Lowering Affective Filter to Teach Adults Pronunciation

Rob Sheppard, director of adult education at Quincy Asian Resources, member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute, has joined the TESOL Blog. Rob will be blogging biweekly on adult education.


Twice a week, I teach an hourlong, dedicated pronunciation class to adult immigrants, and it’s invariably my favorite class of the week. Other teachers hear this and look at me like I’ve offered to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge. It does take a bit of trial and error to get the hang of, but pronunciation instruction really needn’t be anything to avoid. Done right, it’s a whole lot more than a groaning volley of models and drills. There’s a lot to consider when teaching pronunciation to adults, so I’ll probably address this in a few different posts, but the very first step is getting that pesky affective filter out of the way: both the students’ and yours.

The affective filter is that shell of anxieties and inhibitions that we adults surround ourselves with. These are important in day-to-day life to keep us from embarrassing ourselves or offending our colleagues, but in the classroom, that shell tends to get in the way of language acquisition. If you’ve heard your students observe that an hour at the bar seems to improve their English more than a week in the classroom, well, that’s because alcohol is the perfect solvent for anxiety and inhibition. But since you probably won’t be bringing a bottle and a cocktail shaker to your next class, we’re going to have to find some other strategies for lowering that affective filter. The main strategies that I suggest are

  • using your own classroom presence to affect your students’
  • maintaining a quickly paced and varied lesson structure
  • incorporating lots of humor
  • employing an explicit, transparent approach to instruction
As you’ll see below, these strategies overlap and complement one another, so it’s not too hard to combine them into a broader pedagogy that will make you a veritable affective-filter-lowering machine!

Classroom Presence

We talk a lot about student-centered classes, but pronunciation is one area where it’s acceptable—arguably even advisable—to keep your students focused on you. If it’s you they’re focused on, it’s not their own anxiety about mispronouncing or making a funny face.  In an hour of pronunciation class, I barely sit down at all; I’m walking to every corner the room, keeping up a quick pace, talking louder than I normally would, sweating more than…anyone normally would. If you bring a lot of energy into the class in the first 5 minutes or so, you’re going to get it right back from them, and the lesson will coast by for you and them.

Lesson Structure

Just like you, racing around the room keeping that heart rate up, you want your lesson structure to be dynamic and varied. An easy way to make sure this happens is by using a sped up adaptation of present, practice, produce (PPP): start with explicit instruction on your topic, move on to choral practice, then call on individuals. As you go around the room giving each student a chance to produce on his or her own, intersperse a few more choral repetitions to keep everyone on their toes. Each of these cycles lasts no more than 7 to 10 minutes, so things move along at a brisk pace.


Humor is essential. You’re asking these students to stick out their tongues and open their mouths wider than is normal in their culture. Of course they’re going to be hesitant and embarrassed, so you’ve got to be a little bit goofy and show that you can laugh at yourself, so they feel safe laughing at themselves.

Start things off with some maxillofacial yoga: summoning your most tranquil yogi voice, guide the class through some exaggerated rictuses and grimaces to “stretch their face muscles,” but mostly just to get them laughing. Now we’re going to feel that affective filter just melt away as we glide from yawning marmot into frownward frog… Another easy go-to for laughs is, “No smiling!” Sounds such as /ə/ and /ʊ/ require relaxed cheeks, which means that smiling actually interferes with proper pronunciation. Shouting this in your least convincing faux-dictatorial voice will get some good laughs. Great for lifting the affective filter, albeit at the momentary expense of that one student’s /ə/.

You can pretty quickly build up an arsenal of running jokes like this to keep things light. You’ll also likely be making up some phrases and sentences on the spot for practice, and these are another opportunity to inject some humor into things. Don’t just use the mundane examples out of the textbook; get creative with some nonsense phrases or funny juxtapositions.

Letting Them In On It

The final tip that I have is to keep your students in on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Effective pronunciation instruction at the segmental level involves getting students to focus on the articulatory mechanics that happen under the hood. But the benefits of this transparency extend to student affect as well. They’ll be more enthusiastic and stay engaged longer when they know how recounting the woes of Fuzzy Wuzzy for the 42nd time will actually help their pronunciation.

This transparent approach means not just drilling, but talking to students about the importance of drilling in the context of muscle memory. When I give students an improbably difficult sentence to practice (say, “The 33 worldly girls were whirling like dervishes”), I’ll tell them the story of how Muhammad Ali used to train underwater so that in the ring, he could move that much faster. The tongue-twisters we do in class are preparing them for real world fluency in much the same way.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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2 Responses to Lowering Affective Filter to Teach Adults Pronunciation

  1. Kay Barg says:

    I have been working with ESL adults for three years but their pronunciation is always the stumbling block. Thanks for the tips. Like you – I love working with this “population” – (probably not the best word).

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