Is Explicit Pronunciation Instruction Effective for L2 Learners?

Contributors: Victoria Lee | Reviewers:  Anna Mendoza | Date: 2021-03-23

Overview of the Study

Explicit segmental instruction focuses on teaching individual sounds to help language learners’ pronunciation development, to work towards comprehensible pronunciation. Here, comprehensibility is the difficulty a listener has with hearing the speech, and accentedness is how far a speaker sounds to an expected pronunciation. Certain sounds in a learner’s second language (L2) may not exist in his or her first language (L1), and as a result, it can hinder his or her second language perception. Segmental instruction can help learners develop phonological awareness for L2 sounds that do not have equivalent sounds in their L1. Its teachability allows teachers to clearly explain the L2 sounds based on speech organs (i.e., tongue, teeth, etc.), place of articulation, and manner of articulation. In this study, Saito examined the effectiveness of segmental instruction on Japanese speakers of English, and instruction was explicitly focused on the English-specific segmentals that do not have exact equivalent sounds in Japanese: /æ/, /f/, /v/, /θ/, /ð/, /w/, /l/, and /ɹ/.

Research Method

The study compared 10 instructed intermediate learners in an experimental group with 10 uninstructed intermediate learners in a control group. The experimental group was given four 1-hr sessions by an L1 Japanese L2 English teacher and took place once a week.  Explicit segmental instruction was given both in Japanese and English. The control group received no instructional treatment. Both groups were asked to take a pre- and post-test, which consisted of two tasks: a sentence-reading task and a picture-description task. Four L1 English listeners rated the audio samples collected from each task on a 9-point scale on accentedness (1 = nativelike to 9 = heavily accented) and on comprehensibility (1 = no effort to understand to 9 = very hard to understand). They were considered to be trained listeners because they were often in contact with a wide variety of L2 English learners as experienced phonetics or ESL university instructors.


There were no significant differences found in the pre- and posttest ratings for accentedness on both groups’ sentence-reading and picture description tasks. For comprehensibility ratings, the control group did not have any significant differences between the pretest and posttest tasks. However, the experimental group received higher comprehensibility ratings in both posttest tasks, even though the degree of instruction varied between individuals in the group. These findings revealed that at different rates, learners can apply knowledge learned from explicit instruction to their speech performance and show gains in comprehensibility, especially at a controlled-level, confirming previous studies that found similar benefits of explicit instruction on learners’ speech performance.

Practical Implications/Significance

This study supports previous studies’ findings that becoming more comprehensible instead of more nativelike is a more realistic, attainable pronunciation goal in the classroom, and highly encourages teachers to consider assessing their students’ pronunciation development and performance based on comprehensibility, not nativelikeness.

Original Text:  Saito, K. (2011). Examining the role of explicit phonetic instruction in native-like and comprehensible pronunciation development: An instructed SLA approach to L2 phonology. Language Awareness, 20(1), 45-49. doi: 10.1080/09658416.2010.540326

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