Mark Hancock's 50 Tips for Teaching Pronunciation

Appeared in: 
TESOLANZ Newsletter Vol42-3 2022
Review by: 
Jean L. Arnold
Mark Hancock's 50 Tips for Teaching Pronunciation -

"A phoneme [distinctive sound] is like a chess piece. The knight, for example, can be many different shapes in different chess sets, but that doesn’t affect how the piece functions – what is important is how the piece moves in the game” (p. 44). This is one of many images Mark Hancock uses to help teachers grasp concepts to facilitate clever, effective pronunciation teaching. His recent book is part of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series edited by Scott Thornbury.

As an experienced teacher, I still found this book very useful. It reminded me of many things and gave me fresh ideas for ways to teach pronunciation, tying it with other skills such as grammar, vocabulary and spelling. For a novice teacher, this book is a gold mine! Hancock’s astute observations gained from decades of language teaching will make any pronunciation teacher’s job easier and well-considered. The organisation of the book has been adroitly planned: the first part deals with why pronunciation needs attention— what goals and models are appropriate; the second section relates to what should be taught; and the third, how to teach it. Throughout the book, the ideas are very pragmatic, engaging and eminently ‘do-able’. The book can be dipped into when specific problems arise with students, but for the little investment of time it takes to read the whole book, gems are there for the taking. The book has 50 tips, as advertised, as well as an index, a glossary to explain the vocabulary of pronunciation teaching, and appendices with several phonemic charts, a mouth diagram and an example of a game that teachers can create to help learners distinguish between problem sounds.

Hancock is very pragmatic in his approach to pronunciation teaching. Tip #1 is ‘Focus on intelligibility’. “Pronunciation is less about sounding good and more about being intelligible” (p. 2). As English is now primarily used globally as a lingua franca, Hancock encourages non-native English language teachers not to be concerned about a non-native accent.  Pronunciation teachers need “to have an accent which is widely understood. It doesn’t have to be a standard accent— standard accents are not necessarily more intelligible than other accents” (p. 24). Awareness of one’s own accent is beneficial, whether one is a native or non-native speaker. I have an American English accent, and I’ve often felt on the back foot. In class, I’d point to sounds on the British English phonemic chart, but I couldn’t produce a distinction between some of them naturally, like the vowels in ‘caught' and ‘cot’. Phonemes in English are not set targets, but represent a range of sounds. Not all native English speakers speak alike, and English language learners need to experience that and develop a wide receptive tolerance.

A useful reminder in this book is that productive and receptive needs related to pronunciation differ, and as always, knowing your students’ priorities will help you target your teaching appropriately. If your students are going to be listening to a lot of spoken English, but not producing it, then raising awareness of the patterns of connected speech, sentence stress and intonation can be highlighted. If students need to speak from written text, focusing on spelling patterns and their relationship to pronunciation will be useful. I highly recommend 50 Tips for Teaching Pronunciation and encourage language teachers to give pronunciation more class time, using this book’s ideas.

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