It is often said that to improve your pronunciation, you need to live in the country where the language is spoken; it can’t be done in the classroom. Well, I tried to change that and this is how.
The students I have are 16–19 years old and almost all have Swedish as their first language. When they come to me, their pronunciation is usually really good. Most of them speak American English, some British, but you can hear that they are not native speakers. They get high to very high grades on the spoken part of the national tests. Improving from this high level has been difficult.
What I do now is to base the pronunciation work on the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA). IDEA collects English from all over the world by having people read a sample text, Comma Gets a Cure. The pronunciation work is done in three steps.
The first step is for each student to read the sample text Comma Gets a Cure to me. When they do, I listen for three things: difficult sounds, where the sounds are produced and the intonation (melody). I take notes and afterwards I describe their pronunciation to them and tell them what they should focus on to improve their pronunciation. I also post this feedback to them so they have it in writing.
For Swedes, the most common sounds to have problems with are /z/, /dʒ/, /tʃ/, /θ/ and /ð/. Most of my students are from Stockholm and they speak Swedish at the front of the mouth, which means that most of them need to move their sounds back – a little bit for British English, a lot for American and even more for a Texan dialect (try saying “howdy, how are y’all doing” and you’ll see!). Working on intonation (melody) is something that almost everyone needs, but it is especially fruitful for those whose pronunciation is almost perfect.
The next step is for the students to find a favorite accent at IDEA. I tell them that the more time they spend on finding an accent that they want to emulate, the better the results will be. When they have found a favorite it is time to start working. They plug their headphones into their ipads and start to listen and repeat, with their feedback next to them. I let them spend perhaps an hour doing this divided on two or three lessons.
The last step is to read the the sample text Comma Gets a Cure to me again. This is the fun part, for now I get to see how they have improved! And almost all of them do, and it lasts as well, for some students I have tested again a year later.