The Recent History of Pronunciation Teaching in English Language Teaching

Pronunciation Teaching

by Steve Hirschhorn

In Europe, pronunciation teaching prior to the late 19th c relied largely on imitation along with approximations derived from spelling and so, unsurprisingly, little was written on the topic in comparison with the teaching of structure or meaning. This scarcity of recorded information may result from a lack of technical understanding which is quite likely, but perhaps also because classical language study (the main area of scrutiny in the literature) never really required learners to engage in communicative interaction.

J. R. Firth writing in 1930 makes the point nicely:

The more you talk like a book, the less your pronunciation matters! (177)

It is self-evident that pronunciation only achieves a central position in language teaching if language is seen at least in part as a system of oral communication. If, as in the case of Grammar Translation, language is seen as a theoretical study or a means to enable further study of, for example literature, then pronunciation plays an awkward and tuneless second fiddle to the great instruments of structure, syntax and vocabulary.

The Reform Movement of the late 19thc changed all that, and in fact the face of language teaching for ever. The intellectual leader of the group, Henry Sweet, might in a sense be seen as the father of pronunciation teaching since it is primarily his work in the last third of the 19th and beginning of the 20thc which brought phonetics into the practical arena of language teaching for the first time. Sweet began the analysis of the relationship between sound production and vocal organs which we now take for granted; this work being developed extensively by Daniel Jones and later by his student, A.C.Gimson in An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English (1962).

Discussing the state of language teaching in 1921, Harold Palmer describes a situation in which branches of research are beginning to co-operate. He cites pronunciation work especially:

For years past phoneticians have been busily engaged with research work […] a universal terminology is coming into existence […] a universal phonetic alphabet is well on its way […] the principles of phonetics and phonetic transcription are developing rapidly… (77)

He notes that similar co-operation and advances are not being undertaken in grammar and semantics, but is nonetheless optimistic for the future. Palmer hoped that aligned fields of science would work together to examine some burning questions, in that sense, to some degree, he was right. Included in this work is a clear reference to the teaching and learning of pronunciation:

if ear training is neglected during the elementary stage he [the learner] will replace foreign sounds by native ones and insert intrusive sounds into the words of the language he is learning. (17)

Language learning, says Palmer, requires one of two methods to acquire proficiency: learning by theory or learning by imitation. Palmer believes that adults in whom the capacity to learn is now dormant, must have that facility reawakened by a series of exercises. Amongst Palmer’s ‘initial preparation’ strategies are:

• ear training exercises
• articulation exercises and
• mimicry of a native-speaker model.

This list informs us of the importance Palmer attached to pronunciation training and as a consequence, we are able to discern that language was being treated at least to some degree, as a system of meanings, the 2 surely go hand in hand.

Historically the practice of pronunciation teaching falls into two main categories or theories:

Intuitive and analytical. The first, intuitive, relying on imitation, the teacher models something and students repeat and the second, analytical, being reinforced by explanations of articulatory processes.
The intuitive methodology was generally more accessible to the teacher (who may or may not have received some training) and probably to students too and so, the analytical procedures never really gained a firm foothold until the early 20th c.

In the hundred years between around 1850 and 1950, there had been a sense that language was ultimately not describable but the Reform Movement was instrumental in dispelling that sense.
It is probably no coincidence that the ability to describe sound production corresponded with technological advances allowing us to record and replay the human voice with ever-increasing accuracy. So, helpful and precise descriptions of pronunciation processes became available to teacher and student alike.

Charles Fries in Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language, 1945, which advocates the oral approach, says:

In learning a foreign language, then, the chief problem is not […] learning the vocabulary items. It is, first, the mastery of the sound system… (3)

Fries goes further, to suggest that:

a person has ‘learned’ a foreign language when he has first, within a limited vocabulary, mastered the sound system, that is, when he can understand a stream of speech and achieve an understandable production of it. (3)

Fries again, touches on an area with which we are all familiar – that of sounding like and perhaps feeling like a child as we struggle to get our vocal apparatus around new and unfamiliar sounds. Fries certainly can’t be accused of sentimentality noting that a learner has a simple choice to make:

…if he achieves an accurate reproduction, he will sound peculiar to himself; if he fails to achieve accurate reproduction and does not sound peculiar to himself he will sound very peculiar to the native speakers of the language he is trying to learn. (5)

The point Fries is making is that students must:

throw off all restraint and self-consciousness as far as the making of strange sounds is concerned. (5)

Very easy to say but not so easy to put into action. Fries however, is clear (as most of his contemporaries are) that language learning is a matter of good habit formation. The Oral Approach places pronunciation teaching or training centrally as Fries says:

The speech is the language.(6)

Fries’ work also emphasised the importance of prosodic features – the stress, rhythm and intonation of spoken language; Fries calls these ‘covering patterns’. He has a system of relative tones, numbered 1-4, which at first sight is quite daunting and must have been more so for the learner, possibly unused to linguistic analysis of any formal sort.

Fries emphasised the need to develop a discriminatory listening skill before attempting to pronounce. Minimal pairs featured largely and students were required to recognise the difference between read / rid, raid/red and so on. Fries advises that the instructor should provide a description of how sounds are articulated – not dissimilar to the way some teachers might go about it today. Exaggerated imitation was also employed by Fries as was the technique of reading an L1 text using L2 sounds and pitch to encourage students to compare the sound systems.

The use of an analytical approach is one of the features, which distinguishes the Oral Approach from the Direct Methodists of the early 20th c who held no truck with analytical processes. This seems clear if one considers that the Direct Method in its strictest form allowed for no translation and little if any explanation holding as it did to many of the traditions of the ‘natural methods’ which propose that L2 is, or should be, acquired in ways similar to L1. Imitation was the norm since it was assumed that L1 was learned by imitation.

Moving ahead to 1971, Nilsen and Nilsen produced ‘Pronunciation Contrasts in English’ which told instructors that their students’:

areas of difficulty are predictable because they result from native language interference in which the deeply established first language habits of the student tend to predominate until the new English speech patterns have been firmly mastered.(vii)

It seems that we had yet to arrive at a broader understanding of interlanguage phonology. We are though now combining intuitive and analytical theories since Nilsen and Nilsen present drills for the student, example sentences which purport to provide contextual clues and also explanations of articulation in the form of diagrams and technical descriptions.

Peter MacCarthy in his 1978 publication: The Teaching of Pronunciation suggests an auditory training regime comprising discrimination exercises, comparison exercises and technical description by students and teacher. MacCarthy also promotes the idea of conscious make-believe; students ‘pretend’ to be English, adopting what they have observed to be English mannerisms and accent. They can do this in L1 or L2. This idea of course is taken to its natural limit in Lozanov’s Suggestopedia. Here students adopt a ‘new’ L2 identity in order to reduce self-consciousness when functioning in L2.

In the early 70s we still hold on to the notion that L1 interference (or transfer) is the main cause of learner error despite F.G. French’s 1949 observation that different L1 speakers were making the same errors and that there may be more to it than simple transfer!

David Wilkins in his general investigation of Linguistics in Language Teaching (1972) notes that context will usually assist the speakers whose pronunciation would otherwise not meet expected standards of comprehension. Viewers of the 1980s British TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo will recall the famous mispronunciations of the policemoan; that phonological joke wouldn’t have worked had viewers not understood the message.

If a learner’s pronunciation is ‘faulty’ (Wilkins’ word, not mine) the quantity of phonological redundancy has been decreased and so creates difficulties for the listener. To understand this better, if we had a language which contained 4 phonemes (unlikely, I know but bear with me), we would need to pay very great attention to the features of those phonemes since every detail would have to contain more or less vital information for the comprehension of the message. There would be no room for redundancy rather like computer languages in which 1 apparently tiny error results in 100% misunderstanding.

All human languages have redundancy and Wilkins’ point is that we need to develop the skills and abilities of our learners so that their L2 is fully redundant.

During the 1980s with the expansion of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), pronunciation was left rather on the sideboard by many materials writers; strange if we consider that the more language is seen as a theoretical study, the less pronunciation is central. You’d expect then that CLT would have put pronunciation teaching on the front burner. What little there was tended to be segmental.

Perhaps we can briefly overview some of the material from the period:

Streamline English, 1978, offers drills in a variety of formats and little more than listen and repeat. Almost no rationale is offered to the teacher and by the way, the student is still referred to as ‘he’!

Jeremy Harmer’s influential The Practice of English Language Teaching, 1983, does not even contain a content heading dealing with pronunciation; bearing in mind that this book was basic reading for all new EL teachers. Instead, if we look up pronunciation in the index we can access a comment here and there such as the 200 words discussion on page 25.The revised edition published in 2001 has a complete chapter on pronunciation including a little theory and some copies of pronunciation activities.

Even the otherwise ground-breaking Cobuild published in 1988 offered scant assistance to teacher or learner regarding pronunciation. Boxes marked: ‘English Sounds’ contain mini activities to focus students on particular pronunciation areas but it’s all a bit ‘by the way’.

Prospects Advanced published in 1988 doesn’t mention pronunciation at all, anywhere.
Jane Revell’s 1990 Connect teacher’s book approaches pronunciation but discretely, dealing perhaps with 2 or 3 phonemes in one unit and ‘linking words together’ in another followed by weak forms and then stress and rhythm in another unit.

Compass 1, 1991 teacher’s book shows that almost every unit in the student’s books has pronunciation focus sections using IPA and showing weak forms and connected speech.

The minimal notes in Headway Pre-Intermediate Teacher’s book from 1991 on pronunciation reads like an ad for

students to buy the book and tape doing no more than suggesting that pronunciation materials will provide ‘balance and variety in your timetable’.

Cross Country 2, 1994 teacher’s book presents sections called ‘Say it Correctly’ in which students are invited to repeat language they hear on a cassette tape.

Cambridge English for Schools teacher’s book 1996 has some information on how to approach pronunciation teaching but we’re talking about 200 words in the appendix.

In 1992 Scott Thornbury expressed concern over this apparent lack of interest in pronunciation matters in an ELTJ (47/2) article. In it he suggested a focus on ‘voice setting’. There are some 20 practical suggestions in that ELTJ article on how one might go about using the principles of voice setting.

Here then we find not just an important observation but also a clue that the climate was right for change.

But in 1995 Jones and Evans, also in ELTJ, have this to say:

most materials still have a long way to go in presenting pronunciation in a truly communicative and holistic manner ELTJ 49/3.

And then of course in 1994 Adrian Underhill published Sound Foundations. This was and is a multi-facetted work, which has inspired many practising EL teachers to get into more creative ways of handling pronunciation training.

In 2002, Rodney Jones in Methodology in Language Teaching notes that most current techniques and task types designed for the teaching of pronunciation:

continue to be based on behaviourist notions of second language learning, largely relying on imitation and discrimination drills, reading aloud and contrastive analysis of L1 and L2 sound systems. (176)

In other words it would appear that little has really changed since the good old days of audiolingualism where students were expected to repeat bits of language without context.

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture, Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin, in Teaching Pronunciation 1996, offer us a vision into the future with a variety of well-documented activities and ideas for the teacher to try. But of course the impetus and motivation to examine these must come from the classroom.

Jennifer Jenkins notes in her 2000 publication, The Phonology of English as an International Language, that there are elements of pronunciation that cannot be learned in the classroom. She also reminds us that motivation may well be a key. That which students find relevant and are therefore motivated to grasp, and that which is ‘teachable’ are closely correlated.

This year, Mark Hancock has added another valuable work to the body of practical resources in his 4 volume set: Pronunciation Workouts, Puzzles, Pairworks and Poems. These books generally offer teachers accessible ideas on pronunciation work supported by some technical description.

So how far have we come? I’m not sure, but if as Rod Ellis suggested in ‘93, the teacher’s direct influence on learning in the classroom is minimal, perhaps we should be optimising every moment.
I realise that there are many areas which I have not touched on here: Chomsky, Krashen, Gattegno’s important work with pronunciation training, Speech Accommodation Theory, Phonological Avoidance; all these and much more could be discussed and all have a bearing on the topic.


Howatt A.P.R. A History of English Language Teaching 1984 OUP
Abbot, G. A New Look at Phonological Redundancy 1986 ELTJ 40/4
Catford, J.C. (in Quirck, R & Smith, A.H. eds) The Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (in The Teaching of English) 1959 OUP
Celec-Murcia,M., Brinton, D. & Goodwin, J. Teaching Pronunciation 1996 CUP
Ellis, R. Talking Shop 1993 ELTJ 47-1-1
Firth, J.R.
Firth, J.R. Tongues of Men
Speech 1937 1930 Watts & co
Ernest Benn
French F.G. Common errors in English : their cause, prevention and cure 1949 OUP
Fries, C.C. Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language 1945 Ann Arbor: Uni. of Michigan Press
Gimson, A.C. An introduction to the Pronunciation of English (3rd ed) 1980 Edward Arnold
Hancock, M. Pronunciation Workouts, Puzzles, Pairworks and Poems 2017 Hancock McDonald ELT
Jenkins, J. The Phonology of EIL 2000 OUP
Jones, R & Evans, S Teaching Pronunciation through Voice Quality 1995 ELTJ 49/3
Jones, R. (in Richards, J. & Renadya,W. eds) Methodology in Language Teaching 2002 CUP
Mackey, W.F. Language Teaching Analysis 1965 Longman
MacCarthy, P. The Teaching of Pronunciation 1978 CUP
Nilsen& Nilsen Pronunciation Contrasts in English 1971 Prentice Hall
Norris,W. & Strain,J. (eds) Charles Carpenter Fries: His ‘Oral Approach’ for Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages 1989 Georgetown University Press
Palmer, H.E. The Principles of Language Study 1921 Harrap & co
Sampson, G. Schools of Linguistics 1980 Hutchinson
Thornbury, S. Having a Good Jaw: Voice Setting Phonology 1993 ELTJ 47/2
Titone, R. Teaching Foreign Languages An Historical Sketch 1968 Georgetown Uni. Press
Underhill, A. Sound Foundations 1994 Macmillan
Wilkins, D. Linguistics in Language Teaching 1972 Arnold

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  • Teacher Judy

    What a great historical review. Let’s not step over the most exciting advances in Pronunciation which have blossomed in this century. Although Nilsen and Nilsen’s 1971 comparison of English sounds to sounds in other languages was groundbreaking, more has been gained recently along these lines.
    In fact all languages use about 40 sounds and most of the sounds between any two languages are the same. If we taught Pronunciation at all (most didn’t and still don’t) before 2010 ESL teachers focused on English sounds as if their students were mute. All of our students speak. Most of the sounds they need for English they already use. It is a very simple process now to harvest the similarities between English and first language to identify only the sound and principles learners need to focus on in order to adapt their speaking to English. As you can imagine this process is more effective and more efficient than approaches used historically.
    One caveat to progress in education today is the internet where students have access to new methods on their own. Learners no longer have to wait for teachers to get up to speed with the latest programs. If history tell us anything it’s that it takes 20 years or more for outdated ideologies to be replaced in our industry. By 2030 students will already have been using modern Pronunciation practices for two decades without us.