The Neglected Art: Pronunciation in Language Teaching


Pronunciation has traditionally taken a secondary role in language teaching compared to grammar and lexis.

Very often even experienced teachers are reluctant to tackle pronunciation issues in class. There may be at least two reasons why pronunciation tends to be neglected: firstly, the lack of clear guidelines and rules available in course books, and secondly the fact that isolated exercises do not seem to have much of an effect. This is not surprising, however; like all other areas of language teaching, pronunciation needs constant attention for it to have a lasting effect on students. 

Text by: Anastasia Spyropoulou

Using student talk to teach pronunciation

Pronunciation work can be kept simple and employ exercises which are both accessible and enjoyable for students, whatever their level. Whenever students do a freer speaking activity, the main aim is usually for them to develop their spoken fluency in the language. However, the activity also serves to work on students' accuracy through the feedback we give them on their use of language.

When students do a group or pair work activity at any level listen and take notes regarding pronunciation and especially pronunciation that leads to miscommunication. This includes diphthongs, vowel sounds (including weak forms), consonant sounds, word stress and sentence stress. All of these areas can be dealt with quickly and efficiently by having some simple exercises ready which require nothing more than the board and a basic knowledge of the phonemic chart.

The phonemic chart -one phoneme at a time- can be introduced from beginner level. A rule for when 'ea' is pronounced /e/ (head) and when it is pronounced /i:/ (bead).

Word stress

Here is a simple exercise I repeat regularly for work on word stress and individual sounds.

I hear a pre-intermediate learner say: 'I suppose (pronounced with stress on first syllable) I will see her tonight'. The listener doesn't understand because of the mispronunciation and asks the other student to repeat until finally, they write it down and we see what the word was.

After the activity, on the board, I put a column with two bubbles to represent word stress, the first small, the second much larger. I write 'suppose' under the bubbles and drill it.

I get 'outside', 'today', 'below' and 'behind', which I accept as correct before asking for verbs only. I then get 'accept', 'believe', 'forget'….and these go in the same column.

Vowel sounds

I hear a pre-intermediate learner say: 'Not now because he is did (dead)'.

I draw a column on the board with the heading /e/. In this column, I write the word 'dead' and have students repeat it. I then ask for examples of words that rhyme with this, which students find easy ('red', 'bed', etc.).

I do not write these, however. I then ask for words that rhyme and have the same vowel spelling, i.e. 'ea'. I put students in pairs or groups to think of words, giving myself some thinking time, too. In this case, I  get 'head', 'bread', … and we end up with an extendable list of words with the same spelling and sound.

It is the cognitive work of trying to think of similar words, writing them down and their organisation into columns that helps learners retain sounds and spellings.

If the classroom allows it, it's also a great idea to have students pin posters with sound columns up on the wall. The idea is to get a basic poster with a phoneme at the top and various columns with different spellings.















I hear an intermediate learner say: 'I didn't find (pronounced / f i: n d /) it anywhere'.

I make a column with /ai/, drill 'find' and my students give me 'fight', 'bike', 'buy', 'eye', 'my', etc. for the sound.

I accept these without writing them and then encourage students to think of other words spelled like 'find'. I get 'mind' and 'kind'.
Weak forms

I hear an elementary learner say: 'I will buy vegetables (pronouncing 'table' at the end)'. I note that this is also an opportunity to work on word stress.

I make a column with a schwa, and drill 'vegetable', marking the word stress.

With an elementary class, there is a case for simply teaching this point rather than eliciting known words, so I point out the number of syllables and the stress on the beginning of the word, explaining that this makes the final syllable weak and not pronounced as the word 'table'.

I add to the list 'comfortable' and 'presentable' as further examples, but I avoid adding more so as not to overwhelm students at this level.
Sentence stress

I use fluency drills to work on sentence stress. I hear an intermediate learner say: 'He told me I couldn't have a holiday' (bold words are stressed). This causes confusion due to the stress being placed on the wrong words in the sentence, i.e., the pronouns, or grammar words, as opposed to the content words.

The activity is simply a choral drill, but of the whole sentence and maintaining an English rhythm. 'He told me I couldn't have a holiday'.

The trick here is not to over-exaggerate on the stressed words, but keep the stress and rhythm natural. Think in terms of modelling a rhythm, rather than a stress pattern. Using gesture like the conductor of an orchestra or tapping on the board to show the rhythm is especially helpful for students who cannot hear it easily. Songs are great resources for accent and rhythm.


One of the beauties of using student speech for pronunciation work is that it directly addresses students' problems. Regular work in this area helps learners to develop their own hypotheses for English pronunciation, something experts and researchers have long emphasised as an essential skill of a good language learner.

Material from the online course I am attending at the British Council, via Future Learn on ‘How to plan a great lesson’