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English pronunciation: teaching unfamiliar sounds and phonetic patterns

English pronunciation: teaching unfamiliar sounds and phonetic patterns

English pronunciation: How do you go about teaching sounds and phonetic patterns?

November is the Poppies Month. It is also the month in which we cover the teaching of sounds and of Phonological Competence in the Poppies Foundation Plus Course.

This post first appeared a few years ago, when the POPPIES project was starting. Then, it was updated in November 2018, and here’s the latest version, with a few updates.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Let’s start by considering…

How we learn unfamiliar sounds and phonetic patterns

When teaching the spoken language it is essential to take into account how humans learn unfamiliar sounds and phonetic patterns.

  • Initially, our brain registers those sounds as undifferentiated from the ones a person is familiar with.
  • As exposure continues, the listener’s brain learns to differentiate
    • First, among different sounds.
    • Then, among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words.

Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals.

  • With further exposure, both the simple and complex circuits ─which correspond to simple sounds and sequences of sounds─ are activated at virtually the same time and more easily.

What we learn from research

Research has also shown that these neural connections are formed not only in terms of sounds. They are also formed with other regions of the brain associated with visual, tactile, and even olfactory information related to the sound of the word. All of which give meaning to such sound.

Neural activity is not unidirectional

Moreover, the flow of neural activity is not unidirectional, from simple to complex. It also goes from complex to simple. In the early stages of learning, the neural circuits are activated in bits, incompletely and weakly.

With more experience, practice, and exposure these neural circuits achieve an increasingly complete picture of what is being learnt. The more the exposure, the less the input required to activate the whole picture.

In this respect, knowing what the problems are, will be essential to tackle the specific problems each student has.

English pronunciation: Word stress in English and in Spanish

Teaching word stress in English words is very important.  This is particularly so because the stressed syllable in a word has roughly the same length as all the unstressed syllables together:

While in Spanish it is only a question of loudness (CO-MO-DO), in English it is a question of loudness and time length (COM– fortable)

The importance of stress

Stress, of course, is very important both in English and in Spanish. Not placing the stress on the appropriate syllable (loudness) may lead to serious misunderstanding.

This may be so because there are two words which have the same sound, but different meaning. Think, for example, of the difference in Spanish between LIbro and liBRÓ.

To avoid confusion

The same happens in English, but much more so:

Even when there are no such pairs,  placing the stress on a different syllable may easily lead to the listener perceiving a totally different word.

For example, if a student  says

“I’ve wriTEN all the answers”

You may understand:

“I reTAIN all the answers”.

This is because in English both words sound the same, except for the stress. “Written”, of course is pronounced “WRItten.”

On the other hand, words such as COMfortable, in English, have the stressed syllable with the same duration as all the weak syllables together.

Teaching word stress in English

This is why it is essential to teach the intonation and stress pattern of a word when we introduce it for the first time or when the teacher sees that it is mis-stressed.

Some common techniques to draw the students’ attention to their problems with word stress:

  • Repetition of word, phrase, or sentence.
  • Writing the stressed syllable in capital letters or marking it.
  • Exaggerating its stress.

Teaching word stress on cognates

One such problem may be caused by cognates and the differences should be pointed out right from the beginning. Thus:

Cognates ending in -ción/-tion

  1. Spanish words ending in –cion (condición, estación, etc.) have a primary stress on the last syllable,
  2. while the English words ending in –tion (condition, station, etc.) are stressed on the preceding syllable.

Cognates ending in –al

  1.  Spanish words ending in –al stress the last syllable (capital, animal, natural),
  2. whereas English words ending in –al stress the third but last syllable (capital, animal, natural)

 Cognates ending in –dad/-ty

  1. Spanish words ending in –dad stress the last syllable (responsabilidàd, humanidàd, dificultàd.
  2. English words ending in –ty usually have the stress on the third but last syllable (responsibility, humanity), but sometimes the stress falls on the same syllable as the original adjective (difficulty).

Focus on stress when you teach any new word!

As rhythm is connected to physical human activities, kinesthetic activities are particularly useful, according to authors such as O’Connor or Celce-Murcia.

One of those kinesthetic activities can be done just by using Cuisenaire Rods. Watch how this can be done:

Others, like Lado, advise the use of a musical scale with “dots” of different size representing the words in the tone group. This form is rather visual and the rhythmical beat is clearly seen:






I   need                   a  rest

English rhythm patterns

Because English is stress-timed, its rhythm patterns are very similar to a musical phrase.

This is why experts such as Celce-Murcia, Avery, or Underhill, among many others, advocate for the use of nursery rhymes, verse, limericks, Jazz Chants, or, perhaps more attractive for our students:

Teaching English Rhythm Patterns through Rap

I do encourage you to check out
Segal, Beth, “Teaching English as a Second Language through Rap Music: A Curriculum for Secondary School Students” (2014).
Master’s Theses. 104. https://repository.usfca.edu/thes/104

And then, of course, for your benefit and enjoyment: Watch this video by AdrianUnderhill on Teaching pronunciation

Apasionada de la lengua inglesa y sus múltiples matices, mi objetivo es ayudarte en la preparación de la oposición a profesores de inglés y contribuir a que la escuela pública ofrezca la enseñanza de calidad –de y en lengua inglesa– que nuestros alumnos necesitan en el s. XXI

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