Teaching English sounds

What are the priorities? Here are some of the main criteria:

  1. Comprehensible: are learners able to identify the sounds and are their articulations understood by native speakers?
  2. Social Acceptability: are learners producing sounds that are aesthetically acceptable to the ears of native speakers?
  3. Ease of Production: do learners have a good chance of successfully learning to produce the sounds?
  4. Number of familiar words (functional load): do the sounds occur frequently in essential &/or very useful words?
  5. Likely to be a bad habit affecting other sounds: are errors getting in the way of other important targets?

Functional load, frequency and meaning

Confusing / θ / and / ð / the final consonant sounds in "bath" and "bathe" will rarely lead to misunderstanding. However, breakdown in communication could easily occur when a speaker or listener confuses /s/ and / θ / the initial sounds in "sink" and "think" or / ð / and /z/ the final consonant sounds in "lathe" and "laze".

This is likely to affect learners of English from French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Russian language backgrounds. Speakers of these languages do not have separate phonemes for these English consonant sound contrasts.

The consonant contrasts affect many common English words, so poor production of these sounds will be noticeable. Teaching should focus on both recognition and production. Difficulty of production should not be too great, because the above consonant sounds are produced at the front of the mouth i.e. this motor skill is not too difficult to learn.

Phonology lessons will centre on:

  1. Hearing: physical demonstration. Discrimination exercises e.g. ship or sheep? / ɪ / or / i: / ?
    Which vowel sounds occur in: "it", "bit", "eat", "fit", "feet", "seat", "sit" ?
  2. Production. Physically making sounds.
  3. Expanded contexts. Phrases and sentences as well as phonemes between closed consonants.

Identifying the English sounds which your learners may find difficult




Click HERE for lists of Common English pronunciation mistakes by language background

An interest in common mistakes by language background motivates some learners and teachers to give further attention to the field of contrastive linguistics and concepts such as language interference. I would highly recommend the following publication, which explores learners' difficulties in both English phonology and English grammar by language background:.

Learner English Michael Swan (Ed.), Bernard Smith (Ed.) [26/04/2001]

Learner English: Audio CD

Practice materials for learners with access to teachers or native English speakers

The lists of Common English pronunciation mistakes by language background on this site are linked to practice exercises in the form of minimal pairs.

These exercises are formed of two columns. The teacher or native English speaker can read words aloud and ask learners if they are "the same" (both from the same column i.e. read the same word twice) or "different" (adjacent words have been read from different columns). Alternatively, the learner can do the reading aloud & questioning and the native teacher can check that learners have made the correct audible differences where intended. Learners can also do these exercises in pairs, but if possible language backgrounds should be mixed up to prevent common mistakes from being reinforced.

Published materials for self study or class use

There are a number of published books [L1 = beginner; L6 = high level], mostly illustrated to help with meanings and accompanied by audio recordings, which have proved popular with learners over many years:

[L1]-[L2] Tree or Three? : Student Book (2nd Edition) and 3 audio CDs - by Ann Baker, Leslie Marshall [10/11/2006]

[L2]-[L4] English Pronunciation in Use Elementary Book with answers and audio [25/01/2007]

[L2]-[L4] Ship or Sheep? (3rd Edition) Student Book (third edition) and 4 audio CDs - by Ann Baker [10/11/2006]

[L3]-[L5] English Pronunciation Illustrated: Student Book John Trim, Peter Kneebone [01/11/1975] amusing drawings + excellent collection of minimal pairs

[L3]-[L5] English Pronunciation in Use Intermediate Book with answers and audio [21/05/2012]

[L4]-[L6] English Pronunciation in Use Advanced Book with answers and audio [26/02/2007]

How much phonology do teachers and learners of English language need to know and use?

Language is a means of communication. Differences in sound systems have a phonological basis. They depend on variation in speech organ positions or breath control. It is therefore an advantage if teachers understand the physical aspects of sound production. Teachers will not necessarily teach these to students, but this knowledge will provide a basis for teachers to identify the physical reasons for inaccurate approximations of the language sounds learners are aiming at. Knowledge of the phonology of the target language enables teachers to give precise instructions which will help students correct faulty pronunciation.

"Unless the teacher understands how the student is using his speech organs in producing a native language sound and what he should be doing to reproduce the foreign language sound acceptably, he cannot help the student beyond a certain stage of earnest but inaccurate imitation." [Teaching Foreign-Language Skills Wilga M Rivers 1981]

Incorrectly articulated consonants will affect the production of vowels, as vowels will affect consonants. Students therefore require steady practice and muscle training. Pronunciation is a motor skill that needs practice.

Do I need to learn the phonemic symbols?

Yes, if you want to be able to learn spoken English efficiently and independently (i.e. able to use a reference book such as a Pronouncing Dictionary).

Of course, many people have learnt English successfully without knowing phonemic or phonetic symbols. However, a small amount of knowledge will allow you to use reference books, finding out for yourself how English words are pronounced and which syllables in the words are stressed or unstressed.

The task for learners familiar with the English alphabet is not so difficult. There are only 44 English phonemes, mostly represented by symbols already familiar to people who use the letters a to z in their native langages. Just a few symbols need practising

Where can I practise the symbols which aren't obvious?



Is phonetics needed too?

Phonetics has three main branches

  1. articulatory phonetics - how the organs of articulation are used to produce speech sounds
  2. acoustic phonetics - studying the physical properties of speech sounds
  3. auditory phonetics - how people perceive speech sounds

Learners and teachers of English language should not need so much detail unless they intend to specialise in fields such as Applied Linguistics, language disability and artificial intelligence as well as learning English. For example, a speech therapist would normally have studied articulatory phonetics and would also use a system of transcription to log specific areas of language disability; artificial intelligence draws upon acoustic phonetics in applications such as speech recognition (programming a drinks machine, front door, or log-in system to recognise speech).

If your are only interested in learning a single variety of English (e.g. Received Pronunciation), you will be happy to discover that the 44 phonemes on the English phoneme chart are mostly also present within within the International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA].

So after learning just the 44 British English phonemic symbols, you will be able to get good use out of an English Pronouncing Dictionary where head words are paired with IPA transcriptions. Some of these dictionaries now have audio components to give further help

I would highly recommend either of the following for independent study of English pronunciation:

Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th Edition) with CD-ROM [06/10/2011]

Longman Pronunciation Dictionary with interactive CD by John Wells [ 03/04/2008]

Who does need phonetics?

A fuller knowledge of phonetics would only be needed if teachers or learners were doing a detailed analysis of British regional accents or how international varieties of English (e.g. American, Australian, South African, Canadian) vary in their vowel & consonant sounds). Teachers or learners intending to take Masters Degrees in Applied Linguistics are likely to find a need for phonetics.

Phonetics goes further than the phonology of a single variety of English (e.g. Received Pronunciation), since it concerns itself with all possible sounds that human organs of articulation can produce. The phonetic alphabet would be needed to represent regional or international variations in English phonemes. For example, around the British Isles, the pronunciation of / r / has several variants. The alveolar approximant [ ɹ ] is used in received pronunciation, but the flap [ ɾ ] is common in Northern England, Scotland and Wales, the uvular [ ʀ ] is heard in the north-east of England, and the labiodental [ ʋ ] is sometimes heard in the south of England. Likewise, in American English, the sound / t / following a stressed vowel and before an unstressed one (as in the words "letter" or "better") is a voiced flap [ t̬ ] as represented in narrow phonetic transcription.

Phonetic script is therefore much more precise in its analysis than phonemic script. Note that A single phonetic symbol (or a phonetic script i.e. a string of phonetic symbols) should be contained between square brackets, while a single phoneme (or a phonemic script) is contained within forward slash marks = /.

Book recommendation - British English pronunciation

Gimson's Pronunciation of English [ 29th January, 2015 ]
Originally published in 1962 as "An introduction to the pronunciation of English", there has been nothing to better this course, which covers the production of speech, sounds in a language, the English vowel sounds and the English consonant sounds as well as social (e.g. Received Pronunciation), geographical (e.g. Regional Variations) and historical perspectives.

Book recommendations - regional & international English accents and dialects

English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction To Social And Regional Varieties Of English In The British Isles - by Arthur Hughes and Peter Trudgill [13th September, 2013]
This book is most suited to students of sociolinguistics who wish to sample variations from "received pronunciation" within the geographical regions specified in the title. The level of analysis is for people with a background in linguistics. However, an actor or actress wishing to perfect their Lowland Scots, Devon or Dublin accent and to pick up some of the lexical items in a particular dialect, may find this a valuable source. There is an accompanying audio cassette.

International English: A Guide to Varieties of Standard English by Peter Trudgill and Jean Hannah [15th August, 2008]
This study takes English beyond the British Isles. Here the analysis focuses on variations from "received pronunciation" across Continents. "International English" covers the distinctive features of English in England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Wales, the USA, Canada, Ireland, the West Indies, West Africa and India. Again, the work is probably most likely to appeal to students of sociolinguistics (language and society) at university level. However, this and the previous title make excellent background reading for any student undertaking stylistic analysis of any regional, social or occupational variety of English. Sixth formers in UK Secondary Schools are now continuously assessed on project work, which may include a study of the language of journalism (news reports), advertising, pop music, fashion, teenagers or other social groups. These projects are usually functionally based and adequate attention is usually given to language function and lexis. Further consideration could probably be extended to how phonetic & phonological features help to recognise the functions of professional and/or social registers. Some background in phonetics or phonology is really needed to get the most out of these works.

Book recommendations - phonetics

A Course in Phonetics by Peter Ladefoget [ 20th January 2014 ]
This book, originally published in 1975, has also been through several editions and is still acknowledged as the best course for university undergraduates seriously interested in articulatory phonetics.

Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: A Guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet [6th April, 2001]
If you are looking towards a recognised qualification in both the practice and theory of phonetics, then the handbook will allow you to see the IPA Chart and will give you some idea of the number of sounds you will have to cover, including the bilabial click (a kissing sound which exists in several African languages, though not in English!). Likely candidates for the recognised public examination include linguists who are expected to be able to transcribe speech or speech therapists who are expected to have a thorough knowledge of speech organs and the methods of articulation.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language by David Crystal [04/08/2003] - although only 20 pages out of over 450 pages are on the English sound system, they are very well written and illustrated. This encyclopedia provides an attractively presented overview which includes most of what a learner or teacher needs to know about the English language. It is especially useful if you are seeking clear definitions of terminology used in the description of language. David Crystal has made valuable contributions to applied linguistics ranging beyond the needs of English teachers & learners. His books have cast clarity on complex subjects such as the theory of intonation, investigating English style (e.g. occupational and social varieties), the description of language disability. He is equally readable in entertaining histories such as The Stories of English [01/01/2006] and The Story of English in 100 words [05/07/2012]. An interest in English language need not limit learners to careers in teaching. There are careers for good phoneticians both in education and the health service at levels ranging from classroom teacher or practical therapist to senior researcher. David Crystal's encyclopedia is an eye-opener.

Educational resources for phonetics and phonology from University College London.

Speech Science Primer: Physiology, Acoustics, and Perception of Speech [22nd February, 2011]
Widely used in academic institutions where phonetics and phonology are taught alongside pathology and audiology.