Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pronunciation—To Teach or Not to Teach?

The Problem
As an L2 teacher, do you ever find that your students are frustrated because they feel their accent is different from that of native speakers? For decades, pronunciation has been treated like an “orphan” by L2 curriculum designers, language departments, and textbook writers, leaving teachers with little in the way of resources for teaching this skill. Complicating this problem even further, it’s unclear to many how important it is to have a native-sounding accent and whether non-native adult speakers can acquire native-like pronunciation.

The Study 
In response to these issues and to skepticism over the effectiveness of pronunciation instruction, the number of studies that aim to understand pronunciation instruction and its impact on learners’ intelligibility and perceived comprehensibility has increased in recent years. Mark Tanner and Melissa Landon (2009) conducted a quasi-experimental study to evaluate a self-directed, computer-assisted cued pronunciation reading (CPR) technique with 75 intermediate ESL students. After 11 weeks (10 min per day) of lab treatment, students significantly improved in their perception of pausing and word stress as well as their production of word stress. Although they didn’t show short-term improvement in perceived comprehensibility, the students reported that the lab work helped them a lot with their pronunciation and even gave them more self-confidence when speaking.

The Take-Home Message 
This study differs from most other pronunciation studies in that the teachers did not provide feedback or grade the students but simply reminded them to complete the CPR tasks. This offers an excellent option for those who are not 100% confident/comfortable teaching pronunciation, or in cases when the curricula don’t include pronunciation instruction. Even though it’s hard for adult L2 speakers to have a native-sounding accent, they can still improve in certain aspects. Finally, although CPR tasks like those in the study can be used as a stand-alone component, combining them with explicit instruction and feedback may lead to even greater improvement.

Article Citation 
Tanner, M. W., & Landon, M. M. (2009). The effects of computer-assisted pronunciation readings on ESL learners’ use of pausing, stress, intonation, and overall comprehensibility. Language Learning & Technology, 13, 51-65.

Entry by Yuan (Helen) Zhuang

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