Teaching Pronunciation that Matters (by Nina Septina)

Pronunciation is like an art to me, and I’ve always enjoyed it. It is like learning how to play guitar, where we have to figure out when to use different picking strategies or strumming patterns to produce the desired sounds. In pronunciation, we also need to use many different techniques and tongue positions in our mouth to produce the right sounds. Another similarity is that we’ve got to know when to change how hard or softly we should hit the guitar strings when playing a song. The same thing happens when we have to figure out how hard or how soft we should stress certain syllables in words, or some words in sentences when speaking. Finally, there’s the use of rhythm as the main component that shapes the flow of the song, just as it also shapes the flow of the speech in pronunciation.

Nina on guitar

The difficultly non-native speakers have speaking English with natural rhythm and intonation (like native speakers) has posed tantalising challenges for me as an English learner and a teacher. I’m still learning this subject from both printed and online resources and practising it myself as well as teaching it to my students. I’m not trying to reach native pronunciation, just trying to improve myself in order to give my students the best I can.

Recently, I was taking online lessons about teaching pronunciation with International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi.pro), where teachers from all over the globe who are taking the same lessons can share their ideas and learn from each other. In the lesson forum, I was asked by another teacher who shares the same mother tongue as mine —  Indonesian — about how I help my students learn the stress and rhythm of English.

English and Indonesian have different rhythm patterns. Often Indonesians are not aware of this so they use the rhythm for Indonesian when speaking English. Many do not even realise that their English speech rhythm is affected by the rhythm of their mother tongue, nor do they know that this interference makes their English speech unnatural and sometimes difficult to understand.

What’s the difference between these rhythm patterns?

English is a stress-timed language while Indonesian is a syllable-timed language. According to Mackay (1985), stress-timed rhythm is determined by stressed syllables, which occur at regular intervals of time, with an uneven and changing number of unstressed syllables between them; syllable-timed rhythm is based on the total number of syllables since each syllable takes approximately the same amount of time. So, English with an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables is called stress-timed, while Indonesian, with almost the same stress in all syllables, is called syllable-timed.

Given this situation, to help my students recognise the English rhythm pattern and stress I give them the following simple drilling activity called Da da Language, based on a photocopiable worksheet from Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock (Cambridge University Press).

Here’s how we did it:

1. Distribute handouts for the Da da Language Phrase Book to each student.

2. Tell students that they will sing out these phrases and sentences together.

3. Explain the procedure: one student leads the activity by singing the Dar Dooby and Dipety words in the first column, then the other students follow with the English phrases or sentences on the next column.

from Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock (Cambridge University Press)

from Pronunciation Games by Mark Hancock (Cambridge University Press)

4. Write these exchanges on the board (taken from the worksheet).

T : dar / dar / dar

Ss : fresh / fried / chips

T : dooby / dooby / dooby

Ss : lots of / fish and / pizza

T :  dipety / dipety / dipety

Ss : plenty of / carrots and / sausages

Explain to students that the underlined syllables are stressed and the others are unstressed. For these unstressed syllables, we say them more quickly and the vowels ‘o’ and ‘a’ are reduced to the shorter sound /ə/ to keep the sentence stress and timing. So, there’s going to be a kind of “shrinkin’ n linkin” (as Jason R. Levine refers to it) of the sound or what we usually call sound reduction. Model the pronunciation. Make a rhythmical pattern by tapping on the board/desk. The stressed syllables will fall at the same intervals as we tap on it.

Then sing out and drill the exchanges with students. (For young learners, explaining the theory doesn’t seem to be very effective, just give them the example and do the drilling.)

5. As students get familiar with the above procedure, try to combine the Dar, Dooby and Dipety words in a single instruction and do it repeatedly with more variations, for example:

T : dar / dar / dooby

Ss : fresh / fried / pizza

T : dar / dooby / dipety

Ss : fresh / fish and / sausages

T :  dipety / dar / dooby

Ss : plenty of / fried / pizza


6. Finally ask some students to take turns leading the activity. Try different numbers from one to eight from the handout.

Another playful variation

 1. Divide the class into pairs.

2. Players take turns leading the activity.

3. When students become used to this procedure, they can begin to play for points: each player starts with ten points and loses a point for each mistake.

Here’s a short YouTube video of my students practicing this activity with their friends. First they did it as a class activity, then they continued practicing it in pairs and played for points. Students enjoyed this and they became more aware of the English rhythm pattern and stress — they even tried to correct each other’s mistakes.

As a follow up activity (if time allows) we may ask students to change some of the words or phrases in the Da da Language handout with their favourite words or phrases, like changing the names into their friends’, family’s or their own names, also changing the places / city with ones they like, etc. To stimulate their critical thinking and creativity, challenge adult learners to create a set of phrases or sentences on their own and have them exchange sets and practice with their friends. Building the content around students’ world and personalising it will make this drilling practice more meaningful to students and they will likely be more engaged. Additionally, with short, frequent practice, their muscle memory will get accustomed to the English stress and rhythm pattern, thus the shrinkin’ n linkin’ will follow naturally.

My students and I are benefiting from this. I hope this can be useful for you and your students as well. Have fun trying! 😉

Note: This article by Nina Septina originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.


Nina Septina

About Nina Septina

Nina Septina, a Mentor with the International Teacher Development Institute, teaches at EF English First, in Indonesia. She believes in the power of collaboration that allows the opportunities to make the most out of one's individual ability to evolve and make positive changes happen. One of her main concerns in teaching is to foster a passion for learning by incorporating the use of technology and music in and outside the classroom to help students achieve their learning goals. You can follow Nina on her facebook page.

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10 Responses

  1. Barbara Barbara says:

    I love the image of teaching pronunciation as learning to make music! And I really appreciate your willingness to share your activity here, where everyone can learn from it. Thank you, Nina!

  2. Nina Nina says:

    The pleasure is mine, Barb, yes indeed, learning pronunciation this way is quite like learning to make music!
    Hope others who are trying out the activity get the benefits as much as we do.
    And thanks so much for the opportunity given to write here, it’s always been so lovely to work with you 😉

    Best Wishes,

  3. Avatar Mark Hancock says:

    Great, Nina, and fascinating to see that video. I used that activity too recently, but didn’t think of having students put their own words in the phrasebook.

    • Nina Nina says:

      Wow, Mark Hancock, the author!
      Thank you so much, Mark, for creating this great activity! It helps my students recognise and make sense of the stress and rhythm in English.
      Putting their own words in the phrasebook was done as a post-class task in an attempt to stimulate their creativity 😉
      Again, thanks so much for the inspiration, Mark! 😉

  4. Avatar Nicholas says:

    Hey Barbara, thanks for sharing this splendid information. I liked the way you have divided into class pairs and explained. The students will understand them more easily and fluently.

  5. Hi Barbara, Thanks for your sharing Pronunciation Teaching information. This I liked your teaching pronunciation. it’s great teaching technique.

    Great source !

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