Improving high level student pronunciation with iPad apps

by Rachel Pearson

AIM: To improve high level student pronunciation and their autonomy in this regard by using iPad applications

TARGET GROUP: 6 Proficiency students

TIME FRAME: February – May 2012

Identifying the problem area:

For several years I have taught very high level learners in preparation for the CPE exam. The resounding area in which everyone needs improvement is pronunciation.

As Coe notes, common difficulties for Spanish speakers of English include a lack of differentiation between long and short vowels, strong devoicing of final voiced consonants and applying the rules of a syllable-timed language (Spanish) to a stress-timed  (isochronous) one (English). Added to these general features, high level students also tend to have very peculiar pronunciation which has solidified over time. In the case of this class one student has a very intrusive glottal stop, another aspirates the start of words with voiced sounds and another has unusual word stress possibly influenced by the other languages she speaks.

Narrowing the AR down to a manageable area:

Initially, I thought focus should be put mostly on the typical chunks of language CPE students use in class discussions and their oral exams. Phrases which scaffold a discussion are a feature of high level speech. However, after an initial analysis it became apparent that they would need a short course in pronunciation from single sounds right up to connected speech.

The initial hypothesis that high level students required help with high level pronunciation was not correct! The ‘manageable area’ which I hoped to focus on soon mushroomed to something very large indeed. By addressing each area of pronunciation in a bottom-up approach I hoped to rectify errors along the way. My approach was:

  1. Single sounds (vowels monophthongs/diphthongs and consonants)
  2. Word Stress (main and auxiliary stress in words and collocations)
  3. Word Linking, paying particular attention to the types of ‘chunks’ I had initially intended (intrusion, catenation, assimilation, weak forms and elision)

Investigate the problem:

When I first proposed the Action Research to my students, most seemed keen as not all of them had heard of schwa, angma, ellipsis, catenation etc. I felt that with very high level students, the issue of an area of their language that was not very high level was delicate and for some embarrassing. They had varying degrees of grammatical and vocabulary knowledge, but their pronunciation errors were a leveler and I realized I would have to create an even safer learning environment for the students. I would also have to provide tools for them to use outside the class to allow them the opportunity to study alone.

Since pronunciation is a long process over time and in many cases my students would be unlearning incorrect pronunciation, the self-study aspect was critical. I would also have to find a way to motivate students to correct something they didn’t see as ‘all that bad’. They also required a native speaker model whenever and wherever they studied, which is where the applications would come into their own.

Following a detailed introduction to the phonemic symbols chart, I asked the students to write the numbers 1-10 in phonemic script, in pairs. I was shocked by the results! There were some numbers such as ‘one’ which no pair wrote correctly. They were humbled to see that they didn’t fully understand the very simplest elements of pron. I reassured them that once they had mastered it they would have a new world open to them.

Think about a solution and how to implement it:

I soon realized that the old (paper-based activities) and the new (apps on an iPad) should be used in parallel. This would better suit different learning styles among the learners and also allow them the chance to study independently their individual needs. The use of apps also provides that all-important native speaker model.

It was not without some trepidation that I embarked on using apps in the classroom. An iPad was a new gadget for me and although the use of educational applications become clearer every day, I am extremely grateful to my colleagues for the solid network and exchange of ideas which helped me along the way.

The Applications

It is very hard to talk about apps with any authority as new ones are made available all the time. However, concentrating on a few apps is part of making the AR project manageable. Approaching pronunciation in this way had some very positive results, from helping the students to be more engaged from the start, to facilitating their private study in an area previously limited to classroom time. Here are the ones I used:

Phonemic Chart (British Council) Free

This app is a representation of the IPA symbol chart. When you tap a symbol the sound is reproduced. By tapping the arrow on the top right of each symbol three example words appear where the sound is highlighted in red. You can tap on these words to hear them pronounced. In many cases this highlights the sound-spelling relationship (e.g. /a:/ in ‘heart’ and ‘jar’).

My students found this app very easy to use and useful – particularly when we were addressing specific sounds such as schwa, or angma. By pressing the keys in order, a word can be pronounced, broken down into its constituent parts. This would be a great app for students to have on their mobile phones and tablets.

Sounds The Pronunciation App (Macmillan Education) Free and Paid version

This is the most comprehensive pronunciation app that we used and deserves investigation. My students’ reaction to the free version of this app was very positive and one or two did download it for personal use. It provides a limited amount of practice and testing on several levels (listening, writing, reading) and helps students to become familiar with phonemic script. The game element allows students to practise in short bursts, even competing against themselves in terms of accuracy. The paid version allows you to complement your Macmillan course book with cross referenced word lists, providing an extra learning tool.

Pronunciation Power ( Free and Paid version

This app for iPhone (but compatible with iPad) uses American English pronunciation with both male and female voices. The free version of this app has two main areas: ‘Lessons’ and ‘Exercises’.

In ‘Lessons’ the user can see a computer-generated side view of a face, mouth and tongue for the articulation of each sound on a scroll down menu. The downside of this is that it doesn’t use the regular IPA symbols.

In the ‘Exercises’ area the user can scroll through a word list divided by phoneme and see and hear the word and then match it to their own pronunciation. This also focuses the user on the sound spelling relationship of certain sounds.

My students really liked being able to ‘see’ the sound moving around the mouth as it is produced. It also saved me drawing complex side-views on the IWB! They instinctively copied the mouth movements to great effect.

Dragon Dictation 

Essentially this is an app to enable users to dictate emails to their device. The app works very simply by tapping the screen when recording a voice, tapping again once you have finished. Then the app will write whatever it has heard. There is a keyboard at the bottom of the screen which the user can use to tweak anything which has not been heard correctly. This is particularly useful for proper nouns.

As an app for use in class, it should be used with great care! This is because students’ pronunciation is frequently not recognized correctly, highlighting just how strong an accent they have. It can be very de-motivating.

Paper-Based Activities

These came largely from Mark Hancock’s book ‘Pronunciation Games’. They were instrumental in practicing individual elements of pronunciation such as intrusion and word stress. However, I limit this report to a detailed account of the apps I used.

Think about the evidence to collect to decide whether your action is successful or not. How will it be collected? How will it be anaylsed?

I had intended to record my students at the start and then again at the end of the project to measure their improvement. However, I was very sensitive to their being self-conscious and felt a microphone would have made them feel inhibited. I made notes on specific students in the form of a journal; this enabled me to see common errors which could be addressed as a class and also guide students to personal guidance where necessary. In retrospect I should have found a way to subtly record the students as improvement has occurred and this would be very motivating for them to hear.

I also offered them the chance to give short presentations to the class on a topic of their choice towards the end of the project. I provided written feedback to the students about their pronunciation, outlining their strengths and areas to work on.

What I would do differently in future

In order for this Action Research to be more beneficial in the future there are several things to be taken into consideration:

  1. Students do not all have the hardware to make use of apps outside the class. Increasing the number of iPad minutes per student should be paramount.
  2. It is essential to find web-based tools for students to work with alongside apps for tablets and phones.
  3. Recording the students is recommended as a more tangible way of measuring their progress.


Coe, Norman: Speakers of Spanish and Catalan (from ‘Learner English’ CUP Michael Swan and Bernard Smith)

Hancock, Mark: Pronunciation Games (CUP)