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#IATEFL – Pronunciation to Go: learning to learn from the dictionary


Teacher helping dyslexic studentMark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series introduces his forthcoming IATEFL talk on the keys to developing students’ use of dictionaries and important features that can support independent learning.

Proverbial wisdom tells us that if you give someone a fish, they can eat for a day, but if you teach someone to fish, they can eat for a lifetime. It’s a message about the long-term value of learning new skills and becoming independent. A similar thing could be said about pronunciation and dictionaries. Each time you teach a learner to pronounce a word, their English benefits a little, but they remain dependent on you. If, however, you can show your learners how to teach themselves the pronunciation of a word using the dictionary, they can improve their own English independently for ever more.

The dictionary is an immense resource, containing information about all the English words a learner is ever likely to need. In learners’ dictionaries, pronunciation information has traditionally been provided using phonemic symbols based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Nowadays, however, with the advent of online dictionaries, there are also recordings of all the headwords, accessible at the click of an icon – a wonderful resource.

It is well worth helping your learners get familiar with the IPA symbols, even though there is now an audio option. It’s a great learning investment for the following reasons:

– A knowledge of the phonemic symbols enables you to ‘see inside’ the pronunciation of the word, like an x-ray. You can see exactly what sounds are in there – and what sounds are not. Furthermore, these x-rays help you to see similarities and differences between words. For instance, your student may not be able to hear the difference between hit and heat, but they will definitely be able to see that the transcription is different.

– The ear is not always a reliable source of information. You can hear the word calm, for instance, and believe that you are hearing an L because it’s there in the spelling. When you see in the phonetic transcription that there’s no /l/, it makes it official somehow.

– The audio recording is only the voice of one person at one time. You don’t know which features of their pronunciation are essential and which are just one-off idiosyncrasies. For example, if the speaker places a glottal stop after the /k/ in document, the learner doesn’t know if this is a feature that they need to copy, or just a feature of that individual’s speech. The transcription shows it not to be essential.

If you can help your learners to be comfortable in the company of phonemic symbols, you are doing them a lasting service, because it will give them a more complete access to the information in the dictionary. It’s not that they have to memorize all the symbols – many dictionaries have a running footer across all the pages with a key to them. So it’s just a case of them getting to know the symbols little by little, as they use them.

Stress information is also provided in the transcription, by a vertical dash like an apostrophe. This is superscript for primary stress and subscript for secondary stress. If a dictionary entry does not have a transcription of its own, then these stress marks are shown in the headword itself. It’s very important for learners to become familiar with this method of marking stress.

The dictionary also provides stress information beyond single word level, for compound words, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions. Compare, for example, the different stress patterns in the following pairs:

compound nouns:               ‘roller blind – ve”netian ‘blind

phrasal verbs:                       “look ‘on (observe) – ‘look on (regard as)

idiomatic expressions:        ‘one of these days –  one of those ‘days.

Due to the limitations of the WordPress editor, we cannot display the stress markings correctly. The single mark should be subscript (secondary stress) and the double one should be superscript, but single (primary stress).

Encourage your learners to look out for these stress markings, and try reading out loud the example sentences in the dictionary using the stress as indicated.

We do of course need to recognize the limitations of dictionaries for pronunciation work at the level of connected speech. Dictionaries, by their nature, are more focused at word-level features. However, the 9th edition of the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (OALD9) does take a step towards remedying this situation by providing pronunciation guidance for common spoken functional exponents. For instance, under the headword invite, there’s a box of exponents for inviting and responding to invitations, along with recordings of these, and even a short video of an interaction. The OALD9 also includes videos of students giving model answers in some typical speaking exam scenarios, and these exemplify some of the prosodic features of longer stretches of speech.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

4 thoughts on “#IATEFL – Pronunciation to Go: learning to learn from the dictionary

  1. What are the quotation marks though? Why do you write ven”etian blind instead of ven’etian blind? Is it because you are not using IPA symbols, so you avoid using diacritics? Or does the have a special significance?


  2. Or does the ” have a special significance?

  3. Reblogged this on Teaching English.

  4. Well spotted Penny. The IPA stress markings have been lost in translation. The single one should be subscript (secondary stress) and the double one should be superscript, but single (primary stress).

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