paper away. A.Blyth, 2017.
Messages Activity: Putting the paper away. A.Blyth, 2017.

Tell them they need to do four things:

  1. Take out their wallets (or smartphone with pockets in the case, like pictured).
  2. Fold the paper three times.
  3. When they receive their own paper, put it straight into their wallet, and look at it tonight. Not now; there may be tears of joy.
  4. When they pass the paper to the owner, they should say something like, “Good luck with your future. I hope this will help you.”

Before returning the papers, tell them the original story above, and the reason / motivation / purpose for this. Then let them give the paper back to the owner. The class has finished, and wish them luck with their exams and futures and to stay safe during their holidays.