Kenworthy, J. (1987: 4–9)

Teaching English Pronunciation.
Longman, 1987.

K Most books are fairly normal, some books should never have gone into print, and a very small number of books should never have been allowed to go out of print. For me personally, Joanne Kenworthy’s Teaching English Pronunciation falls into the latter category, and thirty years after acquiring my own copy, I can still open this excellent teaching manual and bring out something new, or go to it to find the exit when I’ve lost my way in the maze that is pronunciation today.

Particular strong points of Teaching English Pronunciation are the clear guidance on learner goals, an issue which I discussed in my post for ‘G’, and the chapters dedicated to Intelligibility (Chapter 2) and Integrated Pronunciation Teaching (Chapter 6). There is also a clear and very accessible description of the factors that affect pronunciation learning in Chapter 1. Here Kenworthy identifies and explores six factors:

1. the native language. It should be pretty evident that learners from some native languages are better placed to acquire good pronunciation in English than learners from others, although as I’ll explain in more detail in my post for ‘M’, the native language should be seen more as a resource than as an obstacle. However, having Spanish or Japanese as your starting point is not the same as starting from Dutch or Danish. That said, many people from many different language backgrounds do acquire very good English pronunciation.

2. the age factor. We all know the facts and have read the blurb – if you want to sound native, the younger you start the better. Well Kenworthy goes into some depth on this point (a full two pages, in fact). En route she reviews and summarizes a wide range of studies and concludes that ‘[t]he evidence is contradictory and the various interpretations and possibilities are intriguing, but one thing seems clear – we do not yet have evidence for a simple and straightforward link between age and the ability to pronounce a new language.’ (Kenworthy, 1987: 6). This was in the 1980s, and perhaps now we do have evidence, but since then other things have also changed, such as our understanding of the intelligibility (or not) of NS accents in contexts where English is a lingua franca, and the desirability or otherwise of acquiring a NS accent if this is where you are going to be using your English.

3. the amount of exposure. OK, so this one is a no–brainer. The more exposure, the better. But once again, Kenworthy shows us that it’s not as easy as that, and ‘that amount of exposure, though clearly a contributory factor, is not a necessary factor for the development of pronunciation skills’ (Kenworthy, 1987: 6). Which, when you stop and think about it, makes sense. We probably all know somebody who has been in the country of their second language for many years, but whose L2 pronunciation is still very markedly influenced by their L1 phonology, even to the point of making them poorly intelligible at times, as well as also clearly lowering their comprehensibility.

4. phonetic ability (aptitude). Who hasn’t seen this unfolding in front of their very eyes in the classroom. Some learners just seem to be able to do it, regardless of their L1, and others give us the strong impression that whatever it takes to attain good pronunciation, they’ve not got it. Kenworthy observes that students with good phonetic ability benefit from pronunciation drills and similar tasks in which target feature is heard and then imitated (see ‘Habit formation‘ for more on this), but that the same exercise types are anything but beneficial for learners who are not very good at discriminating between sounds. ‘In fact, drills seem to cause their attempts to stabilize before they reach an accurate production of a sound. Because of the complexities involved, this seems a factor which is very much out of control of the teacher’ (Kenworthy, 1987: 7).

5. attitude and identity. This is a minefield and currently divides the pronunciation teaching community, with some experts arguing that insisting on learners acquiring a (near-)native-speaker accent is tantamount to denying them the chance to flag up their L1 cultural identity through their L2-accent. Others argue that if you do nothing to correct those aspects of a learner’s pronunciation that make them unintelligible or poorly comprehensible, then you’re not doing your job. Kenworthy concludes, after another concise review of the literature of the time, ‘that those learners who show positive feelings towards the speakers of the new language tend to develop more accurate, native-like accents’ (Kenworthy, 1987: 8). This feels logical, but was written in the 1980s. In the 2020s, where English is used far more as a lingua franca than it is with its native speakers, who are are learners going to show positive feelings towards?

6. Motivation and concern for good pronunciation. This is the shortest of the five factors covered by Kenworthy, and, briefly, says that some students are more concerned about their pronunciation than others, and consequently are more motivated to improve. We recognise this, and can put names and faces to the many concerned, over-concerned, and totally unconcerned students who have passed through our hands.

So, six factors affecting pronunciation learning, which leads us nicely to the BIG Q: Which of the six is the most important to us as practising teachers? Give yourself a minute or so to think about this. Run your eye back up the page to review the factors. Only one answer is correct.

While you’re making your choice, let me just point out that you can still get second-hand copies of Teaching English Pronunciation on the internet if you want give yourself a ‘putting-up-with’ or ‘coming-out-of-lockdown’ reward.

OK, I know you just want to get to the answer so here it is. Factor six – motivation and concern. Why? Well, as Kenworthy points out in her conclusions to her overview of the factors affecting pronunciation learning, there’s nothing that you can do about Factors 1–5 because, put crudely, they are very much out of control of the teacher’ (Kenworthy, 1987: 7).

We can’t change our learner’s L1(s), we can’t change their age (even though many adult learners wish we could), we can’t directly change the amount of exposure they have (although exposure today is far easier than back in the 1980s), they have the ability (aptitude) that they have, and how they feel about English, about the English, about native speakers in general, or about appearing to be native speakers, is, as I suggested above, a leap into very deep waters. Waters that hide deceptively strong currents.

Motivation and concern? Really, Joanne? That’s it? That’s really where it’s at? Come on. Stop messing about. There has to be more, so tell us there is, please! But that your editors edited it out.

Over the last week or so I’ve tried to trace Joanne Kenworthy down to get her thoughts on this. Needless to say, I failed. Nonetheless, for me, what she said in her conclusions to that first chapter still rings as true today as it did then:

[It] would seem possible to affect one of the factors we have discussed – motivation and concern for good pronunciation. We can try to do this in the following ways:
(a) We can persuade learners of the importance of good pronunciation for ease of communication.
(b) We can continually emphasize that a ‘native-like’ accent will not be imposed as a goal. (Intelligibility and communicative efficiency are the only realistic goals.)

(c) We can demonstrate concern for learners’ pronunciation and their progress in it. (Kenworthy, 1987: 9)

The third point is especially important. Do you, for example, regularly demonstrate concern for your learners’ pronunciation? Be honest!

Well, if you’re reading this blog you almost certainly do. Be honest. But do teachers in general demonstrate enough concern for pronunciation? And equally important, do they set clear goals and demonstrate progress? These are really important issues. So much so, that when we get to the letter ‘P’, I’ll be taking a look at how we can help our learners to see the progress that they are making (or not). Meanwhile, thanks for coming to the blog, though if you know any teachers who don’t show enough concern, point them in this direction.

PS. Right back at the beginning of my career I attended a workshop by Joanne Kenworthy. She was reporting on some research she and a colleague had been doing on the use of cloning as a technique to help learners find their L2 voice in English. Basically learners were encouraged to imitate (i.e. clone) the way someone else pronouced English, that someone else being either a character from a British soap, a British person they knew personally, or their English teacher. This fascinating experiment into a highly original, holistic approach to teaching pronunciation warrants a post of its own and will get one. It also confirmed what I already felt from reading her book – Kenworthy was in a different place to almost everyone else talking about pronunciation teaching at that time.

Another person occupying a different space in the English pronunciation universe was Jennifer Jenkins, the co-author of the article describing the work on cloning (Jenkins & Kenworthy, 1998). Nobody, in my opinion, his had a greater impact on pronunciation teaching over the last 40 years than Jenkins, and the most immediately tangible ‘take-away’ from her work (and the most maligned), the Lingua Franca Core, is the subject of next week’s post.


Jenkins, J. & Kenworthy, J. (1998).Cloning: a means of finding your L2 voice. Speak Out! 22: 34–39.
Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.


5 thoughts on “Kenworthy, J. (1987: 4–9)

  1. This is such a great entry: concise yet precise. It was a joy to read, especially, as I have not heard about Joanne Kenworthy before (as opposed to Jennifer Jenkins). I hope to read the rest of the entries as well, right now just manic about submitting several articles (I am mentoring Ecuadorian teachers in the write-up phase :-)…


  2. Thanks for such generous feedback, Elizabeth, and I’m glad to have been able to shine a bit of light on the work of Joanne Kenworthy. I would have loved to have been successful in my attempts to get in touch with her, but was only too happy to bring her book to people’s attention in the post. And next week, Jennifer Jenkins, another space traveller back then in the 80s.


    • Glad you liked the post, and Joanne’s book. OK, so some things in it have aged, but others are sadly missing from more recent pronunciation teaching manuals, such as the consideration of the factors affecting L2 phonological acquisition, and the need for clear, realistic goals.


  3. Pingback: ‘L’ is for the Lingua Franca Core. What else? | englishglobalcom

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