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If I asked you what the hardest part of learning English was, how many of you would point out the relationship (or seeming lack of a relationship) between how English sounds and how it is written?
My social media feeds are full of jokes about English spelling, like the famous poem ‘The Chaos’ by G. Nolst Trenite, which uses rhymes to point out that
“Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.”
Ahead of my forthcoming webinar Fun with Phonics next month, let’s go back to basics with phonics and think about how it is relevant in the young learner’s classroom.
What is phonics?
English is not spelt phonetically so reading and spelling in English can be challenging even for native speakers. Phonics is a system that was developed to help native speaking children learn to read in English. It involves linking the 44 sounds of English (phonemes) to the possible ways they can be spelt (graphemes). There are three main types of phonics: Analytic, Embedded and Synthetic.
- Analytic phonics takes whole words and asks learners to analyse them. Students are taught to compare sound patterns, for example identifying what is the same about the words pet, purple and potato, or noticing the similarities between words with the same ending like book and cook.
- Embedded phonics teaches phonics as and when it is needed. For example, if a student is having particular difficulties with a new word. It is not a systematic approach, and students are only taught what is needed so not all phonics elements are covered.
- Synthetic phonics is the most widely used approach around the world. This is because it is the most effective. This method takes a systematic approach to phonics, teaching children to sound out words to ‘decode’ what they say, or blend sounds together to ‘encode’ them in their written form.
As Synthetic phonics is the most widely used, we will look at this further during the webinar.
Why does it matter to English language teachers?
As a native English speaker (and reader) I clearly remember receiving phonics instruction as I navigated English spelling. I remember working through levelled reading schemes in school, and reading with my Grandmother as she challenged me to find all the words in the newspaper with “oo” in them while we experimented with the sounds they make. More than 30 years on and phonics has become a buzzword in the English language classroom.
However, phonics doesn’t just help children to associate the sounds and spelling of English. Through focusing on the sounds of English, young learners can develop confidence when they tackle new words. It can also help them to improve their spoken and written English and develop their learner autonomy. We’ll be exploring this further in the webinar.
How can I teach phonics?
In 2018 there are plenty of great phonics-based reading schemes that can be used in our classrooms.
There are those such as Floppy’s Phonics which is designed for the first language English speakers, but which is increasingly used in the second language classroom. Then there are schemes such as Oxford Phonics World which is developed specifically for learners of English. Phonics can also be seen embedded in young learners’ coursebooks such as Family and Friends, where children learn phonics while they learn English.
Of course, having the right materials is only half of the battle. As with anything else in the classroom, success with phonics will also depend on how well you implement the ideas into your lessons.
Charlotte Rance is a freelance teacher trainer and educational consultant based in Brighton, UK. She has been working in the English Language Teaching industry for over a decade, and her key areas of interest are young learners and the use of stories and reading as a tool for language learning. Her main goal as a trainer is to provide practical advice and strategies that teachers can implement in their lessons.
Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer. He has been in ELT for over 30 years, and regularly collaborates with Oxford University Press and Trinity College London. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar ‘Pronunciation Matters’, on December 6th and 7th.
At first glance it would seem that it is not really possible to question the idea that pronunciation matters. How can you learn a language without learning its pronunciation? Who will understand you if your pronunciation is poor? And will you understand them? Yes, the case for teaching pronunciation seems pretty solid, but the reality in classrooms around the world is often very different. Time and time again, when I give talks and workshops on pronunciation, teachers confess to me that what I’ve said has been enlightening, but that sadly they don’t have time for pronunciation in a syllabus that is already busting at the seams. It’s logical, then, that if they are short of time something will have to give, and pronunciation is an obvious choice, especially with courses that focus more on written than on spoken English.
Teachers say they don’t have time to teach pronunciation in their syllabus.
But can we really push pronunciation out to the margins of ELT like this? Surely it does matter. The connection between pronunciation and speaking, for example, is immediately apparent to anyone who has started learning a new language. But pronunciation is also about listening; it is not enough to recognise a word in writing, because if you don’t know how it’s pronounced you won’t recognise it when listening to someone using the word. Spanish learners of English can fail to recognise the word ‘average’ even though it is spelt the same way in both languages. This is because they are expecting a four-syllable word and so fail to make sense of the correct, two-syllable pronunciation.
Pronunciation is also an issue for listening because of the way that words that are pronounced one way when said in isolation can sound quite different when they are part of a sequence. My own students kept using ‘Festival’ to start their essays. I couldn’t work out why and until they explained that it was the way I started any instructions I gave them in class. It wasn’t, of course. What I’d been saying was ‘First of all’ but because of their poor pronunciation they completely misheard what I was saying.
Vocabulary, too, has a pronunciation element if we want to use a new word when speaking, and there are many examples of the connection between pronunciation and grammar. A rising tone at the end of an affirmative sentence, for example, turns it into a question to the ears of the listener. Thus:
Speaking, listening, vocabulary – yes. But writing?
Less obvious, admittedly, is the link between pronunciation and writing, and it was clear to me for a long time, and to all of my colleagues, that pronunciation and reading are simply not connected. Or at least that is what I thought until I heard Michael Swan and Catherine Walter speak at the 2008 IATEFL conference in Exeter. Their session was about the problems learners face when reading in English. Poor pronunciation, Catherine explained, often lies undetected behind the poor reading skills of many students. If we want them to get better at reading, she proposed, help them to improve their pronunciation.
I listened to this concluding remark in amazement. Suddenly everything fitted into place. Pronunciation does matter. And rather than being marginal to the core elements of ELT, it lies at the very heart of teaching English. Grammar, vocabulary, speaking, listening, writing and reading – what holds them all together, what is common to them all, and what is central to ELT, is the very same pronunciation that got pushed out onto the margins some time in the mid-80s.
Pronunciation is the glue that holds everything else in teaching together.
How this is, how pronunciation operates as the glue that holds everything else in teaching English together, I’ll explain in my webinar in December. I’ll also look at goals for learners, because if the goal in the past was to sound like a native speaker, the situation today, with English being used the world over as a lingua franca, is not so simple. I’ll be looking at priorities for our learners’ pronunciation, too, because if there isn’t much time to fit everything in, we need to focus on what matters most.
So if you accept that pronunciation matters, and you want to find out more about what matters in pronunciation, join me in December, and we’ll put pronunciation in its proper place at the heart of ELT.
ELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, shares some classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes ahead of his webinar on 19th February. Register now.
Is there any essential difference between teaching pronunciation in business English and teaching pronunciation on a general English course? In many ways the answer is ‘no’. After all, in any type of ELT classroom we need to work on pronunciation in two ways: firstly, to help students with receptive pronunciation; in other words, to help them recognise features of pronunciation which affect their ability to listen and understand. And secondly, to help students improve their productive or spoken pronunciation; this doesn’t mean that they need to sound like a native speaker but that they are intelligible to a wide range of other people when communicating in English.
However, when we teach pronunciation in business English I do think our approach should be tailored to learners’ business needs and that they should have plenty of time to practice pronunciation for specific events. In addition, your business students can also use pronunciation to make their communication skills more effective. Let’s take a closer look.
Typically on a business English course (especially with one-to-one or small groups) we ask students about their needs for using English. Part of this will include asking them who they need to communicate with in English. If they answer, ‘colleagues working in our China offices’ then we already know that the students will need to listen to recordings of Chinese speakers in class. If, on the other hand, my students make phone-calls to the United Kingdom, then I might spend time focussing on the features of different accents within the UK.
In business English we also have to prepare a student for speaking at particular events; for example, if your student has a meeting in English coming up soon then you can predict the type of language he/she will need to use. You can practice using that language and identify any pronunciation problems that may affect the student’s intelligibility for the other participants. One useful technique is to role play the upcoming situation with the student and record the conversation. Then listen back to the recording and then pick out potential pronunciation difficulties.
Many effective presenters and speakers in the world of business also use pronunciation to make their message more powerful. So in my presentation skills classes I help students to work on stressing certain words and adding pauses for emphasis. Take this example which shows an extract from a presentation in which the stressed words are underlined and the / indicates short pauses between words and phrases. Try reading it aloud as you think the presenter said it:
Now I’d like to present the figures / for our most recent quarter / and / I’d like us to consider / the implications / for the rest of our financial year.
The speaker stresses the content words in the presentation and adds short pauses to break the sentences down. In particular, the separation and stressing of the word ‘and’ in the middle emphasises that the presenter has two distinct aims to the presentation. Having students mark transcripts of their own presentations like this can really add power to their communication.
To consider more of the issues behind teaching pronunciation in business English and to get more classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes, join me for my webinar on 19th February. Register now.
John Hughes is a teacher trainer and course book writer. For Oxford University Press he has co-authored on the Business Result series and the video courses Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations.
Christmas is nearly upon us, so we thought we’d share some classroom resources to help you and your class get in the festive mood.
Teacher trainers Stacey Hughes and Verissimo Toste from our Professional Development team have prepared some multi-level activities for you to use in your classroom.
Christmas Classroom Resources
Christmas Activities 2014, including:
- Jigsaw Reading – pre-intermediate and above
- Christmas Word Search – pre-intermediate and above
Christmas Cards Activities
Christmas Cards Activities, including:
- Christmas Cards Activity – any level
- Christmas Cards Worksheet – any level
- Delivering the Christmas Cards – any level
- The 12 Days of Christmas – pre-intermediate and above
- A Christmas Wreath – young learners
Extensive Reading Activities
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (reading text) – Chapter 1, Stage 3 Bookworms
- Christmas (reading text) – Chapter 7 from Seasons and Celebrations, Stage 2 Bookworms
- Christmas in Prague by Joyce Hannam (reading text + activity) – Chapter 1, Stage 1 Bookworms
Looking for more festive ELT resources?