betty pow

Betty Pow (part 1)

Pronunciation in Teacher Development:
Teachers’ needs, challenges and rewards – Part 1


In my work as a teacher and teacher educator, I have come across controversial views on pronunciation among novice and experienced teachers. Although there has been a paradigm shift in approaches to pronunciation by relating it to issues of identity, ideology and World Englishes (Abdalla Nunes & Pow, 2008; Canagarajah, 2002; Graddol, 2006), certain views seem to prevail. Some colleagues feel they either lack the knowledge to integrate speech work in their practice or regard it as the realm of phoneticians and native-speaker teachers. Others consider it as a subject on its own to be mastered separately from speaking and listening skills.

As for pronunciation pedagogy, a tendency to relate pronunciation teaching-learning mostly to a “listen-repeat-correct” approach or to practice in phonemic transcription has often resulted in the belief that pronunciation instruction is rather limited or that it is a highly complex, theoretical language area. Another commonly held view has been that speech improvement will sort itself out as learners move on to more advanced levels and, as English has reached international status, why bother about teaching pronunciation anyway?


Bearing such views in mind, my proposal is that pronunciation be considered in terms of the needs of a language teaching professional and those of a language user/ learner.  So, what would be the teacher´s needs regarding pronunciation?

The Teacher´s Pronunciation Needs

Whether you are a novice or experienced teacher, maybe the first issue to come to terms with is that pronunciation teaching is not an end in itself, as it is closely intertwined with listening and speaking skills, as well as with other language areas such as grammar and vocabulary. In this sense, I would go along with Chela Flores´s (2001) proposal that pronunciation should be integrated into listening and speaking skills development by having teachers identify and deal with their learners´ immediate pronunciation needs regarding the aural-oral activities of the language course they teach.

In our country, the study of phonetics and phonology, when included in the curricula of undergraduate courses has tended to emphasize descriptive aspects. As a result, the pre-service teacher’s needs to develop knowledge of the English sound system, while building his/her linguistic competence and pronunciation teaching skills have very often been overlooked.

Not having those needs met may well have a few pedagogical consequences. In the actual classroom, phonological problems are likely to be dealt with by on-the-spot correction and repetition. Although this approach may respond to the learner’s immediate needs or difficulties, it seems to have short-lived effects.

In some cases, the teacher might decide to focus on pronunciation, though as a separate and isolated activity, divorced from the main aims of the lesson. In other cases, a teacher may feel that being a “good” language model and exposing learners to audio and/or videoed material may be enough in helping them become intelligible speakers and listeners.

For the teacher, the need to build background knowledge of the phonological system may also entail looking at the close relationship between pronunciation and meaning in communication by focusing on meaningful chunks rather than on isolated sounds and words. In addition, as we operate in a monolingual setting, making use of our knowledge of the Portuguese sound system can help sensitize learners to similarities and differences between both systems and how such differences can give rise to students´ difficulties in communication.

Over the last two decades, another need has surfaced for teachers (and learners) as a result of the spread of English worldwide, which is the increasingly necessary familiarity with varieties of English. Although such samples have been gradually introduced in some teaching materials, access to non-mainstream Englishes has been made easier thanks to various sites on the Net and cable TV.

As for pronunciation teaching skills, I am often asked whether approaches to teaching pronunciation are limited. Given that “Pronunciation is the physical side of language, involving the body, the muscles, acoustic vibrations and harmonics”(Underhill,1994, 2005), a good range of approaches can be drawn upon. (This article was originally published in the BRAZ-TESOL Newsletter, 4/2009)

Stay tuned to the second part of Betty’s post, coming up next week. You can reach Betty at bettypow at bol dot com dot br.

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