How do you teach pronunciation to students learning another language? This is basically the question I’m trying to answer at grad school now. It turns out that there isn’t any one solid, evidence-based approach to doing so, but I mean to create one. Here’s what I know about it so far.
Articulatory phonetics is seen as a useful starting point. It’s often very helpful, as an opening lesson, to teach students where to place their tongues, how far wide to open their mouths, when to round their lips. However, don’t think for a second that simply telling students how to pronounce the words will result in good, accurate pronunciation of those sounds forever and ever!
These lessons are best approached as an advance organizer–a framework of knowledge onto which the students can build their pronunciation skills. I think it goes without saying that these sorts of things are better communicated in the students’ native language than in English, especially at this age. If you’re an ALT here in Japan, ask your JT to provide that kind of framework.
Following up on those lessons, work with the students on as close to a one-on-one basis as possible, slowly and patiently helping them reproduce the sounds accurately. This is actually better done with very short minimal pairs, sets of two words that differ only by the sound in question. For Japanese students, you’d want to have the practice the difference between words like “seen” and “sin”, or “coat” and “caught”. Don’t try to have them use example sentences just yet; that will only confuse them and distract from the task at hand.
Finally, have them use the sounds in example sentences, dialogues, and free communication. This is the point where students begin to develop automaticity, the capacity to use their knowledge without much active processing. It’s important not to rush too fast toward this stage, though. You want the students to develop knowledge about the sounds of English, then practice actively making them, and then practice those skills until they become effortless. This follows a pedagogical framework called the skill acquisition theory: declarative knowledge leads to procedural knowledge, which precedes automaticity. Although it doesn’t have much more evidence than any other framework in SLA, it has a lot of backing in psychology. It also seems to work really well for me in practice.
So, how can you do this, practically, in a classroom? If you can speak the students’ native langauge well enough to talk about basic phonetics, then you can do the first part yourself, or rely on team-teaching with a bilingual teacher. I find that focusing on one sound per lesson seems to work fairly well. Explain the parts of the mouth and how to produce the sound, using the students’ native language–maybe 2 minutes at the most. Then, transition to a short practice, in which you have students practice minimal pairs while the teacher listens and gives immediate, encouraging feedback. “No, don’t do that” is less effective than “try to do this”. Finally, move into a more communicative activity, following whatever other program you have planned for the day. As you go through the class, try to restrict your corrections to only the particular sound you’re working on that day. It’s tempting to get after them for a sound they learned last week, but you’re better off just re-introducing a sound again in the next session, rather than asking them to think back to the previous lesson.
When I was working at an Eikaiwa, I made posters for each mini lesson, and went through a rotation of 10 different sounds for beginners, 20 for intermediate students, and 30 for advanced students. They focused on sounds that are crucial to communication and mutual comprehension, leaving less crucial sounds, like “dark L”, for the advanced learners. There are very few students who have mastered English pronunciation so fully that they can’t benefit from coming around to do the same pronunciation point 3 or 4 times a year, so don’t hesitate to re-use the same teaching point multiple times.
No one has yet found an absolutely perfect way to teach pronunciation, in any language, to anyone. I’m certainly not claiming to have the magic bullet here. I can tell you, however, that I have personally used this method to teach more than a hundred Japanese students, children and adults, to produce most of the important sound distinctions in English. My students come out of my classes able to produce and distinguish ‘th’ sounds, ‘l’ and ‘r’, and differentiate the vowels in ‘leap’ and ‘lip’. Be patient, be persistent, and you’ll start seeing results.