Teaching Pronunciation To Adult Learners

Let’s imagine two scenarios. You, as a native speaker of English, are sitting in a cafe when some tourists approach you for directions. You are happy to help but find it difficult to understand them. This might be for one or two reasons.

Scenario One

One of the men asks you for directions to Hyde Park. But he does so with an accent that’s very difficult for you to interpret. Although he is using largely grammatically correct and accurate English, the accent might sound like he is making no effort at all to approximate natural pronunciation. He speaks very slowly and struggles to convey his meaning to you, perhaps repeating a word with the same accent two or three times.

Scenario Two

Then his boyfriend, the other tourist, steps in. He is more confident than his partner, and speaks with something more approaching a natural accent. However, he makes lots of small grammatical errors. The meaning is mostly understood but the mistakes betray a lack of knowledge of proper language use.

Which tourist is likely to get the directions that he wants? Who would you be more willing and able to help?

Studies have shown that it would be the second tourist, the confident speaker, who receives a better reception from the people he asks for directions. Why? Because people are far more willing and likely to forgive grammatical errors than they are to forgive pronunciation faux pas.

Owing to this, many speaking examiners will give a lot of credit to a candidate who attempts to produce natural sounding language. Making pronunciation a key part of language lessons and exam preparation. If you don’t dedicate much time to this aspect in your classes, now would be a good time to start!

What Do We Want Them To Produce?

Native speakers of English use something that is commonly referred to as ‘fast, colloquial English’. If you imagine the way that you speak with your friends, that’s what we are talking about here. You are using accurate English grammar, relevant and topical vocabulary. At the same time you are employing natural pronunciation, with correct sentence intonation and prominence.

For most learners, this is a highly unlikely end result of their studies, especially if they started learning as an adult. So this should never be our goal as English teachers. It is unrealistic, and pushing students to speak this way will end up in demotivated, frustrated classes.

What we want is ‘slow, colloquial English’. All of the above, but with time for them to think about the correct words and phrases, achieving mostly correct pronunciation by putting the stress on appropriate words and syllables. 


Listen and Repeat


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This method can be very useful for individual words and very occasionally for longer phrases and sentences. Make sure that the students are listening and also watching you closely while you say it first, repeat it again, and then ask them to do it. This way of drilling students also has a positive impact on class motivation. If learners hear themselves pronouncing something like a native does, they feel great!

Be careful! Overuse of drilling and repetition methods like this can sometimes lead to slow and ineffective learning. For example, entire course methodologies that focus on this ‘audio – linguistic’ idea, such as the Callan method, have largely fallen out of favour with teachers and centres over time.

Also, don’t overdo it. If a learner is struggling with the pronunciation of a word or phrase, don’t beat them over the head with it. Especially not in front of the whole class. Register for yourself who has the problem and that it’s something to work on in the future, and then move on to something else.



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There are 44 phonemes in the English language, and while looking at them all together can seem confusing, a good EFL teacher will usually have a good knowledge of phonemic script.

For example, the ‘schwa’ or ‘weak form’ that exists in English is quite unique, and students have a hard time grasping it. So a teacher must know when to point out an example to learners.

The word ‘familiar’ has two such weak forms, and can represented in phonemic script on the whiteboard like this:





The /ə/ symbol represents the weak sound.

The apostrophe represents the emphasised syllable.

I often find in my classes, that students will try and use a kind of ‘homemade phonetics’ when making notes. For example;


/fa/ /mee/ /lee/ /er/

Not only is this difficult to regulate, it’s often incorrect like the above example.

So, consider using one or two of your allotted class hours looking at phonemes and phonemic script, so that your students have a better idea of individual consonant and vowel sounds. 



Sometimes you’ll find that a student pronounces the word or phrase mostly correctly, but have problems with one or two of the individual sounds. Try not to let it go, and think that one or two mistakes won’t hurt. They might!

Rather than getting them to repeat the entire sentence again, isolate the tricky part.

  • You could use your fingers to highlight each syllable in the word or phrase and show the tricky one by stopping there. Give them a natural model of the target syllable or word and then get them to repeat whatever they said again with the correction. Following them on your fingers.
  • Or perhaps you prefer asking another student to help. If one learner has the correct pronunciation, gesture to them to repeat it for the class. Take a step back from what’s going on and observe the ones who found it difficult to see if they pick it up this time.

!!Give Them Natural Models!!

Please don’t be one of those teachers that speaks in a slow, almost patronising, tone of voice to their learners when teaching pronunciation. You wouldn’t like it if somebody did it to you.

Apart from anything else, it is totally ineffective. Over pronouncing a word for their benefit means that they will too, producing a class full of students who do not approximate correct speech at all. They are more than capable of listening to and replicating a natural model of the language. So give them that!

Anything I forgot? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy Teaching!

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