When Should we Start Pronunciation Training?

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I wish I had learned pronunciation earlier…

I hear this regularly from my pronunciation clients! They tend to be advanced speakers of English with high degrees of fluency and accuracy who are approaching pronunciation in a structured way for the first time.

Once they start getting answers to long-standing pronunciation mysteries and enjoying real-life improvement and confidence, they often express frustration that they didn’t learn pronunciation years ago when they were still in the elementary and intermediate levels.

This is understandable, but would it really be a good idea to focus heavily on pronunciation in elementary English courses? 

Introducing pronunciation earlier

An obvious benefit of introducing pronunciation early  is that pronunciation is learned at the same time as the meaning of new words and phrases, so the correct* pronunciation is there from the start. Learners don’t continue for years mispronouncing or feeling unsure about certain words; they are equipped right from Day 1 with well-practised pronunciation patterns that can serve them well for life.

Sounds great! However, reality hits in the shape of time and priorities. In the EFL classroom, there are a million important learning points, particularly at the elementary stages. It’s natural for teachers to put pronunciation far down the to-do list when basic structures and vocabulary items are still in process. Teachers may worry that insisting on pronunciation points at this stage can waste time or even damage a learner’s confidence. Valid concerns.

Leaving it until later

While many of my clients feel they missed out by not learning pronunciation earlier, a clear advantage of leaving it until later is the freedom to concentrate on pronunciation only. Once the language itself is in place, those who want to dive into pronunciation can accompany it with the confidence that (usually) comes with knowing the language as a whole. Also, crucially, instructions are easy to understand.

The flip side is that pronunciation habits are likely to have been ingrained over many years. When you’re a fluent and spontaneous speaker, words just flow and it can be challenging to introduce new habits. This is often what leads my clients to express frustration that they didn’t learn pronunciation in more detail earlier, feeling that they’ve been ‘getting it wrong’ for years.

Reality

Recently, in a rather unique case for me, I started working with an elementary learner of English who is very keen on including pronunciation in this early stage of their journey.

For me as a teacher, it’s been a refreshing challenge. I make pronunciation points simple, laser focused and as related to spelling as possible (not always easy with English). Instructions must be crystal clear and concise. Demonstration and repetition, while always important in pronunciation training, are our life rafts! Video demos play a bigger part than they might do with a more advanced speaker of the language.

Sometimes I worry that it’s a bit too much at this stage, that there are indeed other priorities for this learner, but then I see it happen: my client producing new items of vocabulary with clear pronunciation right from the start, and I think this is different

Like with any client, we’ll keep revisiting and redefining objectives as the journey goes on but for now, it works.

What really matters...

Many EFL teachers do include level-appropriate pronunciation teaching. I remember plentiful materials and activities from my own Business English days. However, I also remember that pronunciation would often get pushed aside or treated as an afterthought. This displeased me. Unsurprisingly, I loved teaching pronunciation, even back then 🙂

At elementary level, it would indeed be inappropriate and time-wasting to insist on e.g. dropping the r in words like car. It’s accent specific and, for intelligibility, it just doesn’t matter.

Yet, seat vs sit, scream vs screen and stressing the right syllable in deVElop are hugely important to smooth interactions and ultimately, confidence in the language. 

And that’s what it’s all about, right?

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Thanks for reading 🙂

*…for want of a better word. I don’t normally use the term ‘correct’ pronunciation but here, I mean pronounced in a way that is highly unlikely to cause misunderstanding.