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Phonetics/Phonology: Why Teaching this Neglected Aspect of Language is Important

Phonetics/Phonology: Why Teaching this Neglected Aspect of Language is Important | ITTT | TEFL Blog

I chose this topic for my essay because it is not something I had ever given much thought to. As a native speaker, I don’t recall studying correct pronunciation in school along with other aspects of language learning such as grammar and vocabulary. Correct, or at least acceptable and understandable, the pronunciation was something that just happened.

I was initially somewhat surprised when I saw that an entire online module had been devoted to the topic, but as I read the module, I realized that it is a rich and complex component of language learning, to which serious students of English as a second language should be exposed. And the sample lesson video demonstrated to me that teaching phonetics could also be fun, both for the teacher and for the students.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Bob M. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Why is Teaching Phonetics Important?

The most fundamental reason for teaching phonetics is that without a good grasp of pronunciation and phonetics, the potential for not being understood, or being misunderstood, is large. In addition to the pronunciation of individual words, stress, intonation, and rhythm can all serve to subtly shift a speaker’s intended and perceived meaning. There is probably no substitute for time, practice, and experience for a second language learner to master this, but relatively early classroom exposure to the broad topic must be very useful to learners in understanding the scale of the task and providing a framework for gradual progress towards greater fluency.

Additionally, as mentioned in the training module, student surveys in various European countries have indicated that a majority consider pronunciation to be one of the most difficult aspects of learning English. This makes sense. However realistic or unrealistic it may be, every serious student of a language probably aspires to use the language “like a native”. Perhaps the foremost component of this is sounding like a native when speaking. The feeling that one is close to this goal is a great confidence enhancer, which has spillover effects on learning other aspects of the language.

And lastly, I have observed that there are common patterns of pronunciation difficulty that are experienced by individuals with specific native languages. A solid grasp of the mechanics of pronunciation can be very useful to teachers and their students in overcoming these entrenched issues.

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What is the Best Way to Teach Phonetics?

Once the question of whether it is important to teach phonics at all is answered affirmatively, the next question a teacher faces in dealing with this topic is how best to integrate the topic along with others such as grammar, vocabulary, etc. The online module mentions three approaches – dedicated lessons, allotting a portion of each lesson, and dealing with pronunciation issues as they arise in the classroom. I believe that a combination of these approaches may be most effective for students.

It seems to me that topics such as the phonemic alphabet and articulation are too involved and foundational to be covered in any way other than dedicated lessons. This material is complicated and could be perceived as dry. For this reason, it is probably best to wait until students are at the middle intermediate level or above before offering them a thorough overview. Students at lower levels of competency may find the material off-putting, and in any case probably have more immediate language learning issues than perfecting their pronunciation. Excessive attention to pronunciation may also get in the way of fluency at lower levels of competency, as it may undermine confidence and impede speaking.

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Once the basics of the phonemic alphabet and articulation are covered in one or two dedicated lessons, this material can serve as a foundation for continued work on pronunciation and other aspects of phonetics in the context of more general lesson plans. This could take the form of either of the two other approaches mentioned in the online module – allotting a portion of each lesson and dealing with pronunciation issues as they arise. In addition to supporting and enhancing the specific lesson being taught, this will also serve as a useful review of the general topics of the phonemic alphabet and articulation, reinforcing retention of this material.

Good familiarity with the International Phonemic Alphabet may be particularly useful to students of English because English spelling is such an unreliable guide to pronunciation. For example, an ability to recognize the characters of the International Phonetic Alphabet will serve students well when using the dictionary, as they can see how a word is pronounced when they look up the meaning.

For sufficiently advanced English students, knowledge of phonetics, and for that matter general listening skills, can be further developed by encouraging them to listen to authentic material in English such as news broadcasts, television shows, interviews, etc., and to try to identify the stress, rhythm, and intonation being used and reflect on how that affects the meaning.

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Through the online module and the sample lesson video covering phonetics, I have come to see this as both an essential topic to be covered with serious students of English, and a rewarding and stimulating area for the teacher. It particularly appeals to me because it is relatively fresh and novel since, as a native speaker, I “just did it” when developing my English language ability rather than being exposed to a comprehensive framework such as that taught here. I am looking forward to exploring this further with my students in the classroom!

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