Ensuring that different aspects of our lessons are fun and engaging ensures that learners are more likely to find the experience useful and enjoyable. Gerhard Erasmus looks specifically at how to do that with pronunciation, with practical suggestions for your own pronunciation teaching.
If you search for ‘How to make pronunciation fun and engaging’, you are bombarded with tons of pronunciation activities – some more relevant than others it has to be said. Nevertheless, I agree that as teachers, we often value these activities especially if they are something we could take and use in our classes immediately. Considering the vast amount of information already available online, it seemed a little pointless to blog about another activity or two to use. So, the purpose of this post is not to describe activities, instead its aim is to highlight a thinking process or approach behind pronunciation focus into the lesson, and how an awareness of this approach or any similar approach could be beneficial in planning your overall lesson. While there will be mention of activities, the activities will not be discussed in detail, but rather used to highlight a specific point in relation to making pronunciation fun and engaging.
What is fun and engaging?
A good start to this would be to ensure we are on the same page in terms of what fun and engaging is. I am not looking at a dictionary definition here, more thinking about what trainers and teachers mean when they say a lesson, or an activity, was fun and engaging. Fun is very simple as it implies enjoyment. I could enjoy Sudoku because I have to think, yet enjoy scrolling through Facebook because I don’t have to think. My level of engagement with the two activities are different though. I am a lot more likely to say I was engaged in doing the Sudoku, but rather disengaged with Facebook. It does, however, not mean that every activity where I have to think means I am having fun. I might enjoy Sudoku, but absolutely hate solving crosswords.
What makes pronunciation tricky?
When we are saying words and sentences, we don’t actually think about the movement of the mouth or how to pronounce words – it is a fairly automated process. This means that when we teach pronunciation for productive purposes, it is very similar to teaching someone a sport. There has to be enough practice that the pronunciation of the word becomes muscle memory, where your mouth, tongue, lips and everything else involved in producing the word works with the same coordination as when you were riding a bicycle and not thinking about how to do it.
However, when we teach pronunciation to help decode speech, the process is different. It is now a lot more closely linked to our knowledge of words and structures, priming (the ability to predict what word or type of word will be said next) and our ability to identify word boundaries in order to understand what is being said.
Distinguishing between receptive and productive pronunciation will make it easier to decide if what we do in the classroom is fun and engaging.
The why – Is it integrated?
I have seen lessons where the pronunciation component was a lot of fun, and often it was an activity that had been found in a pronunciation book or online. While it is a lot of fun, the level of engagement was a lot lower than what the teacher may have expected. This is often because the purpose of the activity might not have been not clearly signposted and explained to the students. An example of this is when I observed a lesson where the students were playing tic tac toe with phrases containing connected speech. The learners enjoyed the game, but there was no immediate application to it. The teacher and I had a discussion about this afterwards, and the next time he used the activity, he asked me to observe again. This time he had used phrases from a reading text they had read and justified the choice of words based on the fact that they were likely to appear in the discussion after the reading. As you can imagine, the learners were clear about what and why they were practising connected speech, and it also showed in the discussion task at the end of the lesson.
Ask yourself: Is the pronunciation component integrated into my lesson and have I made the learners aware of which part of pronunciation we are practising and why?
Mental engagement and engaging with meaning
A few years ago, I was asked to observe a training session at a local language school. The trainer suggested that the more learners say a word, the more confident they would be when using the word. I don’t disagree with this, but I do disagree vehemently with what happened next. The suggestion was that when you drill, to say the word once, and then students repeat the word three times. So, the teacher says ‘apple’ and the students say ‘apple, apple, apple.’ There is absolutely no mental engagement with the pronunciation, and it is likely to have almost no effect. It also seems boring, and I cannot imagine myself enjoying saying ten words three times each by just repeating it after the teacher.
If you want students to say the word three times, think of other ways of getting them to say it three times where they actually have to mentally process what it is they are saying. This could involve TPR, or using a flashcard activity a few times, perhaps something like Carol Read’s Magic Eyes activity, or any activity where there is repetition, but mental processing and engagement from the students. If I am mindlessly doing something, like scrolling through Facebook, I might enjoy it, but I am definitely not engaged.
A further example from another lesson is where learners practised emphatic stress using the phrase ‘I didn’t say she stole my money’. You can stress each word in the sentence and alter the meaning of the utterance without actually adjusting the syntax. So, learners said the sentence in different ways and their partners had to say which word was stressed. A suggestion was to give the learners a slip saying ‘Not me’ or ‘she took my phone’ or ‘she lost my money’ and they then need to produce the sentence to convey the meaning on the slip. That forces a lot more engagement with the language is more likely to have a positive effect in their ability to notice and produce emphatic stress.
Ask yourself: Do learners have to think about the meaning of words or sentences before they are producing them? Are they mentally engaged, or can they get through the activity without really thinking?
Can you add fun?
The last point is, could you add fun? There are many ways to do this. Gamify the activity, or if they are young learners and enjoy this kind of thing, add a game as a side to the activity. Another alternative is to add humour. Here is a simple exchange I use to help learners practise the pronunciation of places around a town, whilst practising emphatic stress:
A: I’d like to buy a dog.
B: You cannot buy a dog here?
A: Why not?
B: Because this is a book shop!
They then plan their own silly dialogues by simply changing the name of the place and the object they want to buy. It is simple, it is humorous, and it is quick.
Do keep in mind that not everything has to be a game or a joke to be fun.
As yourself: Can I add an element of fun to this that would make the learners enjoy the activity more?
Use the ‘Ask yourself’ questions at the end of each part to reflect on your pronunciation teaching in the classroom and keep track of what works. You might find or develop an activity that you can publish online, in Modern English Teacher (see What works in practice) or perhaps even in a book, and the next time someone searches for ‘How to make pronunciation fun and engaging?’ yours might be the activity they select.