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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Help ELLs Learn Pronunciation

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 18, 2016 18 min read
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The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What should I do to make my English Language Learners want to learn good pronunciation? And how do I correct students’ pronunciation without hurting their feeling or making them embarrassed?

This post features responses from Wendi Pillars, Paul Boyd-Batstone, Ivannia Soto, Judie Haynes, Diane Mora, Eugenia Mora-Flores, and from many readers.

You might also be interested in resources I’ve collected at The Best Websites For Learning English Pronunciation.

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars has been teaching students with English as a second/foreign language needs in grades K-12, both stateside and overseas, for 19 years. She has also taught Algebra, History, vocational classes, and Health, and PE. A lifelong learner, she loves using creativity to empower her students. She is the author of Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher’s Guide to Student Creativity. Read her guidance on speaking standards and the Common Core here:

Not all ELLs are outgoing, nor are they all shy, and learning preferences among cultures will manifest themselves differently among individuals. Love what each student brings to your classroom and the opportunities to rethink your typical routines.

Here are 10 ideas to draw out your learners:

  1. Talk to your students, and correct pronunciation by positive modeling: Greet them at the door. Walk around the room and talk to them on a personal level. Learn about their abilities as you learn more about their interests and home life. You’ll find it much easier to add tidbits, imagery, etc. into your lesson plans and further encourage participation.
  2. Humor: Learning a few words or phrases in your students’ languages and interspersing them throughout your day shows that you care, that you are learning, too, and that you respect them on multiple levels. Tongue twisters are a fun warm-up and a great linguistic equalizer--who CAN get these right?
  3. Games: Simple games like bingo can include single words, phrases, definitions, and more. Listening is a huge part of accurate pronunciation. Invite students to call out the words; their peers may be stricter about their pronunciation than you are!
  4. Linguistics: Talk about the history of language and words, and how their pronunciation has evolved over time. Also note different pronunciations of the same words in varied countries where English is an official language, such as Kenya, Scotland, or New Zealand, to acknowledge the rich variance.
  5. Multisensory: Songs are unparalleled for pronunciation practice--and just plain fun. Activities that include building, creating, cooking, and using imagery also provide a focus and purpose to use specific vocabulary, sequences, and collaboration, with tons of built-in motivation.
  6. Test-drive: Practicing pronunciation in a smaller group or pair feels much safer and more “comforting” to students than being called out in front of the whole class to answer questions cold. Working in small groups gives students time to process and produce.
  7. Timing: Wait time is crucial. Don’t try to finish students’ sentences or words for them. Let their brains process what they want to say and how, then be patient. Be aware of your body language as you wait. Inviting nods and smiles are more encouraging than frowns and crossed arms.
  8. Vocabulary: Don’t go crazy trying to correct every single word. Instead, focus on specific vocabulary words that are most important to the content, activity, or project at hand. Provide scaffolded sentences so students can focus on pronunciation instead of trying to piece it all together.
  9. Audiences: Building confidence through the above means, and allowing students to just get used to using to the language over time, will all lead to them having the confidence to create and perform increasingly complex presentations, short videos, and recordings. The more visitors you can invite, the better--whether virtual (Skype/ Hangout) or personal visits. Hold expectations for a minimum number of comments or questions per student to encourage their listening and speaking. An authentic audience is one of the greatest motivators my students have encountered.
  10. But of all the strategies above, the number one way to increase your students’ desire to improve their pronunciation is to talk with them. Period. The more you relate to students and talk with them, the greater their confidence and motivation.

Response From Paul Boyd-Batstone

Dr. Paul Boyd-Batstone is Chair of the Department of Teacher Education at California State University, Long Beach. He has worked in public education for almost 30 years as a bilingual teacher, reading and language specialist, and professor of language arts and literacy. He has write five books in the field including his most recent book, Helping English language learners meet the Common Core: Assessment and instructional strategies. Eye on Education (2013).

Teaching pronunciation to improve oral communication is supported by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). To build motivation and confidence with English language learners as you teach pronunciation, use pocket mirrors, touch, paper, drama, and song.

Use pocket mirrors. Contrary to conventional wisdom, good pronunciation is initiated by sight and feel first. Trying to get an ELL to hear how a word should be pronounced is an inefficient approach. For example, a Spanish speaker will not hear the difference between /b/ and /v/ in English because, in Spanish, the letters are formed in the mouth the same way. Unlike English, the Spanish speaker will put both lips together to say /b/ and /v/. Therefore, give ELLs small pocket mirrors so that they can see the difference as their lips come together to form /b/, and as they rest their top teeth on the bottom lip to form /v/. Seeing the difference teaches clear pronunciation.

Use touch. So how do you show the difference between /b/ and /p/ which are formed in the mouth the same way? Use the mirror again to show the lips coming together, but this time ask the ELL to touch their own throat, or larynx, to feel the buzzing, or voiced, /b/ and the whispered, or voiceless, /p/. They do the same to compare a buzzing /v/ and the whispered /f/. Once they see and feel the differences, they can hear the differences.

Use paper. Something special about native English speakers is that we like popping our consonants. We push a lot of air out of our mouths as we speak. If you don’t believe me, listen to a Stephen Sondheim song sung by a theater performer. Pay close attention to the amount of air that is being forced out of the singer’s mouth as they pronounce each word of the song lyrics. In contrast, speakers of many other languages do not push out so much air when they pronounce consonants. In order to help students push out more air, give them a small piece of paper. Tell them to hold the paper in front of their mouths and say, “Push the paper.” Their task is to push out enough air to make the paper move. At first, the paper will remain still, but after a while they will get the feel for pushing out more air as they speak. They will then realize how to pronounce English more like a native speaker.

Use drama. There is no better way to instill motivation and confidence in ELLs regarding pronunciation than to give them part in a skit or play. Think of what they need to do. They have a few lines that need to be memorized and rehearsed for accuracy, timing, diction, and volume. The repetition builds fluency in the language and the public performance is a means to motivate and affirm good pronunciation. Keep the parts small at first; but insist on good pronunciation when the lines are spoken.

Sing songs. Singing songs provide an affirming environment to address pronunciation. I always keep a guitar or ukulele at the ready; but many teachers prefer karaoke-style sing-a-longs. Consider singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. It makes you laugh as you try to pronounce the Zulu word for lion “Mbube,” which later has been Anglicized to “Wimaweh.” Use a mirror to show how to form sounds in the mouth. Encourage students to feel the voice and voiceless sounds of different words in the lyrics. Have them try to push the paper as they sing. Identify which sounds really push the paper and which do not.

Build motivation and confidence with simple tools like mirrors and paper, drama and song. Laugh as you teach; we are funny bunch of English speakers.

Response From Ivannia Soto

Ivannia Soto is an Associate Professor of Education at Whittier College, where she is department chair and specializes in Second Language Acquisition. She has written two books for Corwin Press on ELLs--The Literacy Gaps and ELL Shadowing as a Catalyst for Change--and has a forthcoming book on the linkage between academic oral language development and the writing demands of the CCSS:

It is a careful balance determining when and how to address language issues with ELLs. If not addressed, however, those mispronunciations can fossilize and ELLs will continue to use them in both spoken and written language. The following are three ways to address language mispronunciations in a sensitive and respectful manner:

1) Encouragement and a culture of language risks--Since ELLs spend less than 2% of their school day producing academic language, it is important that they not feel shamed regarding mispronunciations. Instead, teachers can focus on the language assets that ELLs do have and bring to the classroom, including their primary language. Teachers and students can also together create norms for language expectations, which will assist with creating a culture of language risks. Such norms might include: 1) Be patient with each other; and 2) Never make fun of each other. Teachers can also encourage ELLs when they do take language risks by openly affirming and praising them.

2) Recasting--Recasting, or restating in academic terms what an ELL has said, allows for sensitively addressing language mispronunciations. Choosing when to restate a response, however, is just as important as restating. Teachers should not try to save a student who is struggling with language. Instead, the teacher can encourage the ELL to continue, or have them work with a more proficient partner. The teacher should also only fully recast a response once the student has had ample time to practice the language set him or herself, so that ELLs are doing the language work.

3) Contrastive analysis--this is a linguistic tool that should be used only in a smaller or one-on-one group setting when language issues or inversions arise. For example, if an ELL struggles with pronouncing very good and instead says berry good, the teacher can focus in on where in the mouth such sounds are articulated. In a private area or smaller group, the teacher can have the ELL put a mirror up to his mouth to determine where /b/ and /v/ sounds are articulated. For example, the teacher would note that the /b/ sound is bilabial, meaning that both lips are used to articulate the sound, whereas both the teeth and lips are used to pronounce /v/. This approach is very delicate and can easily become an embarrassing situation if done in front of others, so it is important to use this strategy wisely and cautiously.

Response From Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years. She is the author or co-author of 7 books, the most recent being The Essential Guide for Educating Beginning English Learners, with Debbie Zacarian:

First, the response to this question depends on the age of your students. It is my experience that young ELLs learn to pronounce words in English through the normal course of a school day when they have plenty of practice speaking English. Songs, drama games, chants and activities such as Readers’ Theater provide the sufficient repetition so that students acquire unaccented English.

Teachers should focus on communication rather than worry about pronunciation. It may be necessary for teachers to provide short lessons using sounds that are causing problems. That means that teachers need to know what sounds present challenges in the languages that their students speak.

When a sound doesn’t exist in students’ native language, it will be difficult for them to pronounce. For example, Japanese students struggle to distinguish and pronounce the “r” and “l” in English because neither of these sounds exists in their language. (Japanese has a sound that is between an “r” and “l."}. In Spanish, students may have problems distinguishing between “ch” and “sh.” Many languages have no “th” sound that is used in English. If students can’t hear the difference between “ship” and “sheep,” they will not be able to pronounce either word correctly. Students also need to understand the meaning of the minimal pairs in which the problem sound is used so that they can place the word in a meaningful context. If teachers use pictures when assisting ELLs to practice minimal pairs, it will help them use the words correctly.

What can teachers do to help the students who have difficulties with understand others and producing comprehensible language? First, I would suggest that they provide lots of practice in listening. Exercises using minimal pairs can help students hear the difference between sounds. There are many minimal pair lists and activities on the Internet. Once ELLs can distinguish one sound from another, teachers can provide activities so that particular sound can be practiced. Rhymes, chants, songs and games will help give students the necessary repetition. Older ELLs like to play games and listen to and sing songs that have the sound they are trying to remediate.

Response From Diane Mora

Diane Mora, is an ELL Instructional Specialist for the University of Missouri-KC RPDC, where she delivers best-practices in ESL instruction to numerous K-12 districts in Missouri. She also teaches adult ELLs at JoCo Adult Education in Kansas:

Strong opinions prevail on both sides of this topic. Many believe that correcting pronunciation erodes speaker confidence and should be minimal. Others would say it’s better to correct as many mispronunciations as possible to prevent bad habits from forming. One day it occurred to me that if I could teach peer feedback for writing, I could apply the concept to pronunciation, too.

I discovered that it’s actually possible to employ error correction as a means of engagement before it has a chance to be a source of embarrassment. In other words, by normalizing the expectation that it’s okay - even natural - for peers to ask each other for clarification, I set the expectation that there simply are times when we fail to understand each other. Regardless of whether it is a factor of pronunciation or not, even native English speakers are asked to repeat things as a normal part of discourse.

The first step is to teach students the following phrases and when to use them. Keep the phrases posted on an anchor chart near the front of the classroom throughout the year and revisit them frequently:

“Please repeat that.”

“Can you say that again?”

“How do you spell that?”

“Did you say...?”

Once the expectation is firmly in place that clarity is part of classroom culture, the foundation has been laid for error correction to occur spontaneously and consistently among peers without embarrassment or hurt feelings.

When carefully orchestrated into pair, small group, and whole class activities, peers can provide error correction so that “mistakes” are accepted as nothing more than a good effort. As a result, there is good-natured acceptance of the need to refine speech.

Response From Eugenia Mora-Flores

Eugenia Mora-Flores is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern California. She leads and teaches courses in the area of Literacy and Language Development. Eugenia has written four books and helped produce other products to support teachers working with English Learners, K-12:

We use language to communicate effectively. The process of learning English is complex and diverse. The age at which students learn a second language can impact the manner in which it is learned. As classroom teachers when our English learners are working hard to learn English and content simultaneously they are not conscious of the accents they are using to communicate in English. They are focusing on the real purpose for using language, to communicate their learning, their ideas, their needs and wants. As students listen to and practice learning English, they will emulate the language models that surround them. And when they are speaking to someone if they are not understood they will adjust their language to communicate effectively. Sometimes this involves the way in which they speak, pronunciation and annunciation, and at other times it is the syntax or vocabulary they use.

To support your students with their production of English, the most important thing to do is to be a role model of how to communicate with others for a variety of purposes. Teachers can recast, repeat what the student said in a more effective way, in order to be that model of English that the students copy.

I can understand the concern around why we want our students to want to learn good pronunciation. The concern over accents comes from the social implications associated with accents. If this is of interest to you take a look at the field of socio-linguistics. What we have come to experience in the world we live in is that people with accents, and different accents, might be treated differently. There is somewhat of a hierarchy of accents based on how society perceives people with accents from different language backgrounds and countries. These are socially constructed and points to the need to be more accepting of and aware of the rich diverse country we live in. What we need to do is to educate society as a whole about the real purpose of language and the complexities and benefits of being bilingual or trilingual. If we can begin to accept diversity, including language diversity, we can begin to look more deeply at what people are saying as opposed to how they are saying it.

Responses From Readers


Please do not correct students’ mispronunciation of English words. Instead, hold daily “round-robin” exercises that give students pronunciation practice without embarrassment. In such an exercise the teacher starts by making a statement and asking a question with hard to pronounce words in it, such as, " I had Scrambled eggs for breakfast this morning. What did you have for breakfast?” One by one students reply by repeating the teacher’s statement and question to the next person. As students become familiar with this type of exercise they can use the teacher’s structure but substitute the words they have been working on. Ultimately, they will be able to fill in this type of structure with longer and more original answers: I went to visit my grandmother last Saturday. What did you do on Saturday?

Judith Dubois:

A student’s pronunciation is as good as their desire to identify with native speakers. There is no need to “correct” pronunciation as long as it is comprehensible. When it’s not, they can be asked to clarify, which will help them to know what sounds need to be explicit in order to be understood. I teach English in France and once had a student whose pronunciation sounded like the stereotype French maid in a bad play. I did everything possible to work on her pronunciation but there was very little improvement. Until the day that I realized that if she went to Britain or the States with her accent, the boys would be falling like flies. And once I stopped trying to correct her, she did improve, but the biggest improvement was in our relationship.

Thanks to Wendi, Paul, Ivannia, Judie, Diane, Eugenia, and to readers, for their contributions!

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