Pronunciation has been called the Cinderella skill. While the ugly sisters of grammar and vocabulary get all the attention, pronunciation isn’t invited to the ball.
But why is pronunciation so often neglected in classroom teaching?
Speaking isn’t in the exam
The majority of classroom language learning is directed towards exams. And exams focus mainly on written language: reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary. Teachers focus on the areas of learning that will most likely affect their learners’ exam grades.
Pronunciation isn’t usually tested. So, there’s little incentive to give time to help learners become confident and fluent speakers of English.
Teachers focus on what’s teachable
The style of teaching in many classrooms tends to be about the transmission of knowledge, rather than the practical, everyday use of English for meaningful communication.
Similar to other school subjects, English is defined as a body of ‘knowledge’ that the teacher knows, and can explain to learners. And frequently the teacher explains in the learners’ first language.
But language learning isn’t like geography or chemistry. An English speaker cannot explain English to the learners.
Of course, language has a knowledge component. Grammar and vocabulary can be more easily explained – or ‘transmitted’ – by a teacher. But we can’t so easily explain pronunciation, speaking or other skills.
School’s about grammar and translation
But maybe the purpose of learning English at school is not about becoming a fluent, intelligible English speaker.
Most high school kids learning English in China, for example, have little need to be speak well in English. For most students, English is about written text, since they will most likely need English for academic purposes or for work.
School English lessons are primarily about studying the language as a linguistic object, with a focus on learning grammar rules, translation and memorisation.
This makes it more convenient to teach and test. It’s also easier to judge the effectiveness of teaching and for education authorities to quantify the outcomes of learning.
A lack of confidence?
Teaching pronunciation requires a teacher to have confidence in their own ability to speak English well. They need good pronunciation skills so they can help learners with their speaking skills.
Many teacher may believe that when they ask learners to repeat new words and phrases it constitutes pronunciation practice.
On one level it can help; Learners get to hear the sounds of English and they have an opportunity to imitate them. Imitation and repetition are certainly helpful for learners.
Pronunciation is more than sound
But sound awareness and articulation are only one side of the coin. We call this ‘segmental instruction’. It’s a focus on the smallest units of sound – phonemes.
But in real-life language, prosody is equally important; intonation, stress and rhythm are all essential parts of a balanced teaching programme.
Learners need to know that English is a stress-timed language and it works in a different way from syllable-timed languages like Chinese. ‘Prosodic’ instruction is rarely given much time in school English courses and yet it is such an essential part of the language. Not only could learners speak more confidently and intelligibly, they would be able to understand spoken English more easily.
Nice but not necessary
Pronunciation presents a problem for curriculum developers and teachers. It’s not as straightforward to teach, and it’s not as simple to test as grammar.
The line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is blurry. If a learner writes or says ‘I am go on holiday next week’, it’s relatively quick and easy to correct the verb phrase; ‘I am going on holiday.’
But the meaning was clear from the original utterance. Correcting the verb phrase is nice, but not necessary.
But correcting pronunciation leads us into more complex areas.
For example, the learner could stress more or less any word in the sentence and it would be correct in a specific context. For example:
A: ‘You’re going on holiday THIS week, right?’
B: ‘No, I’m going on holiday NEXT week.’
A: ‘Shall we meet at the same time NEXT week?’
B: ‘Sorry, I can’t. I’m going on HOLIDAY next week.’
In addition to shifting stress, the intonation pattern will also communicate the speaker’s thoughts and attitudes towards the event.
Higher or rising pitch can signal increased excitement or engagement, whereas lower pitch or a falling intonation pitch can indicate detachment or a lack of interest.
These are just two examples of how English prosody affects the meaning of an utterance. When the focus is on sound production alone, it won’t naturally lead a learner towards understanding the deeper meaning and intentions of a speaker.
We can say that pronunciation is as much about listening as it is about speaking.
Many teachers either don’t have time for this, or they lack confidence in their own ability to recognise and use prosodic features of English.
For these reasons, and many others, pronunciation is a skill that is either downplayed or omitted entirely from English language courses.
And this means that while learners study English at school for many years, few are able to communicate confidently and intelligibly in the language at the end of the course, although they hold a lot of ‘passive’ knowledge about English.
Learners can often read and write to a good level. But when it comes to speaking and communicating, the lack of practice and feedback means that many learners are unable to understand or interact with others.