3 Practices for Perfecting Phonemes

For the past two months I’ve been working one-on-one with an advanced student whose main goal is to reduce her accent. We’ve concentrated heavily on the vowel sounds, and this past week we finally finished the last group. Of course, there’s more work to be done, but having to focus on pronunciation only, I’ve come to recognize a helpful pattern for our practice. I’ll explain it by identifying three main P’s.

  • Position. After isolating the sound, we begin to practice the sound in different positions, noting if and when the sound quality changes. For instance, I might say /i/ as in key. We practice other open-ended words with /i/. Then we start placing it in a middle position, before a voiced and voiceless consonant: ease vs. lease, for example, or need vs. neat. I exaggerate the length before the voiced consonant so the change in vowel length becomes clearer. Some vowels sounds lose their fullness in an unstressed position. For those sounds, I include practice that contrasts stressed and unstressed positions.
  • Pairs – as in minimal pairs. I test and develop the student’s ability to produce two distinct sounds: eat vs. it, seat vs. said, etc. We practice the word pairs in isolation as well as in sentences.
  • Personalization. This is key. The previous two practices are common enough that I’m certain many teachers reading this will say, “I’m familiar with those techniques already. Please tell me something new.” Okay. Here it is. The textbook-like exercises serve as calisthenics. It’s like a dancer stretching out and practicing set movements. I believe the drills help improve muscle memory. My student is already at the advanced level, which means she’s been communicating with the same accent for some time. We’re working to retrain her articulators so that they move in more standard ways and so the sounds become more accurate to the listener. But a lesson cannot be limited to drills, right? After working at the bar, the ballet dancer then moves away and… dances! Similarly, in our pronunciation lessons, I make time for this student to practice the target sounds in simple conversation. In short question-answer exchanges, I test her ability to transfer her articulation from the drills to self-expression. I don’t interrupt free expression. I let it happen and note any inaccuracies. As soon as the statement is complete, I identify weaknesses and help the student self-correct. If the student’s pronunciation is accurate, I reinforce it by including the key sound in my own responses. A sample exchange for /i/ might sound something like this:

T: Where do you keep your keys?

S: On a key chain.

T: Careful. Not /keɪ/ chain. Say /ki/ chain.

S: Key chain. I keep my keys on a key chain.

T: Right. I have a key chain, too. Actually I have two. One set of keys for the car and one set of keys for the house.

S: I keep all my keys together. I’m afraid of losing one.

I’d then move on to a second question with other words that contain the target sound. Homework usually includes a review of listen-repeat drills and a self-recording of a short text or short sample of free speech for me to evaluate.

Do you have a pronunciation practice to recommend? Please feel free to share it.

(I apologize for not being able to add an audio file for this posting. I’m battling a cold, so this is not the best time to record my voice!)


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