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Ask the Experts

Ask the Experts


  1. What aspects of pronunciation should be addressed first?
  2. Do I need to teach the IPA?
  3. Where do you draw the line between an alternative accent and an accent that is unacceptable for employability?
  4. What are a few books that will help me with basic pronunciation teaching methodology?
  5. What are good Test of Spoken English (TSE) materials?
  6. How can I get management to agree to pay for pronunciation training?
  7. What is the best way to address the issue of fluency in ITAs?  What objectives should be covered in ITA pronunciation tutorials?  What are effective types of pronunciation homework assignments to give ITAs?
  8. What’s the relevance of breathing and chunking (pausing and thought groups)?  Which should be focused on first, segmentals or suprasegmentals?
  9. How does spelling affect pronunciation?

What aspects of pronunciation should be addressed first?

Answer by Bill Crawford:

In a weekly workshop setting, addressing the following aspects of pronunciation is highly productive in meeting the needs of a large number of students from varied linguistic backgrounds.

1.      Syllable Stress:

o        Students practice listening to and pronouncing syllable stress in two syllable words, such as: PEN•cil and be•GIN. Students learn that the syllable that is stressed is: 1) louder, 2) longer, 3) clearer in pitch, and 4) higher in pitch (or tone).

o        Stress in three syllable words follows, as in: YES•ter•day, to•MOR•row, and un•der•STAND.

o        Finally stress in polysyllabic words is presented. Here basic rules for stress placement can be introduced (for example: Dauer, Accurate English, pages 67-9) along with grammatical patterns such as: PHO•to•graph, ph•TO•graph•y, ph•to•GRA•phic.

2.      Syllable and Word Reduction: Students practice listening to and pronouncing the reduced pronunciation of vowels as in the first syllable of  a•GO (where the first syllable is reduced to schwa) or the second syllable of WAIT•ed (where the second syllable is pronounced as schwa or /I/).

3.      This leads naturally to the instruction of sentence stress and reduced words. Students learn the distinction of CONTENT and FUNCTION words (which are generally stressed and unstressed respectively). Students practice listening to and pronouncing such reduced words as from (fr'm), to (t'), some (s'm), and ('n). A brief introduction to linking is recommended in order to introduce students to further reductions such as: like him (like'm), saw her (saw'er) and is she (i'she).

4.      Sentence Stress or Focus: Now that students have a general understanding of the basic stress patterns in English they are ready to practice listening and pronouncing sentences with contrastive sentence stress, such as:

Is she leaving TOMORROW?

Is she LEAVING tomorrow?

Is SHE leaving tomorrow?

Basic intonation partners--rising vs. falling--are ideally presented at this point along with the essentials of rhythm in spoken English.

5.      Word Endings: Many students have difficulty in pronouncing consonant clusters at the ends of words. In simplifying consonant clusters, grammatical information is often lost. Therefore, an essential aspect of teaching pronunciation is word endings. Students practice listening to and pronouncing the -ed and -s word endings. They are also introduced to the linguistic rules underlying these pronunciation patterns, including the concepts of voiced and voiceless sounds.

6.      Linking: Rules for linking across word boundaries are often complicated in the minds of students. Active practice in this area often proves very productive in solving a number of problems in miscommunications in English pronunciation. A variety of sources are useful: Targeting English Pronunciation (Miller), Focus on Pronunciation (Lane), Phrase by Phrase (Chan), Clear Speech (Gilbert), etc.

7.      Selected Phonemes: Students practice listening to and pronouncing selected phonemes (depending upon the linguistic makeup of the class). Presentations for students from mixed linguistic backgrounds generally include: the "th" of "thank" and the "th" of "than," i.e., /đ/; vowel plus /r/ combinations; tense vs. lax vowel contrasts /iy/ and /I/, etc.

See also:


Crawford, William. (1987) The pronunciation monitor: L2 acquisition considerations and pedagogical priorities. In H. Joan Morley (ed), Current perspectives on pronunciation. TESOL.


Celce-Murcia, Marianne. (1996) Teaching pronunciation: a reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. Cambridge University Press.

William Crawford
Georgetown University
November 1, 2000

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Do I need to teach the IPA?

Answer by Rita Wong:

The ability to use pronunciation symbols, whether it is the IPA, or another system, enables the learner to get information about the pronunciation of a word from the dictionary. So, if your students are at a stage at which they can use the dictionary for this purpose, then this can be a useful endeavor. In such a case, it would be important to teach the system used in the dictionary, which may not be the IPA.

Pronunciation symbols can also be helpful because they allow the teacher to show pronunciation graphically, for example, that the initial sound of the word "chemical" is pronounced /k/. These symbols can be used selectively; it would not be necessary to teach the entire system.

From a practical standpoint, few teachers today have the luxury to devote the time to teach the IPA, given the amount of classroom hours available. Note that contemporary pronunciation textbooks, such as Linda Grant's Well Said, use pronunciation symbols as aids rather than as something to be learned.

A good rule of thumb concerning teaching the IPA would be: use as needed.

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Where do you draw the line between an alternative accent and an accent that is unacceptable for employability?

                    Answer by Sandra Browne:

One should draw the line when the NNS cannot function satisfactorily in the job assigned due to unintelligible/non-communicative speech. Drawing the line between an alternative accent and an accent that is unacceptable for employability should involve four people: 1) the employee, 2) the employer, 3) the HR (Human Resource) person, 4) a qualified linguist. The range of acceptability is large, depending upon the job. A research scientist clearly has to have more command of the language than a hotel maid. The major linguistic factors in miscommunication are rhythm and intonation and speed of speech. Voice quality is also sometimes an issue. The "line" must be established with regard to the task(s) to be performed by the employee.

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What are a few books that will help me with basic pronunciation teaching methodology?

                Answer by John Murphy

First,  go to the following URL (which I still need to update but it is still a good place to begin):


Following is a list of some resources from that list:

Avery, P., & Ehrlich, S. (1992). Teaching American English Pronunciation. New York. Oxford University Press.

Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D., & Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages. New York: Cambridge University Press.  (This is a "must-have" volume).

Dalton, C., & Seidlhofer, B. (1994). Pronunciation. New York: Oxford U. Press. (also a professional reference text)

Wong, R. (1986). Teaching Pronunciation: Focus on English Rhythm and Intonation. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. ["out of print" though easily available through ERIC/Center for Applied Linguistics. ISBN 0-13-895095-4].

 Morley, J. (Ed.). (1994). Pronunciation Pedagogy and Theory: New Views, New Directions. Alexandria, Va: TESOL. See also . . . Murphy, J. (1995). Book review of Joan Morley's Pronunciation pedagogy and theory: New Views, New Directions." Language Learning, 45(2), pp. 345-353.

"Activity Recipe" Collections:

Bailey, K. M., & Savage, L. (1994). (one section of; pp. 199-262) New ways in teaching speaking. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

Bowen, T., & Marks, J. (1992). The Pronunciation Book: Student-centered activities for pronunciation work. NY: Longman.

Hancock, M. (1996). Pronunciation Games. Cambridge U. Press.

Laroy, C. (1995). Pronunciation. New York: Oxford U. Press.

Nunan, D., & Miller, L. (1995). (one section of; pp. 120-150) New Ways in Teaching Listening. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.

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What are good Test of Spoken English (TSE) materials?

         Answer by Colleen Meyers:

My first suggestion would be to buy Dean Pappajohn's wonderful book: Towards Speaking Excellence, which is published by the University of Michigan Press. This has some excellent overall strategies as well as some specific strategies for pronunciation.

In addition, this is what I tell the new ITAs in our intensive summer program who need to take SPEAK (which is our institutionalized version of the TSE). Here are my "10 strategies for getting a good score on the TSE:"

1.      Practice beforehand. One of my ITAs purposefully did NOT take the TSE until he had been in the USA for a few weeks, just so he could feel more comfortable speaking English. Other students have told me they try to speak English before the test as much as they can that day.

2.      Incorporate pauses. When native speakers of English speak informally they sometimes speak very fast; however, when they speak in a more formal situation, such as on a test, they slow down and incorporate pauses into their speech. These pauses are similar to those which they would use when reading. For example, Today/ I want to talk about this graph./ It's very important/ because it will be on the test./ This technique is particularly important for speakers of other dialects of English, such as Indians, Nigerians, Kenyans, etc.

3.      Close your eyes. Some people who take the TSE do not do well because they are distracted by those around them. By closing your eyes, you can “tune out" the noise in the room and the sound of others taking the test.

4.      Smile while talking. Smiling naturally helps native speakers to use a more enthusiastic rise and fall to their voice, giving them a more pleasant sounding voice and therefore better intonation pattern. Try pretending you are answering the phone: "ABC Company. Colleen speaking." Do this WITH and withOUT a smile. What difference do you notice?

5.      Open your jaw. Many nonnative speakers of English speak English with their jaw too closed. This affects their volume and clarity of their speech. By opening your jaw, the sound will come out louder and clearer.

6.      Enunciate key words. Again, when native speakers speak normally, they do not enunciate so much; however, teachers, politicians, and trained speakers are trained to make the key words "count." That's why George Bush (senior) lost the 1996 election to Clinton. He said, "Read my lips. No new taxes!" When taxes went up, he lost out. As you speak, clearly enunciate (move your jaw, lips, and tongue actively) for the key words (IN CAPITAL LETTERS): "TODAY, I want to talk about this GRAPH."

7.      Emphasize important words. If you are comparing and contrasting two ideas, use extra emphasis to make the contrast. For example, "In the UNITED STATES, BREAD is popular, but in CHINA, RICE is the most popular." Do the same for important adverbs and verbs that show strong feeling (REALLY, VERY, HATE, LOVE, ALWAYS, NEVER) and transitional words (FIRST, THEN, NEXT, FINALLY). For instance, "I LOVE trains." "The FIRST thing I would do is to ...."

8.      Slow down. The previous hints should help in this area. Also, however, you need to slow down your speech so that: 1) YOU have more control over your speech; and 2) your LISTENERS have more time to process what you 're saying. Think about the "quality" of your speech as being more important than the "quantity."

9.      Get enough rest the night before. Sometimes students arrive tired to the test. Even native speakers of English don't speak as well when they are tired. Being rested can help a great deal because you won't have to work so hard just to think of what to say! You can focus more on "how" you are saying it.

10.  Relax. Think of this test as an "opportunity"--not an "obstacle." Take a deep breath and tell yourself this will be a good experience for you. Arrive on time so that you don't need to go rushing into the room at the last minute, out of breath!

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How can I get management to agree to pay for pronunciation training?

Answer by Alan Headbloom:

1.      Hold a presentation session for managers. Show them 'before' and 'after' videotape of successful program graduates. In table form, present questionnaire responses from both graduates and their managers which give positive feedback about improved comprehensibility and confidence in the workplace.

2.      Find a company champion for your cause and bring him or her to the meeting, or get a meaningful statement from him/her to pass out at the meeting.

3.      Don't be afraid to show your technical knowledge. What pass for simple, everyday understandings for linguists are magical insights for lay people; they use language but don't understand it. We do have certain expertise, so be sure to share that in the meeting. Talk especially about features of stress, rhythm, linking, and intonation which aid in comprehensibility.

4.      Be professional and persuasive. That includes not looking like a university geek; business people have prejudices against academics. Use high-quality handouts or even PowerPoint.

5.      Fix your language. If your first culture is education, don't talk about "students" and "teachers". Identify shareholders as "learners" (or "employees") and "trainers". This issue of becoming part of the business culture is enormous. Just as you would when traveling to a foreign land for the first time, find out all you can before entering their world.

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What is the best way to address the issue of fluency in ITAs?  What objectives should be covered in ITA pronunciation tutorials?  What are effective types of pronunciation homework assignments to give ITAs?

            Answer by Ann Wennerstrom:

If ITAs wish to improve their fluency, I recommend that the basic facts about English prosody - the intonation, rhythm, and timing of speech -- be introduced early on. I have found that these graduate students, often theoreticians in their own fields, appreciate having an intellectual grasp of “the big picture” of this aspect of speech, which has a direct effect on their fluency. Here are a few simple facts about English prosody, true of many dialects:


 Speech is divided into phrases or “breath groups”. Words are linked together within phrases that, where possible, the final consonant of one word connects to the beginning of the next.


 Word stress is meaningful in English; if it falls in the wrong place, a word may not be understood.


Stressed syllables are aligned in a fairly regular rhythm, while unstressed syllables take very little time.


 Every phrase has a focus - often a new idea or a contrast - which usually has the highest pitch.


 An extended flat or low-rising intonation at the end of a phrase can indicate that a speaker intends to continue to speak. (This is a good way to buy time to collect one's thoughts!)


 A falling intonation sounds more final.

Beyond the intellectual understanding, tutorials are a good setting in which to raise ITAs' consciousness about their own English speech patterns. A tutor can provide a model of fluent speech, correction of specific forms, suggestions for individualized practice activities (perhaps using the books mentioned below), and tools for self-analysis. The following personalized speech analysis activity is one highly effective tool:

ITAs audio- or videotape themselves in situations of real communication, for example, while teaching a class. They then transcribe the tape to obtain a written version. The tutor can help with transcription the first time but later, it can be the ITAs' responsibility to tape and transcribe for homework, marking the transcript for word stress, phrase boundaries, and important focus words. They can then practice reading the transcript aloud, aiming for a more fluent, phrasal (rather than word-by-word) delivery, with English prosodic patterns as the target. After working with the transcript, they can rerecord the material in their own words without reading. This activity can be repeated numerous times, using different speech samples each time. The material is always relevant because it is drawn from the ITA's own discourse, spoken in a meaningful context.

Teacher Resources:

Madden, C. & Myers, C. (1994). Discourse and performance of international teaching assistants. Alexandria, VA: TESOL. A collection of articles on matters of ITA communication.

Riggenbach, H. (1999  Discourse Analysis Activities in the Language Classroom. Volume I: The Spoken Language. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. A practical guidebook for teachers on developing and implementing discourse-based activities for ESL classes.

Riggenbach, H. (2000 Perspectives on Fluency. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. A collection of research articles by linguists, psycholinguistics, discourse analysts, and SLA experts on the topic of fluency.

Wennerstrom, A. (1992 “Content-based pronunciation” TESOL Journal 1(3). This article originally had a subtitle: “The case of the ITA”. More details about developing individualized activities for ITAs are presented.

Wennerstrom, A. (1991). Techniques for Teachers: A Guide for Nonnative Speakers of English. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. A book and video package of fluency and speech analysis activities based on real academic lectures and their transcripts.

Student Books:

Hahn, L. & Dickerson, W. (1999). Speechcraft: Workbook for International TA Discourse. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. A thorough overview of English stress and intonation systems with discourse-based activities  specifically targeted at ITAs.

Grant, L. (2000). Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication. New York: Heinle &  Heinle. A book and tape package for advanced ESL learners with clear explanations and many communicative practice activities on intonation, rhythm, and stress patterns of English. Exercises on vowels and consonants are included in an appendix.

Morley, J. (1992). Extemporaneous Speaking Practice. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. A series of discourse-based assignments focused on communicative practice in meaningful contexts.

Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (1998). Pronunciation for Success. Burnsville, MN: Aspen Productions. A book, video, and audiotape package with activities on prosody and segmental pronunciation. Excellent for self-access, the video teaches explicit techniques with examples of real ESL learners “before” and “after” mastering each pattern.


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What’s the relevance of breathing and chunking (pausing and thought groups)?  Which should be focused on first, segmentals or suprasegmentals?

Answer by Rebecca Dauer, Ph. D:

Breathing and "chunking" are extremely important in English (and in any language). A small improvement in pausing and linking words together within "chunks" can lead to a great improvement in intelligibility. Also, it's not that hard to teach, so it should get priority. A common error is speaking too quickly and not pausing in the right places. These go together: if a speaker doesn't pause where he/she should, he/she will be forced to pause elsewhere inappropriately. Other reasons for pausing long enough and in the right places (that is between, rather than within syntactic groups) are:

1.      Pauses give the speaker time for speech planning and the listener time to process and reprocess speech if necessary.

2.      Pausing at the end of phrases and clauses results in fewer final consonants being dropped, since there is time to pronounce them. Nouns and verbs typically end phrases, and they are the words with most final consonant clusters.

3.      Pausing more frequently and for a longer time (I usually tell students to pause 2 to 3 times longer than they think) often results in better overall rhythm and intonation.

Although for the purposes of analysis, we separate "segmentals" (consonants and vowels) from "suprasegmentals" (stress, rhythm, intonation), they are really inseparable in speaking. All syllables have to be said for a certain length and on a certain pitch. An improvement in one area can help in another area. What to teach and in what order depends on many factors, including the level of the students, expertise of the teachers. length of the course, and goals of the learners. For adult learners at intermediate and advanced levels, I would recommend starting with rhythm (pausing, linking, stress, reducing function words and unstressed vowels) and final consonants (<s> and <ed> endings, linking, pronouncing final clusters).

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How does spelling affect pronunciation?

        Answer by Camilla Dixo-Leiff and Elizabeth Pow:

English is certainly a puzzling language to spell and pronounce, and learners easily realize that spelling presents many problems and challenges. As Bryson (1990) says : “If there is one thing certain about English pronunciation is that there is almost nothing certain about it . No other language in the world has more words spelled the same way and yet pronounced differently”.
E.g.        heard/beard   road/broad   break / weak   low /how   paid / said.

What spelling factors might affect pronunciation achievement?

A language is considered well spelled if there is a high correlation, or a closer correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. Languages such as Arabic, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Portuguese, for example, have a much higher correlation in this respect than English. Written letters represent spoken sounds. However, the English spelling system often fails to represent the sounds of English in a straightforward manner. In other words, there is a low correlation between the sounds we hear and the letters we see on paper. Learners, especially those whose language is more phonetic, naturally tend to rely on the more  familiar pattern of L1 to read or convert letters into speech signals.

Nasr (1997) describes some discrepancies between spelling and sounds in English: The vowel sounds (16 in American English and 21 in British English) are represented by only 5 vowel letters in the alphabet. The English spelling system requires a good number of vowel letter combinations, many of which are pronounced in a variety of ways.


 Many letters are silent or unpronounced: “lamb, debt, calm, listen, through, hymn, know, surprise, suite, yacht.”


A great number of sounds in English have various spellings: “bee, tea, mete,  ceiling,” “field, key, machine, quay, me,  Phoenix , people”.”


A great number of letters and combinations of letters are variously pronounced : e.g. “through, though, tough, bough, thorough” “meat, head, heart, heard, theatre,” “pool, foot, blood, door, cooperate” “cake, mat, call, any, sofa”


 Several sets of words may be spelled in different ways but pronounced similarly (homophonous words) : e.g. “red, read” ( past) “rite, right, write, buy, bye, by, so, sew,” “sow, feat, feet ate, eight.” Conversely, there are several words that are spelled in the same way, but pronounced differently, depending on the context or meaning. e.g. “read,” “conflict” ( noun ) “conflict” ( v) “tear” ( noun) “tear” (v) bow.

At suprasegmental level the English spelling/writing system may present further challenges. “Very few prosodic features” are represented in writing. If, on the one hand, “the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages : the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes and so on”,   Bryson (1990),“word stress” is not represented at all, which  often  poses a problem to the learner. Also, “pauses”tend to be more frequent than those represented in the punctuation, which can be tricky for the learner when asked to listen to or read a text aloud.

The imbalance between the written input and the oral/ aural input can also be a factor in pronunciation achievement. When students start learning English, exposure to the written form generally precedes speaking, students are strongly influenced by the word visual  representation, and as a result, pronunciation is very often affected.  Learners' view of the spoken language is partially conditioned by their  experience , their exposure to the written language: they say what they see. Because of the low correspondence between spelling and pronunciation in English, how can teachers help learners?

By intensively exposing learners  to oral English so that they acquire a clear auditory image of the words and by devising spelling-pronunciation awareness-raising activities, learners are encouraged to discover, on their own,  the low correspondence between letter and sound in English and to try out their hypotheses about how words are pronounced. This is very likely to lead to more effective and long-lasting learning.

By encouraging learners to develop their own sound- spelling organizer at the end of lessons and keep it at hand for easy reference and by using the phonetic alphabet, when discussing English sounds, the problems that “a  spelling system like English  poses for the representation of sounds” can be minimized. Avery & Ehrlich ( 1992)

As Bryson (1990) says :“Spelling and pronunciation in English are very much like trains on parallel tracks, one sometimes racing ahead of the other before being caught up “. However, as Avery & Ehrlich (1992) point out, once students get more familiar with English spelling, they usually become quite good  at guessing pronunciation of unknown words based solely on the spelling.

References/ Further Reading:

Avery, P, & Ehrlich, S. (1992) Teaching American English Pronunciation. Oxford University Press.  Part 1 Unit 1.

Bryson, B. (1990) The English Language. Penguin. Chapters 6 and 8.

Crystal, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language.
  Cambridge University Press.  Part IV Unit 18”

Digby, C. & Myers, J. (1993) Making Sense of Spelling and Pronunciation. Prentice Hall.

Grant, L. (2000) Well Said .2nd Edition. Heinle & Heinle. Unit 3

Knowles, G. (1987) Patterns of Spoken English.  Cambridge University Press. Chapter 1.

Miragaya, A.M.(1994) “Silent Reading is Silent Speaking”. BRAZ-TESOL Newsletter .vol.8, n.3 pp12,13 and 18.”

Nasr, R. (1997) Applied English Phonology - University Press of America. Chapter 14.

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