Motivating language learners to do pronunciation work

How do you do it? This is surely the no 1 question!…… yet my next thought is: Is it misleading to think of us motivating our students, as if motivation is something we do to them while they just sit there. Ok I’m splitting hairs, but a slightly different starting point could be: What are the conditions that are likely to lead them to become self-engaged, in this case by activities involving pronunciation? Nevertheless, the question is good insofar as it indicates that the teacher needs to make the first move.

Insight V correctness
Speaking for the learner in myself, my need is first to become aware that there is something there to study, a new field to explore. So I need the teacher to put that new thing into circulation somehow (eg a new concept, structure, linguistic setting etc) and draw my attention to it in the form of a puzzle of some sort. Then I need to feel the awakening of my own curiosity towards it, so I need the teacher to present a challenge that is the right size for me (a ‘wedge shaped’ challenge so everyone finds the thickness that suits them). And then I need the teacher to facilitate and encourage my curiosity and insight as well as my correctness.

New tools for a new job
My observation of classes and my reading of teacher discourse suggests that we are more preoccupied with learners’ correctness than with their insight, and that this can skew the psychological atmosphere of our classes. And this is even more important when it comes to a new field of study like pronunciation where different or new teaching and learning tools may be required, for example: Physical tools concerning “How do I find those pron muscles and get them to do something different” Listening tools concerning “How do I know when they have done something different? And thinking tools concerning “How do I conceptualise this stuff called pron and what actually is it and what’s it for and anyway how much is there of it?”

Pronunciation is a different challenge to grammar and vocabulary in that, like dance, it cannot be learnt in a primarily cognitive way, though seemingly we persist using old tools for the new job. For example, we know what concept questions are for grammar and meaning, but what are the concept questions for pronunciation (or dance)? How do you check understanding of a physical activity? How do you monitor, give feedback, intervene? See what I mean about old and new tools?

My (tentative) answer ….
So, for what it is worth here is my answer to the question at the top of this posting. I offer this for others to push against and improve. My answer is holistic in that it tries to take account of the need for mind, body and feeling in learning. There is more, but this is a start.
which I think takes account of: mobilizing the learners own motivation (para 1), insight versus correctness (para 2) and new tools for a new job (para 3).

New thinking tool: pron chart as mental map
– offers a cognitive/mental understanding of the territory and the journey
– presents the whole thing in one gestalt, showing the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole.
– offers a learners’ worktable, the equivalent of a white or blackboard for pron, on which sounds can be worked out, exercised, compared, played with, recognised, confused, put into words, taken apart again.
– makes pronunciation concrete rather than ethereal or elusive.
– brings pron effortlessly into every aspect of every lesson without need for materials or interruption, (I maintain that almost every aspect of language is linked to pronunciation, we can’t even think without evoking it)
– has a geography, a layout that is meaningful and tells you HOW and WHERE the sounds are made. This only applies to the Sound Foundations chart used on this website (it is copied wholly or partly almost everywhere, but charts without the geography are just lists, not maps).

New physical tool: pron as physical activity

My first task with any new learners (teachers of students, native or non-native speakers) is to help them connect with the muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. From this arises super-motivation as students discover a new field to explore, AND see that they can quickly get the hang of it, and that this may well lead to success. In the first hour or two I help them find just FOUR buttons which enable them to get around the mouth and find new positions of articulation. These are:
1. Tongue (forward and back)
2. Lips (spread/back and rounded/forward)
3. Jaw + tongue (up and down)
4. Voice (on or off)

If you would like insight into these two tools, and if you have a moment, visit the demonstrations on these two sites:
• For a guided tour of the chart and introduction to the physicality go here and go to the 2010 archive section about halfway down the page.
• For illustrations from my practical pronunciation workshop with teachers go here:

New psychological tool: the conducive psychological atmosphere
Well, this is not revolutionary, though if we actually did it the world would probably turn upside down. The teacher behaviour that fires up my curiosity as a learner is when:
1. The teacher too is learning. Is not doing an ‘old trick’ but is facing this new situation fresh, as a learning adventure, for the first time.
2. The teachers ‘learningful attitude’ evokes mine
3. The teacher is learning me, watching the movement of my insight, my blind spots, my exploration, like a parent watching a child in an adventure playground….
4. BUT the teacher too is in the adventure playground, and though she may understand the topic, she does not know what to do next unless she watches and interacts with me.
5. She is striving to make my subtle moves of learning visible. Only by intervening does she find how to intervene.
6. All this means too that acceptance replaces judgment, the time it takes replaces hurry (which is quicker anyway), fun replaces stress, and feedback replaces praise.
7. The teacher has the tools that are the right size for this job, and in the case of pron I have found that physicality and a chart are the starting points.

How do you try to make pron more motivating?
All of this is just talk, What counts is what we do and the impact it has. It would be useful to know what you do and what impact it has and the ways you are trying to make your pron teaching more motivating.

If you would like to explore these approaches further, and to read practical ideas and techniques to try in your class, take a look at the links in the sidebar on the right of the screen.

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4 Responses to Motivating language learners to do pronunciation work

  1. Caterina Pavesi says:

    Hi Adrian, hi everybody,
    having followed Adrian’s suggestions (as much as I could), this term I was very happy with my pronunciation lessons and students seemed to enjoy the lessons… even though they sometimes gave me puzzled looks. What is really difficult is getting them to actually say the sounds aloud, instead of just reading them in their minds. My group was large (30-40) and I could tell some of them were just lip-synching most of the time…
    The best thing, however, was that I was very motivated, unlike the previous years, because I was actually learning how to teach something new, using a new approach the students had never experienced before. Yes, I made some mistakes, but the important thing was that I was having fun with them!!!
    Now I have a question for Adrian. Last term I attended a course in history of phonetic studies. The teacher told us about a machine invented by phoneticians at the University of Zagreb in the 1920, this machine supposedly corrected wrong pronunciation by recording the learner and then adjusting the frequencies in the recording in order to help the learner hear the mistake and correct it. I don’t know exactly how this worked, but, clearly what lies behind it is the tenet:
    “the learner cannot pronounce the sounds he/she cannot hear.”
    Now, here comes the question… how do we decide that the problem is in the hearing and not in the articulating? I mean, unless we have some hearing impairment (which should be certified by a doctor) can we say for sure that learners cannot pronounce some different sounds because they cannot hear/perceive them? (as they don’t exist in their own language). The problem is we can only judge by what the learner articulates, the sounds he/she emits. Surely there is some physical component (although I would tend to place it in the mouth rather than the ear) but there are also psychological & cultural ones. I think it is a simplification, the explanation must be much more complicated. What do you think, Adrian? Thanks for your answers and for sharing your insights.

  2. Thanks for your comments Cat. It’s great to hear that you have felt happier with your pron lessons (perhaps your students’ puzzled looks are saying “why is this so much fun….?”) and no accident that you link your own motivation to your learning to teach something new…. I can connect to that in my own teaching: It seems to me that learning is contagious. When one person is really engaged in their learning it can affect others around them, especially when it is the teacher. When you are learning too you are doing what you are asking your students to do: learning! Actually I think it is more difficult to learn from a teacher who is not learning….But if the student is learning the language and the teacher is learning how best to help the student at that moment…. then both are on the same side of the learning fence! Let us know how it goes with your students who don’t say it aloud….

    About your question: Many years ago I met a teacher in Geneva who had been involved in experiments with a machine such as you describe. I will try and find out who that was, and what she did. Later on similar if not identical experiments were taken up by the extraordinary scientist, inventor and ear specialist Alfred Tomatis (1920 – 2001). He worked with all sorts of listening and speaking problems in ingenious and entirely original ways. For example he said he helped opera singers to develop the frequencies in their voice by enabling them to hear a fuller range of frequencies using the Electronic Ear that he developed, which did something similar to what you describe: It enhanced frequencies that the ear was not receptive to, for example by doctoring certain frequencies in pieces of classical music. After much listening by the patient it is reported that changes began to take place in both hearing and speaking/singing. You can find more on the web or his books, for example The Conscious Ear or The Ear and Language. This is an interesting line of enquiry.

  3. idewise says:

    Hi Adrian,
    I’ve been using some of your discovery activities in my teaching & had some fantastic reactions, and results, particularly with lower level students. I recently tried to integrate work on pronunciation with a 1 to 1 advanced class that I teach. Far from embracing it, my student ended up becoming self concious. It was as though she suddenly realised she’d been getting it wrong all these years. Do you have any tips on helping upper intermediate and advanced learners get over this feeling?

  4. Yes, good question. And I suppose that a student who is prone to feeling self conscious may be more likely to do so in the more exposed setting of 1 to 1. My advice to myself here (which may be helpful to others) is to be guided by the student’s learning processes, and indeed to facilitate the student’s learning processes by for example asking her to self assess her performance, her precision, her accuracy, her comprehensibility, her pronunciation, her speed …. and so on, whatever is relevant to the activity. And this way you go with what she notices, and explore her questions, which may gradually become more critical as she gets bolder.

    Suppose you record a few sentences of her speaking on a voice recorder or mobile video, and play it back to her and ask her what she notices about her speaking. And you can follow and deepen her self critique and interests, and get her talking about what she notices and you can gradually open up new areas as you do so. This is a great activity on its own, and much easier to do in 1 to 1. It can be fun too to record a bit of conversation between both of you. And then listen, and just chat together about what you hear, and the differences and similarities between your two ways of talking.

    An activity I like and also a good way to introduce the pron chart to a class is this: when you have a new item of vocabulary, you probably deal with its meaning, collocation, spelling and usage, and pron, and you can also ask her to say it, to point out the pron on the chart, perhaps to check the pron in the dictionary, and then back to pointing it on the chart. And just deal with what she notices, If you keep doing this you will soon find places to stretch her pronunciation a bit and to point out things she is not noticing. I’d like to know how you get on! I expect other people know this problem too and will have suggestions,

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