ERIC Identifier: ED427553
Publication Date: 1998-12-00
Author: Florez, MaryAnn Cunningham
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., Adjunct ERIC
Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Improving Adult ESL Learners' Pronunciation Skills. ERIC
Observations that limited pronunciation skills can undermine learners'
self-confidence, restrict social interactions, and negatively influence
estimations of a speaker's credibility and abilities are not new (Morley, 1998).
However, the current focus on communicative approaches to English as a second
language (ESL) instruction and the concern for building teamwork and
communication skills in an increasingly diverse workplace are renewing interest
in the role that pronunciation plays in adults' overall communicative
competence. As a result, pronunciation is emerging from its often marginalized
place in adult ESL instruction.
This digest reviews the current status of pronunciation instruction in adult
ESL classes. It provides an overview of the factors that influence pronunciation
mastery and suggests ways to plan and implement pronunciation instruction.
Pronunciation instruction tends to
be linked to the instructional method being used (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, &
Goodwin, 1996). In the grammar-translation method of the past, pronunciation was
almost irrelevant and therefore seldom taught. In the audio-lingual method,
learners spent hours in the language lab listening to and repeating sounds and
sound combinations. With the emergence of more holistic, communicative methods
and approaches to ESL instruction, pronunciation is addressed within the context
of real communication (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996; Morley,
FACTORS INFLUENCING PRONUNCIATION MASTERY
contributed some important data on factors that can influence the learning and
teaching of pronunciation skills. Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, (1996),
Gillette (1994), Graham (1994) and Pennington (1994) discuss the following
"Age." The debate over the impact of age on language acquisition and
specifically pronunciation is varied. Some researchers argue that, after
puberty, lateralization (the assigning of linguistic functions to the different
brain hemispheres) is completed, and adults' ability to distinguish and produce
native-like sounds is more limited. Others refer to the existence of sensitive
periods when various aspects of language acquisition occur, or to adults' need
to re-adjust existing neural networks to accommodate new sounds. Most
researchers, however, agree that adults find pronunciation more difficult than
children do and that they probably will not achieve native-like pronunciation.
Yet experiences with language learning and the ability to self-monitor, which
come with age, can offset these limitations to some degree.
"Amount and type of prior pronunciation instruction." Prior experiences with
such pronunciation instruction may influence learners' success with current
efforts. Learners at higher language proficiency levels may have developed
habitual, systematic pronunciation errors that must be identified and addressed.
"Aptitude." Individual capacity for learning languages has been debated. Some
researchers believe all learners have the same capacity to learn a second
language because they have learned a first language. Others assert that the
ability to recognize and internalize foreign sounds may be unequally developed
in different learners.
"Learner attitude and motivation." Nonlinguistic factors related to an
individual's personality and learning goals can influence achievement in
pronunciation. Attitude toward the target language, culture, and native
speakers; degree of acculturation (including exposure to and use of the target
language); personal identity issues; and motivation for learning can all support
or impede pronunciation skills development.
"Native language." Most researchers agree that the learner's first language
influences the pronunciation of the target language and is a significant factor
in accounting for foreign accents. So-called interference or negative transfer
from the first language is likely to cause errors in aspiration, intonation, and
rhythm in the target language.
The pronunciation of any one learner might be affected by a combination of
these factors. The key is to be aware of their existence so that they may be
considered in creating realistic and effective pronunciation goals and
development plans for the learners. For example, native-like pronunciation is
not likely to be a realistic goal for older learners; a learner who is a native
speaker of a tonal language, such as Vietnamese, will need assistance with
different pronunciation features than will a native Spanish speaker; and a
twenty-three year old engineer who knows he will be more respected and possibly
promoted if his pronunciation improves is likely to be responsive to direct
LANGUAGE FEATURES INVOLVED IN PRONUNCIATION
Two groups of
features are involved in pronunciation: segmentals and suprasegmentals. "Segmentals" are the basic inventory of distinctive sounds and the way that they
combine to form a spoken language. In the case of North American English, this
inventory comprises 40 "phonemes" (15 vowels and 25 consonants), which are the
basic sounds that serve to distinguish words from one another. Pronunciation
instruction has often concentrated on the mastery of segmentals through
discrimination and production of target sounds via drills consisting of minimal
pairs like /baed/-/baet/ or /sIt/-/sEt/.
"Suprasegmentals" transcend the level of individual sound production. They
extend across segmentals and are often produced unconsciously by native
speakers. Since suprasegmental elements provide crucial context and support
(they determine meaning) for segmental production, they are assuming a more
prominent place in pronunciation instruction (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, &
Goodwin, 1996; Gilbert, 1990; Morley, 1991). Suprasegmentals include the
*stress--a combination of length, loudness, and pitch applied to syllables in
a word (e.g., Happy, FOOTball);
*rhythm--the regular, patterned beat of stressed and unstressed syllables and
pauses (e.g., with weak syllables in lower case and stressed syllables in upper
case: they WANT to GO Later.);
*adjustments in connected speech--modifications of sounds within and between
words in streams of speech (e.g., "ask him," /aesk hIm/ becomes /aes kIm/);
*prominence--speaker's act of highlighting words to emphasize meaning or
intent (e.g., Give me the BLUE one. (not the yellow one); and
*intonation--the rising and falling of voice pitch across phrases and
sentences (e.g., Are you REAdy?).
INCORPORATING PRONUNCIATION IN THE CURRICULUM
programs should start by establishing long range oral communication goals and
objectives that identify pronunciation needs as well as speech functions and the
contexts in which they might occur (Morley, 1998). These goals and objectives
should be realistic, aiming for functional intelligibility (ability to make
oneself relatively easily understood), functional communicability (ability to
meet the communication needs one faces), and enhanced self-confidence in
use(Gillette, 1994; Jordan, 1992; Morley, 1998). They should result from a
careful analysis and description of the learners' needs (Jordan, 1992; Morley,
1998). This analysis should then be used to support selection and sequencing of
the pronunciation information and skills for each sub-group or proficiency level
within the larger learner group (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996).
To determine the level of emphasis to be placed on pronunciation within the
curriculum, programs need to consider certain variables specific to their
* the learners (ages, educational backgrounds, experiences with pronunciation
instruction, motivations, general English proficiency levels)
* the instructional setting (academic, workplace, English for specific
purposes, literacy, conversation, family literacy)
* institutional variables (teachers' instructional and educational
experiences, focus of curriculum, availability of pronunciation materials, class
size, availability of equipment)
* linguistic variables (learners' native languages, diversity or lack of
diversity of native languages within the group)
* methodological variables (method or approach embraced by the program)
INCORPORATING PRONUNCIATION IN INSTRUCTION
Brinton, and Goodwin (1996) propose a framework that supports a
communicative-cognitive approach to teaching pronunciation. Preceded by a
planning stage to identify learners' needs, pedagogical priorities, and
teachers' readiness to teach pronunciation, the framework for the teaching stage
of the framework offers a structure for creating effective pronunciation lessons
and activities on the sound system and other features of North American English
* description and analysis of the pronunciation feature to be targeted
(raises learner awareness of the specific feature)
* listening discrimination activities (learners listen for and practice
recognizing the targeted feature)
* controlled practice and feedback (support learner production of the feature
in a controlled context)
* guided practice and feedback (offer structured communication exercises in
which learners can produce and monitor for the targeted feature)
* communicative practice and feedback (provides opportunities for the learner
to focus on content but also get feedback on where specific pronunciation
instruction is needed).
A lesson on word stress, based on this framework, might look like the
The teacher presents a list of vocabulary items from the current lesson,
employing both correct and incorrect word stress. After discussing the words and
eliciting (if appropriate) learners' opinions on which are the correct versions,
the concept of word stress is introduced and modeled.
Learners listen for and identify stressed syllables, using sequences of nonsense
syllables of varying lengths (e.g., da-DA, da-da-DA-da).
Learners go back to the list of vocabulary items from step one and, in unison,
indicate the correct stress patterns of each word by clapping, emphasizing the
stressed syllables with louder claps. New words can be added to the list for
continued practice if necessary.
In pairs, learners take turns reading a scripted dialogue. As one learner
speaks, the other marks the stress patterns on a printed copy. Learners provide
one another with feedback on their production and discrimination.
Learners make oral presentations to the class on topics related to their current
lesson. Included in the assessment criteria for the activity are correct
production and evidence of self-monitoring of word stress.
In addition to careful planning, teachers must be responsive to learners'
needs and explore a variety of methods to help learners comprehend pronunciation
features. Useful exercises include the following:
*Have learners touch their throats to feel vibration or no vibration in sound
production, to understand voicing.
*Have learners use mirrors to see placement of tongue and lips or shape of
*Have learners use kazoos to provide reinforcement of intonation patterns.
*Have learners stretch rubber bands to illustrate lengths of vowels.
*Provide visual or auditory associations for a sound (a buzzing bee
demonstrates the pronunciation of /z/).
*Ask learners to hold up fingers to indicate numbers of syllables in words.
Pronunciation can be one of the most difficult
parts of a language for adult learners to master and one of the least favorite
topics for teachers to address in the classroom. Nevertheless, with careful
preparation and integration, pronunciation can play an important role in
supporting learners' overall communicative power.
Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D., & Goodwin, J.
(1996). "Teaching pronunciation: Reference for teachers of English to speakers
of other languages." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gilbert, J. (1990). "Pronunciation: What should we be teaching?" (ED 320 443)
Gillette, G. (1994). "On speaking terms: Practical guide to pronunciation for
ABLE/ESL teachers." Euclid, OH: Northeast ABLE Resource Center. (ED 393 323)
Graham, J. (1994). Four strategies to improve the speech of adult learners.
"TESOL Journal," 3 (3), 26-28.
Jordan, J. (1992). "Helping ESOL students to improve their pronunciation."
London: Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit. (ED 359 837)
Morley, J. (1998). Trippingly on the tongue: Putting serious
speech/pronunciation instruction back in the TESOL equation. "ESL Magazine,"
Morley, J. (1991). Pronunciation component in teaching English to speakers of
other languages. "TESOL Quarterly," 25 (3), 481-520.
Pennington, M. (1994). Recent research in L2 phonology: Implications for
practice. In J. Morley, (Ed.) "Pronunciation pedagogy and theory. New views, new
directions." pp. 92-108. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of
Other Languages. (ED 388 061)