Pronunciation in EFL

Author: Michael Ashby


Phonetics provides a scientific basis for pronunciation teaching in EFL (English as a Foreign Language). It is essential to the preparation of reference and teaching materials and highly desirable as an aspect of EFL teacher training.

Table of contents

Phonetics in pronunciation teaching

An important application of phonetics is pronunciation teaching in EFL (English as a Foreign Language). Phonetics provides the scientific basis for the description of standard accents, the production of reference works and teaching materials, the training of EFL teachers, and anticipating and rectifying learners' errors. "Pronunciation" covers both production and perception of speech: ability to hear a sound distinction must generally precede ability to produce it.

The target accent in EFL

EFL learners are taught a standard language variety (British or American), and an educated prestige accent: General American (GA) for American English, and for British the accent variously called "RP" (Received Pronunciation), "BBC English", etc. The major descriptions of English pronunciation concentrate on the standard accents, often with EFL explicitly in mind (Cruttenden, 2001; Roach, 2000). Defining and updating the standard is somewhat problematic. Not all native-speaker teachers of EFL are or need be themselves speakers of the target accent. Learners will anyway be exposed to many other varieties as listeners.

Dictionaries, practice materials

Pronunciation guidance is a major feature of leading EFL dictionaries such as the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (OALD) and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE), which are regularly revised and updated. These and authoritative pronunciation-only dictionaries such as Wells (2000) make use of IPA symbols to indicate pronunciation. CD-ROM versions are available and provide spoken output. Phonetically-structured pronunciation materials may be integrated into language teaching courses, or take the form of separate practice books and recordings, commonly focusing on important English sound contrasts in turn, and drilling both perception and production (O'Connor & Fletcher, 1989). Radio broadcasts have long played a role, and there is a growing range of web-based resources, particularly promising for interactive individual study.

TEFL training (teaching english as a foreign language)

Ideally, EFL teachers should be able to analyse pronunciation or perception difficulties, bearing in mind the phonological systems of English and the learner's native language, and give students immediate practical assistance. However, TEFL training and qualifications vary widely, and some teachers (e.g. in private institutions overseas) may have little or no training. Those who have followed recognised TEFL courses are likely to have some phonetic background from numerous valuable resource books (Kenworthy, 1987; Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994), but few teachers receive the necessary in-depth practical phonetic training. Those entering TEFL from a linguistics background have a considerable advantage, while conversely a significant number of mature students entering linguistics education do so following EFL teaching experience.

A proportion of EFL teachers do have specialist knowledge of phonetics and linguistics, and the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) has a special interest group devoted to pronunciation (PronSig).

Errors and priorities

Contrastive analysis (comparison of phonological systems) is able to predict many of a learner's likely errors, and the main difficulties for speakers of various languages are well documented. A learner whose language lacks a particular contrastive sound will generally substitute another partly similar sound. Native-like mastery of pronunciation is rare in EFL, and is an unrealistic goal. Priorities must be set in the design of syllabuses and materials, and by EFL teachers in the classroom, as time allocated for pronunciation work is commonly sparse. Intelligibility takes priority over precise phonetic accuracy. Certain aspects of English pronunciation carrying a small functional load may safely be ignored, while others, such as distinctions among the relatively large system of vowels, are crucial for intelligibility. Exactly what aspects should be prioritised for intelligibility is the subject of lively debate.

Teaching phonetics explicitly

Phonetics mostly guides classroom practice covertly (exercises and tests are structured according to phonetic principles). More advanced learners, and EFL teachers, may profitably learn some phonetic theory as in the Summer Course in English Phonetics (SCEP) at UCL, gaining insight and the means to help themselves.


Cruttenden, A. (ed.) (2001). Gimson's Introduction to the Pronunciation of English (6th ed.). London: Arnold.

Dalton, C. & B. Seidlhofer (1994). Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

O'Connor, J. D. & C. Fletcher (1989). Sounds English. Harlow: Longman.

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (6th ed.). (2000). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Roach, P. (2000). English Phonetics and Phonology (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wells, J.C. (2000). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (2nd ed.). Harlow: Longman.

Related links

BBC World Service

The British Council's guide to TEFL qualifications, with links to centres running TEFL courses:

International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL)

International Phonetic Association

Summer Course in English Phonetics (SCEP) at UCL

English Pronunciation Tip of the Day (a simple example of web-based materials for individual study)

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