1. Pronunciation and politics

Pronunciation, as I knew from my first moment trying to awkwardly mouth the RP-centric picto-phonemes in New English File Intermediate, is about identity. And politics. Cursing the Queen and her English (which was much easier for an American than actually saying “bull” in RP), I fudged a mocking, piss-taking English accent during the coursebook’s “pron section” for a couple of terms before just ditching it all together.

It was only discovering the wonders of connected speech on my Delta Module 1 course a few years ago that I learned there was more to pron than just individual vowel sounds, and I waded back into the teaching of pronunciation.

But the further I drift from those heady days of theory, the easier I find it is to avoid explicitly focusing on it. So I was happy to discover, in my first trip to IATEFL, a number of talks on pron, including the much-touted “first ever pron plenary” by Jane Setter.

And while Setter’s plenary was informed, inspiring, encouraging (just “focus on focus” ― tonicity ― she urged, and you’ll produce measureable gains in students’ perception and production), and super feel-goody, I’d like to focus on a different pron talk by someone I’ll nominate for the unsung hero of the pron crowd, Gemma Archer.

Her talk dealt as seriously and instructively with pronunciation but situated it, at times implicitly and at times very explicitly, in the very real of context of a global ELT industry, a looming Brexit, and an uncertain Scottish future.

The other 97%

In her talk, “The other 97%: pronunciation strategies for non-RP-speaking teachers” (according to a much-cited number by David Crystal, 97% is the percentage of native non-RP speakers) Archer, a speaker of SSE (Standard Scottish English) took aim at the published materials bias toward RP, particularly in EAP.

She highlighted differences between RP and SSE pronunciation: among other things, the latter has shorter vowels and the rhotic /r/ ― as she stated in perfect deadpan, and to laughter and applause, “In SSE we simply pronounce the R wherever it appears” (well, duh, says this American).

I found her talk particularly interesting as it came a few slots after listening legend John Field stated in his presentation that the use of regional accents in listening materials aimed at lower level learners was “worrying”.

While I don’t doubt his expertise, who, I wondered, is Field’s imagined pool of learner-listeners? And where do they study? Clearly not where Archer, or fellow Scot Steve Brown, hails from and works, or where any number of other teachers, from elsewhere in the UK, Ireland or abroad ― i.e. the 97% ― come from.

That Harry Potter talk

Citing a survey she had done as well as anecdotal evidence from her own experience teaching pre-sessional EAP courses in Scotland, what Archer seemed to demonstrate so clearly was that “regional” or non-RP accents are perceived as “difficult” or “strange” precisely and only to those who’ve had no exposure to them ― which includes an unfortunately large number of the IELTS 6.5 pre-sessional students landing in her neck of the UK every term.

What she has worked at, and advocated for, and what I would back wholeheartedly, is the local development of resources that allow teachers to highlight, analyze, and teach their own local accents. (Not, of course, to the exclusion of all others, which means including RP.)

Rather, she encouraged the teaching of something called, if I got this correctly, “high variance phonemic instruction”, which exposes students to lots of variations of individual phonemes (e.g. the word bull, mentioned above, spoken by people with a number of different accents) early on. It doesn’t mean doing whole volumes of Robert Burns in A1, but it does means getting them used to the idea that all non-RP accents are not simply deviations from some otherwise monolithic norm.

File under: “I’m Scottish!”

I’m sure someone might object: but my coursebook has lots of regional accents! In fact, I too clearly remember that red-bearded cartoon in English File Elemetary File 1 belting out, in response to a question about his origins, “I’m Scottish!” And I’m sure the ELT industry is more sensitive to it (and realistic about it) than it used to be.

2017-04-11 01_38_54-IATEFL Conference and Exhibition 2017 in Glasgow
The sensitive new 2017 IATELF mascot

But as Archer teaches EAP in her own country and is much more sensitive to the lack of resources in, in this case, her own accent, I’m going to take her word for it. I long ago learned to pick out that one hammy American voice actor every publisher seems to call on for their series. What passes for variety to the outsider might be extremely limited to the one with ears to truly hear.

So if that’s fine for SSE Gemma, teaching in her native country, where does that leave us EFLers, trying to teach pronunciation abroad? First, as Archer said, there should be more training and support of learning about a teacher’s own individual accent.

That should be balanced with an understanding and recognition of what’s best in English as a lingua franca (ELF) contexts. (According to Jennifer Jenkins’s findings, which were referenced by Archer and summarized helpfully here on ELF Pronunciation, my ― and Gemma’s ― rhotic /r/ makes the grade, but my American flapped /t/ ― I say bedder for better ― doesn’t)

Which leaves us with the final question. If local training and materials are needed, who’s going to invest in it? More on that next time.




A Pronunciation Lesson: differentiation between difficult sounds

I’ve been teaching mostly Brazilian A1 students this summer, and although I speak no Portuguese, fortunately for me their language has many similarities to Italian. I’ve found that this has helped immensely for eliciting and checking understanding (but using the students’ L1 will be the subject of another post :-)). One feature which is different from Italian is that they have problems with the /w/ and /r/ sounds.

We were talking about food and they were trying to say: medium rare/medium well. I wasn’t sure which one they were saying. For Italians the problem would have been the ‘bear’ vowel sound in ‘rare’, but when we concentrated on this they got it. So I investigated further.

Here are the steps I took:

  1. Identifying the problem sounds and the need for working on them

If you work in a monolingual situation or you speak the learners’ L1, you will already be prepared for this, but I wasn’t. I numbered the target vocabulary:

  1. medium rare    2. medium well

I read them individually and asked the students to give me the corresponding number. I found that half of the class were giving a wrong answer.

I went around the class and asked them to say one of the phrases, and I told them which one I thought they were saying. They were surprised when they realised that I often couldn’t understand the difference. I told them that what I was hearing was something between the two, so something like ‘medium where’!

I noticed that they tended to:

  • aspirate the /r/ into a /h/, and were trying to form the sound only with their lips, not with their top teeth.
  • not use the rounded lip position for /w/. (My Brazilian friend tells me that /w/ is never found at the beginning of words in Portuguese)
  • not pronounce the /l/ (again, my L1 expert informs me that in Brazilian Portuguese /l/ is mute).

2. Focus on two sounds

I decided to focus on the /w/ and /r/ sounds. I modelled them, showing the right mouth position. They started to feel/understand the difference between my production and theirs. The problem of course is that in spontaneous speech this goes out of the window, so they need a lot of practice first.

I asked the students to brainstorm words beginning with the two sounds. This is what they came up with:


I then asked them to write a silly mini-story in pairs using the words from the board. Here’s one of their stories:

One day a receptionist asked me what I do. ‘I am a rock star. I write music and record video clips. In my free time I like relaxing, reading and running. My favourite colours are red and white. I like rainy days and winter.’

3. Practice 1 – closed pairs

When they’d finished they stories I asked them to underline all the /r/ sounds in one colour, and the /w/ sounds in another. Then they had to practice reading the story in their pairs with the correct pronunciation.

4. Practice 2 – open class

Now the students read their story to the whole class. The other groups had to listen for the /r/ and /w/ sounds and hold up a piece of paper corresponding to the right sound when they heard it.



A footnote- I have to give credit to my old boss from Prato for part of this activity. Her name was Sophie. Unfortunately she’s no longer with us. Thank you for your inspiration Sophie!