Pronunciation Teaching: The Myths and the Magic

Mark Hancock

Language teachers are often afraid of teaching pronunciation, but not always for good reasons. People think pronunciation teaching is the same thing accent training, about getting rid of an ugly accent and replacing it with a beautiful one. We take prejudices about accent from society at large and we import them into our profession, even though they have absolutely no relevance to intercultural communication. Here are a selection of the kind of pronunciation myths I am referring to:

“Our aim is to help learners to sound like native speakers.”

“The best person to be a pronunciation is a native speaker with a good accent.”

“Learners need to get rid of all traces of their first language accent.”

“The main aim is for your learners to avoid making pronunciation errors.”

“The most important pronunciation learning skill is to listen and copy.”

“English spelling is completely useless as a guide to pronunciation.”

“Pronunciation learning is all about sounding good.”

“Pronunciation is connected to speaking only, not to listening.”

“Phonemic symbols represent the exact sounds of a good accent.”

“Pronunciation is difficult to teach and learners hate it.”

It’s not surprising that teachers tend to be scared of pronunciation teaching, especially if they aren’t native speakers and if they think their learners are going to hate it! However, you can make your pronunciation sessions into a part of the lesson that you and your learners will really look forward to and enjoy, and here’s how:

Pronunciation Teaching Magic

1 Know your objective. Pronunciation is about being understood by people all over the globe. It’s not about pretending to be American or British. You don’t need to teach every small detail of the way they speak in the US or UK – very few learners will ever learn that, and there is no reason to anyway. English is a world language now – it doesn’t belong to any particular country.

2 I’m OK! Say that to yourself. Teachers sometimes feel they aren’t a good pronunciation model because they aren’t ‘native speakers’. That’s not true. If you are an intelligible speaker of English, you are a perfect model. When we think of English as a lingua franca, the term ‘native speaker’ no longer makes sense - we are all native speakers of it!

3 If it isn’t broken, you don’t need to fix it. There are many features of local accents in English which are fine as they are. Take for example pronouncing the R after a vowel in words like ‘hair’. This R is dropped in standard British English, but lots of people around the world pronounce it – Americans and Scottish for example - and obviously they are no less intelligible. If Greek learners pronounce this R after a vowel, it is not a problem. I would tell learners about these things and leave the choice up to them.

4 Pronunciation is not about correctness, it’s about being effective. If your learner pronounces the word ‘shave’ the same as ‘safe’, it’s not an error; it simply doesn’t work. The listener won’t understand. When you give feedback to your learners, keep this in mind. Discuss the problem in terms of intelligibility rather than correct or incorrect.

5 Pronunciation is physical. You and your learners will need to be aware of the vocal apparatus and how it works. That includes the lips, jaw, tongue, the inside of the mouth and the voice box. We can all speak our first language without being aware of these things, but when it comes to changing the way we speak, we need to become aware. We need to play with sounds and explore the possibilities.

6 Spelling is a difficult friend. A lot of the problems that learners have with English pronunciation are caused by its crazy spelling. However, there are patterns which can help. For example, write these words on the board and ask students to pronounce them: rat; pet; sit; not; cut. Then add an ‘e’ to the end of each one (making rate; Pete; site; note; cute)  and ask them to pronounce them again. Point out how the final ‘e’ makes the previous vowel say its own name (ie, pronounced as it is in the alphabet).

7 Pronunciation makes meaning. You can demonstrate this to learners by showing examples where a small change in pronunciation can change the meaning completely. For example, this pair of sentences:

a. I got a good prize for it.

b. I got a good price for it.

You can make examples like this into a game, where one learner says one of the sentences and the other has to identify which one. If they both agree which sentence was said, then the pronunciation worked. If not, they’ll need to try again!

8 Pronunciation is for listening too. There are some features of pronunciation which learners don’t need to copy, but they will need to understand. For example, you don’t have to say ‘wanna’ for ‘want to’, but you should be able to understand it if you hear it.

9 Symbols aren’t sounds. Teachers often think that the phonemic symbols represent exact sounds, and they get stressed because their own pronunciation is different from the book. This is a mistake. The symbols represent a range of sounds. For example, the symbol /e/ represents the vowel sound in ‘leg’, whatever your accent.

10 Enjoy! Teaching pronunciation can be interesting, playful and a real joy. You can use games, puzzles, rhymes and raps, drama and pairworks. It can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be frightening. You may find that pronunciation becomes the part of your lessons that the learners look forward to most!



Mark Hancock wrote his first book, Pronunciation Games (CUP) in the early nineties. Since then, he has been teaching in Europe and writing materials including English Pronunciation in Use (CUP) and various coursebooks. His latest books, PronPack 1-4 (Hancock McDonald ELT) received the 2018 ELTons Award for innovation in teacher resources. Mark also uploads free articles and materials on and