How to Teach English Pronunciation

April 4th, 2011By Category: Teaching in Japan

As we are all brought up learning to use our tongue in the particular way, fixing pronunciation (and teaching it to move in all new ways) can be quite a challenging and time-consuming task. At the same time though, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Even if you don’t know the IPA, with consistent effort, it’s entirely possible to change your students old pronunciation habits, and replace them with ones that are identical (or at least closer) to those used by native speakers.

The Problem

There are only three real reasons why people have pronunciation difficulty to begin with, and if properly addressed they can all be rectified. They are as follows:

1) They may be unaware of the patterns that exist in the new language. An example of this is the native English speaker’s informal tendency to elide the middle ‘o’ in chocolate, and thus shorten it to two syllables.(Choc-luht) or the softening of t’s into d’s when they are between two vowel sounds such as in ‘water’)

2) They are unable to hear the difference between two sounds because one of those sounds (or the distinction between them) doesn’t exist in their language. (such as common confusion between R and L made by Korean, Japanese and Chinese students)

3) They cannot produce the differences between these sounds because their tongue hasn’t had enough experience producing it for it to be integrated into ‘muscle memory’.

Once you’ve figured out what the problem is, the next step is to attack it systematically. The tongue is just like any other muscle in the body in that a desired reflexive movement needs to be trained into it. No martial arts teacher would naturally expect their students to figure out how to block a kick or punch on their own. Nor would they expect them to just naturally ‘do it’ when the time comes. As such, why should English teachers expect their students to make the same kind of huge leap? Geniuses aside, proficiency in any muscle movement can only come from training, and English pronunciation is no different. Here is how you can do it systematically.

Step 1: Introduce them to the sound by contrasting it to something they know.

This can be really simple. When teaching students how to pronounce a schwa (the vowel sound in ‘nuts’, which does not exist in Japanese), I would do so by contrasting it with the ‘ah’ in father, (which does exist in Japanese). I would have students repeat after me in sequences of just those sounds such as:

– ah-ah-uh


– ah-ah-uh-ah-ah

– ah-uh-ah-uh-ah

This introduces the sound in a light-hearted and non-threatening kind of way (Which they generally always found hilarious and fun to do). Then, after a few rounds, I would write the contrasting sounds on the board, point to them, and have them produce it themselves.

Step 2: Drill it.

This can be done in a myriad of ways and methods can vary based on the creativity of the teacher. I prefer exercises that will pair students up. I have this preference for two reasons: 1) because it gives me a chance to walk around and monitor students one pair at a time, and 2) because it takes away the intimidation factor by letting them explore the sound working with their friends, and/or just one other person. If you are short on ideas, Minimal pairs exercises like this one are available for free from Phat

Step 3: Put it into a context.

After students have had ample time to practice listening for, and/or producing the new sound, the next step is putting it into a context that expands on that contrast. This should also show the importance of the contrast in correct speech. My own favorite method of doing this is tongue twister dialogs. While I think these are great because they exaggerate the difference (and make fun of it), regular conversational dialogs can work as well. Particularly if you are integrating your pronunciation practice with a certain target language or grammar point.

Step 4: Review it in a game.

The great thing about pronunciation games is that they can provide students with a motivation to master the sound- even if that motivation is purely for the sake of winning the game. They are also good in that due to their nature, students will be more likely to stay focused throughout, and be more willing to try it again and again with different partners. Furthermore, once they understand the nature of the game, it can be revisited as a warm-up or time-filler in a different class, as many times as necessary for the students to get the new sound, pattern, or contrast ‘into their ears’ and worked into their tongue’s muscle memory.

While fixing pronunciation may not always be easy, the important thing to remember is that it’s certainly not impossible. After all, the tongue is really nothing more than a muscle, and much like any other muscle, it has a movement memory. In much the same way that practicing a martial art (or any other physical activity) can introduce new movement patterns into your body’s muscle memory until they becomes reflexive, regular and consistent pronunciation work can not only make them aware of the sounds that they need to produce, but drill them to the point that they no longer need to think about them to produce them. In much the same way that mastery of martial arts is simply a matter of concentrated effort over a long run, so is good pronunciation.

Photo credit: Aka Hige / Wikimedia

Author of this article

Chuck Johnson

Chuck Johnson is a Martial Arts Instructor/ Action Film Actor based in Tokyo, Japan, and Michigan, USA. He has been teaching for 16 years, holds ranks in Taekwondo, Judo, Capoeira, and Karate, and is an experienced bodyguard. He is also a member of the Screen Action Stunt Association, and Society of American Fight Directors. Additionally, he has 10 years of ELT experience, and is the developer of Phat English, a system that uses specialized hip-hop music to teach the subtle nuances of GAm English pronunciation. For more information, visit or follow Chuck on twitter at chuck_n_action

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