... How can I Improve My Student's pronunciation

How can I Improve My Student's pronunciation?

by Chen Dan

China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching (CECEARFLT), Ningxia Teachers University, Guyuan 756000.

June 2006.


My Context

I'm proud to have chosen English as my major and become an English teacher at Ningxia Teachers University in September 2005; therefore, I determined to be a good college English teacher. This means I would be responsible to help my students with their English learning. I wanted my students to like English and make great progress in it.


Despite my strong wish, everything turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated since many students complained to me that English was nothing but a headache to them. In October of 2005, I was very lucky to attend an AR meeting led by Moira. At first, I didn't clearly know what AR meant. As time went by, I attended the AR meetings, which gave me encouragement and detailed instruction. Just as McNiff and Whitehead (2005) said:


Action Research is a common-sense approach to personal and professional development that enables practitioners everywhere to investigate and evaluate their work, and to create their own theories of practice, (p.1).


So, still with my strong motivation and now the action planning structure, I began learning how to teach. Having done the research for two months. I felt more confident in teaching and I saw improvements from both my students and myself and this report is an attempt to outline how we managed it.


What is my concern?

In the first English class in the college, I encouraged every one of my students to introduce themselves, and as I thought, many of them couldn't say a word. Only a few of them were able to introduce themselves coherently. At the same time I found their oral English was very poor for a lot of reasons. They were merely memorizing a lot instead of speaking freely. I felt as well that pronunciation had a lot to do with their reticence and competence.


Pronunciation has been something of an orphan in English programs around the world. Why has pronunciation been a poor relation? I think it is because the subject has been drilled to death, with too few results from too much effort, (Gilbert, 1994, p. 38).


Speaking is so important in my opinion, in acquiring and using a language, and language-competence covers so many aspects. Phonetics, both theory and practice constitute the basis of speaking above all other aspects of language in my opinion. Speaking is a tool of communication. For example last term, I invited Mr. Wright (the foreign teacher in our school) to watch the performance of my class, at the few-minutes' recess, my students said to me: "Miss Chen, could you convey our deepest sympathy to Mr. Wright and tell him I want to sing an English song to him". I asked her "Why don't you talk to him directly". My student told me that her speaking was poor and she thought he wouldn't have understood her meaning and would laugh at her. I told her: "We can reap a lot by communicating with our foreign teacher." And I encouraged her to talk with our teacher. Mr. Wright couldn't understand her meaning exactly, and I retold her meaning to him. From this event, I was able to see it is very easy to understand meaning if the speaking is smooth, but if the speaking is disjointed and mispronounced, others might not understand the meaning. It's analogous to a fish out of water. Pronunciation is the foundation of speaking. Good pronunciation may make the communication easier and more relaxed and thus more successful.


I began my research in one of the non-English major classes. I chose the class from the Chemistry Department. Contrary to other classes, the students asked me so many questions about pronunciation. After we had read the new words, each time the students asked me how to read this phonetic or that one. So I found they were interested in this topic like me and I believed the curiosity to study more knowledge about pronunciation was so strong the students would benefit from my helping them to improve. So my question arose out of this: How might I help them improve their pronunciation? I aimed at improving the whole class's pronunciation focusing for the purposes of gathering data and some evidence specifically on 7 students whose level proficiency was representative of the lower achievers in this area. I felt I must help them and they really needed my help. First, I noticed these 7 students asked for help about pronunciation fluently. Secondly, they were mixing up some similar phonemes. These were typical problems, so I collected all the student's feedback and notes and paid more attention in gathering data on these students (Laidlaw, 2006).


Why was I concerned about it?

1. My Self-belief

The most important part of learning a second language rests on pronunciation. (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996, p23). There is no doubt that we set about pronunciation to learn the foreign language, then we learn speaking, reading, writing and we finally reap the benefits and have access to the second language. English pronunciation focuses on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, non-stressed, words. So I believe pronunciation to be crucially important for the whole of the learning process. The students had, it seemed to me, gradually got into a habit of learning some incorrect pronunciations as a result of their own Chinese dialect.


2. Students' feedback

During the first AR meeting I chose my topic about how to improve pronunciation, and Moira Laidlaw taught me how to collect data and use it to develop evidence.  such as the first thing is finding out everything about my topic and taking notes about what is happening as rigorously as possible, and collecting them in a notebook (at the first AR meeting, she gave us a special AR notebook each) then take paying careful attention of the students' comments. If you invite your colleagues to watch your AR class, and collect their' comments, then this triangulation can strengthen the rigour and reliability of the data (Laidlaw, 2006). My colleagues Li Min and gave me some suggestions on "How to practice the tongue-twister", so I can say I gained enlightenment from the meeting and from my subsequent actions. I knew that my students had the same concern as me about their pronunciation. About 90% said their biggest problems were pronunciation and speaking (Chen, 2005/2006). They also understood that the basic knowledge of phonetics and pronunciation would be very important to them. Language is a tool of communication. Language can be a medium for giving information and it reflecting on various things as well, of course, but poor pronunciation can never facilitate effective communication. If they didn't know how to pronounce each word or sentence in the right way, this was sure to lead to a failure of communication.


So I felt I now had grounds for beginning my research based on the two reasons above.


How could I improve it?

I tried many ways to encourage my students and they mainly fell into three types:


Teaching the phonemes one by one:

This was divided into four parts:



In English many words can have the same pronunciation but be written differently with different meanings. For example "to, two, and too" which all have the phonetic transcription /tu/. Sometimes, words can be written similarly but have different pronunciations as in the "ough" combinations thought, though, bough, and through. The students are indicated with the International Phonetic Alphabet and followed by examples and exercises dealing with contrasting sounds, recognition and dictation. I taught pronunciation according to three main sections:



1a) I asked the students to do a Listening Test. This is a test of their ability to tell me the difference between sounds. At the beginning, I noted down the information about LiYan, Luan Wenwu Xue Jing, Liu Xiaodong, Jiao Junfen, Liu Yongqiang and Su Wen. It is difficult to hear the difference for students especially some similar pronunciation, and it is very difficult to learn how to pronounce the difference, such as [s] and [ ] [ ] which pronounce the similar sound. Make a checklist of the student's pronunciation problems.


1b) Then I use the checklist to choose a pronunciation area to study. For example, some individual sounds, stress in words and sentences, or intonation. During this process, I didn't forget that non-stressed words and syllables are often 'swallowed' in English, and always focus on pronouncing stressed words well, whereas non-stressed words can be glided over. I followed a self-devised maxim: Do not focus on pronouncing each word.  Listen to the model pronunciation on the tapes or in the computer programs. Normally, observing the shape of the speaker's mouth as the different sounds are pronounced would benefit users. In this case, the narrator's lips and the soundtrack were not synchronized and I made a powerpoint demonstration about pronunciation with a link to the web. So, the students were more interested in this, and they remembered the pronunciation with the help of the powerpoint. It is necessary to get a clear idea of the position of the tongue and lips. In making simple vowels, the tongue, together with the lips, remains in the same position from beginning to end. So being a teacher, my responsibility was to teach every pronunciation skill as best I could.


Besides this, I helped students study the pronunciation of words they were reading in their daily lives. For example, in their course books, they used a dictionary to look up a word and saw the pronunciation. Listening to the model pronunciation in the computer program helped them to remember the feature of each pronunciation. I taught the pronunciation from a website:




2. Ask each student to read it and correct the mistakes

Last week, I attended a lecture and the students were English majors. I found their pronunciation was reasonably good. It showed us that our non-English major students didn't have a very suitable language surrounding in which to listen and practice speaking English that would enable them to acquire the second language effectively. From this point on, after we had learned the new pronunciation, I asked most students to read them out. In frustration at the beginning, because I felt my methods were not working, the students still pronounced the words wrongly especially some similar and particular like [ai] [ei] [e] [] and [w] [v] [s] [] then we listened to the tape again or I taught the phoneme again. And next class, I asked the pronunciation until they could read them correctly. We practiced repeatedly, and I found the students could now distinguish the different pronunciations. For example: I asked the students to do the Listening Text again, and as a result more than 80% students told me they could hear the differences. It showed us that my methods were helpful for some students to study.


Luan Wenwu said: "Miss Chen, I didn't distinguish some similar phonemes and I found it is difficult to read, but now I'm very happy because there's great advances have been made in my pronunciation and oral speaking, Thanks for your help ".


Some students were fed up with learning this knowledge because it was so boring. Because most of them told me that there isn't very helpful for them to find the job after graduate. But on one occasion one student (Jiao Junfen) was very happy said to me after class that others said it was pretty good when he was speaking. After that time he was willing to answer questions and learn the pronunciation. It is said that: ""For those of you reading this, I hope you can share my excitement about this student's change. This was also an example to encourage other students to improve themselves.


Another method I used to improve their pronunciation was self-testing: mini tests to evaluate an ability to recognize and pronounce sounds in words, sentences and conversational activities. An answer-key was included. I requested they were read and checked by themselves.


Finally, I reviewed with them once a week. By doing this I could check if they had mastered the right pronunciation of some new words in each unit.


3.  Offering equal and enough chance for them to speak and correct the mistakes.

My first attempt was making a rule of speaking for the class. I told my students:


'Speaking is the only way you can express yourself. You have an equal chance to speak, and when you are speaking, I can help you correct your pronunciation.'


I wanted my students to challenge themselves to speak and build up a sense of grasping chances.


During every class, I asked the students to read the new words or paragraphs aloud in order to complete the exercises. I thought this process would correct and strengthen their pronunciation. The students mentioned above always took the chance to speak. However, I found that some students like Jiao Junfen, Liu Xiaodong, and Liu Yongqiang mouthed the answers but hesitated because of poor pronunciation despite the fact that in every class I had taught some phonemes. Therefore I encouraged them every time and waited for them to make up their minds to stand up. They gradually started to volunteer. When Liu Xiaodong volunteered for the first time to present his presentation with his desk mate in front of the whole class, he seemed out of breath when speaking. But I valued the fact that any of them were brave enough to speak up at all, even if we did not hear his speaking clearly. I praised them at once, and at same time I did not correct his pronunciation. When he was standing the second and third times, I told him he should study his pronunciation more carefully and correct his mistakes. He received my suggestion without any apparent unhappiness and he was able to stand up to answer the questions many times in the future.


4. Practice

1) Individual Practice

To make it more specific, I wanted to take a pre-reading activity as an example from Unit Four 'How to make a good impression' (New Horizon College English, a textbook for the non-English major students aimed at increasing listening, speaking, writing and reading skills). I wrote some questions on the blackboard, for example, how long does it take us to judge the people we meet? And how about the impression when the students met me the first time? I think the class atmosphere was very active at this point, with students settling to the task with apparent eagerness. I encouraged them. After five minutes, I asked them:


'Have you finished you discussion?'


'Should we started our discussion'



We had a discussion together, but they seldom spoke voluntarily unless asked. If I asked the whole class, they spoke loudly and in a lively manner. In order to achieve my broader aim I still asked them one by one to talk about their experiences, and at the same time praised them and corrected their pronunciation. Gradually they were willing to speak and the class atmosphere became more active. After class they gave me three reasons for the change, comments I have amalgamated to show their general ideas:



LiuXiaodong told me: " I was willing to think question, and I was thought much more in my mind, but I was afraid to speak stand up because I thought others would laugh at my poor speaking, so I was waiting until other said something instead of me."


LiuYongqiang said: " I was positive to think about the questions, but my partner's pronunciation was better than mine, so I told my opinions to her and she was spoke instead of me. If you praised her, I was pride too because these were my opinions".


I paid more attention to another point as well: English pronunciation focuses on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, non-stressed, words. For example: I'm a student. When we read this short sentence, || could glide over.

Stressed words are covered:


Nouns: e.g. kitchen, Peter- (most)


Non-stressed words are covered function words:


To emphasize this point, I wrote a few sentences, or took a few exemplifying sentences from a book at the ends of class. First, I underline the stressed words, and then read aloud, focusing on stressing the underlined words and gliding over the non-stressed words. For example:


The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance. 

He can come on Sunday as long as he does not have to do any homework in the evening.


I gave the students a few minutes to underline the stressed words. Then, I invited some students to explain the detail about these two sentences. Even though the second sentence was approximately 30% longer than the first, the sentences toke the same time to speak. This was because there are 5stressed words in each sentence.


2) Group practice

When we were having class, I divided my class into 11 groups; each group elected a leader and had similar level of English. Before our class, I would write some tongue-twister on the blackboard:


"A pleasant peasant keeps a pleasant pheasant and both the peasant and the pheasant are having a pleasant time together."


On one side, to distinguish the difference between some similar pronunciation, on the other side to train the linguistic significance. And when we having class I asked them to discuss certain topics, like the pre-reading activities-discussion of each Unit. I held competitions between groups, for example: within our reviewed new words, I read the Chinese meaning and asked the students how to read and spell it, and wrote the scores of each group on the blackboard. Through this method, the students could remember the words quickly and the atmosphere of the class seemed quite relaxed. And it also could perhaps arouse their curiosity to learn more.


I asked them to give lessons by themselves such as Unit 5 'The Battle Against AIDS' (New Horizon College English) as this text is vital to our lives. 1st December was World AIDS Day, whose significance we would incorporate into the lesson. I asked them to found out some details about AIDS and give lessons by themselves in order to reinforce the message and made a performance or conversation. If a student made mistakes, the partners could correct them immediately. It could help the students avoided embarrassment for the whole class. Before they stood on the platform and explained the details about the text, they had to invite others to check their material. They also corrected their problems including pronunciation, their attitudes towards learning. In other words, it was a way to help them improve their confidence and performance (New Curriculum Guidelines, 2005).


For example, in Unit 2 'A Busy Weekday Morning' (New Horizon College English). This text presents what Sandy did on a weekday morning through a sequenced order, describing a series of actions according to the time when they happened. Therefore I requested all students to join in this performance for there are many dialogues. It was time to perform; I stared at them in amazement, because they were very good and the performance was of a high standard. In other words, their actions, their pronunciation, their clarity were really impressive. Like the 3rd group: LiYan was Sandy (the heroine of the text). Luan Wenwu was Sandy's mother. JiaoJunfen was Sandy's father. Yang Juan stood to the side; these dialogues needed the students to have learnt by heart with some rudimentary language and expressions. Luan Wenwu and Jiao Junfen spoke smoothly and gave us very creditable performances. By creditable I mean that they had prepared scrupulously for this assignment before the performance. They had to take great care with each aspect of pronunciation and intonation and help each other to achieve their best performance. When one group was presenting, the rest of the class listened carefully and pointed out some problems.


For a moment, the class would become quite noisy because they were so engaged in a heated discussion. I only sat by the side giving necessary instructions and ultimate help. All the students were involved in it and I saw Jiao Junfen and LiunYongqiang discussing actively with their partners. When Su Wen made a mistake in distinguishing |e| and |ei|, Jiao Junfen spoke up clearly to tell the difference. As you read on here, I hope you will be excited like me. It is necessary to explain that I tried my best to read the text and set examples in the right pronunciation at the beginning. Later on some students made demands to read the new words more often following my lead. That meant they wanted to speak and began to pay more attention to pronunciation.


LiYan said that she did not wanted to say anything at all in English and lost heart in answering questions because of her poor pronunciation. She my ideas about studying pronunciation, however, and I noticed her watching me carefully as I taught the others. Gradually, she seemed to find this a convincing process and that it could improve her pronunciation quickly. She sounded authentic when she was speaking, and she was able to perform in front of the class. She gave me a note, which said:


"I have reaped the benefits of all that hard work and you never punished us for the mistakes and often encouraged and praised us."


Nowadays she often speaks with her partners and answers questions in the class.


5.  Encourage them to speak and 'show off' and build confidence.

In the first class I wrote a big word, 'confidence' on the blackboard and told them whatever they did, this was very important. When we were having class if they knew the answer, I asked them to please stand up and speak clearly. I believe encouragement and compliments are usually effective and constitute important ways at any stage of teaching. So I grasped every chance to encourage my students and praise them on every little bit of progress they made, either a correct pronunciation or a volunteering answer. Luan Wenwu told me:


'I am nervous when I am speaking English. I am worried that I will make a mistake and other people will laugh at me.'


I told the students that no one would laugh at them, that everybody makes mistakes when they are learning a language. English people make mistakes in their English too when they are tired or under stress. People are listening to try to understand your meaning, not to check on your grammar. Then Miss Luan started to study in earnest despite the poor pronunciation. I gave her some positive suggestions, and then she followed my way to study pronunciation and speaking, then she said to me:


"Miss Chen, Thank for your help, because I was willing to listened my speaking than before and it was really good than before. I was asked to teach the pronunciation again after class.


Conclusion, Claims and Beliefs:

1 My behavior:

As Moira Laidlaw said in her handbook (Laidlaw, 2005):


We believe that the teacher's own enthusiasm about his/her subject is what motivates students the most. If you love your subject, then it's more likely that your students will too. Your enthusiasm will lead you to question what you are doing (using the Action Planning process) in order to find better ways of doing it in the future (Laidlaw 2005)


The enthusiasm is so important that it could rebound on my students, because I was setting an example in the classroom. It is like spring water to encourage me to think continuously and learn more knowledge. In order to be a better teacher, never enable the students to call me a teaching robot. I must keep my enthusiasm to assist their motivation and ensure they like my class, listen in my class, understand the knowledge and develop their own abilities. Beside this, I need to show humor, tolerance, and patience. Whatever the age of my students, I should try my best to activate the atmosphere in the classroom. When I found the students felt tried, sometime I would have a rest in the class and discuss some interesting things or invite one or two of students to sing a song. I found this could help the students to gain confidence. Some of them had thought it was impossibly difficult to study English, and I could look down on them. It was a vicious circle for them. By teaching them with enthusiasm, humor and patience, I broke this vicious circle.


2 Encouragement:

I gained useful information from my colleague Liu Xia's article:


'Encouragement can turn a coward into a hero'.(p2)


I remember the first time I invited Dr. Laidlaw to listen my class, she noted down:


Ma Li Xia (my student) stands up and talks well. She is a great student and I hope you praise her. I heard answer she is using some of the new vocabulary as well. But you just tell her to set down. No, you must praise her. Spend a little time telling her and the class how proud you are of your student when they volunteer.


I thought what a mistake I made! Without praise and encouragement, they would lose interest in their study. Although I am a teacher and they are students we are all human beings, and everyone needs praise and encouragement. From then on, in every class, I believe I never forgot to praise and encourage them. I found it was better than before. For example, a student told me:


"You never abuse or punish us, no matter answer was right or not, you smile and say Good/ Well done! We felt you were lovelier than before".


I was so happy because it is repayment from my students. It also helped me to be a better teacher.


3 Variety of class-content:

I have found that if it is boring the students won't study pronunciation diligently because it requires a lot of hard work. Therefore I had to take some positive or interesting measures to attract their attention educationally (Ma, 2006). Dr. Laidlaw said in her handbook (2005):


"The aim of classroom management is to improve the quality of learning with the students" (p.12)


I should always prepare interesting additional material before the class and tell them my teaching aims, and in the class we would do some individual / pair/ group work to prevent the students wanting to sleep to be able to. I wanted them to find out each other's mistakes, so I invited some of them to explain the text on the platform and encouraged them to ask questions.


My claims and beliefs:

There has to be a little space in the classroom, in which students' dreams can come true and in which each student recognizes and is shown their own personal value to the class. Systems mustn't be allowed to limit our thinking. When this is in place – a free space for dreams coming true – then we can show our real thinking and abilities. So, I deeply believe and understand what Dr.Laidlaw said in 2005:


" Good classroom management leads to students who learn effectively and deeply with enthusiasm" (p.12)


 This is my first Action Research Report, and I am now beginning to realize that my position is not only one of a teacher but also a researcher (Stenhouse, 1983). At the beginning, I thought it was an easy job to teach and there would be a lot of free time for me to do other things. But standing on the platform, faced with many eyes, I developed a sense of responsibility, and my responsibility is to hold myself responsible to the students and help them develop their thinking and learning.


Action Research constitutes a moral plea to us to look for the questions in the class of things, which disturb us (Whitehead, 1989), and try to find out the solution (McNiff, 1993). I have found it useful for me, because it has helped me to observe my class more precisely, examine my own teaching and show me, with the students' help, how to solve the problem. I believe the experience is worthwhile for every teacher especially young teachers, because they can develop their professional competence as well as improve students' learning (McNiff, 2003). I believe I am walking the pathway towards better teaching step by step. 


My next Action Research enquiry question is "How can I improve the learning atmosphere of the class by pre-reading activity?" During my teaching, I found if I managed some interesting activities, the students would listen and study carefully. It shows that pre-reading activity is more significant to the whole class, and the effect is attracting the student's interest and improving the learning atmosphere of the whole class. And it has a direct bearing on the effect of the classroom. So, I want to research this topic in order to improve the learning atmosphere of the class.



Colleagues from China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, (2004), 'A Handbook of Communicative English Methodology for The New Curriculum in China,' Guyuan Teachers college Press, Guyuan. Ningxia:


Gilbert, J. B. (1994). 'Intonation: A Navigation Guide for the Listener (and gadgets to help teach it)'. In J. Morley (Ed.), Pronunciation Pedagogy and Theory TESOL, Illinois.


Laidlaw, M., (2006), 'Notes from the observation of Chen Dan's Class on 30th March,' China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research for Foreign Languages Teaching, at www.gytc.com.cn


Laidlaw, M., (2005), 'Handbook One 'From Competence to Performance: English-Teaching Methodology for The New Curriculum in China', Guyuan Teachers

College Press, Guyuan, Ningxia.


Liu Xia (2004), 'How Can I Motivate My Students through Respect and Encouragement?' paper at www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/moira.shtml


Ma, L., (2006), 'How can I attract my students' attention educationally?' CECEARFLT Archives, Ningxia Teachers University at Guyuan.


McNiff, J., (2003), 'Action Research for Professional Development', at www.jeanmcniff.com


McNiff, J., (1993), 'Teaching as Learning', Routledge Books, London.


McNiff., J., & Whitehead, J., (2005), 'Action Research for Teachers', London: David Fulton Publishers


McNiff, J., (with Whitehead, J.), (2002), 'Action Research: Principles and Practice', 2nd Edition, London: University Press, Cambridge.


New Curriculum Working Party, (2005), 'New Curriculum Guidelines', Beijing Normal University, Beijing.


Pennington, M.C., (1996). Phonology in English Language Teaching, Addison Wesley Longman, Essex, U.K..


Stenhouse, L., (1983), 'Research as a basis for teaching', in Stenhouse, L., Authority, Education and Emancipation, Heinemann, London.


Whitehead, J., (1985), Analysis of Individual Educational Development: A Basis for Personally Oriented Action Research, in Shipman (ed.), Educational Research, Principles, Policies and Practice, Falmer Press, Lewes.


Whitehead, J., (1989), 'Creating a Living Educational Theory from asking questions of the kind, How can I improve my practice?' Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 19, no. 3, pp 41 – 52.


Appendix:         Listening Test

'ieh(r)' as in 'near'

'ehi(r)' as in 'hair'







tear(drop  of water)

tear (rip)