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What are the benefits of tutors focusing more on pronunciation in the English classroom?

This week we are delighted to welcome guest blogger Jennie Reed from Excellence in English Education. Jennie is a coach who specializes in helping English teachers whose native language is not English to get really confident in their own pronunciation which boosts their studentsʼ confidence too.

Pronunciation is a subject we talk a lot about here at Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring, starting with the best practice of pronouncing pure sounds in phonics tutoring. So we are delighted that Jennie is giving us such an interesting insight into a vital topic in language teaching and learning.

Several teachers have asked me recently why I focus so much on pronunciation. It is not often seen as something essential in the English classroom, possibly because in state schools it is not something that is actually tested, whether in the UK or abroad. When there are so many aspects of language learning that are tested, such as reading, writing and grammar, I can understand why teachers and tutors might focus more on those. So much of school life is gearing the students up for their exams.

Another reason pronunciation is rarely, actively, taught is because so many teachers themselves were never taught the specifics of phonetics, word stress, sentence stress, connected speech, or intonation. So, often, we are unsure how to teach it. And when we do not know how to do something, this can be something we avoid doing, either because we are scared of making mistakes, or simply because we do not think about including it in our lesson planning. So we end up simply reacting to poor pronunciation, believing our students will pick up the correct pronunciation over time.

One final issue with pronunciation is the idea of having a “good enough” accent. In schools it is usual to teach a standard British (or American) accent using the IPA (international phonetic alphabet), but most British people do not speak in Received Pronunciation. In fact, 97% of people in the UK have another accent, which includes people who grew up with English as a second or as a first language. So how are we supposed to teach sounds which we do not make?

Despite all these arguments, there are some undeniable benefits to helping our learners with pronunciation skills, which we will be looking at in this article. In fact, it has been shown that focusing on pronunciation in the classroom can actually help learners with comprehension skills, as well as giving them the confidence to speak clearly.

“Scoring well on tests is the sort of happy thing that […] they crave. Understanding and appreciating the material are secondary.”― Libba Bray

Let’s start with this idea that pronunciation is not tested; do we really believe this? If you cannot understand what your student is telling you, can you assess their speaking or reading ability? By helping our pupils think about how sounds are made in our mouths; how to move our jaw, tongue and teeth, we can help them speak more clearly to be understood easily. When students are comprehensible, they are more likely to speak up when they need to. If your learners cannot understand the audio file because the person is speaking quickly, or fluently, would you consider this a good test? By giving our pupils the tools to understand some aspects of connected speech, sentence stress and intonation, we can help them become better listeners and, in time, better communicators. In this day and age of technology, you could even argue that Siri, Alexa or even Google Assistant are the perfect pronunciation test!

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”― Aristotle

Secondly, we may not have been taught English pronunciation, however, that does not mean we cannot learn about it now and include it in our own lesson plans. Teachers and tutors are constantly adapting their classroom styles for their learners, because we want to help our students get the best results possible. We can even learn along with our students, experiment with different aspects of pronunciation and find out what works for our classes. As with every aspect of teaching – not one way will work for everyone. We may make mistakes along the way, this is part of being human, but this is just another learning opportunity for us and our pupils. If we still don’t feel comfortable, because we’re unsure what activities we could include in our lessons, there are many places we can go for extra support to help us find our feet to start incorporating pronunciation into our classrooms. There are books, online blogs or courses, courses at local colleges and even discussing possible activities with our colleagues can be helpful.

“To cultivate an English accent is already a departure away from what you are.” – Sean Connery

Finally, our accents are something to be proud of and we do not need to change the way we speak in order to teach pronunciation. Embracing our accents and those of our students can be very empowering. Discussing different ways of pronouncing words can open up a realm of possibility for our learners. By being exposed to different accents, from their tutors, class audio files and online videos, our students will become better equipped to deal with the modern, multicultural world we live in. They will be able to communicate with ease and confidence. And isn’t that our goal as teachers: to help prepare our learners for life outside the classroom? So, although we should be aware of how we speak, we have no need to change it. In fact, your accent might be the key to helping your pupils feel more at ease.

So, what do you think about the benefits of incorporating more pronunciation into your classroom? Is it something you’ll think about more proactively now? If so, what is the first step you want to take in order to bring more pronunciation into your classroom?

If you are interested in any of the issues mentioned in this article, you can either check out my courses on my website here, or arrange a short call with me, Jennie, to discuss the next steps you can take to enhance your English classroom.

Since August, 2020, Jennie has been focussing on her passion, which is helping teachers, just like you. It's Jennie's mission to help teachers who have English as a second language feel so confident about English pronunciation that they include it in their own teaching practice - this is something not even all native speakers feel comfortable doing! Working with teachers across Europe, Jennie has found sharing ideas and experiences leads to a wonderful community.

Here at Jigsaw Phonics Tutoring, we highly recommend Jennie as the go to for teachers and educators who would benefit from her excellent training courses. Her website is full of advice and inspiration so head over and have a look at all the value she has to offer.

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