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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Mouton May 10, 2022

Rajiv Rao: Key issues in the teaching of Spanish pronunciation

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Key issues in the teaching of Spanish pronunciation. Rajiv Rao (ed.). New York: Routledge. 2019.

Rajiv Rao’s edited volume Key issues in the teaching of Spanish pronunciation is a comprehensive treatment of Spanish pronunciation pedagogy suitable for both pronunciation experts and language teachers who are interested in implementing pronunciation instruction for the first time. The volume is divided into two sections: “The sound system of Spanish” and “Pedagogical challenges and suggestions for the classroom.” The first section consists of eight chapters that address the segmental and suprasegmental features of Spanish pronunciation such as Spanish vowels, stop consonants, and prosody. Each chapter provides a description of the Spanish system with potential problem areas for students who are learning Spanish as a second language, an overview of research on the topic, and suggestions for teaching. The seven chapters included in the second section of the volume offer insight into important issues that teachers should consider, such as how to teach dialectal variation and how to use technology to enhance the efficacy and enjoyability of pronunciation instruction. The second section also contains two chapters that address how to teach pronunciation to heritage Spanish speakers and native speakers of German. A welcome addition, these two chapters broaden the scope of the volume beyond native English-speaking learners of Spanish.

Any publication that aims to provide suggestions and resources for language teaching faces a few potential challenges that can undermine its validity. For one, it must provide a meaningful conceptual framework for developing teaching objectives and activities in the first place (i.e., What should the goal of instruction be?). Once that framework is in place, it must offer practical information and sample activities that instructors can examine, implement, and update to fit their teaching needs, and those activities should ideally respond to a range of instructor skill levels. Finally, both the framework and the activities must reflect the current state of the art in the relevant research and teaching domain. Key issues in the teaching of Spanish pronunciation excels in all of these areas. Regarding framework, many chapters distinguish between intelligibility (and comprehensibility) on the one hand and foreign accent on the other, which reflects the widely held view that pronunciation instruction should take intelligibility, rather than nativelike pronunciation accuracy, as its basic goal while allowing room for individualization in light of students’ needs and interests (Levis 2005). For instance, in their chapter on Spanish vowels, Martínez Celdrán and Elvira-García discuss error gravity, differentiating between mispronunciations that affect intelligibility and those that do not affect intelligibility but serve as an indicator of foreign accent. Other authors make similar observations and furthermore recognize the broad impact that pronunciation has on interpersonal communication. To that point, in discussing prosody, de-la-Mota observes, “[t]hrough proper control of prosody, a learner not only has a better capacity to produce understandable, natural, and expressive sequences of speech, but also an improved ability to understand speech and to read and speak more fluently across different communicative situations” (p. 163).

Chapter authors provide a variety of activities designed to raise learners’ awareness of Spanish pronunciation features and help learners improve their perception and production. Because these activities are free-standing examples rather than theoretical descriptions, novice teachers can use them right away and thus gain practical experience with pronunciation instruction, whereas experienced instructors can modify them to fit their particular teaching context. In many instances, sample activities bridge pronunciation with other aspects of communicative language teaching, which reinforces the view that pronunciation is an important element of learners’ communicative competence and should not be divorced from other language skills. For example, Zampini offers many suggestions for teaching the pronunciation of the Spanish voiceless stops, /p, t, k/, including a communicative activity that offers learners the opportunity to practice the pronunciation of word-initial stops in food and restaurant vocabulary (e.g., the /p/ in pedir or pan), poems and cultural readings that contain the target sounds, and an acoustic analysis assignment. These activities can be implemented at different proficiency levels and in different types of courses (i.e., a communicative activity appropriate for an introductory language course versus an acoustic analysis activity that could be integrated into an upper-level phonetics course). Another example is González-Bueno’s adaptation of the Presentation, Attention, Co-Construction, and Extension (PACE) model to teach Spanish voiced stops, /b, d, g/. By combining this model with the principles of Processing Instruction (VanPatten 1996), González-Bueno lays out an updated S-PACE model that includes opportunities for structured input and output between the Co-Construction and Extension stages. The result is a conceptually-sound step-by-step approach to help learners grasp the different pronunciations that Spanish voiced stops show in different contexts. Finally, many authors offer suggestions for teaching dialectal differences in pronunciation (e.g., Elliot’s chapter on Spanish fricatives, Schmeiser’s chapter on Spanish liquids).

The chapters in the second section of the volume take a more panoramic approach. That is, whereas chapters in the first section hang together because each addresses a particular aspect of Spanish pronunciation, the chapters in the second section address the learning and teaching of various pronunciation features from the vantage of a particular topic. For example, Zárate-Sández elaborates on the importance of dialectal features, noting that even if students do not produce them, they need to be able to process them in order to communicate with speakers from regions where those features are prevalent. Goodin-Mayeda addresses the role that perception plays in pronunciation learning. She reviews discrimination and identification tasks that can be used to train perception and offers a useful activity for helping students diagnose and reflect upon comprehension problems that arise during listening exercises. In her chapter on technology, Lord catalogues tools that teachers can use to raise awareness and create opportunities for meaningful pronunciation practice. She also presents a grading rubric that takes into account pronunciation and other aspects of oral communicative competence, which could be used alongside the podcasting project she discusses. On the whole then, the different perspectives that the authors provide throughout this volume reinforce and complement one another. Although each chapter can stand alone, readers will be able to combine the advice and activities presented in the various parts of this volume to create a tailored approach to pronunciation instruction that meets their needs.

If any weaknesses can be identified, perhaps the volume would have benefited from elaborating on several issues. On a conceptual level, it would have been advantageous for each chapter to clearly indicate the extent to which the mispronunciation of the target feature would affect intelligibility and comprehensibility. Some chapters focused on foreign accent, and others included remarks on intelligibility, but a more explicit focus on intelligibility and comprehensibility as a guiding framework for the entire volume would have helped instructors understand which aspects of pronunciation could lead to communication issues. However, this is not so much a weakness of this volume in particular, but rather reflects a gap in the L2 Spanish pronunciation literature; virtually no research has investigated the relationship between phonetic features and intelligibility/comprehensibility (for a qualitative approach to this topic, see McBride 2015). The volume also might have benefited from a more systematic approach to moving from controlled to spontaneous production activities. Ultimately, instructors will want to know how they can help their students produce comprehensible speech, if not phonetically accurate speech, in extemporaneous communicative scenarios. Many chapters include examples of both types of activities, but they do not present information on how to sequence activities along the controlled-spontaneous continuum. One last minor point that bears mentioning is the volume’s focus on English-speaking learners of Spanish. Again, this is not a shortcoming of the volume, but rather of the field, given that most work has focused on English-speaking learners of Spanish. In fact, whenever possible, the chapter authors offer insight into how activities could be adapted to native speakers of other languages (e.g., Martínez Celdrán and Elvira-García include a list of the challenges native speakers of many other languages may face when learning to pronounce Spanish vowels), and Lleó and Ulloa’s chapter on native German speakers of Spanish is itself a model of how to identify problem areas depending on learners’ native language.

In summary, this volume accomplishes the goals that Rao lays out in the introduction. First, it equips instructors with the knowledge and tools they need to begin teaching Spanish pronunciation. Second, it delivers this information in an accessible format that is amenable to a diverse audience of language educators, including teachers who are interested in teaching pronunciation for the first time and pronunciation experts looking for new ideas. As a pronunciation researcher and teacher, I am excited to implement many of the activities in my own pronunciation course, and I have no doubt that after reading this volume other instructors will also feel prepared and inspired to do the same.

Corresponding author: Charles Nagle, Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA, E-mail:


Levis, John M. 2005. Changing contexts and shifting paradigms in pronunciation teaching. Tesol Quarterly 39(3). 369–377. in Google Scholar

McBride, Kara. 2015. Which features of Spanish learners’ pronunciation most impact listener evaluations. Hispania 98(1). 14–30. in Google Scholar

VanPatten, Bill. 1996. Input processing and grammar instruction: Theory and research. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2022-05-10
Published in Print: 2022-05-25

© 2022 Charles Nagle, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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