P is for Pronunciation

Ken Beatty Dr. Ken Beatty

The best gift I ever received was three large boxes of books. My much-older cousin, Donald, was a doctoral student in oceanography and was due to spend the better part of a year far from our homes in Vancouver, Canada, sailing in the Russian arctic. Before he left, he piled about 300 paperback science-fiction novels and short-story collections into boxes and deposited them at my feet with the words, “I think you will enjoy these.”

I was 12, it was the first day of summer vacation, and I was hooked. Over the next lazy months and into the fall, I read obsessively.

I finished them all.

The consequences, I realize now, were profound. My reading speed and vocabulary certainly increased. My imagination was sparked, as was my critical thinking: “How could that alien dinosaur find anything to eat on that dusty moon?!” But one small casualty of the epic reading binge was my pronunciation.

When any language learner acquires vocabulary, there can be mismatches between hearing and comprehension. This is extremely common when we mishear song lyrics, such as the lines of the Bob Dylan song: “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” which some have misheard as “The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind.”

This type of error points to the mental mechanisms our brains try to employ to make sense of what we hear, approximating new strings of sounds like a smartphone app to find the closest pronunciation that provides meaning. However, in my case, my error was typical of those who learn new vocabulary through reading. For some reason, I had read the word robot over and over, mentally pronouncing it as row-but (IPA / roʊ bʌt /) rather than the standard (for my local Canadian dialect) robot, row-bought (IPA / roʊ bɑt /). Through my adolescence, no one corrected me or, if they did, I paid them no mind.

The blame is not exclusively mine. In large part, it has to do with the irrational nature of English pronunciation. Variations occur to such an extent that it’s questionable whether or not we should teach many of them. In 1922, a Dutch writer by the name of G. Nolst Trenité compiled about 800 challenging words into one poem that he called The Chaos. Most native English speakers have difficulty getting through the poem without making a dozen or more errors. Try it yourself, reading the following 13 lines aloud at a brisk pace (the full poem is further below):

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Even with the assistance of the rhyming portions, pronouncing the poem correctly is still a challenge and surprisingly typical of the pronunciation hurdles that learners need to leap over to communicate successfully.

How can teachers help? It begins with understanding the complex nature of pronunciation.

First, as seen with the Bob Dylan example, the brain has to understand what is being heard and match the sounds to meaningful words. Part of this is deciding what is significant in pronunciation. For example, some Asian languages have a different perception of the significance of r and l when they listen and speak. Other languages, and even other English dialects, feature other differences. In addition, native English speakers routinely drop sounds at the start, middle, or end of words, often blending them together or changing sounds so that a simple question like What’s up? becomes Wassup?

Once the sound is understood, there are a variety of physiological issues that go into pronunciation. These include processes that occur in the throat with the control of air, with shaping the mouth, and through arranging the tongue and lips. For students whose languages do not include the same consonant and vowel sounds, there is a learning curve to control the organs of speech. There are additionally cultural issues, such as a reluctance to show the tongue during the pronunciation of l sounds.

Here are five tips to help learners.

1. Separate pronunciation from other lessons. Too often, teachers will correct grammar, usage, and pronunciation together, leading to criticisms like, “That’s the wrong word, and not the right part of speech, and you’re saying it wrong.” Make pronunciation its own lesson.

2. Listen to decide when a student’s errors are simple one-time mistakes or more systematic pronunciation errors that need to be remediated. Let simple mistakes slide so you can focus on the more important errors.

3. Consider when to use implicit and explicit correction. Implicit correction involves repeating what the student has said, but with the correct pronunciation. Explicit involves explaining why the pronunciation is wrong.

4. Use visual aids to make the learning memorable. These might include a chart of a cutaway view of the mouth, tongue, and teeth to show where pronunciation occurs. A colleague used to bring his son’s toy hammer and toy pliers to the classroom. He used the hammer to beat out the rhythm and intonation of sentences on the desks and threatened to use the pliers to pull out students’ tongues when they failed to pronounce l sounds effectively.

5. Instead of always focusing on what is wrong, take time to praise the weakest students when they pronounce something correctly. This shifts students from thinking that they have poor pronunciation to the idea that they have problems pronouncing some words and, with practice, can improve.

I’m an example! After several decades, I’ve learned to pronounce robot!

Tasks for Teachers

1. Ask students to choose a short piece of writing that interests them and that is appropriate to their age and level. Have them record it, checking their pronunciation, and rerecording it until they are satisfied that it is their best effort. Ask them to check it with peers before sharing it with you or the class.

2. Ask students to find a recorded piece of dialogue, such as a speech, and record themselves reading it. Ask them to compare their pronunciation to that of the recording in the same way. Ask them to check with peers.

Tasks for Learners

1. Read the poem The Chaos by G. Nolst Trenité in a group. Help each other by first underlining the words you already know and know how to pronounce, and then teach them to others in the group. Some words, like Melpomene and Terpsichore (goddesses of tragedy and dance, respectively) are uncommon, but you can look up the pronunciation anyway.

The Chaos
by G. Nolst Trenité

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;
One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,
Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.
Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.
Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;
Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.
Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.
Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

2. Pick ten or so words from The Chaos to write your own poem or story. Share it with other students.


Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D.M. & Snow, M.A. (eds.) (2014) Teaching English as a second or foreign language (4th ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Dylan, B. (1963). Blowin’ in the wind. The freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. New York: Columbia Records.

Trenité, G. N. (1922). The chaos. Retrieved from: http://ncf.idallen.com/english.html

Dr. Ken Beatty, teacher trainer, writer, and TESOL Professor, has promoted best teaching and learning practices from primary through university levels in 300+ sessions in 31 countries. Ken is author of 130+ textbooks, including books in the Pearson series Learning English for Academic Purposes (LEAP).

Preparing Intermediate and Advanced Learners for EAP Studies: More than a One-Size-Fits-All Approach

robyn_brinks_ps (1)Robyn Brinks Lockwood, with Sara Davila


One challenge facing instructors in second language programs today is providing a course that will be challenging and rigorous enough to ensure that students are prepared quickly and appropriately for their content classes at English-speaking universities. Perhaps students will only have one session in an EAP course to work on improving reading and writing to keep up with content for their degrees. Or maybe students need to take two or three classes to achieve an appropriate level of English language mastery to even be admitted into a university. Regardless, the role of the English language teacher in this environment is critical to a learner’s success in a degree program. The most effective teachers will be prepared to provide content that is appropriate and authentic to get learners on the college track and prepare them to meet and exceed expectations in their content programs.

Teachers can only provide such content when there is a clear understanding of what learners need to learn at this level. Students at this level often demonstrate a high degree of oral proficiency and can maintain and extend discourse with native speakers fairly fluently, so teachers often feel that they are already advanced enough to succeed in an L1 setting.

Despite this high degree of proficiency in speaking, these students struggle with reading and writing, especially lengthy, textbook chapter-length readings and writing assignments beyond the five-paragraph essay. The challenges may look similar enough to what teachers already recognize as problems for L2 learners; in other words, it is tempting to say the learners are all high-intermediate or even advanced and design a program accordingly. To do this, though, ignores the difference in proficiency between learners at these more advanced levels and fails to take students to the level they need to successfully survive in an L1 setting where they interact with L1 speakers rather than as part of a classroom where everyone is an L2 learner. In order to develop the ideal program, it helps to first define the differences between our highly skilled learners. Continue reading

N is for Note-taking*

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“Now, remember, don’t tip your hat to another witch unless she tips hers first—you’re still an apprentice. And if you should come across some fellweed, be sure to pick it, but only if it’s the four-leaf variety. The five-leaf kind will rot your fingers.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

Mason made a mental note not to touch anything with five leaves.

Cowel made a mental note not to touch anything. (Anderson, 2007)

I can’t remember the book in which I first read the term mental note, but I remember the author used it excessively. My 12-year-old self was following the adventures of some junior adventurer who used these mental notes as a cheap plot device to foreshadow further adventures and drum up anticipation. But I found the idea enchanting: my own brain could hide a secret vault brimming with my wild ideas.

Now, like all adults, I find my secret mental vault over-stuffed and increasingly less secure with short-term memories more susceptible to decay, and my ability to retrieve mental notes is sometimes akin to reading words written in smoke. To compensate, I make lists, sometimes on paper and sometimes on my laptop. I flirt with phone apps that promise to organize my notes for me, but generally find them unwieldy. Continue reading

How the International Phonetic Alphabet
Can Help Us Teach Pronunciation


Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

How can we teach students to begin mastering the art of pronunciation autonomously? There is a very helpful tool that can be utilized in classrooms, one we may not be familiar with or may not have thought of using: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This resource is especially useful when helping students with consonants.

Here is what the IPA gives us to help us distinguish consonant sound formation. At first look you may ask, as I did, what does all this mean and how can this help me? One good reason to understand the IPA is that many dictionaries use the IPA symbols. So let’s take a minute to understand how to interpret this chart. First, see how it’s organized.

IPA chart

(Wondering what pulmonic means? Of course you are, you teach English. The Wikipedia definition is: A pulmonic consonant is a consonant produced by air pressure from the lungs, as opposed to ejective, implosive, and click consonants.)

Most languages have only pulmonic consonants.

The IPA helps us with three important areas: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing.

The basics are: In order to make sounds, we need to manipulate the structure of our mouth, tongue, teeth, and throat. We produce different sounds by manipulating our mouth, tongue, teeth, and throat to various places to induce some type of obstruction in the airflow. The various obstructions help produce the various sounds.

Place of articulation has two categories: Active and Passive Articulators. These are listed on the chart as Bilabial, Labiodental, Dental, Alveolar, Postalveolar, Retroflex, Palatal, Velar, Uvular, Pharyngeal, and Glottal Consonants. These various airflow obstructions are all listed at the top of the IPA chart. Thank goodness not all of these are needed in the English language! But, we should be aware that these do exist in other languages, some of which may be the native languages of our English language learners.

Next is manner of articulation, which is listed on the left-hand side of the chart. This tells us how much airflow is being obstructed. Near total obstruction is listed at the top and a minimal amount near the bottom.

Let’s start with the second from the top, nasal, because many of us have used exaggerated examples of nasal. If we say the word nasal, we are diverting the air totally from the throat directly through the nose to produce the “n” sound. Nice! Now try “m.” You’ll notice that some of the air flows into the closed mouth before exiting through the nose. The tongue, lips, and teeth are positioned differently: meditate, moving, muscles.

Now let’s try plosives. Plosives stop the airflow altogether and allow pressure to build up and then be released in an “explosive” manner. English has six plosive consonants: p, b, t, d, k, and g.

Finally, we have voicing. Voicing is the differentiation between similarities of place and manner. For example, let’s take the consonants p and b. We produce both consonants using the same place and manner structures. However, p and b are differentiated by the production of a non-vibrated p and a slightly vibrated b. Try it. Say both consonants and feel the difference in your throat. In class, have your students try the same exercise. Continue reading

J is for Jokes

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It felt like hours.

The joke my student was trying to tell perhaps took no more than three or four minutes, but it involved many clarification moves on my part (“I’m sorry, do you mean …?”) and repair moves on his part, hesitating, saying the wrong word, and then backing up to explain (“I mean ….”). At the end of it all, the disjointed story (“Oh, before that, I meant to say ….”) coalesced into an anecdote he’d read about a diner receiving a free meal at a restaurant after finding a cockroach in his soup. Afterward, the apologetic server humbly escorts the diner to the door and helps him with his coat when, unfortunately for the diner, a bottle full of cockroaches spills from the coat’s pocket.

I smiled weakly and nodded, but the student was far from finished; he felt compelled to explain the obvious: the bottle meant that the diner doubtlessly made a regular practice of obtaining free meals by this same deception. I nodded again, then gently steered the conversation back to the topic of the class.

Plateaus of language learning ascend from a base of knowing a few words and phrases, to asking yes/no and simple information questions, to using language to learn more about language (“How do you say ____ in English?”). Above those plateaus tower the mountains of dreaming in the target language and making jokes.

In part, jokes are challenging because they may violate some or all of Grice’s (1975) four maxims of how to best share information, summarized below:

Quantity—be concise
Quality—be accurate and truthful
Relation—be relevant
Manner—be clear, brief, and orderly

In the case of my student, there were several impediments to his telling the joke successfully. I suspect he hadn’t mentally rehearsed the story in English and was translating on the fly, so he was not concise. He did not have all the necessary vocabulary items at his disposal, so he was not accurate. In a conversation one expects a speaker to be truthful although in a joke the opposite is often true. But the context—or setup—usually needs to establish the fact that a joke is to follow, as with a well-known opening phrase like, “Three ____ walk into a bar and ….” This is akin to recognizing that the phrase “Once upon a time” signals the start of a fairy tale.

Alternatively, a joke might be introduced with a phrase such as, “Have you heard the one about ….” But the student did neither, so there was nothing to indicate that my class or I should suspend disbelief and understand that an untruthful story was being told for amusement. In the context of the classroom where the joke was delivered, I would have expected the student’s talk to focus on the learning of English as a second language, so it didn’t appear relevant. And because he rambled, he wasn’t clear, brief, or orderly.

However, many forms of jokes can be exploited in various ways in the language classroom. Continue reading