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TESOL 2023 Takeaways on Teaching Pronunciation

March 28, 2023

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the TESOL 2023 Convention in Portland, Oregon. I've been attending TESOL with Ellii (formerly ESL Library) since 2013, but this was my first one since the pandemic. Being able to attend an in-person event again, meeting subscribers and teachers from all over the world, and attending informative and inspiring sessions were all such a treat!

I went to all sorts of interesting sessions, but there were some on teaching pronunciation that really stood out to me. At Ellii, we've been busy this year adding a series of videos to our Pronunciation lessons, and it was important to us to confirm that our content still follows best practices for teaching pronunciation.

An argument for the IPA

In her session entitled "An Argument for the IPA: Effective Strategies for Teaching Pronunciation," Heather Mehrtense from the University of Maryland explained how helpful using the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) has been in her classes. She began by listing some pros and cons for its use:

Pros of IPA use in class

  • accurate (unlike English spelling)
  • comprehensive
  • (mostly) standardized
  • systematic
  • used by most pronunciation resources and textbooks

Cons of IPA use in class

  • can be overwhelming
  • not completely standardized (e.g., not all dictionaries use it since many dicationaries employ their own pronunciation systems)

Mehrtense developed a plan for teaching pronunciation with the IPA that she found worked well. She starts by introducing the IPA on Day 1 but only teaches a couple of sounds. On Day 2, she reviews consonant sounds, and then she covers vowel sounds on Day 3. Day 4 is for targeted practice based on her students' needs, which involves tasks with minimal pairs. She monitors her students' output and recycles and reviews as needed. Finally, on Day 5, students rehearse in class by performing a short dialogue that they've written (which incorporates the target sounds).

Lessons learned

Here are Mehrtense's main takeaways for teaching with the IPA:

  1. Keep it as simple as possible.
  2. Focus on student needs.
  3. Accept non-standardization (comprehensitibility is the goal, not accent reduction).
  4. Discuss variety (from different accents, etc.).

Phonetics in L2 pronunciation teaching

Later in the week, I attended another great session on pronunciation called "Phonetics in L2 Pronunciation Teaching: Bridging Research and Practice." This session was led by a panel comprised of Tamara Jones from Howard Community College, Di Liu from Temple University, and Marnie Reed from Boston University. This session was presented as a series of questions and answers and contained valuable information for current pronunciation teaching practices.

Why is pronunciation important?

  • Listening, speaking, and pronunciation have a close relationship.
  • Comprehensibility is far more important than accent reduction.

Do I have to teach all vowels and consonants?

  • Focusing pronunciation instruction on several target sounds based on students' needs is better than teaching all the sounds in English.
  • Functional load is important (i.e., sounds that affect the meaning of a word). For example, /p/ and /b/ have a functional load of 98 because they affect the meaning of many minimal pairs, such as "park" and "bark." Conversely, /th/ has a low functional load and isn't as important to teach as you may think.

Do I have to use the IPA?

  • It's important to have a system in class, whether it's the IPA, the color vowel chart, or another system.
  • Focus on learning the sounds more than the symbols.

Are sounds the only important thing to teach in a pronunciation class?

  • Other features of pronunciation are just as important. Make sure you're teaching contracted forms, prosody/intonation, and meta-linguistic awareness (i.e., students often think the L1 speakers are talking too quickly, but they're actually just not catching the connections between words.)
  • Intonation can carry a lot of meaning in a conversation. It's important to teach the functions of intonation.
  • The goal should be to teach pronunciation within sentences, not just as individual sounds.

Ellii's takeaways

We at Ellii agree with Mehrtense, Jones, Liu, and Reed—you don't need to teach the complete IPA to students. It's enough that they have a symbol to represent the sound you're currently learning. The goal of most language classes wouldn't be for students to be able to transcribe full words into the IPA, but rather to be able to understand and recognize the sound they're currently learning and are expected to reproduce.

Ellii's pronunciation materials use IPA symbols to represent sounds. As a company with global subscribers, it is important to use a system that's recognizable worldwide. However, we do have customers write in asking for a different system on occasion, which is why we take care to note other symbols or naming conventions (e.g., /æ/ is also known as short A) within our lessons.

Ellii's Pronunciation lessons also include minimal pair practice (both receptive and productive tasks) because being able to distinguish two like sounds is a great way to ensure students have mastered those sounds.

We're planning on developing more materials on the prosodic features of pronunciation, such as intonation and reductions. Thank you to all the teachers who requested these materials at our booth this year!

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Comments (6)

Mary R.(Teacher)

Thank you for information about teaching pronunciation.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're most welcome, Mary! Grammar and pronunciation are my two favorite things to teach, so I was thrilled to be able to attend those sessions and write this post.

Amanda J.(Teacher)

Thank you for this! I will begin a pronunciation class for my adult community member students (TABE NRS 4, 5, 6). I'm hoping to use Ellii's pronunciation materials but I may need to supplement as well. Are there any other curriculums out there that they suggested at the conference, or is Ellii developing any materials that will be for high intermediate students?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Amanda, best of luck with your new pronunciation class! Heather Mehrtense recommended these websites during her session (I only had a photo and not the links, but hopefully they won't be too hard to find):
Rachel's English, Elemental English, Accent's Way with Hadar, and Tarle Speech and Language. Hope that helps!

Meghana Dittakavi(Guest)

Thank you for the information

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Meghana! Hope it's useful.

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