/s/ and /z/: pronunciation for teachers

For a very long time, I thought my pronunciation was very good. Teachers and colleagues had told me so, and because of that I rarely ever gave it much attention. I was more worried about learning vocabulary or grammar. Naturally, my pronunciation was (and still is) far from perfect, but it took me time to realise that. There is an Aristotle quote that I think rings true for teachers. He said that “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”

Little by little I started to notice words or sounds I was mispronouncing. The one I clearly remember is basic /ˈbeɪ.sɪk/ which has a /s/ rather than a /z/ sound. I had been teaching for many years when I found this out and it simply blew my mind (the same is true for basically /ˈbeɪ.sɪ.kəl.i/, by the way). I think I’m comfortable pronouncing these words correctly nowadays, but there are still two words I have a hard time with: ‘disagree’ and ‘disappoint’. I know both sounds should be /s/ as in /ˌdɪs.əˈɡriː/ and /ˌdɪs.əˈpɔɪnt/ but I often catch myself saying /ˌdɪz.əˈɡriː/ and /ˌdɪz.əˈpɔɪnt/. However, every time I mispronounced them, I curse in my head and (I hope) this eventually will lead me to get them right.

More recently, I have focused on pronouncing the plural -s correctly. The rules are related to voiced and unvoiced sounds and you can read more about them here. These are particularly important because the misuse of /s/ can lead to confusion. Consider the following minimal pairs.

place and plays

ice and eyes

race and rays

peace and peas

The only difference in pronunciation is that the first word in each pair ends with a /s/ and the second with a /z/. Naturally, context does help to make up for pronunciation problems, but as a teacher you want to give students a good model of pronunciation and knowing the rules pay off.

Here are some things to consider in terms of pronunciation:

  1. Learn the symbols from the phonemic chart. There are plenty of interactive charts out there, such as this one from the British Council. You can also look for apps or videos on youtube to help you that regard.
  2.  Don’t trust your ears when checking the pronunciation of words in a dictionary. Pay attention to the phonemes as they will tell you how to pronounce words correctly.
  3.  Look for lists of mispronounced words online. Fellow Richmondshare author Luiz Otávio Barros posted some good ones on his blog a while ago. The first is about mispronounced words for teachers and the other about tricky words with /s/ and /z/ sounds.
  4. Finally, don’t feel disappointed /ˌdɪs.əˈpɔɪntɪd/ if you still mispronounce some words even after ‘knowing’ the correct pronunciation. Old habits die hard.

Thanks for reading.

Ricardo Barros

Ricardo Barros is a CELTA tutor and freelance teacher trainer based in Jundiaí–SP. He has taught English since 2003, working as a teacher, teacher trainer, academic coordinator and Cambridge examiner. He holds the DELTA, CELTA and a BA in History from Unicamp. He is a moderator for the BrELT facebook group and advisory council member for BRAZ-TESOL. He also blogs at ricardobarroselt.wordpress.com

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