I teach geography and world history to seventh and eighth graders, and we bump up against plenty of long, unfamiliar words like Uzbekistan and antediluvian. A few years ago I stumbled upon a little exercise with such words that provides surprising returns on very little investment.
Whenever a student mispronounces an unfamiliar word during class—saying “Charthagians” instead of “Carthaginians,” for example—I pause the discussion and write the word on the board. “What’s the first syllable?” I ask. I underline it, then the rest of the syllables in turn. Together, we say the word one syllable at a time, “Car-tha-gin-i-ans.” Then a couple more times, smoothing it out until the whole class can say the word properly. Sometimes I’ll get out in front of the situation and go through the procedure with a difficult word without waiting for a student to mispronounce it. It only takes a minute or two. I’ve found that the process works well even with most foreign words, although sometimes an extra bit of information is needed about certain sounds from certain languages, and I don’t even try it with French words like Bordeaux and Charlemagne.
We do this about once per class towards the beginning of the year, and the frequency tapers off as the students’ skills grow. They learn to read more carefully, with greater attention to detail. They enjoy a sense of accomplishment, and I think it increases their confidence in tackling the unfamiliar. It’s been a while since we’ve gone over a word because by this time in the school year hardly anything is mispronounced, and when something is mispronounced it’s usually an excusable misplaced emphasis.
I try to keep things positive, not embarrassing to whoever said the word wrong. “Yes, that’s a hard word. At least you tried! Let’s figure it out together.” I want students to feel that they’re mastering a challenge. Early on they tend to adopt a mildly annoyed, do-we-seriously-have-to-do-this-again attitude, to which I respond that they’re learning a useful skill that will make their lives better. They go along with it good-naturedly.