Perspectives Integrating Form and Meaning in L2 Pronunciation

Integrating Form and Meaning
in L2 Pronunciation Instruction
Talia Isaacs
One of the central challenges of ESL teaching is striking the right balance
between form and meaning. In pronunciation pedagogy, this challenge is compounded because repetitive practice, which has been shown to enhance phonological acquisition and promote fluency, is widely viewed as being incompatible with
communicative principles. This article provides a brief historical background for
modern pronunciation pedagogy (from World War II to the present) as part of a
backdrop for understanding the current disjuncture between pronunciation and
communicative language teaching. A discussion on form-focused instruction, its
applicability for pronunciation pedagogy, and challenges in implementation follows with reference to a recent article that presents evidence for the appropriateness of a communicative instructional framework for teaching L2
pronunciation (Trofimovich & Gatbonton, 2006). Finally, a communicative activity that encourages repetitive practice while integrating pronunciation with
other components of language use is proposed.
Un des principaux défis de l’enseignement de l’ALS consiste à trouver un
équilibre approprié entre la forme et le sens. En pédagogie de la prononciation, ce
défi est intensifié car la pratique répétitive, qui s’est avérée efficace dans l’acquisition phonologique et la promotion de la fluidité verbale, est communément perçue
comme étant incompatible avec les principes communicatifs. Cet article présente
un aperçu historique de la pédagogie moderne en prononciation (de la Deuxième
Guerre mondiale au présent) comme fond pour comprendre l’écart actuel entre la
prononciation et l’enseignement des langues par la méthode communicative. Ce
survol est suivi d’une discussion sur l’instruction axée sur la forme, son applicabilité à la pédagogie de la prononciation, et les défis découlant de sa mise en
pratique, le tout en faisant référence à un article récent qui présente des arguments en faveur de l’application d’un cadre reposant sur la méthode communicative pour l’enseignement de la prononciation en L2 (Trofimovich & Gatbonton,
2006). Finalement, nous proposons une activité communicative qui encourage la
pratique répétitive tout en intégrant la prononciation à d’autres composantes
liées à l’emploi de la langue.
VOL. 27, NO 1, WINTER 2009
A Historical Look at Second-Language (L2)
Pronunciation Instruction
Pronunciation enjoyed a position of prominence in the structural approach
to teaching (audiolingualism), where accuracy was upheld over fluency, and
pattern drills emphasized mimicry, repetition, and the eradication of deviant
first language (L1) tendencies (Lightbown & Spada, 2006; Celce-Murcia,
Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996). Typical pronunciation exercises featured decontextualized practice of minimal pairs and placed an overriding emphasis on
segmentals, or individual sounds (Larsen-Freeman, 2000).
However, pronunciation experienced a fall from grace with the introduction of naturalistic approaches to teaching and the advent of communicative
language teaching (CLT). From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, pronunciation was viewed as being of little importance to teaching language communicatively because it was considered part of linguistic rather than
communicative competence (Pennington & Richards, 1986). For many it
symbolized the worst of the “tedious, mechanical activity” of traditional
language teaching (Yule, 1990, p. 111). Moreover, it was assumed that
learners’ pronunciation would improve with input alone (i.e., with no
pronunciation instruction). Although CLT ultimately led to a reshift in instructional emphasis from segmentals to suprasegmentals (e.g., intonation,
rhythm, stress), communicative proponents failed to equip teachers adequately with strategies for teaching pronunciation communicatively (CelceMurcia et al., 1996). With few instructional materials available to interface
pronunciation with communication (Grant, 1995), teachers were left to their
own devices to include a pronunciation component in their teaching. This
often meant choosing between teaching articulatory phonetics or no pronunciation teaching at all (Morley, 1991; Yule, 1990). Thus pronunciation was
often ignored or expunged from communicative instruction (Celce-Murcia et
However, even before the advent of the communicative era, there was
evidence that pronunciation was being relegated to a subordinate role compared with other skill sets. As early as 1969, Kelly argued that pronunciation
was the “Cinderella of language teaching” (p. 87) in the sense that it was the
component of language pedagogy that had been excluded from the royal ball
(Dalton, 1997). More recently, Gilbert (1994) identified pronunciation as “an
orphan in English programs around the world” (p. 38) and Celce-Murcia et
al. (1996) contended that pronunciation was suffering from “the ‘Cinderella
syndrome’—kept behind doors and out of sight” (p. 323). This suggests that
the recent history of pronunciation teaching has been far from fairytale-like:
pronunciation has been marginalized from the TESL mainstream.
Since the mid-1980s, renewed interest in pronunciation has brought a
concomitant push among some researchers to appropriate for pronunciation
its rightful place in communicative language instruction (Grant, 1995; Pennington & Richards, 1986). In a seminal article, Morley (1991) stated, “Intelligible pronunciation is an essential component of communicative competence” (p.
488, emphasis in original), that “ignoring students’ pronunciation needs is an
abrogation of professional responsibility” (p. 489), and more recently, that
pronunciation should “be written back into the instructional equation”
(Morley, 1994, p. 90). In line with this, Morley explicitly drew the link
between intelligibility, which has widely been recognized as an appropriate
goal for pronunciation teaching (Derwing & Munro, 1997; Field, 2005; Munro
& Derwing, 1999), and its broader effect on communication in a speech
evaluation framework (Morley).
Pronunciation and Communication: Still Citing
Irreconcilable Differences?
The rise in stature of pronunciation in the broader field of applied linguistics
has recently been highlighted by the dedication of an entire special issue of
TESOL Quarterly to pronunciation (2005). The contributions focus on a range
of topics, including the nativeness and intelligibility principles—two contradictory ideologies that underlie much pronunciation research and teaching (Levis, 2005)—the role of accent as a marker of ethnic group affiliation
(Gatbonton, Trofimovich, & Magid, 2005), a research-oriented approach to
developing instructional priorities (Derwing & Munro, 2005), and the effects
of misallocation of lexical stress on intelligibility (Field, 2005). TESOL
Quarterly boasts the widest circulation of all peer-reviewed applied linguistics journals and features a readership of approximately 12,000 academics
and practitioners (Ulrich’s, 2009). Thus one might infer from the publication
of this special pronunciation issue that the journal editor and presumably a
growing number researchers and pedagogues (the readership) acknowledge
(a) that pronunciation is often responsible for breakdowns in communication, and (b) that pronunciation should, therefore, assume a central role in
communicative instruction, from which one might expect (c) that teacher
training and the development of appropriate communicative pronunciation
materials have followed suit. However, it seems that the field is still feeling
the repercussions of the neglect of communicative proponents, first, to account adequately for the role of pronunciation in a communicative framework, and second, to propose strategies for teaching pronunciation
communicatively (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996).
In a survey of 67 Canadian ESL programs, Breitkreutz, Derwing, and
Rossiter (2001) found that only 30% of teacher respondents had received
pedagogical training in pronunciation. Several of the teachers identified the
need to integrate pronunciation into the communicative classroom to a
larger extent, but most lacked the requisite knowledge and training to do so.
VOL. 27, NO 1, WINTER 2009
Inadequate teacher training may be a lasting effect of the deemphasis on
pronunciation instruction during the communicative era due to the failure of
communicative proponents to account adequately for any role for pronunciation in a communicative framework (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996). However,
this is not the only reason for the existing gap between pronunciation and
communicatively oriented instruction.
Currently existing instructional materials on pronunciation do not fit the
bill in terms of providing authentic, context-rich activities that provide
focused practice for the specific area of pronunciation to be targeted, nor do
they always draw on research evidence. In a review of intonation, Levis
(1999) maintained that “present intonational research is almost completely
divorced from modern language teaching and is rarely reflected in teaching
materials” (p. 37). He elaborated that despite a plethora of research on
English intonation since the 1970s, current textbooks tended to rely heavily
on archaic and often erroneous conceptions of intonation and would need to
revise and update how they depicted intonation in order to get out of that
time warp. Like other areas of pronunciation, intonation would benefit from
increased collaboration between pronunciation researchers, pedagogues,
and designers of materials (Derwing & Munro, 2005).
Levis (1999) also noted that the treatment of intonation in textbooks was
often devoid of context and lacked communicative value. He argued that
although intonation had been touted as a purveyor of meaning in instructional materials, its full communicative value had not and would not be
realized unless instructional activities went beyond their current focus on
pattern practice and encouraged the communicative use of language.
The challenge of integrating the targeted practice of a given feature of
pronunciation with meaning in instructional materials and activities is not
particular to intonation, nor indeed to pronunciation. Pennington and
Richards (1986) cited as artificial the separation of pronunciation from communication and from other components of language use and called for more
integration. Grant (1995), in a pronunciation-based materials developer for
the classroom, maintained, “of all skill areas in ESL the gap between communicative principles and classroom practice remains the most apparent in the
area of pronunciation” (p. 118). To facilitate a carryover from targeted practice into spontaneous, real-word (or at least simulated) communication,
Grant suggested shifting the communicative load from more to less controlled in an instructional sequence, conveying this progression by plotting
activity types on a form-meaning continuum. The movement from guided
(rehearsed) practice to more contextualized practice is in line with Morley’s
(1994) guidelines for the instructional planning of oral pronunciation activities.
Irrespective of these instructional strategies, however, it seems from the
above that instructors have been less successful in bridging the gap between
pronunciation and communication than in other areas of language instruction. This may be due to the nature of pronunciation itself, as is elaborated
below after a brief excursus away from pronunciation into the broader context of classroom-centered second language (L2) research.
Form-Focused Instruction and L2 Pronunciation
Second-language acquisition (SLA) researchers have acknowledged the need
to complement communicative or task-based instruction with a focus on
form (Ellis, 2001; Swain, 1988). Although there are competing theories about
how learners process information, most research has shown that drawing
learners’ attention to form-meaning relationships maximizes instruction in
the communicatively oriented classroom by pushing learners to notice the
gap between their un-target-like interlanguage utterances and the target
form. Form-focused instruction may be deployed either reactively, in the
form of corrective feedback (Lyster, 1998; Lyster & Ranta, 1997), or preemptively in the form of preinstructional planning (Ellis, Basturkmen, & Loewen
2001). Although the term form in focus on form or form-focused instruction has
been taken to refer to a focus on grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation in a
meaning-oriented instructional context, grammar has been the focal point of
most of the research. For the purposes of this article, no distinction is made
between the terms focus on form and form-focused instruction.
In a discussion on the language features that most lend themselves to a
focus on form, DeKeyser (1998) described as “uncontroversial” the view that
“pronunciation is relatively immune to all but the most intensive formsfocused treatments” (p. 43). To support this view, he cited the point that
immigrants who have not been exposed to education and formal L2 instruction often make little progress in L2 phonology or morphology and syntax.
Lexical items, by contrast, can be acquired with relatively little attention to
form and little conscious effort (i.e., implicitly). DeKeyser, therefore, suggests
that in the case of L2 pronunciation, a focus on form may not be sufficient:
phonological acquisition may require recourse to a focus on forms: that is,
where the primary focus of instruction is on form rather than meaning (i.e.,
structure-based instruction). Although this view may have been uncontroversial at the time, recent evidence suggests that adult non-native
speakers may have a short window of time early after their arrival in the host
country during which they are able to improve the intelligibility of their L2
segmentals without targeted instruction (Munro & Derwing, 2008).2 Further,
Trofimovich and Baker (2006) have suggested that some suprasegmental
aspects of L2 speech may actually be learned over an extended period by
adult L2 learners.
To expand on DeKeyser’s (1998) point, certainly the traditional instruction of pronunciation suggests that it is easily amenable to forms-focused
instruction. However, to revert to an exclusive focus on forms in pronunciaTESL CANADA JOURNAL/REVUE TESL DU CANADA
VOL. 27, NO 1, WINTER 2009
tion teaching would be to abandon the principles of CLT and to return to the
past. Although several pronunciation proponents deplore the disjuncture
between pronunciation and communication in pedagogical practice and instructional materials, few would be likely to advocate abandoning the mission and a returning to rote learning. An eclectic approach that shifts
between forms-focused and form-focused instruction may be the approach
to follow. However, the danger is that activities intended to focus on form
may inadvertently lapse into a focus on forms. In such a scenario, instruction
would lose its communicative orientation and become predominantly linguistically focused.
At the other end of the spectrum, DeKeyser’s (1998) analysis suggested
that an exclusive focus on meaning would not suffice for the acquisition of L2
phonological features. In fact some evidence suggests that a focus on
pronunciation is better than no attention to form. In an experimental study
that compared two conditions of explicit pronunciation instruction (segmentals and suprasegmentals) with a control (no specific pronunciation instruction), Derwing, Munro, and Wiebe (1998) found that the two experimental
groups outperformed the control group on all measures (listeners’ judgments of comprehensibility, accentedness, and fluency). This finding conforms with the general view in SLA research that a focus on form is better
than no focus on form at all (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). More research that
examines the measurable effects of diverse pronunciation pedagogies on
learners’ gains of a target feature is necessary, as is the relationship between
instruction type and short- and long-term effects of instruction.
If meaning by itself is not enough, and the desire to work in a communicative instructional methodology holds, the challenge is to provide a focus
on form (in this case, pronunciation), where attention to form by definition
does not detract from the overall communicative orientation of the classroom. As empirical evidence accumulates about which features of pronunciation most affect intelligibility or contribute to communication breakdowns (Hahn, 2004), then those identified features should be targeted in
form-focused instruction and ordered appropriately in an instructional syllabus in conjunction with insights into teachability/learnability (Jenkins,
2000; Trofimovich, Gatbonton, & Segalowitz, 2007).
The challenge of striking the right form-meaning balance in L2 pronunciation instruction is compounded by the fact that the acquisition of L2
phonology is facilitated by repetitive practice (Trofimovich & Gatbonton,
2006). In strong versions of CLT, however, repetition has been viewed as
incompatible with communicative principles because it has been strongly
associated with (or viewed as a relic of) traditional rote learning. Gatbonton
and Segalowitz (2005) argued that although communicative methodologies
have stressed the importance of fluency, their avoidance of repetitive practice has meant that they fall short of promoting the requisite automatization
that facilitates the quick retrieval of information and renders processing
more efficient, one of the necessary preconditions for fluent speech. But
repetition and drills need not be mechanical or incompatible with CLT.
Indeed, Paulston (1970) distinguished between mechanical drills (formsfocused, reminiscent of audiolingual teaching), meaningful drills (that require the learner to process meaning but not to communicate unknown
information to the listener), and communicative drills (that require the
learner both to process meaning and to convey unknown content to the
In a recent article that merges the pedagogic with the psycholinguistic,
Gatbonton and Segalowitz (2005) proposed a theoretical teaching framework
called Automatization in Communicative Contexts of Essential Speech Segments (ACCESS). The central innovation of ACCESS is that it elicits the
necessary repetition to promote automatic fluency in a communicative
framework that integrates attention to form (form-focused instruction). To
ensure that ACCESS meets these goals appropriately, the three necessary
conditions to be met for the main task are that (a) communication is genuine,
with the exchange of new (unknown) information; (b) repetition is built into
the task and is necessary for task completion; and (c) targeted expressions are
formulaic, functional, and likely to be reencountered and reused in a future
communicative situation.
Drawing on this framework, Trofimovich and Gatbonton (2006) demonstrated the applicability of ACCESS to L2 phonology. First, they provided
empirical evidence from an experimental word-priming study to back the
model’s assumptions that learners benefit from both form-focused instruction and repetition in processing speech. Next, they explored the pedagogical
implications of this finding by using the framework to model an activity that
targets rising and falling intonation patterns in English. Finally, they suggested a few examples of pronunciation features that could be targeted with
ACCESS for the purpose of demonstrating the generalizability of ACCESS to
other areas of pronunciation. For example, the framework could be used to
provide targeted communicative practice for problematic phoneme pairs
that have a high functional load (Brown, 1991), because mispronunciations of
high-functional-load phonemes have been shown to have a more detrimental effect on comprehensibility and accentedness than their low-functionalload counterparts (Munro & Derwing, 2006). The usefulness of a framework
like ACCESS, however, is necessarily constrained by knowledge of which
features of pronunciation are most crucial for intelligibility and have the
largest effect on communication.
According to Firth’s (1992) zoom principle, pronunciation work should
“rely on a constantly shifting focus—from overall effectiveness of communication, to a specific problem, to overall effectiveness of communication, and
so on” (p. 173). That is, ESL teachers should frequently zoom in, or narrow
VOL. 27, NO 1, WINTER 2009
the instructional focus to problematic pronunciation forms in the context of
communicative activities. The following task for upper intermediate learners
draws on communicative principles by incorporating realia while providing
for repetitive practice and for form-meaning links to be made. Although the
activity does not involve the exchange of new information (i.e., it is not
genuinely communicative in Gatbonton and Segalowitz’s, 2005, sense of the
term), it does set the stage for other genuinely communicative activities to
follow, which are elaborated below.
The activity centers on a dictation about a hair-growth product for men,
here called Fast Grow, which is based on a magazine advertisement.3 Once
the students have had a chance to look at the ad, the teacher reads the text
below expressively, modeling, for example, the rising intonation for the
yes/no questions in the first two lines.
Is your hair starting to thin?
Are you afraid of growing bald by age thirty like your uncle John?
Well, Fast Grow has the solution for you!
Our nutrient-rich regenerating cream will have your hair looking as
thick as ever in just days.
With our one month money-back guarantee, you can’t lose, you can
only grow.
Fast Grow. Break the family tradition.
The students have the opportunity to listen to the passage multiple times
during the dictation before they are required to produce the text orally,
which is important in the light of evidence from the segmental literature that
accurate perception precedes accurate production (Flege, 1995). Once they
have written down the words, the students are instructed to circle the most
prominent words in the sentence (influenced, of course, by the teacher’s oral
rendering). Emphasizing you in lines two and three, for example, underscores that the product is being directed to the immediate consumer and not
to anyone else, an instance of implicit contrastive stress. Students can also
mark down the syllable that they think has primary stress in multisyllabic
words (e.g., solution) and check their accuracy when the teacher reads the
passage a final time.
After going over the spelling with the class (e.g., can’t vs. cannot, which is
an opportunity to talk about reductions) and clarifying vocabulary, the
teacher might first focus on rhythm by having the students tap out the beat
and then interface rhythm with intonation by having them mimic the
melodic pattern of each phrase using the nonsense syllable da. Finally, after
the students have practiced reciting the passage individually and as a group,
they are paired with partners and asked to pretend that they are auditioning
for a part in a TV commercial with their agent (their partner), whose role is to
provide feedback to make their audition stronger. Incorporating techniques
from drama such as getting students to alter their volume and play with the
tenor of their voice by uttering the passage with varied emotions (e.g.,
quietly, hysterically) is another possibility (Celce-Murcia et al., 1996).
In the context of the communicative classroom, the above activity falls
somewhere on the continuum between isolated and integrated form-focused
instruction, both of which have been shown to be effective in promoting
learning gains (Spada & Lightbown, 2008). After piloting the activity on two
adult ESL classes consisting of business professionals (L1 French), feedback
was sought from two experienced ESL teachers who were well schooled in
pronunciation pedagogy. Both teachers praised the activity for integrating
pronunciation with other aspects of communication, but commented that the
success of the pronunciation feedback and the quality of instruction were
largely contingent on the skill of the ESL teacher.
The teacher may choose to follow up on the above activity with a
genuinely communicative activity that involves pattern practice. If the target, for example, is to reinforce the intonation of yes/no questions (as in the
first two lines of the Fast Grow ad.), students can play some variant of Twenty
Questions, where they each have to ask directive yes/no questions to guess
the identity of the person or object that their partner has chosen (e.g., Madonna, George W. Bush, a computer, etc.). In a follow-up activity, the teacher can
explicitly teach the formula for writing a Fast Grow style ad. (e.g., two yes/no
questions identifying a consumer need followed by a statement that the
product is the solution, scientific evidence or customer testimony to make the
product seem credible, and then reemphasis of the product name and a catch
phrase that will make the ad. memorable). The students should then
brainstorm vocabulary for a magazine ad. of their choice (e.g., face-lift cream,
insect repellent, memory pills, underwater camera, pasta sauce, etc.). The
teacher can monitor the students’ progress in writing and in orally rehearsing their ads. Finally, the ads can be presented to the class.
Straddling the form-meaning continuum is one of the challenges of ESL
teaching. In pronunciation pedagogy, the challenges are compounded by the
importance of repetition and the widespread perceived incompatibility between repetitive practice and a communicative instructional orientation. In
this article I provide a brief outline of the modern history of pronunciation
pedagogy as a basis for the argument that difficulties with integrating
pronunciation with communication not only are inherent to pronunciation,
but also are a result of the consequences of the historical exclusion of pronunciation from the TESL mainstream. Although pronunciation is considered
part of linguistic form in the literature on form-focused instruction, it has
been paid little more than lip service by many SLA researchers, who have
tended to focus on grammar.
VOL. 27, NO 1, WINTER 2009
If Trofimovich and Gatbonton’s (2006) article does not help curb this
trend, it will at least have provided a rationale for reintegrating the use of
repetition in the communicative classroom to the benefit of automatic fluency and pronunciation. Certainly validating the ACCESS model with empirical data would strengthen its claims. Future research on the ACCESS model
could, for example, explore whether Gatbonton and Segalowitz’s (2005) inductive approach to automatization—having repetitive practice of the target
forms precede their more controlled presentation—is more effective than a
deductive approach that reverses these stages (DeKeyser, 1998).
Models like ACCESS could ultimately help end the isolation of pronunciation from other areas in TESL and banish the Cinderella analogy for good
by showing how pronunciation activities can be integrated with other areas
of language teaching and learning. However, the accessibility of such frameworks to classroom teachers and their understanding of the purpose of the
framework are crucial for success. The joint efforts of researchers and instructors would certainly facilitate the dawn of what may be a new era of communicative pronunciation pedagogy.
The extent to which the shift toward suprasegmental instruction has been reflected in current
ESL classroom practice is unclear. In an instructional survey in the Canadian context, for
example, 89% of respondents (teachers and program coordinators) reported teaching both
segmentals and suprasegmentals, 9% reported an exclusive focus on prosody, and only 2%
focused solely on segmentals (Breitkreutz, Derwing, & Rossiter, 2001). Conversely, several of the
instructional materials that they reported using are exclusively segment-based.
After this initial rapid phonetic development, however, performance on segmental production
tasks seems to plateau (Piske, MacKay, & Flege, 2001). Explicit instruction might be necessary at
this point to promote further improvements, particularly in segmental productions that yield
low intelligibility (Munro & Derwing, 2008).
The Fast Grow task is an original activity that I designed, which has not previously been
I thank Tracey Derwing, Pavel Trofimovich, Carolyn Turner, and the anonymous TESL Canada
Journal reviewers for their helpful feedback on earlier versions of this article, in addition to Sarita
Kennedy and Carolyn Samuel for their substantive input on the ideas expressed here. Preparation of this manuscript was supported by funds from the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada and Alberta Scholarship Programs.
The Author
Talia Isaacs is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. She has taught
ESL in various language institutes in Montreal and has instructed second-language acquisition
in the university setting. Her research broadly interfaces pronunciation with L2 assessment.
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