An article on pronunciation in coursesbooks from ten years ago

Over ten years ago I wrote a regular series of articles on teaching pronunciation for the journal English Teaching Professional. The articles were usually a collection of practical tips on teaching pronunciation but I recently came across one which looked into how pronunciation was (or wasn’t) being treated in coursebooks. I interviewed a few people for the article including that great ELT course book publisher David Riley (who some of you may remember.) It’s interesting to read their views and consider whether anything much has changed ten years later.

Note in particular, in the final paragraph, it sums up a general belief at the time that: “With greater advances in software, pronunciation may also find itself ever increasingly an area for self-study.” Ten years later, I wonder if this actually came true? Anyway, see what we were all saying about pronunciation in coursebooks ten years ago and consider whether we are any further forward. Or could I just reprint this article and claim it’s about today?

(The following article was first published in English Teaching Professional, Issue 40, September 2005 and is reprinted here with the permission of Pavilion Publishing.)

Pronunciation in coursebooks

There’s no doubting the fact that in many classrooms pronunciation work is often left somewhere at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to planning. That isn’t just my view. Talking to trainers who spend a great deal of time observing teachers and reading lesson plans tells me that many teachers find it hard to integrate pronunciation into their lessons. Why should this be? One reason is probably that the contents pages of the coursebooks we follow are also often lacking in pronunciation. The odd phoneme seems to be slipped in when a grammar point allows or some cursory intonation feature attaches itself to exponents of a function. 

In search of an answer

Of course, there are student’s books which systematically include pronunciation work and, not surprisingly, where you find a coursebook with plenty of pronunciation, you’ll often find a teacher integrating it more readily into a lesson plan. But this trend doesn’t strike me as the norm and as someone who also writes coursebooks, I’ve always been aware of an uneasy tension when it comes to the thorny question of what pronunciation to include in a book. 

The teacher’s perspective

In search of answers as to why pronunciation takes a back seat in published materials, I approached writers and publishers with the question. But first I wanted to know if my doubts were actually well-founded. Tim Graham, co-author of An Introduction to Phonology for Teachers of ESOL, agreed that they were: ‘Coursebooks have always treated pronunciation as something of a poor relation to structure and vocabulary. Attempts at integration have on the whole been random and not done in any way that might be regarded as underpinned by a systematic methodological model.’

The publisher’s perspective

Tim’s view is that of someone working in the classroom, but his view is shared to some extent by someone at the other end of the spectrum. With 25 years’ experience of the ELT publishing industry, David Riley agrees that coursebooks haven’t been successful at integration and that this lack of success is perhaps in part due to the uneasy relationship between people wanting coursebooks to have a graded syllabus and the fact that it’s very hard to grade pronunciation: ‘For example, /b/ and /v/ are a major problem for Spanish learners, but not for the French, who, unlike the Spanish, have problems with the ‘th’ sounds … [even] assuming you can establish content, how do you order it? Who is to say whether “ship” versus “sheep” is easier or harder or more or less useful than any other minimal pair?’

The problem of grading and ordering pronunciation in the coursebook is one thing, but it doesn’t totally explain the lack of pronunciation work adorning the page. Is it really the second cousin and the first to go when the editorial cutting and pasting begins? Again, David Riley says this is absolutely the case, but in defence of the publishers points out: ‘Publishers try to be led by what teachers want. As far as we [publishers] can tell, lack of pronunciation seems to attract fewer complaints than lack of anything else and has little or no impact on sales. So we tend to feel that while it has its importance, it is not a priority for many teachers.’

The writer’s perspective

Another trend in coursebook writing has been the shift to ‘authenticity’ and, according to the ELT author Mark Hancock, ‘a lot of good pronunciation material has been sacrificed at the altar of authenticity’. He believes that as a result, less-authentic materials ‘with a word-play flavour such as rhymes, chants, limericks, sketches and so on, which can neatly amplify features of pronunciation’ make fewer appearances: ‘I feel that some adult coursebooks project the image of a user who is far too grown up and sensible for language play, as if adults don’t do language play. But they do.’

Bucking the trend

So it seems that trends in the last few years have worked against pronunciation and that its disappearance from our coursebooks has led to what Tim Graham sees as a ‘negative trickle-down effect as the teacher gains the impression that pronunciation is a low value objective. This has a further knock-on effect in that consequently so do learners, thus completing a slightly vicious circle that militates against focused pronunciation work in the average language classroom.’

But trends have a habit of changing direction with pendulums swinging right back, especially in ELT. So where will pronunciation and published materials head next? Both David Riley and Tim Graham see publishers providing increased supplementary resources and materials focusing only on pronunciation. With greater advances in software, pronunciation may also find itself ever increasingly an area for self-study. Mark Hancock also accepts that pronunciation-only focused material will flourish in the same way that grammar-only books do. And as for the idea that you might write a coursebook with pronunciation as the starting point with all the grammar, vocabulary and functions being fitted around it, he comments that ‘such a beast would be radical indeed!’.

The author would like to thank David Riley, Tim Graham (co-author with Ray Parker of An Introduction to Phonology for Teachers of ESOL, ELB Publishing) and Mark Hancock, whose books include Pronunciation Games, Singing Grammar and English Pronunciation in Use, all published by CUP.

Categories: Materials Writers, Teacher Training

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4 replies

  1. “The problem of grading and ordering pronunciation in the coursebook is one thing.” I don’t think this problem is limited to pronunciation, it is also true of vocabulary. Really, there needs to be much more localisation of coursebooks, but that would be very disruptive of the market for ELT materials.

  2. A really useful perspective on how (little) things have changed. I am currently doing action research into pronunciation, and it is noticeable how little support students have received with English sounds.

  3. Young learners’ materials are often more focused on phonics and pronunciation in the guise of songs, games and chants. Perhaps Adult publishing can learn from them.

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