Why create the Pronunciation Planner?

A person’s pronunciation in a second language (L2) is generally believed to be most strongly influenced by the pronunciation features and patterns of his/her first language (L1). Most published guidance on teaching pronunciation acknowledges this; and there are a number of well-known reference books which contrast the pronunciation of English with the pronunciation of other languages in considerable detail.

However, for teachers working with multilingual classes and for materials writers creating courses for international markets, there is little guidance available on the challenges that learners with different L1 backgrounds might have in common. This makes it difficult for language educators to identify pronunciation priorities for diverse groups of learners.

The Pronunciation Planner provides a solution to this problem. It acts as a searchable database, allowing users to generate a broad pronunciation syllabus for learners from up to 12 different L1 backgrounds and see where those learners’ areas of difficulty are likely to overlap.

What research is the Pronunciation Planner based on?

The contents of the Pron Planner are informed by research into which features of English pronunciation facilitate mutual understanding by speakers in international contexts. Underpinning this research is the principle that by far the most common use of English worldwide today is as a lingua franca, that is, between people who have different first languages but all speak English, so choose to use English as their language of communication.

In such contexts of interaction, speakers and listeners are likely to have slightly different needs and expectations than those traditionally assumed by materials and approaches which emphasise a need for ‘native-like’ pronunciation. This is the main reason why some users of the Pron Planner might feel that certain things are missing which they would normally see in ELT courses (for example, intonation patterns or connected speech): such features have been demonstrated to be low-priority by research into what constitutes intelligible pronunciation in international English contexts.

A full list of primary data sources used to compile the Pron Planner is available below.

How is it related to English Profile?

The Pronunciation Planner is not directly related to English Profile, which is based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). Unlike vocabulary and grammar, pronunciation features cannot be grouped by CEFR level. From the very lowest levels of proficiency, virtually any given pronunciation feature could occur in any word or phrase. For example, sounds commonly perceived as ‘more difficult’, like /ð/, occur even in high-frequency words learned by beginners, like the word ‘the’. Thus, it is generally advisable to derive priorities for pronunciation instruction based on differences between the phonology of English and of the learner’s L1, not based on the learner’s general proficiency level.

To ensure that pronunciation practice exercises are appropriate to a particular CEFR level, teachers and materials writers can first identify high-priority pronunciation features using the Pron Planner, and then find CEFR level-appropriate examples of words and phrases in which the chosen pronunciation features occur. These words and phrases can be cross-referenced using English Profile to ensure that learners are presented with examples suited to their general level of proficiency in English. Thus, the sound /b/ might be illustrated by ‘big’ at A1 level, by ‘balcony’ at B1 level or by ‘bid’ at C1-C2 level.

Dealing with differences between data sources

When compiling data for the Pron Planner, where different sources gave different or contradictory information, additional sources were consulted in the first instance in order to find further explanation or a majority opinion. Where uncertainty remained regarding the difficulty of a particular pronunciation feature for speakers of a particular L1, it was judged best to include it. If a course or teacher addresses this feature and it proves straightforward for the students, no harm is done and relatively little time lost.

Where certain L1s have several significant varieties and/or standards with different pronunciation characteristics (e.g. Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese), different sources take different varieties as their starting points and give accordingly different guidance. This has been dealt with in the Pronunciation Planner through caveats in the ‘comments’ column, for example, by noting that ‘some’ speakers ‘might’ have difficulty in certain areas. This is also reflected to some extent by the colour-coding in the ‘priority’ column, which gives some indication of how widespread a particular pronunciation difficulty is likely to be among speakers of a given L1 (red = high priority; green = generally not problematic).

Bibliography of sources in alphabetical order

The main sources used in compiling the Pron Planner were:

Baker, A. (1982). Introducing English pronunciation: A teacher’s guide to ‘Tree or three?’ and ‘Ship or sheep?’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kallestinova, E. (2009). ‘Voice and aspiration of stops in Turkish’, Folia Linguistica, Vol. 38, Issue 1-2, pp. 117-144.

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

Osimk, R. (2009). Decoding sounds: an experimental approach to intelligibility in ELF. Vienna English Working Papers, 18(1), 64-89.

Patsko, L. (2013). Using the Lingua Franca Core to promote students’ mutual intelligibility in the multilingual classroom: Five teachers’ experiences. Unpublished MA thesis, King’s College London. [The Pron Planner has its origins in this master’s degree research project, recognised by the British Council in 2014 as having potential for impact on ELT policy and practice and downloadable from https://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/filefield_paths/patsko_2013_madissertation_0_1.pdf]

Rajadurai, J. (2006). Pronunciation issues in non-native contexts: a Malaysian case study. Malaysian Journal of ELT Research, 2, 42-59.

Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011). English phonology and pronunciation teaching. London: Continuum.

Siptár, P. & M. Törkenczy (2000). The phonology of Hungarian. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swan, M. & B. Smith (eds.) (2001). Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems. (2nd edn.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (VARIOUS CHAPTERS ON SPECIFIC L1s)

Varga, L. (1975). ‘A contrastive analysis of English and Hungarian sentence prosody’. Working papers of the Hungarian-English Contrastive Linguistics Project. Published by the Linguistics Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Walker, R. (2001). ‘Pronunciation for international intelligibility’. English Teaching Professional 21.  Retrieved 22 Dec 2011 from http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/internationalintelligibility.html

Walker, R. (2001). ‘Pronunciation priorities, the Lingua Franca Core, and monolingual groups’. Speak Out! The newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. 18: 4-9.

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (VARIOUS SECTIONS ON SPECIFIC L1s)

Zhang, F. & P. Yin (2009). ‘A study of pronunciation problems of English learners in China’. Asian Social Science, Vol. 5, No. 6, pp. 141-146.

Zoghbor, W. (2009). ‘The implications of the LFC for the Arab context’. Speak Out! The newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. 41: 25-29.

What research is the Pron Planner based on?

See the ‘About this tool’ tab.

Does the Pron Planner cover both productive and receptive competence?

At the moment, the Pron Planner focuses on priorities for learners’ productive competence, in other words, the aspect of language learning typically called ‘pronunciation’ (as opposed to receptive competence, or listening to and understanding others’ speech).

Why doesn’t the Pron Planner include recordings?

The Pron Planner is based on the principle that by far the most common use of English worldwide today is as a lingua franca, that is, between people who have different first languages but all speak English, so choose to use English as their language of communication. From this perspective, clear and effective pronunciation of English is a matter of mastering a repertoire of key features, not acquiring a particular accent. Including recordings in the Pron Planner would risk presenting one accent as a model, potentially giving the misleading impression that there is only one correct or universally intelligible way of saying things.

How can I see which pronunciation features are relevant to a particular CEFR level?

Unlike vocabulary and grammar, pronunciation features cannot be grouped by CEFR level. From the very lowest levels of proficiency, virtually any given pronunciation feature could occur in any word or phrase. For example, sounds commonly perceived as ‘more difficult’, like /ð/, occur even in high-frequency words learned by beginners, like the word ‘the’. Thus, it is generally advisable to derive priorities for pronunciation instruction based on differences between the phonology of English and of the learner’s L1, not based on the learner’s general proficiency level.

To ensure that pronunciation practice exercises are appropriate to a particular CEFR level, teachers and materials writers can first identify high-priority pronunciation features using the Pron Planner, and then find CEFR level-appropriate examples of words and phrases in which the chosen pronunciation features occur. These words and phrases can be cross-referenced using English Profile to ensure that learners are presented with examples suited to their general level of proficiency in English. Thus, the sound /b/ might be illustrated by ‘big’ at A1 level, by ‘balcony’ at B1 level or by ‘bid’ at C1-C2 level.

What does [term] mean?

See the glossary.

Why isn’t [a particular L1] included in the tool?

There are hundreds of languages in the world. The Pron Planner was launched with a small subset of these languages. More are likely to be added in future.

Why doesn’t the Pron Planner break down certain L1s into different varieties (for example, European Spanish, Mexican Spanish, etc.)?

Many languages have several significant varieties and/or standards which have different pronunciation characteristics (e.g. Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese). Depending on the scholar(s) conducting a particular study, different pieces of research will take different varieties as their starting points and give accordingly different guidance. The Pron Planner assumes that different varieties have many features in common, so variation among them has been dealt with through caveats in the ‘comments’ column, for example, by noting that ‘some’ speakers ‘might’ have difficulty in certain areas. This is also reflected to some extent by the colour-coding in the ‘priority’ column, which gives some indication of how widespread a particular pronunciation difficulty is likely to be among speakers of a given L1 (red = high priority; green = generally not problematic).

Why isn’t [a particular pronunciation feature] included in the tool?

The contents of the Pron Planner are informed by research into which features of English pronunciation facilitate mutual understanding by speakers in international contexts. Underpinning this research is the principle that by far the most common use of English worldwide today is as a lingua franca, that is, between people who have different first languages but all speak English, so choose to use English as their language of communication.

In such contexts of interaction, speakers and listeners are likely to have slightly different needs and expectations than those traditionally assumed by materials and approaches which emphasise a need for ‘native-like’ pronunciation. This is the main reason why some users of the Pron Planner might feel that certain things are missing which they would normally see in ELT courses (for example, rising/falling intonation, connected speech features or schwa): such features have been demonstrated to be low-priority by research into what constitutes intelligible pronunciation in international English contexts.

One of the features in my search results is marked as low overall priority, even though it’s a high priority for learners from one particular L1 background. What should I do?

You will know which L1 backgrounds are most salient to the group you have in mind when preparing a syllabus with the Pron Planner. For example, if you are considering a class which contains 15 L1-speakers of Spanish, 2 of Turkish and 1 of Japanese, you may choose to de-prioritise something which is high-priority only for the Japanese speaker. By comparing the ‘priority’ and ‘overall priority’ columns, you can use your judgment regarding the balance of priorities and to determine what features to include in your final syllabus.

There are different ways of transcribing phonemes. Which conventions do the phonemic symbols in Pron Planner follow?

See the ‘Guide to phonemic symbols’ tab.

In my search results, how can I see which items have the highest overall priority?

Simply click the heading of the ‘Overall priority’ column on the right. This will sort the results, showing the highest priority features at the top. 

Can I save or export my search results?

Currently, this is not a function of Pron Planner. It is being considered for future.

Intelligibility

The extent to which a person’s speech is understood by a listener – including individual sounds and words as well as the speaker’s intended meaning.

International intelligibility

The extent to which a person’s speech is understood by a listener in an international context, that is, a context in which both listener and speaker are second-language users of English. This context of interaction is sometimes referred to as using English as a lingua franca. This is by far the most common use of English in the world today and the Pron Planner was designed with this in mind. For more information, see ‘About this tool’.

L1

First language. Sometimes referred to as ‘mother tongue’. The pronunciation characteristics of a person’s L1 are widely agreed to be one of the main influencing factors on their pronunciation in a second language (L2).

EVP

English Vocabulary Profile. The example words given for particular pronunciation features in the Pron Planner have been cross-referenced with EVP to give the user a sense of the CEFR level at which learners are likely to know those example words. This is shown in square brackets (for example, bag [A1]).

Thus, the same pronunciation feature can be included in a syllabus at all different CEFR levels, but different words can be selected to exemplify that pronunciation feature which are appropriate to learners at a particular CEFR level.

Where an example word in the Pron Planner was not included in the data used to compile EVP (for example, names of countries), this is indicated in the example box with the label ‘[not in EVP]’.

Phoneme

A single unit of sound, and the smallest unit which can change meaning within a language. For example, in English, the words ‘right’ and ‘light’ have distinct meanings and differ by only one sound (/r/ or /l/ at the beginning).

Different languages have different sets of phonemes, so learners may struggle to hear or produce a phoneme in English which does not occur in their language. In this case, they might replace the English sound with something else which is easier for them to articulate, or they might not make a clear distinction between the two sounds. This can result in confusion for listeners (such as when a Japanese learner of English pronounces ‘light’ like ‘right’ or vice versa).

Vowel

Not to be confused with vowel letters. In the context of pronunciation, a vowel is a sound which is produced with no obstruction to the airflow. It can be produced for as long as the speaker has enough breath!

In everyday terms, when we say that words rhyme, we’re usually referring to the fact that they have the same vowel sound (as in ‘tea’ and ‘tree’, despite their different spellings).

Consonant

Not to be confused with consonant letters. In the context of pronunciation, a consonant is a sound which is produced with some kind of obstruction to the airflow made by the tongue, teeth or lips. They can be voiced or unvoiced (see below).

English consonant sounds can be represented in spelling by up to three letters, as in watching (/w/ represented by one letter, /ŋ/ represented by two letters, /tʃ/ represented by three letters).

Consonant cluster

A sequence of consonant sounds with no vowel sounds in between. For example, /str/ at the beginning of ‘street’ or /kt/ at the end of ‘liked’.

Different languages have different unwritten rules on how many and which consonants can occur in a cluster, and this can make certain English clusters difficult for some learners to articulate. For example, in Spanish, clusters beginning with /s/ cannot occur at the beginning of words (for example, /st/ in the English word ‘stop’), so many learners will inadvertently add a short vowel sound to the beginning (‘estop’).

Voiced

Some consonant sounds are voiced. This means they are produced with vibration in the vocal folds. For example, /v/. You can feel this vibration if you make the sound /v/ and hold your hand gently against your throat.

Many voiced consonant sounds in English have an unvoiced equivalent. That is, sometimes there is a pair of sounds in a language which have the same position of tongue, teeth and lips, but one of them is produced with voicing and one is produced without voicing. For example:

Voiced Unvoiced
/v/ /f/
/z/ /s/
/d/ /t/
/b/ /p/
/g/ /k/

Unvoiced/voiceless

Some consonant sounds are unvoiced (sometimes called ‘voiceless’). This means they are produced without vibration in the vocal folds. For example, /f/. If you make the sound /f/ and hold your hand gently against your throat, you will notice that there is no vibration.

Many unvoiced consonant sounds in English have a voiced equivalent. That is, sometimes there is a pair of sounds in a language which have the same position of tongue, teeth and lips, but one of them is produced with voicing and one is produced without voicing. For example:

Unvoiced Voiced equivalent
/f/ /v/
/s/ /z/
/t/ /d/
/p/ /b/
/k/ /g/

Devoiced

In many of the world’s languages, when a voiced sound occurs at the end of a word (as in the English word ‘bag’), this sound loses its voicing during natural speech. This is called ‘devoicing’ and speakers often don’t even realise they’re doing it. If they carry over this tendency when speaking English, words like ‘bag’ might sound more like ‘back’, or ‘hid’ might sound more like ‘hit’.

Aspiration

The English sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ are typically pronounced in a particular way when they occur at the start of a stressed syllable and are not in a cluster. In such contexts, they are aspirated, in other words produced with a little puff of air.

If you put your hand in front of your mouth and say ‘pea’, ‘tie’ or ‘cone’, you’ll feel this little puff of air. But if you insert an extra consonant sound after the /p/, /t/ or /k/, as in ‘plea’, ‘try’ or ‘clone’, you’ll notice that there’s no puff of air (in other words, they’re not aspirated). Similarly, if the sounds occur at the end of a syllable (as in ‘up’, ‘cut’ or ‘luck’), or in an unstressed syllable (as in ‘open’, ‘utter’ or ‘aching’), they’re also not aspirated.

Many languages have the sounds /p/, /t/ and /k/ but they don’t all aspirate these sounds in the same way as English.

Word stress

English words are said to have primary stress on one syllable. This is shown in dictionary definitions with a mark like this: ˈ. For example, the word ‘ago’ has two syllables and the second is stressed, so this would be transcribed as /əˈgəʊ/. Thus, the syllable with primary word-stress is most prominent to the listener. This effect is created by making that syllable a little bit longer, a little bit louder and – crucially – a different pitch (usually higher) than the rest of the word.

Nuclear stress

When words are connected in speech, prominence depends on context, rather than being an inherent property of individual words. Speakers automatically and naturally assign prominence as a matter of course, selecting what information to highlight as the most important part of their message and thereby focusing their listeners’ attention on a particular intended meaning.

In English, the most prominent syllable in a small group of words (often called a ‘thought group’) typically defaults to the last ‘content word’ (verbs, nouns, adjectives or adverbs) in an utterance. For example:

I want to visit.
I want to visit it.
I want to visit Cambridge.

Many learners of English will use prominence differently in their first language and transfer these patterns to English, which might confuse a listener (by drawing his/her attention to something which the speaker didn’t intend to highlight). For example:

I want to visit it.
I want to visit Cambridge.

The function of nuclear stress is perhaps easiest to grasp when you consider that we can manipulate it in order to contrast or correct information. For example:

I want to visit Cambridge. (not just read about it!)
You want to visit Cambridge. (but I don’t!)
I want to visit Cambridge. (not some other city!)

Research into intelligibility in English suggests that placing nuclear stress inappropriately can break down communication, but that its placement in English is challenging for learners from many different first-language backgrounds.

 

Different scholars use slightly different symbols when transcribing the sounds of English. The reasons and implications of this variation are not detailed here, but some general guidance for interpreting the transcriptions used in the Pron Planner is given in the table below.

Consonants

Example word

Common UK transcription1

Common US transcription2

Symbol used in Pron Planner

pen, open, hope p p p
bid, able, job b b b
team, amount, meat t t t
do, edit, feed d d d
kiss, buckle, back k k k
go, again, big g g g
food, safer, leaf f f f
visit, every, save v v v
see, recent, us s s s
zoo, these, ease z z z
show, nation, wash ʃ ʃ ʃ
beige, measure, Asia ʒ ʒ ʒ
home, behind h h h
choose, kitchen, watch
jump, bridge
man, plum m m m
need, any, down n n n
ring, singer, bank ŋ ŋ ŋ
road, (card, far)3 r r r
load, allow, pool l l l
watch, away w w w
yes, onion j y j

 

Vowels

Example word

Common UK transcription1

Common US transcription(s)2

Symbol used in Pron Planner

kit, is, fish, will ɪ ɪ ɪ
dress, ten, red e e
ɛ
e
trap, pan, hand æ æ æ
strut, cup, us, love ʌ ʌ ʌ
lot ɒ (sound does not occur in US English) ɒ
foot, put, woman ʊ ʊ ʊ
fleece, tea, feet, key
iy
iy
palm ɑː ɑː
ɑ
ɑː
thought, saw, talk ɔː ɔː
ɔ
ɔː
goose, blue, school, new
uw
uw
nurse ɜː ɝː
ɜʳ
ɜː(r)
face, cake, mail, pay
ey
ey
price, pie, night
ay
ay
choice, boy, join ɔɪ ɔɪ
ɔy
ɔy
ɔɪ
goat, road, know əʊ
ow
ow
əʊ
mouth, our, now
aw
aw
ear ɪə ɪr ɪə
hair er
ɛr
about, open, alone ə ə ə
(mother4) ə ɚ ə(r)

 

Notes

  1. These symbols reflect those used in Jones, D. (Roach, P., Setter, J. & Esling, J. (eds.)). (2011). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. These symbols reflect those used in:
    1. Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M. & Goodwin, J. M. (2010). Teaching pronunciation: A course book and reference guide (2nd edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    2. Gilbert, J. B. (2012). Clear speech: Pronunciation and listening comprehension in North American English (4th edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    3. in Jones, D. (Roach, P., Setter, J. & Esling, J. (eds.)). (2011). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. In rhotic accents only; in other words, accents in which the letter ‘r’ is always pronounced when it occurs in spelling.
  4. In non-rhotic accents only.

Identifying areas of pronunciation worth focusing on can be challenging. The Pronunciation Planner allows us to identify the areas of English pronunciation that learners from different first-language backgrounds find most difficult. The tool draws on knowledge of first-language transfer, comprehensibility and intelligibility, as well as levels of difficulty associated with the production of different sounds. All of this allows us to prioritise certain pronunciation features for practice within an English language course.

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Cambridge University Press