How can I improve the pronunciation and intonation of the first-year English Majors to meet the demand of the New English Curriculum?

by Cao Yong

at China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action research in Foreign Languages Teaching, Guyuan Teachers College,

Ningxia, P.R. China, June 25th, 2004.


Abstract: In my report, I present my AR work on how I used Action Research in teaching pronunciation and intonation for the first-English majors. My concern reveals itself to be closely associated with the bases of the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. I put forward a case that the effort to master the sound system and to pronounce correctly, are key aspects of learning a second language. As clarification I give some technical details on aspects of sounds of speech, including articulation, vowel formation, accent, inflection, and intonation, with reference to the correctness or acceptability of the speech sounds. I also provide some descriptions of new classroom teaching-methods for pronunciation and intonation. I include comments from students, reveal statistics of their scores, quote from expert sources in linguistics, and show the results of a questionnaire. I conclude that by researching my practice in terms of targets for the New Curriculum for the teaching of English in China, there is the potential for my work and similar enquiries to be of educational benefit for schools and other colleges in China. 



Some background information about me. I became a teacher of English in 1997, for students aged from 12-18. Two years later I went on to further study in Ningxia University to get my Bachelor degree in Linguistics. I have been teaching in Guyuan Teachers' College since October 2001. Here I could realize my dream to do some research on my beloved course - Linguistics, especially Phonetics.


I am very keen on music and poems and this helped me a lot when I began to study English at the age of 12. To mention what I have gained and achieved, I am so grateful to my English teacher, Wang Qiaoling. She was a top graduate from Shanghai Foreign Language Institute and fluent in spoken English. This helped me a lot with my basic knowledge of English, and considerably when I engaged in the advanced English study instead of spending that time correcting pronunciation and intonation. It seems to me that often, this is the most difficult thing for English learners in China. But one thing still weighed heavily on my heart. I received my English education from late 1980s, that is the time when English was becoming popular throughout the country. The traditional approach, or we say the ‘grammar-translation’ method was the dominant teaching approach in China.


I believe that the grammar-translation approach has its advantages as well as disadvantages, however.



It is effective in improving the students’ reading comprehension

1.     it is not too demanding of the teacher, who need not be a fluent speaker of the target language, nor do any imaginative work beyond passively following the textbooks.

2.     It is easy to test the students, and the class is easy to control. (Teacher-centred methodologies.)

3.     The students learn about a lot of rules and their exceptions. They become pretty adept at doing translation, though the translation often turns out to be more correct grammatically than idiomatically.



  1. The students have poor pronunciation and their intonation is weak, perhaps very weak in oral skills.
  2. Though the students may have learned a lot about the rules of the language, they cannot apply them in writing, much less in speaking.
  3. The class tends to be dull, and the students are often overloaded.


From the traditional ways of learning English, we often found that the students neglected the basic knowledge of speaking. In the years when we had less communication with foreign countries, this may have been enough to meet the demands of English. However, the situation changed greatly when we stepped into the new century, with the internet, and with these extended forms of communication with Western countries, oral communication began to be more and more important than at any other time. Understanding by reading or writing would no longer be sufficient for the development of the economy. We needed to understand and communicate face to face personally or through the internet. 


To be a college English teacher means we are responsible for the improvement of our students’ learning – they are the future middle school English teachers. Thus both an understanding of the NC and their language skills have to be enhanced to become qualified language teachers in the future.


In my opinion, to be a good English teacher in secondary schools, the key issue is to make the children learn English by listening and speaking in the way they learn their mother-tongue. This helps them to have more fluent second-language acquisition in oral English. Above all, the most important part of learning a second language rests on pronunciation and intonation. And this has concerned me most from the very beginning of my teaching-career. These particular learning-needs intrigued me and influenced my point of view about how to guide students in their English study as a second language through their three-year-study here in this college.


However, this was not the only thing that has encouraged me to focus my attention on the students’ pronunciation and intonation. Namely, the situation has changed enormously during the last decade, especially since many of the graduates from universities are now faced with the competitive job-market. This derives from the government policy of enrollment-expansion four years ago throughout the country in most universities as well as some colleges. We have more graduates from universities each year. In contrast, the students of our college face an even more gloomy future. What can they do to adjust themselves to this new situation? Just keep to the old ways and gain nothing, or as teachers take some positive action to promote their professional skills here, and after their graduation from this college, be sufficiently well trained to become competent in their posts or begin their further study for an even better prospect?


I have reflected on these problems and tried to find some solutions. During these reflections, I realised that the college was also trying to address this problem and focus more on the vocational sphere. I could see some light at the end of the tunnel. Not all the students could go to a job-fair; not all the students could get their Bachelor degrees, but the point remained that there is a large demand for certificated primary school teachers of English, so the teaching syllabus of our college has been modified to meet this demand. Most graduates of our college will take their position as the elementary school teachers of English. Concerning their professional skills and primary schools teaching aims and the practical way of teaching English in primary schools, pronunciation and intonation become vital in their college study. In other words, they are supposed to be the "short-term-trained phonetics experts" to give their students correct spoken English in order to help them form an appropriate way in second-language acquisition when they are still at a stage to implement this special language learning ability in the process of a second language learning. And this process will have a formative effect on their thinking in English.


In order to help the English majors in my class express themselves in as clear and accurate way as they can, basic knowledge of phonetics and pronunciation is very important to them from the outset. If they don't know how to pronounce each word or sentence in the right way, this is sure to lead to the failure of communication or even develop a vicious circle in which they will involve their pupils or students 3 years later. They would still have a long way to go before they could master English and use it well as a tool to communicate with native English speakers. Furthermore, in order to do more research work, basic knowledge became even more important as the world was now changing so rapidly. Actually, to be a college student, the major courses they receive from their teachers are not enough to qualify them to meet the standards of their employers.


What we are able to do now as a country depends on what kind of knowledge these students have and what kind of potential ability they have in their own future personal development. The New Curriculum (NC) requires the English teacher to update their views on language and language education, and adopt new approaches to language teaching, including the task-based language teaching approach and its practice. They are sure to get further study in the future. What can help them to improve? Only an appropriate attitude and the basic knowledge can benefit them for their life-long career. An appropriate attitude means that in the general sense, they should regard second language-learning, ¨College (C) English, as a scientific and systematic study and not take it for granted so they think they’re already good enough in their spoken ‘English C’ pronunciation and intonation.


When I interviewed them after class, Shao Hui, one of my students, told me that a good standard of English was ‘sounding English’ which refers to those who can speak good English just by the acceptance of their classmates through the standard of being ‘good to listen to’. To be a teacher of a language, I think it is really necessary to help them to change this point of view.


“Pronouncing a language is a skill. Every normal person is an expert in the skill of pronouncing his own language; but few people are very proficient at pronouncing foreign languages. Now there are many reasons for this, some obvious, some perhaps not so obvious. But I suggest that the basic reason why people in general do not speak foreign languages as well as they do their native tongue is that they fail to understand the true nature of the problem of learning to pronounce. Far too many people fail to realize that pronouncing a foreign language is a skill ¨C one that needs careful training of a special kind, and one that cannot be gained by just leaving it to take care of itself. I think even teachers of language, while realizing the importance of a good accent, often neglect, in their practical teaching, the branch of study concerned with speaking the language. So the first point I want to make is that English pronunciation must be taught; the teacher should be prepared to devote some of the lesson time to this, and get the student to feel that here is a matter worthy of receiving his/her close attention. So, there should be occasions when other aspects of English, such as grammar or spelling, are allowed for the moment to take second place.” (Language Teaching on New Horizon English, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press 2002)


Why I am concerned with teaching English, especially the pronunciation and intonation as the priority of my teaching aim.

1) We are living in the community, in which there will always be someone who is ready to care about his fellow men, for the individual or in the more pervasive sense of our motherland. And I know that when we are together as communities, we create politics around us, nobody can deny it. When my work on “AR” was on its very beginning, the news that we became the member of WTO and the successful bid on ’2008 Olympic Games in Beijing as well as the Western Development Policy made me feel very confident to work on my teaching of English. These opportunities will no doubt be attractive to the job-market, and a new wave of learning English will soon spread throughout the country. When I first realised this, I had a chance to read the comments from Zhou Yan, who said in her book, The Elements of Language Curriculum of teaching English in the new century:


“A nation wide policy that the popularization on the communicative ability of English will soon to face the citizens of our country, and in turn, the policy is sure to provide a broadening vision to those curriculum designers and reformers of English teaching in China. Nothing but qualified English curriculum designing project is the essence aimed at improving English teaching level and carrying out the reforms on English teaching.” 


Her words are full of hope and enthusiasm, and they encourage me to believe that I can do it: that I can take teaching English as a noble undertaking. With sweetness and hope in my heart, I have a sense of the future --- to work on English teaching and explore my own value as a human being.


2. English has been accepted as the dominant means of communication, both written and spoken in most of the world. And because of the internet, the world becomes smaller and smaller. So English learning is also very important to us students. During the daily communications, we often find some misunderstandings being caused by inappropriate pronunciation. Sometimes such mispronunciations will offend the international guests. Thus mispronunciation is significant and we should pay close attention to the problem. I decided I would try to tackle the teaching of pronunciation and intonation in order to help my students with their English pronunciation and in turn, they would be the best model for their future students as well.


 The reasons why I think that pronunciation and intonation are so important for my students:

All languages are spoken and begun with ears. Once a known professor notes that at speak any language, a person must know exactly one hundred percent of its phonetics, ninety percent of its grammar and ten percent of the vocabulary may be sufficient. (A.G. Gimson).


It seems obvious to me that phonetics constitutes the basis of all other aspects of language. The students should first of all learn to hear the sounds accurately and listen to them closely and carefully. The more they hear the differences between the various sounds of English language, the better they will articulate them. To this end, he should undergo ear-training and constant listening to English native speakers or some equally good models. Then they should imitate the sounds heard, using their background knowledge to make the proper adjustment of their speech organs to reproduce the sound correctly. Wrong practice does not only waste time and effort but also creative bad habits, which will be extremely difficult to eliminate.


2. When speaking a foreign languagesay Englishpronunciation is of great importanceIf you cannot pronounce correctly you are not able to make yourself understoodA language is a tool of communicationbut poor pronunciation can never be a good tool of communication

3. One of the most important distinctions between Chinese and English involves tone and intonation
The Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language while English an intonal oneIntonation is used to show a speaker's attitudeTo learn to speak good Englishone has to learn to speak with the correct intonationThe key to speaking a foreign language lies in a good mastery of its intonationto which a priority always be given in our teaching and 1earning 

 My viewpoint towards language-teaching as a college English teacher:

The following is some detailed information of what I have been thinking of for so long as a language teacher and is relevant to reproduce here, as it gives substance to my future arguments:


1) Good knowledge in spoken English can help my students speak good English and can also help them form a good basis for further English study. Pronunciation plays an important role in its spelling, grammar, and even the meaning of a sentence. Literature shows us panoramas of ancient masterpieces, the knowledge of phonetics can help us read them freely. And from the spelling we also get to know the changes of English Language through history.


2) Giving them special training in teaching their pupils English in the right way without a Chinese accent or Chinese way of speaking English, for better and accurate communication.


3) Certain skills for language study are very important for my students in order to help them overcome language problems. Solving the problems can be attempted under my guidance. Actually, I began my pronunciation and intonation project on my students in September, 2001. Because of my preference on linguistics, each week I tried to teach them the right pronunciation of the international alphabets (6 times per week) and correct them one by one. At this time, I met Dr. Moira Laidlaw, a new international teacher in our college who was facilitating some of the teachers in our department to do "Action Research".


4. For a beginning student, adequate pronunciation will include control of the vowel and consonant phonemes, statement and question intonation, and stress and rhythm, patterns for simple utterances, At intermediate and advanced levels, pronunciation practice should concentrate on the allophonic variants, intonation patterns of complex sentences, contrastive stress patterns and the affective devices by which native speakers indicate anger, amusement, sympathy, etc. which, of course, will not be dealt with by high school students, but we can help the students to get the feel of them anyway.


I was so lucky when I began my project as a green hand: AR came into my life. The first day I heard about it, I knew it would constitute wings for me. This makes my idea of improving their pronunciation and intonation come into a scientific focus, and under the guidance of a theory. I also found out many people from different countries around the world are doing the same kind of thing, which gave me heart. I feel very happy and lucky to be a member of AR here in China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching. In this way I began my work under AR. Thus, I had my first question:


What do I want to improve?

How can I help to improve the pronunciation and intonation of my students in order to help them meet the target of NC (language knowledge: pronunciation) when they begin their work as a teacher of English in the future?


What are the reasons for my concern? The reason I am concerned about the pronunciation and intonation of my students can be listed as constituting the following aspects:

 1) The students don't have a very suiutable language environment in which to listen and practise speaking English that would enable them to acquire the second language effectively. Therefore, guidance is really needed for the students to help them if they are to have some basic skills of how to pronounce each word they learn. This includes the vowels and consonants. Their pronunciation and intonation are regarded as the foundation of English as a second language for all the students here.

 2) Next, listening ability has a close connection with speaking ability. If they have never practised their spoken English well, indeed if they don’t have many chances to hear about what they speak, no matter if it is correct or not, they will not acquire sufficient skills to support their language learning.

 3) Another important reason why I am concerned about their spoken English is that the language is based on a set of sounds. The students often record what they say and give the spelling of each word which carries the meaning people refer to. Good knowledge in spoken English will no doubt help them handle various problems they meet in their English studies. So, the reasons why I want to teach English majors to acquire good knowledge in their pronunciation and intonation is to improve their overall ability in the language.


Professor Wang Zongyan, advisor of Doctors on linguists, pointed out in his

preface to The Elements of Language Curriculum: A Systematic Approach to Program Development,


“When we talk about foreign language teaching, it is far too satisfied with some concerned views and practices. Some just take listening and speaking in communicative teaching into consideration and some others regard that teaching of Intensive Reading as a matter of teaching Extensive Reading, definitely neglecting the oral English. When it comes to a detailed study of the text, no sound but the sole voice of the teacher from the very beginning to the boring end, students’ mouth are their mouth. A popular thing we experienced a lot. The same thing is true to listening class, the taped played, and students wait for nothing from their teacher on further explanations about it--- not rare in any case.”


“Nevertheless, we understand the truth of the above and we now are too self-conscious to make progress and leave far behind what our so-called conventions in teaching have become. And to improve our work, we are supposed to consult the advanced methodology and borrow their effective measures for our own.”


His statements made me reflect on our own teaching of English as a second language. We, to some extent, are the teachers he refers to, but luckily, with mdoern development and our open policy to the outside world as well as easy access to some modern teaching approaches of Western countries. (e.g. “AR” introduced by Doctor Laidlaw from Great Britain), we have changed our minds and are beginning to meet the demands of society, and for a better situation of our teaching here in Guyuan. I am a professional teacher of language, so I want to breathe new life into my work to enable it to step onto this new stage. I have been trying to change, not only myself, but also my students --- the coming future junior English teachers. I know now that Action Research is cyclical and my teaching career is inextricably involved with the processes within these cycles. I enjoy teaching English and thus I care about what is happening to it.


How could I improve it?

When I touch this question, I come to realize what Anthony (1965), Richards and Rogers (1982) and McKay (1978) commented on the essential aspects of teaching a language: approach, methods and technique.


“Approach here refers to the knowledge of linguistics and the nature of language teaching; methods refers to the various ways to show the students the characteristics of a the aimed language; while technique refers to what kind of skills and knacks can be employed to organize teaching as well as solve the problems raised in the teaching process.”


So, my AR work is based on these three aspects in language teaching. And in my practice, I also follow the words of Brown on practical teaching of a language, approaches, syllabuses, techniques and exercises (28-29).

As the NC indicates to us, “process-oriented language-learning and teaching approaches, such as experiential learning and cooperative learning are needed in the class: students are encouraged to experience the language, learn the language by self-discovery, participate in discussion and negotiation activities. This New Curriculum emphasizes the role of having positive affective states on the part of the students. It advocates a task-based approach to language learning and teaching; learning by doing and by using the language. It incorporates learning strategy development into the classroom instruction.


In this case, the next thing that came to mind before I began my AR research on pronunciation and intonation is that we need a goal to pursue. WNG Qing offers us this guide in A course in English Language:

(1).consistency--- the pronunciation should be smooth and natural

(2).intelligibility ---the pronunciation should be understandable to the listeners

(3).communicative efficiency---the pronunciation should help to convey the meaning that is intended by the speaker.


To put it simply, the goal in teaching pronunciation is based on pragmatic concerns; we want our students to understand and to be understood.


In order to get an effective result in the teaching of pronunciation, I listed the following items to help my students tell the major distinctions between:

1.     letters and sounds

2.     vowels and consonants

3.     simple vowels and diphthongs

4.     voiceless and voiced consonants

5.     word stress and sentence stress

6.     falling and rising intonations


Some reasons for my understanding:

1. In English, letters and sounds must not be mixed up. Letters are written while sounds are spoken. It is very useful to have written letters to remind us of corresponding sounds; however, English letters do not always stand in one-to-one relationship with the sounds they are supposed to represent.

E.g.  he/ see/ eat/ key        (different letters with the same sound)

man/ any/father/ same   (the same letter with different sounds)


It is necessary for the students to get a clear idea of the positions of the tongue and lips. In making simple vowels, the tongue together with the lips remain in the same position from beginning to end. A diphthong is a glide from one vowel to another. In all words of more than one syllable are stressed, which means at least on syllable is said with greater force than the others, the remaining syllables are said more weakly. So, three degrees of word stress are found and they are called and marked as follows:


primary stress, secondary stress, and weak stress.


The stress is not fixed in the English language: that is to say, it is a freestress language. This might cause difficulties especially to Chinese students. For teaching purposes, we should thus concentrate on stressed and unstressed syllables, especially at the primary levels of learning. If words are first learned with an incorrect syllable-stress, i.e., word stress, a very great deal of time and effort will be necessary later to get rid of these wrong habits and to teach the correct habits instead, so the ideal time to learn correct syllable stress, therefore, is when words are first learned.


The way and process I used for teaching pronunciation and intonation are the following:


1. Helping them in each conversation is a good way to build confidence in the students.

-      a. I read and presented the conversation in the right pronunciation and intonation. I tred my best to give some good examples of how to do a conversation by saying each word and sentence in the right way according to my teaching experience and knowledge of phonetics. Some students asked me to teach the new words and phrases to make sure of their pronunciation. This shows they began to pay attention to their way of speaking English and became more interested in spoken English. When it came to their turn to practice conversation, they wanted to intimate my way of speaking English.


Li Yufang said in an interview I had with her, that she followed my way of speaking English. Later on, three times she asked me to give them a lecture on pronunciation and intonation, and she asked me to help her about certain specific questions such as the difference between [n]and[η] and this is indeed a universal problem that people here say [η] to substitute [n] in Guyuan dialect. However, she was scrupulous in telling the difference between them. She also asked me several questions on how to improve her intonation.


I then gave the students a short lecture to make sure everybody had a chance to hear how to correct the pronunciation and intonation she was finding in her speech - such as the tone level (static tones, kinetic tones, the high level tone, the low level tone, the high rising tone, the low rising tone, the falling tone, the falling-rising tone, the divided falling-rising tone). It seems that the more information I gave on English pronunciation and intonation, the more questions they had. Actually, this is what I wanted to see. One reason was that at least my students were beginning to pay attention to the way they were speaking English and started to form a rigorous attitude to learning a second language on their own part. They wanted to be trained to be good English learners but not only as dreamers that they would be able to speak English. And some other similar cases occurred when Li Shujing asked me some other questions (the differences between [ai][ei][e][ĺ] and [w][v] ).


Li Zhi, another student, asked me to give him some advice on his pronunciation and intonation. I asked him to read a paragraph and then I corrected his pronunciation mistakes and showed him the right way to do it. I also let him know how to stop in the right way to make sense of his speech and to be easily understood by others. And some other students started to ask me questions whenever they met me. To show them how seriously I took their concerns as they were taking my focus on pronunciation so much to heart, I saved some time at weekends and evening class to visit them for further explanation, and talked with them on pronunciation and intonation heart to heart. Not only did we share the theory of phonetics but also the value of caring about their own concerns about what we needed to do to become better qualified teachers with good pronunciation and intonation. I was modeling good practice to my students in language-use. 


-      b. My second approach was to play a tape-recorder for them to follow. From the tapes, they got to know standard English pronunciation and intonation. They could listen and follow the language for good English pronunciation.


c. Student-centered conversation practice. In this way I wanted them to practise speaking in the right way after my detailed explanation on how to pronounce each word and the intonation pattern they should use here. 


-   d. Grading their conversation. This gave them the comparison and contrast with others and could be used to mark their achievements to see if they had made enough improvement or not. I believe everyone wanted to get high scores and that grading motivated them to participate in their conversation practice aimed at improving their pronunciation and intonation.


e. Writing down their pronunciation mistakes and correcting them after their conversation. This was a most effective way to help students know where they mispronounced and then to correct them. Because I told them I would grade their conversation for their pronunciation and intonation, they paid more attention to their pratice. I noticed that they began to pronounce in the right way. e.g. Three in[θr i:] but not [sri:], how in[hau] but not [ho:]long[loη] but not[l¨¤ŋ] want[wont] but not[w¨¤nt] what [wot] but not [w¨¤t]won،Ýt[w] but not[wnt] don’t [dunt] but not[du] .They began to pay attention to liaison such as ‘take it easy’, ‘warm up’, etc..  


f. Asking them to read the text before the detailed study of each paragraph in order to check if they could read it in the right way and thus form the habit of speaking good English.


  g. When it comes to answering questions, I asked my students to read the sentences for the first time and then the second time to fill in the blanks or correct the mistakes of the sentences. The first time I tried to correct their pronunciation and for the second time I heard the right and the anticipated situation of reading or speaking English in a reasonable way.


   h. I spared 2 hours each week specifically to do the unit revision by asking and answering questions. By doing this I could check if they had mastered the right pronunciation and intonation of some new words in each unit. At the same time, I would remind them of the right pronunciation of some everyday words, when they still had some pronunciation difficulties with them.


   i. Asking my student to give advice on their classmates' pronunciation and intonation. This is another important way to check if they themselves know how to pronounce in the correct way and to give them the further suggestion of paying attention to their own way of uttering a word. I talked with my students and I got to know that roommates often helped each other, as they had most contact with each other on a day-to-day basis. They learned at random times. Zhang Yinping said she helped a lot with Yuan Lu’s oral English problems. Because of Zhang’s help, this explained my sense that Yuan Lu had improved in a quicker way in her pronunciation and intonation.


   j. Asking good students to be the partners of those who lagged behind in speaking good English. Before they presented their conversations, they had to ask their partners to correct all the pronunciation and intonation beforehand. In the first place to help those good students know something about phonetics to help others. And at the same time the students who were being helped could learn any place they met, such as in their dormitores, class, dining-hall or shopping centres, etc.


k. Finding and correcting mistakes was applied throughout. I advised my students to try to find what the others' mistakes in pronunciation and intonation were as quickly as possible. I told them, let all the mistakes appear when they are students, but not when they become teachers in the secondary schools.


  l. Some sentences were really difficult to read for most of the students. In such a case I usually stopped what I was doing and gave them some explanations and then asked them to repeat after me.


Who helped me and how? There is no doubt that we need others to help us in order to make our work and research go smoothly and stably. Some excellent teachers and those who are good at phonetics were my partners in helping me with my research work. I told them that I was doing AR on pronunciation and intonation of English majors, and I asked them to give me some information from them. Jana Thompson was the oral English teacher of my class and she did a really good job. She told me some mistakes my students were making. Then, I corrected them immediately that day or the next day when I had class.


Often, I discussed the students’ mistakes with Tao Rui (Tina) because she is good at spoken English and she is a key-teacher of phonetics in our department. Take for example, [p] and [p], [n] and [l]. These were easy to distinguish in her class, but to some students here from different dialect-regions, they had trouble in telling them from each other. This is something I wanted my students to improve in their pronunciation. To make my pronunciation and intonation AR research work well, I asked her to give me some suggestions on it. And at the same time I asked her and Dr. Laidlaw to attend my class. I believe the communication with my colleagues lends greater validity to my work. I often try to learn from my colleagues about phonetics to help me acquire some other knowledge on phonetics. This has been done by:


a. talking with different teachers, Dean Tian, Jana Thompson, Tasha Bleistein, Zhao Xiaohong, Jiang Hongxia, Wang Ying, Li Peidong, Ma Jianfu.


b. reading materials about linguistics and getting on the internet for further information:


“Besides the question of the time given to pronunciation, there are two other

requirements for the teacher: the first, knowledge; the second, technique.         


It is also possible to get a clear mental picture of the relationship between the sounds of different languages, between the speech habits of English people and those, say, of your students.


Unless the teacher has such a picture, any comments he may make on his students’ pronunciation are unlikely to be of much use, and lesson time spent on pronunciation may well be time wasted.Language Teaching on New Horizon English, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press 2002


c. watching English News from CCTV-4, Shanghai English News, Sichuan English News, and Zhejiang English News. The announcers speak very good English, I learn from them and I then share this learning with my students.


d. listening to the radio, such as BBC News in the morning and at 12 o'clock Beijing Time.


e. my own understanding and experience from studying linguistics and phonetics. I believe that only co-operation enlarges our skills to present an even better job in our classes. This is partly due to three foreign teachers, Dr. Moira Laidlaw, from Greta Britain, and Jana Thompson and Tasha Bleistein from America. They are natives of English-speaking countries, so I asked them to come to visit my class and check if my students had made some progress on their pronunciation and intonation or not.


When would I know that it had improved?

Before I can answer this question, I conceive that “A variety of potential tools were also listed in six categories: existing information, tests, observations, interviews, meeting and questionnaires. All these tools shared three important characteristics that must be considered in selecting or creation them: reliability, validity, and usability.” Brown (1995)


This made me form a more rigorous way of evaluating my records and gained useful information.


I) Grading scores of their conversations show me that their pronunciation and intonation is improving. Some of their scores remained at a high level for the whole process of my research work on pronunciation and intonation.


II. Tina’s comments. I asked her to come to attend my class to view that if my students have improved their pronunciation and intonation or not. Here are her comments after visiting my class from 2:30 to 4:30 on March 6, 2003:


Content:  Unit2 Football (Revision)

Unit 3       Conversation Practice

Time: March 6, 2:30 -- 4:30 p.m.

When I listened to his class, I noticed that he taught his students conversations in the following way:

1. He would read the conversation

2. Then ask students to listen to the tape

3. Stimulate the students to practice their own conversation


There are some many good points in his lesson:


1. He has built up a good relation with his students, for they are active and be ready to learn. In other words, the students didn’t feel bored when asked to repeat or imitate something.

2. His pronunciation and intonation is really good, no mistakes at all. So his students are influenced well by him.


(It can’t really be true, to be honest. I can’t be as accurate as a machine, because I am human, like others born to make mistakes. And I know I often make pronunciation and intonation errors. However, I try to do better and I think I am trying to approach ‘perfection’, although there is no perfect person in this world. Thanks to Tao Rui’s comments about me, I am encouraged, and in turn am motivated, as she highlighted her class as well as my AR work.)


3. I noticed that compared with other students in other classes, his students’ pronunciation and intonation are really better and on the way to improving, so I think he is successful when fulfilling his question --- How can I improve my students’ pronunciation and intonation?

4. Another thing is, I found his students are eager and active to imitate his pronunciation and intonation, I think it can also prove something.


Tina (Tao Rui) is one of the best teachers of phonetics in our department. It was she who made me believe that my AR on pronunciation and intonation would work. She was glad to hear that and wanted to help me in any way she could. She became my learning-partner in finding the problems of pronunciation and intonation our students had in common, and she gave me some very good ways of how to solve some problems I was most concerned about. For example, she created a good way to make the students distinguish [n]and [l] --- to hold one’s nose between one’s fingers and try to stop the flow of air out of one’s nose: this can help a student just pronounce [n] but not [l], for [n] is a nasal sound. Thanks to her effective ways of correcting the pronunciation of some consonants, my students Li Jei and Wei Chengbin can now pronounce them in the right way. Brown said in his report on needs analysis (1995):


“The information we have got provides a useful starting point for developing or evaluating a language program. I should stress, however, that data have little meaning in themselves. Data must be analyzed, interpreted, and evaluated before the resulting information can be applied to the practical realities of curriculum development.”


Thus I was developing a clearer picture of my teaching needs.


III. My students’ scores of phonetics tell me that my work is in effect. Among the best top students of phonetics who gained the highest marks, my students ranked in the first position. (See Appendix) I make the final statistics on Students Score Record on Phonetics by two terms.


The First Term:

Class:    Class 1         Class 2        Class3          Class4          Class5         Class6



Score above 0                    1             1                   3                   0                  0



The Second Term:

Class:   Class 1         Class 2         Class3       Class4          Class5         Class6



Score above      1                   0                  0                  0                   0                   0




Score above      3                   1                  7                  4                   2                    1



Class 1 and Class 3 are top students who got the highest marks at their College Entrance Examination and Proficiency Test of dividing them in to the fast classes (the advanced classes). Class 2, Class 4, Class 5, and Class 6 are at the same level, belonging to the slower classes. My class is Class 4, and the students whose scores are above 90 are just 3. This is better than Class 2 in terms of one student, Class 5 and Class 6 had no high-achieving students at all. And they were even better than the students from Class 1 and Class 3 (the advanced students classes). In the second term, my students still ranked high in number than Class 2, Class 5, Class 6 and again, compared with the advanced classes, my students proved to have the same level as those top students in Class 1 and Class 3 on their pronunciation and intonation. This would suggest that my teaching methods have had an influence on the students’ learning.


This gives us the evidence that my AR on pronunciation and intonation helps my students to become English majors who are good at their pronunciation and intonation from the under developing state towards a developed one. They received good scores in the final examination of phonetics to a certain level. 


Brown said


“These meeting had three useful functions: (1 .helping us to efficiently gather information on the students’ views of their language and situation needs;(2).aiding us in dissemination information (including the teachers’ views on various curriculum issues) to the students: and (3).providing vehicle for venting any student discontent and anger before it could become destructive. In short, these student representative meetings provided a way to make the students understand that they had voice in the program and a stake in its success.


IV. My interview with all 27 students in my class said that my AR on pronunciation and intonation worked well during the past year (September 2002 - September 2003). They said they learned a lot on various aspects of phonology, such as:


A. The systematic knowledge of International Phonetic Alphabet

B. The speech organs and how they work.

C. The classification of English speech sounds



1.    front vowels, central vowels, back vowels

2.    unrounded vowels, rounded vowels

3.    diphthongs



1.   stops, fricatives, affricates, liquids, nasals, glides

2.   bilabial, dental, alveolar, palatal, velar, glottal



Static Tones:

                           The High Level Tone

                           The Low Level Tone


        Kinetic Tones:

                               The High Rising Tone

                               The Low Rising Tone

                               The  Falling Tone

                               The Falling- Rising Tone

                               The Divided Falling-Rising Tone



Li Zhi, a second-year English major (one of my former students, now in a new class) told me in our interview that he could hear the mistakes of pronunciation and intonation of his classmates who came from other classes, which he had overcome a year ago. He mentioned that his classmates would say frank [fræ¦اk ]and mouth[mous], foot [fut ]and so on.


Li Yufang said she once pronounced interesting as [in،Ýtristi¦ا], but now she could say it correctly and she said she had formed a good habit to look up the right pronunciation of a word when she was not certain about the correct way to pronounce it. All the students in my class agreed that my AR work focusing on pronunciation and intonation gave them deep insights into how to change their incorrect ways of speaking English. A year later, when they were divided into different classes, they realized they had obtained some very basic knowledge for their further development in English. They felt lucky that they had been trained to pay more attention to their pronunciation and intonation and the result was that they wanted to continue to improve them day-by-day. They also agreed my AR work had brought them the benefit of gaining the potential of becoming a good English teacher in primary and middle schools in their future lives. In addition, this also became a priority, they said, in their new classes - to participate well in their conversation and speech practice based on good pronunciation and intonation. I attended their classes and my records showed that their pronunciation and intonation are better than other students (my students revealed fewer mistakes of small everyday words and were good at intonation).


V. Questionnaire. (See Appendix One for draft questionnaire before the trial.)


3) During the interview, I also got some other information.


Li Yufang‘Pronunciation and intonation practice gave us good sense of language learning ability, both for English and Chinese.’


Yang Jinge:  ‘It is very interesting to learn that English pronunciation and intonation can be illustrated through the knowledge of music notes. I love your way of teaching phonetics very much. I will tell my students of it and make them love English in the future.’


Shi Wenjuan: ‘The presentation you demonstrated to us of conversations proved a good way to open our mouth to speak English and practice our pronunciation and intonation. But now I don’t have such a chance and I became timid to answer teacher’s questions and seldom speak English .I love your way of doing conversations to practice our pronunciation and intonation.’


Li Zhi: ‘I now have much confidence to say English, because I know the exact pronunciation of a word and intonation of a sentence.’ He was awarded the prize as the most diligent student for the last term’s study and won the top scholarship. He was also said to be the fastest one who made much progress on his pronunciation and intonation. (Zhang Yinping, Yang Zhijun, Shao Hui, Ma linghai, Li Shujing and Zhang Ruijun nominated him as the person who had made the most outstanding improvement on pronunciation and intonation in my former class whereas Li Yufang was made the best one who could speak very good British English --- Dr. Moira Laidlaw also sang high praise for her performance when visiting my class on March 6, 2003.)


5. I found that some students were greatly influenced by their dialect; they needed to work harder on their pronunciation and intonation to meet the standard of a good English speaker. Li Zhi was able to change his old habit and learn to speak clearly, and the others could also achieve this goal. He was made the good example from which to learn.


6. A sense of personal achievement is very important in improving one’s work. Some students seem to have a big-city superiority complex: they don’t think their pronunciation and intonation have problems, and it turns out that their pronunciation and intonation are still at their original level. This makes me reflect on this problem before I can apply AR in a more guided way or we will have achieved nothing in the end. I always believe in the ‘attitude decides all’ principle.


The result of my AR research

1) As my work goes on, I find that my students are eager to gain knowledge on how to speak English flawlessly. They find faults with each other in order to better their pronunciation and intonation and they even ask me to give them lectures on pronunciation. This clearly shows that they begin to focus on the essential work of a good language learner and in my mind this is a very good start for their study and work in the near future. Guided by AR functions, my work has enabled my students to learn through their cooperation and motivation, which we consolidated through the NC targets.


2) On the other hand, I regard the pronunciation and intonation as one of the most important items during the learning process of the freshmen in the English department; at the same time I help them improve their attitude of learning a foreign language. This is also true when they become English teachers to teach their students. I have shown them clearly the scientific way of studying a foreign language. While teaching the language knowledge to the students, I pay more attention to the some other parts for improving their learning ability. And my students are doing in their studying right now. For instance:


(1) The motivation of becoming a good language user.

(2) The interest they can have for further study.

(3) The confidence of them for showing and presenting their conversations.

(4) The cooperation between individuals for their improvement on everyday English.


In a word, language learning is most effective when students’ interest, motivation and attitudes are taken into consideration as it states in the New Curriculum.


3) My concern on pronunciation and intonation will provide my students with the ability to use English more clearly and accurately when they begin to teach in the junior middle schools. On the one hand, they have gained the specific knowledge to speak good English, and thus they will guide their students in the right way. On the other hand, what they have been trained in at this college on pronunciation and intonation will make their students understand them clearly and accurately. Thus, my work with AR and NC should in turn influence their ways of teaching in the middle school students when my students begin their career as the junior English teachers. I believe we have made the first good step for a long journey in improving the English proficiency of Chinese students.


4) Pronunciation and intonation are the basic skills of mastering a foreign language, language skills such as listening, speaking, reading and writing. Pronunciation and intonation practice will help them form the right habit to enable them to acquire the appropriate information for themselves for their overall learning.


5) Good knowledge of pronunciation and intonation will also make students become autonomous learners, and this is fundamental for their life-long learning. What the students got from this learning process rightly meets the NC standards on helping students to acquire the necessary critical thinking skills.  


My suggestions:

 When I think about my AR work and the NC, I have recommendations to make.


(1) Enhancing English proficiency

As far as teachers’ English proficiency is concerned, I think a.) We should work out the qualifications for our students and require them to reach the minimal level at least in a period of given time. b).We should provide our students with varies types of courses, the objective of which is not to get diploma but to enhance the English proficiency and their competence for judging their students in a round way. This is for the new evaluation system of NC. The NC recognizes the role the students themselves play in the processes of evaluation, e.g., self-assessment. It combines summative assessment with formative assessment. It adopts multiple, flexible evaluation methods and techniques. It emphasizes the evaluation of language performance rather language competence. If teacher know little about the knowledge of psychology, pedagogy or statistics, etc., how do the teachers guide their students to know the positive and negative dimensions of their assessment.


2) Promoting familiarity with good approaches on the teaching of phonetics

Some teachers assume that the communicative approach in the NC is a kind of oral way without teaching grammar, obviously that is not correct. In order to clear up the misunderstandings like this, I recommend that we should try our best to help teachers know what the communicative approach is and how to use it in the classroom by means of lectures, demonstration classes and short-term training programs. The communicative approach advocated by the NC doesn’t mean we can ignore the traditional teaching methods entirely. The more the old and new approaches we get to know, the more vision we will be competent to implement in our English teaching in this new century.


(3) Supporting the pioneers

Not all teachers stick to conventional ways of teaching English. Many teachers, young teachers in particular, are active in trying out new ways. On the other hand, they lack experience. And of course, there is always an equal chance of success or failure. As for those pioneers in teaching-reform, the department or leaders should support them not in words but in deeds, understand them and show tolerance towards them if their efforts result in failure. Only in such an easy environment can the teachers be willing to join the work in teaching-reform.



These days a large number of people with a good command of English are greatly needed with the coming of this information age, advanced technologies, and media including computers and the internet, in which English functions as a vehicle for communication. In order to meet the demand of modern society and the NC standards applied to the middle school students, the English teachers are supposed to pay more attention to our students’ development in their communicative competence and abandon the traditional methods which do not fit with current circumstances. However, as we observe today’s English classes, it is obvious that the traditional approaches to the English language teaching still dominate our classroom. There is no doubt we can take a greater responsibility to understand much better what will bring development to our society. The students of our college are going to become teachers and carry out the NC in their future work; therefore it is now our turn to change our methodologies to give them new insights on how to teach English in order to change the situation we had previously experienced.


As language teachers, we should not focus on reciting any more, but to teach students form their own understanding of language leaning, and at the same time to help them gain more competence all around. When teaching, we may not just recite the word “game” by teaching them the [ei].Instead, we will try to use “Kate plays eight games.” to help the students practice the [ei], and as a result, the students will master several ways of how to pronounce the [ei] in the correct way. The tongue twister overcomes the problem of rote reciting for the students. This is the target of the NC aiming at helping the students to identify the regulations of the materials and catch the essence of the target language by themselves. In this way they can form their own experience of learning the pronunciation and intonation independently.


Changing my AR question:

And now I come to what I want to say before my AR ‘How can I improve my students’ pronunciation and intonation?’ comes to an end. During the process of improving their pronunciation and intonation, on the one hand, they did well in conversational practice, but on the other hand, they lost spontaneity in making free talk according to specific topics. Though their pronunciation and intonation were getting better, their conversations didn’t always make good sense. And that is what I am now determined to improve during my next cycle. My research now needs a new question: How can I help my students to improve their conversational skills? I am now concerned with how I can cure the ‘aphasia’ of English majors in our department. I want them to be good English speakers with good pronunciation & intonation and conversational contents rather than the ‘nonsense makers’ in good pronunciation and intonation.



 Dai Weidong, He Zhaoxiong, Hua Jun, A concise Course on Linguistics for Students of English, Shanghai Foreign Language Educational Press (1988)


*James Dean Brown, The Elements of Language Curriculum: A Systematic Approach to Program Development, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.               Heinle & Heinle/Thomson Learning Asia (1995 by Heinle &Heinle Publishers)


Tony Ghaye,      Action Research: Book Three. Creating Cultures for Improvement: Dialogues, Decisions and Dilemmas, Hyde Publications (1995)


*Pam Lomax, Dimensions of the Educative Relationship: Case Studies from Teaching

and Teacher Education, Kingston University (1997)


*Ye Mangsheng, Xu Tongqiang, The Outline on Linguistics, Beijing University Press (1982)


Yu Jie, The Distinctive Function of English Intonation, Hai Tian Press (1991)


*Zhou Yuzhong, How do Natives in Ningxia Learn English, Ningxia People’s Educational Press (1999)






















Appendix A. Questionnaire from My Report on How to Improve the Pronunciation and Intonation of the First-year English Majors in Guyuan Teachers College,
Nov.18, 2003, by Cao Yong
1. What are the differences between your former level and present level on your pronunciation and intonation?
2. After a year study on your integrated skills, do you think there are some beneficial points that you have after our concentration practice of pronunciation and intonation in class? What have you obtained and what haven’t you?
3. What are the potential problems you still have to solve after the practice on your pronunciation and intonation in my class?
4.  In what ways do you think the conversational practice is a proper form to help you with your English pronunciation and intonation in my class of integrated skills? Do you have any good suggestions for me to improve your pronunciation and intonation?
5. What are the strong points of our attention and focus on your pronunciation and intonation?
6. Compared with the students in your present class, what are your strong points and weak points concerning pronunciation and intonation?
7.  How much progress do you think that the students in our former class have made? Give reasons for your answer.
8. What are some of the points of view of your friends and the students from other classes towards our AR work on pronunciation and intonation?