Wednesday, 7 August 2013



Some students can master correct pronunciation from the kick-off, and some can’t, no matter how hard they try. The Indonesians call it “having a thick tongue.” So, in this post I’ll address the problem of handling cases of thick tongue.

I’ll start with Clarence, a student I once had. Clarence (or at least I think that’s what his name was, it was difficult to tell) could not for the like of him reproduce any sound correctly in spite of my best efforts. Unison drills by the hundreds, individual repetitions until the cows came home, breaking the words down syllable-by-syllable, rhyming drills, nothing worked with poor old Clarence. (Not all that old, by the way. He was about 30.) Now here’s a funny thing about those students whose pron is abysmal: they love to talk. You would think they’d sit in a corner with their mouths closed rather than be subjected to a succession of “Pardon? Huh? What? Say that again. Whaddaya talking about? Repeat”. But no, they’re eager to air their unintelligible utterings at the drop of a hat. “Ah, T-shirt!” “Yes, Clarence, what is it?” “Flugelhorn spligglepan zimbabwe judder titty bum-bum?” “Right, Clarence. Good question. Now let’s see… how shall I answer it? Oh, look at the time! We’ll have to come back to that question next lesson.”

It cannot be said that Clarence didn’t work hard at getting his pron up to scratch. Before he spoke, I’d see his lips silently moving as he prepared himself to say something. He threw himself into repetition drills willingly, with a determined frown on his face. But the more he tried, the thicker his tongue got. Clarence wasn’t stupid, by any means. His written work was faultless, and his reading and comprehension skills impressive; it was just that he couldn’t say the damn words right.

There are some sounds that any student will have difficulty in mastering. Sounds that don’t occur in their native language. Consonant clusters. Multisyllabic words (it means long words, Roger!) Some students will settle for an approximation of these sounds, and hope for the best. And as long as they’ve got the other sounds and words right, the listener will make sense of what they say, often by using context as a clue.

But the Clarences of this world get all the sounds wrong, leaving their listeners bewildered and at a loss how to respond.

Now here’s my theory on how to handle severe pronunciation problems. To my mind, the key is in the students’ listening skills. If they don’t hear it right, there’s not a chance in hell they’ll say it right. How do you hone students’ listening skills? With dictation. But not just ordinary old dictation – rapid dictation. You say a sentence and get them to write it down. No talking, no copying from your neighbor’s paper, just listen and write. I say the sentence at normal speaking speed (that is to say, fast), I repeat it again and again and again. As I speak, I circulate around the room and put red marks on the students’ papers indicating where a mistake occurs (but not what that mistake is). I’m constantly seeing instances of an individual making a particular mistake (e.g. a missing ‘s’ from a plural noun) that is exactly the same mistake which occurs in his or her speech. I continue repeating, repeating the sentence until 95% of the students have got it 95% right. Then I ask them to repeat it (along with a response) in unison and with a partner. Then, on to the next sentence. Try rapid dictation. If you do six to ten sentences per lesson, you’ll see a marked improvement within two weeks. A student who last week had his dictation paper dotted with a myriad of red marks, this week has only half a dozen, and next week even fewer. And you’ll hear their pronunciation becoming better and more natural, too. For my money, rapid dictation is one of the most effective, valuable tricks in the book.

Did rapid pronunciation work with Clarence? Um, no. I’ve got no explanation for that, no excuses. I’ll just repeat the opening sentence of this blog. Some students can master correct pronunciation from the kick-off, and some can’t.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

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