HomeApplied LinguisticsGiving the learners a ‘pragmatic shock’ in the pronunciation classroom: a voice-based...

Giving the learners a ‘pragmatic shock’ in the pronunciation classroom: a voice-based activity




Arizio Sweeting has taught and trained in Brazil, Macau, New Zealand and now Australia, where he works for the Institute of Continuing & TESOL Education at the University of Queensland (ICTE-UQ). Here he describes an activity that focuses on the use of students’ voices for delivering messages to others.

“Listen to me. Listen to me! I have a voice!” says Colin Firth as King George VI in the King’s Speech (2010). Like Firth’s character, language learners also have a voice and their voice is much more than sounds; it is also the representation of their personality. As Berry (2003) emphasises the ‘voice is …the outward expression of [the] inner self, a sort of channel from inside to outside, and is therefore a very particular expression of [one’s’] personality” (p. 6). Thus, it is time for the pronunciation classroom to start providing learners with more than traditional focus on phonemic symbols, charts, lists of minimal pairs and articulation diagrams, but with voice and pragmatic awareness practice such as in the activity I wish to suggest below.

It is called Say It Like You Mean It and it follows Copeman’s (2012) premise of ‘fake it till you make it’ (p. 22). In this activity, learners rehearse and focus on the use of their voice for delivering ‘difficult’ messages to others, such as telling someone that they have bad breath or that the colour of their shirt is ugly. An important consideration, however, is that the aim of this activity is not to encourage learner insensitivity, but to familiarise the learners with their ‘voice image’ i.e. the way their voice is perceived by others (Berry: 2003: 22). In general, the main objective of the activity is for learners to receive a ‘pragmatic shock’ which can trigger off self-awareness of ‘voice image’ and pragmatics.

In class, give the learners a message card each and get them to practise saying the message in their own minds without showing them to others. The learners then mingle and fire these messages to each other in conversations on a given topic e.g. their plans for the weekend.

Once this is done, conduct a class discussion on the learners’ reactions and try to covers the following points:

  • their thoughts and feelings about the experience
  • how their voice sounded when they delivered the messages
  • the words they used
  • the various reactions to the messages

After that, do some work on vocabulary and register by writing an example of a message up on the board e.g. You are a liar and get the learners to suggest improvements for it e.g. I hope you don’t mind me saying that, but I don’t think you’re telling me the truth. Focus the learners on pronunciation here too.

Now, get the learners with the same messages to work in groups and improve register. Give the learners time for rehearsal by getting them to practise in different corners of the classroom. Play some background music for relaxation.

Finally, the learners find new partners to make conversations and re-deliver the messages. Then, do a wrap-up discussion with the class on the second delivery and check if the learners have noticed any changes in communication.

As Thornbury (1993:127) points out by quoting Wilkins, ‘too many teachers have been trained to believe that pronunciation involves little more than a list of sounds… The practice of sounds in isolation is of limited value’ (Wilkins, 1972,1978: 59). Therefore, I hope this article can contribute with an example of a possible change of practice for the pronunciation classroom.


Copeman, P. 2012. ‘Performing English: Adapting actor voice training techniques for TESOL to improve pronunciation intelligibility’. English Australia Journal 27.2.
Berry, C. (2003) Your Voice and How to Use it. The Classic Guide to Speaking with Confidence. Virgin Books Ltd.
Thornbury, S. 1993. ‘Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology’. ELT Journal 47.2 Oxford University Press.
Wilkins, D. 1972, 1978. Linguistics in Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

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  1. Yes.Sound of oneself is an effective way to make one learn proper pronunciation.

    • I agree sounds like a great activity to make students improve in their pronuntiation. I was wondering on how to make students use their cells in their favor, and this has given me some ideas.

  2. I do something similar except I also ask the students to record themselves before delivering the message. In this manner they can hear their tone and register in varying forms. Many of my older students (16 +) have some sort of mobile device so we make use of digital tools. I find this exercise makes them listen to how they are speaking which seems to contribute to improvement in their pronunciation.

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