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The Importance of Phonetics and Phonology and Suggestions for Their Effective Teaching

The Importance of Phonetics and Phonology and Suggestions for Their Effective Teaching | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Phonetics and phonology may seem like advanced or ‘bonus’ aspects of teaching the English language, but they are essential and fundamental to successful English communication for English students. While teaching and practicing concepts like pronunciation, intonation, stress, and articulation may be difficult (or seem outright impossible!), there are several methods and tools which English teachers can employ to help their students master them.

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

Clear Understanding

Grammar and vocabulary are key components of effective communication, but their impact is greatly reduced without the ability to pronounce them clearly and correctly and add emotional weight and context through variances in pitch and rhythm. For example, in English, a fall/rise pattern of intonation adds crucial information to the speaker’s statement, namely the desire for a response or confirmation from the other. Without awareness and means to activate this additional layer of speech, an English learner is ultimately handicapped in their communication. While their word choice and sentence structure may be impeccable, they are still missing an integral aspect of the English language.

One could argue that the emotional undercurrents provided by stress, intonation, and articulation carry as much, if not more, meaning than the vocabulary itself! Consider the nonsensical babble of a baby, which can nonetheless still be understood due to the emotion conveyed by stress (or lack thereof) and intonation. Furthermore, it is through consistent practice and mastery of articulation that vocabulary is ultimately formed out of the emotional core of what the baby wishes to communicate.

Another clear example of the importance of phonetics and phonology to English comprehension can be perceived in skillful deliveries of the many speeches contained in Shakespeare’s works. Delivered without stress, intonation, or other phonological components, the creative scripts of the Bard would fall flat and carry little meaning even to native English speakers! But when these components are woven in, the same words are suddenly capable of drawing tears, eliciting laughter, or provoking an endless range of understanding and emotional responses from the audience.

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Importance to Teach this knowledge

That is all to say that as English teachers we would be doing our students a huge disservice to not teach them how to use these skills effectively, whether their goal is to inspire love in their respective Juliet or Romeo or to deliver an impressive and memorable presentation in a business meeting. Fortunately, there are tools and exercises available to help teach pronunciation and phonology.

How to start?

To start, the phonemic alphabet is an excellent resource for laying the foundation of English pronunciation, which is essentially the work-stuff of all that follows. Not only does learning the phonemic alphabet acquaint learners with the array of different English sounds, but it also provides them with a new ‘language’ through which they can empower their education. Most dictionaries include the phonemic symbols along with the definition. As a result, any curious student with working knowledge of this alphabet can learn to pronounce any word through their study.

Mastering the phonemic alphabet also necessitates practice and eventual mastery of English articulation. Students must explore and discover new ways of manipulating their speech organs to make the necessary sounds. By training these muscles, ideally, in conjunction with learning the proper anatomical terms, they open the door to yet another linguistic tool (mouth diagrams, anatomical explanations of sound, etc.) that English teachers can then employ to further clarify and advance the complexities of English pronunciation, dynamics, and rhythm.

Moreover, practicing the phonemic alphabet not only trains eyes, brain, and speech-making organs – it also trains the ear! Students must listen carefully to recognize the subtleties of sound that they, their classmates and the instructor are making. Just like a musician, a sharp ear will awaken an English student to more than just the meaning conveyed by vocabulary and sentence structure. By refining their ear through the study of phonetics, a student is laying a sound foundation for picking up on the deeper layers of communication that come from stress and intonation.

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Practical Work

At this stage, it becomes mostly a matter of listening and speaking practice. Fortunately, there are many methods of drilling stress and intonation, and they can be highly entertaining! Many people enjoy English television and cinema, and English learners can likely be persuaded to watch programs at home – nearly all of which are rife with dramatic examples of stress and intonation. Even bad acting provides valuable insight to the student regarding the importance of these English language components, specifically how meaning is lost without it. In the classroom, fun (and practical) role-playing activities – both guided and free-form – can be endlessly devised to practice and refine these skills. For example: ask your boss for a raise, tell you, child, to clean their room, pretend to comment on a soccer match, etc. Every imaginable situation requires the application of these 'hidden' elements of speech. Even written work provides a means for study, in which students can mark up texts of speeches and then even practice delivering it with stress, melody, and rhythm.

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With proper effort and introduction, English learners – like English children – can master English phonetics and phonology. They need to do so to effectively communicate – and reap the rewards that come with its skillful execution! Initially, a disciplined study of the phonemic alphabet and rigorous practice of its letters is needed to lay a strong foundation in pronunciation and articulation, as well as to train the students' ears. Once this has been established, the more ‘ethereal’ elements of stress and intonation can be learned and practiced through an endless array of challenging yet entertaining means, ranging from watching TV to listening to music to marking up speeches to dramatic readings of the text and, of course, extensive role-play. In the end, English students will have a fuller and richer understanding of the English language and a huge edge in communication, especially in the job market, over students who have not benefited from a rigorous exploration of English phonetics and phonology.

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