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.

World Teachers Day

It’s World Teacher’s Day every year on the 5th October (Wikipedia, World Teacher’s Day.Org). The day in which we don’t necessarily celebrate teachers, but instead, promote education. Fight ignorance and superstition with facts, knowledge, and rational thought. Teach and learn how to sense, analyse, think, and communicate.

We will ensure that teachers and educators are empowered, adequately recruited, well-trained, professionally qualified, motivated and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems. ... Incheon Declaration, World Education Forum, 2015 (UNESCO).

World Teachers Day, Nelson Mandela quote.

World Teachers Day, Nelson Mandela quote. Image from,

The difference between successful and unsuccessful students

I have taught with top-ranked and low-ranked universities in Japan. I have taught the best and worst of students. I have taught in five different countries in Europe, Australasia, and the Far East. I have taught for all of this century so far, and so I have noticed some differences between successful and unsuccessful students. Here is a list of differences I have seen; a list you could learn from.

People meeting, by Eric Bailey 2014, CC

People meeting, by Eric Bailey 2014, CC

Successful students:

  1. Ask questions. If they don’t know, they can’t learn, or they can’t complete a task.
  2. Have colours. Their pencil case has many different coloured pens and highlighters. They all the main stationary supplies with them.
  3. They have the book, or a copy of the book. Even if they didn’t buy the textbook, or forgot it, they still bring their own photocopy to class.
  4. Are organised. They plan and organise their schedules so they have time to do homework, do assignments, and study. They are almost never late with submitting work. If there is a problem, they ask for help.
  5. Don’t have or don’t overdo part-time work. They focus on their university success. So they rarely come to class sleepy or exhausted.
  6. Work with others and learn together.
  7. Can use technology (computers especially, see essential tech tools for students).
  8. They read.
  9. They learn how to study. Simply reading a book isn’t enough. You need to know your learning style, and then how to use that (see Multiple Intelligences).
  10. They love learning. They want to know more. They ask questions.

Unsuccessful students:

  1. Forget everything. Their books, their pencil case, their handouts, everything.
  2. Never ask questions. They assume everything they need to know is given by the teacher. They don’t take responsibility for their learning.
  3. Have to borrow a pen or pencil.
  4. Are late to class.
  5. Ask to go to the toilet at the start of class (most of us stop this at age 8).
  6. Work part-time jobs until late at night, and so they
  7. Sleep in class.
  8. Their part-time jobs stop them from studying, doing homework, and passing classes.
  9. Work alone.


Which do you want to be, successful or unsuccessful? How habits do you have from the successful list?

Teaching doesn’t equal learning: Global experts urge end of Japans rote learning culture

Japan has long been criticised for its poor education system, where there is an emphasis not on learning, but on passing tests. The purpose of education is to give knowledge and skills to people for their future. A British educator here in Nagoya notes that his university students lack general knowledge about the world. They might have passed tests, but still lack intellectual abilities required for academic success (McLellan, Japan Times, 2016). Education does not mean the sole ability to pass tests; it means the ability to think, learn, and adapt to a future we cannot imagine (Robinson, TED, 2006). Consequently, the Global Teacher Prize, the Nobel Prize equivalent in education, has criticised Japan for its rote learning culture (Japan Times, 2016). A quick search on the Japan Times website reveals years of criticism, but with no change in sight (Japan Times, Search).

People coffee team meeting. CC, 2014.

People coffee team meeting. CC, 2014.

I would bet that most Japanese people would wonder why this photo above was included in this post. It would seem irrelevant, but I assure you it is exactly the right photo to include.

Ultimately, students themselves are responsible for their learning, however, they still need guidance on what is appropriate and what is not. Here the responsibility of the teacher is to provide appropriate means for students to learn. In a sense, the job title, “teacher”, is antiquated. Perhaps titles like “learning facilitator” or “mentor”, or anything similar is more appropriate. The term “teacher” implies that one person stands at the front of the room talking, and students do nothing but listen; however, this does mean that students learn. This manner of instruction is called lecturing, and it is one of the worst or most ineffective forms of learning for students. Instead, students should be active, involved, and collaborating, hence the term “learning facilitator”. The concept of facilitating student learning is not new, and I did not invent it. The idea traces its origins to Lev Vygotsky, probably the father of education psychology, who realised that near-peer and collaborative learning is the most effective form of learning.

People meeting, by Eric Bailey 2014, CC

People meeting, by Eric Bailey 2014, CC

What do I do in my classes? I give students reading materials that act as knowledge input. Students are given thinking and communication skills, and then they discuss the articles they read. That is to say, students do the reading, thinking, discussing, and learning. I provide the input and impetus. If students want to learn, they will. If students do not want to, they wont. However, the social environment in my classes makes it impossible for students to avoid participating and learning. It is a system that seems to work well, especially as students learn more about the world, and their communicative abilities improve a lot.

Are Japan’s universities competitive?

According this this article by Kariya Takehiko on Nippon.Com the short answer is ‘no’. Why? Because Japan’s universities are trying to compete with Western universities, by trying to be like Western universities. She also tries to define what  is meant by “competitiveness”, which includes competing for the most talented students and teaching staff and researchers. I agree that Japan’s universities should specialise in what they do best, and that they need to be far more transparent and inclusive internationally speaking. However, she seems to miss the mark on some points.

Photo CC from ZeLIG School, at

Photo CC from ZeLIG School, at

Mainly for staff and researchers, the future looks grim. With a diminishing student population, it’s obvious that a fickle money-minded management system is going to cut salaries, and introduce worse employment conditions than what many are already experiencing. The year to year contract system, and mad scramble for classes creates insecurity. The reliance on part-time teaching staff prevents job security and prevents them from being able to invest in their own futures, as getting loans and employment visas are quite difficult. In my city, already, both full time and part time salaries are dropping. So, when my own contract is up, and there’s no prospect of renewal, am I going to bother looking for work here in Japan? Maybe. But my job field and qualifications means that other than the other countries I’ve already worked in, Korea, Taiwan, the UK, and Australia, I can consider others. I can also get well-paid work, with good conditions in Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, and other places.

Within Japan, there is the acceptance that students coast their way through university. Their work ethic is nothing like that of students in British universities. Here in Japan, I teach undergraduates from the UK on an exchange programme. Their motivation to try and achieve is unbelievably much, much higher than their same-aged Japanese counterparts. I cannot imagine that Japanese students will come out the other end of four years study being somehow of the same quality as British students. If a young Japanese person actually wants a quality education experience, they know that Western universities are genuine in their education attempts, and that a higher standard of work is required to achieve a passing grade.

In all, I agree with what Ms. Takehiko says, but also issues of working conditions for educators and researchers needs improvement. Also, a shift to focus on quality education, too. These two aspects are vital for Japan’s attempt at being seen as a real education destination.

Philosophy of education

Ever since I attended my first philosophy class as a professional notetaker in England, I’ve been hooked on the subject. In many ways, I wish I had studied philosophy as an undergrad, but I don’t think I would have had the maturity to understand it, or articulate responses. A recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast looks at a very core, central, but unattended topic, the philosophy of education. As Sir Ken Robinson famously put, everybody has an opinion on it, because it affects us all.

Today, education seems to be direction-less, as it’s being pulled into too many directions. Education attempts to be forward looking, creating children into the image of an idealised future society we hope for, whilst at the same time, there are many people who don’t like change, and want to take education to the past with a “back to basics” notion. Then there is also a shift to regulate the quality of education by focusing on exam results, creating an exam washback, where the exam system becomes geared to quantitative results. Such a system does not qualitatively care for the child, but is concerned about population data instead.

More can be written, but this is just the introduction to these three great sources of inspiration for all teachers, novice, experienced, and expert to consider. The first is an audio file (podcast) from Philosophy Bites, of an interview with Meira Levinson. The second is the renowned TED speaker Sir Ken Robinson and his now famous How Schools Kill Creativity talk. The third and final is an unusual choice, a talk by Malcolm McLaren at an education conference. McLaren is famous for opening a clothing store with his then girlfriend Vivien Westwood, and for being the creator and manager of the punk rock band the Sex Pistols. He talks about education as a system of creating clones, rather than independent and creative thinkers. These three talks nicely complement each other, whilst not overlapping either. Please bookmark this page, and come back to it to see the others as time allows.

Students and work ethic

I’ve had a problem for many years, and it’s one that many university educators are similarly perplexed by, too. Why is it that our students are more willing to work part-time jobs until 1am in the morning, then come to our classes and believe that they can sleep? I tell my students to either be awake and be present, or be marked absent, even if they are physically in the room, though asleep.

The answer came to me in a podcast by Lauri Taylor a sociologist who presents the Thinking Allowed programme on BBC Radio 4. In one of his weekly programmes titled, “Baristas; People’s History” he interviews an American researcher, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, who wondered why on an exceptionally snowy day her class was empty, yet the local franchise café was very well staffed… by the university students. Her subsequent research seemed to explain everything, even though her research was limited to the north-east side of the US, it still seems to apply here in Japan, too.

Young staff in prestigious brand stores are often more loyal than to their uni classes

Young staff in prestigious brand stores are often more loyal than to their uni classes

Brands (or rather, companies), like Starbucks have an exceptional brand image which seems to be the main attraction. The staff are predominately middle-class or aspiring middle-class. Their physical appearance suggests an affluence both financial and cultural. They appear to enjoy their jobs, too. However, the salary is low, there are no benefits like medical, health, maternity leave, and such, the hours are long, and the work is hard (I’ve done this kind of work, and it’s really quite taxing on the body). And did I mention the low salary that these affluent middle-class kids would be getting. They apparently don’t actually need the money, but the company has a preference for such people, despite the lower and working class students actually needing these jobs. So the question remains, why do young affluent people who don’t need the money so much, do this hard work?

The answer is that that’s where their friends are. It’s a social atmosphere for them. They say that they are needed there, unlike in our classrooms. This morning it rang particularly true, when in one such franchise café the staff seemed genuinely happy about their lot in life. They didn’t give me an airline hostess type of smile, but a genuine one. They had energy, and they happily coordinated with each other. They seemed to enjoy their jobs. I’ve had a sense that I’ve been competing against part-time work in my classes, and I think I’ve started to find a winning formula, but I have never really understood why it would be a winning formula. I’ve learnt to make my classes a social atmosphere, and include more pair and group work. And in a Scott Thornbury way of thinking, value the students themselves and their personal contributions to the class. It’s actually quite simple. I get them to do just five minutes of small talk at the start of each lesson. I give them some prompts, some structure, and some ideas of answers and how to proceed with extended answers. I also have students to think about and engage with social issues that they, as future leaders of society, would need to be engaging with. So now, I have a much better idea of what’s happening, why, and so now I can fine tune my approach. What is needed though is specific research here in Japan with our students. However, I wonder if this affects everyone in Japan and other countries, too.