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As school teachers faced with EAL learners in our classrooms, we often push the teaching of phonics down the list, especially at secondary school level. Yet communication is dependent on comprehensive pronunciation when speaking, and on decoding graphemes when reading. Consider for a moment the impact mispronunciation can have on accurate communication. For example, if I ask for soap in a restaurant, I might be faced with a blank stare! This error is caused by confusing two very similar phonemes in soap/soup.

Causes of confusion

Sometimes, dialect causes confusion too. Compare, for instance, the British and New Zealand pronunciation of vowel sounds. Speakers in New Zealand backslide their vowels, meaning that /a/ sounds like /e/ (pan or pen?) and /e/ sounds like /i/ (pen or pin?). Raising awareness of this can support learners in their understanding.

As a stress-timed language, the suprasegmental elements of speech such as stress or intonation can also become miscommunication problems when not taught. It is therefore important to teach the stress of a word along with the pronunciation of the phoneme. Consider the difficulties in understanding a sentence where the stress is placed on the wrong syllable: "I left the bottle in the hotel."

Teaching pronunciation

Failure to teach pronunciation often leads to fossilised errors, which become difficult to correct. The question for me is therefore: how do we include the deliberate teaching of pronunciation within a multi-skilled language-based classroom environment?

There are a couple of options. We can remediate and focus on teaching the phoneme when a communication problem arises in the classroom caused by mispronunciation. Alternatively, we can weave pronunciation teaching into our programme through deliberate planning, ensuring that we give purpose to the activities.

The resource accompanying this article shows how we can incorporate the teaching of pronunciation into our language programme in a format that can be both fun and constructive. It focuses on eliciting language and honing in on key elements of pronunciation. It raises learners awareness of the subtle differences in phonemes and provides an opportunity to improve pronunciation within the wider context of the lesson. 

Click here for an article on synthetic vs analytic phonics

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