Teaching Speaking and Pronunciation: Where do I start?

Robert McMullin

The Institute of Public Administration in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia


How to Teach Pronunciation. By Gerald Kelly, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2000. 160 pages.  £25.70.


How to Teach Speaking. By Scott Thornbury, Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2005. 160 pages. £25.70.


Any teacher faced with planning a speaking class for the first time, and wondering where to start, would do well to investigate How to Teach Pronunciation and How to Teach Speaking. Both are concise, well organized, and strike a good balance between theory and practical applications, explaining theory in order to support the use of certain teaching approaches, and not to discuss theory for its own sake. Good information on creating speaking classes, especially in the area of pronunciation, can be hard to come by.  As Pennington (1998) has noted, the study of phonology in many teaching programs is limited to general linguistics as opposed to being geared towards teaching in the classroom.  Since in the same article she also cites numerous studies that demonstrate instructing L-2 learners in pronunciation, even for relatively brief periods of time, can produce noticeable improvement in pronunciation, it would seem the only question is how to integrate pronunciation instruction into a speaking course rather than if it should be included. The two books compliment each other well, and together provide a teacher with a good starting point for teaching or designing an oral course.

I will start with How to Teach Pronunciation. The first chapter, the description of speech, gives a brief overview of the physiology of pronunciation, the articulation and transcription of phonemes, as well as the relationship between phonetics and phonology.  The second chapter, teaching pronunciation, gives an overview of the pedagogy of pronunciation.  It discusses approaches to teaching (reactive versus planned teaching) as well as discusses how to decide what pronunciation model to teach, and gives a few examples of different types of techniques and activities to use in teaching pronunciation.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover vowels and consonants, respectively.  These chapters give a good overview of phonology; they discuss how vowel and consonants sounds are articulated in detail, as well as some practical classroom exercises to teach students the phonemes of the English language.

Chapter 5 discusses word and sentence stress, an especially important topic in light of the consensus among ESL professionals (Hahn, 2008) which cite difficulties with suprasegmental pronunciation as a far more significant bar to intelligibility by L2 students than segmental pronunciation.  Again, the book does a good job of giving a thorough but not overly long explanation of the key concepts and terms of both word stress and sentence stress, as well as some practical exercises to demonstrate these concepts to students. 

Chapter 6 discusses intonation. This would seem to be an especially significant chapter, as many English teachers (especially native speakers) don’t always appreciate just how much English speakers use and depend on intonation to communicate information.  The book discusses many of the consequences of L2 students not understanding the use of intonation.  The book does a good job of discussing the key concepts involved in intonation as well as some teaching techniques to both demonstrate these ideas to students and to enable them to master the use of intonation themselves.

Lastly, chapter 7 discusses other “miscellaneous” aspects of suprasegmental speech such as assimilation, elision, linking, and contractions, and whether these particular aspects of connected speech should be taught.  The author does a good job of discussing both sides of this issue, which would seem to generate differing views among the ESL community. The author seems to take a nuanced view, supporting the teaching of some (such as contractions) while dealing with others (such as assimilation) only in certain cases.

The book also contains a task file, at least one task for each chapter, to allow the reader to test his own comprehension of key concepts after finishing each chapter.

 One additional benefit this book provides is a CD recording and a photocopyable chart of the IPA alphabet. This recording provides both audio samples of all the vowel and consonant phonemes, as well as practical demonstrations of different aspects of phonetics.  This is especially valuable for the non-native speaker teaching who needs a model of native pronunciation to demonstrate to their students.  The vowels and consonants are included in the charts in sequence, numbered to correspond with the tracks of the included CD.  These charts also include each phoneme's symbol from the IPA alphabet. Both the phoneme itself and several words containing that phoneme as examples are provided.

How to Teach Speaking is a good companion volume to How to Teach Pronunciation. The first several chapters explain the various theories behind language acquisition, especially as it relates to the spoken word.  Various theories of language acquisition are discussed, but rather than embrace any particular approach, it attempts to explain SLA in terms of a common denominator by breaking this process of acquisition down to three stages: awareness, appropriation, and autonomy.  The book devotes one chapter to each of these stages and gives both theory and a practical approach to teaching students in these various stages. 

Chapter 1 begins by defining what speaking is.  It introduces and explains such key terms as self-monitoring, automaticity, and fluency. It deals with speaking as a skill.

Chapter 2, in contrast, discusses what knowledge is involved in speaking, and how it might differ between an L1 and an L2 speaker.  It discusses sociocultural knowledge, linguistic knowledge, pragmatic knowledge, politeness and register.  It also briefly deals with vocabulary and chunks, the latter defined as sequences of speech pre assembled through previous use and retrievable as a unit, further subdividing and providing examples of the latter into collocations, phrasal verbs, idioms, and discourse markers.

Chapter 3 discusses in depth the differences between an L1 speaker and an L2 speaker.  It takes the approach that there is not much of a difference between speaking one’s native language and speaking a second.  However, it does discuss sociocultural knowledge and genre knowledge and how an L2 speaker might be handicapped by not possessing information L1 speakers take for granted.  It also briefly discusses vocabulary and phonology.  Lastly, it discusses the three schools of second language acquisition: behaviorist, cognitivist, and sociocultural theory.

As previously mentioned, rather than favor any particular theory to language learning, the book confines itself to discussing awareness raising, appropriation, and autonomy. 

Chapter 4 discusses awareness raising activities. The book subdivides awareness to include paying attention, noticing, and understanding. The primary activities it recommends are the use of recordings, both for students to listen to and to make transcripts.

Chapter 5 discusses appropriation activities.  While the book defines appropriation as the transition from “other regulated” to "self regulated", via social interaction, seemingly a subtle endorsement of the sociocultural approach, as is its advocacy of the use of scaffolding by teachers.

Chapter 6 discusses autonomy, and activities teachers might employ to foster it in their students. It recommends and describes task based student activities such as presentations to achieve these ends.

Chapter 7, planning and assessing speaking, discusses in detail both integrating speaking into the curriculum as well as assessing speaking. Chapter 7 also discusses integrated skills and how other skills can be introduced into, or combined with, a speaking course. 

There is a task file in this book as well, which allows a reader to test his understanding of each chapter. For example, the task files for Chapter 1 present dialogues and ask the reader to identify features of spontaneous speech (such as filled pauses)  and turn taking (backchanneling, topic shifts) to ensure the reader understood all of the terms discussed in the chapter. An answer key is provided at the end.

This is another thing I find refreshing about the book; the emphasis on spoken models designed with realism in mind.  Recordings abound in most speaking texts, but frequently they are so cleaned up they don’t prepare the listeners for language in the real world. As a former “voice model” myself, I can attest that so much rehearsing and multiple takes are used in the creation of these dialogs the odds of hearing such “perfect speech” outside the studio are unlikely, and may leave a student with the impression he is more familiar with the speech of a native speaker than may be the case.

The only real criticism I can think to make of these books is their lack of a glossary.  While key terms are introduced into the text in bold face, and their meanings generally described, it would be helpful to have a section with key terms clearly listed and defined.  However, given just how much information is contained in these books, this is a minor criticism.

How to Teach Pronunciation and How to Teach Speaking provide concise but surprisingly comprehensive coverage of everything you need to know to plan and teach an oral ESL course.  Unlike many ESL texts they don’t lose the reader in unimportant details or esoteric side arguments of little practical significance.  They are good for beginning teachers as well as more experienced ESL instructors.  Particularly useful is How to Teach Pronunciation, an area not always covered in depth even in some M.A. programs; even a professional with a graduate education in TESOL can learn from this book.  For instance, it was my first encounter with the term triphthong (a combination of three vowel sounds). Firmly grounded in theory without being loaded down with jargon, these books are, quite simply, readable. 

Lastly, these books are portable.  The five books of the series I own together weigh less than the average college text.  They are perfect for a nomadic ESL teacher when space or weight is limited.  I recommend everyone make room on their bookshelf (or in their backpack) for at least some of this collection.




Hahn, L. (2008). Primary Stress and Intelligibility: Research to Motivate the Teaching of 
            Suprasegmentals. TESOL Quarterly, 38/2:201-222.    


Pennington, M. (1998). The Teachability of Phonology in Adulthood: A Re-Examination.  
, 36/4:323-341.




Robert McMullin is an instructor of ESL at The Institute of Public Administration in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He is interested in genre analysis and ESL writing as well as speaking pedagogy. He can be reached at windmaster2011@yahoo.com.