Practical Thoughts on Teaching Phonology

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Learning how to use phonology seems to be a low priority for many teachers... but teaching spoken language without it is like trying to drive with the handbrake on - lots of wasted energy and getting anywhere takes ages. Teaching using phonology effectively is a challenge... here are some thoughts on how to integrate it in your classes (with some great resources at the end).

What is Phonology?

  • It’s the study of the sounds of language. Simple!

  • All language begins with sound. Language starts with the intelligible sounds we make as babies, which take on defined characteristics and become phonemes. Those phonemes are ordered and produce syllables. Those syllables are squished together to form a near continuous flow of noise, which make utterances we call sentences. Boom! Communication.

  • Producing sound is a physical skill. Along with writing, it’s a part of language production that we can see – in the position and movement of the learners’ mouth, lips, tongue, vocal chords (in the throat). Don't stare though, you'll freak people out.

  • It’s the noise that air makes when moving out of the body. Errrr…. not that noise…. air moving out of other parts of the body has quite a different effect on communication :-)

Where does Phonology Happen?

  • Lungs, vocal chords, throat, tongue, mouth, teeth and lips.

  • All vowel sounds are on a sliding scale. Where does one allophone end and another phoneme begin, physically? How long is a piece of string?

  • Make the weirdest sound you can with your mouth. Go on, really go for it, let your tongue go crazy and throw in some clicks for good measure. Now realise you can transcribe it on paper, very precisely, using this. Mind = blown!

  • And hopefully, in your classroom…

When Should We Teach Phonology?

  • Pronunciation should be corrected when it impedes communication. Unless learners specifically want a certain accent, then further correction could be seen as cultural imperialism (lots of learners are proud of their accent in an L2… it shows their cultural heritage, rather than being forced to try and speak with an American or British accent).

Why Include a Phonology Focus in Your Classes?

  • Phonology is language in its purest form. For most learners, effective spoken language is a higher priority than written.

  • If learners can’t hear the difference between sounds (i.e. minimal pairs), then they won’t be able to produce them reliably (and so potentially impeding communication).

  • Physical skills take longer to learn that a simple intellectual understanding – consistency in correction is needed. Non-verbal correction is great for this if working on a specific area as it disrupts fluency activities less than immediate correction but with most of the benefit.

How Can You Teach Phonology in Your Classes?

Some general principles on teaching phonology:

  • Don’t be too judgemental about learner accents, unless learners want you to be.

  • Correct pronunciation when it interferes with communication. Be reactive.

  • Anticipate errors your learners will have with target lexis, and prepare ways to help them improve. Be pro-active.

  • Sprinkle phonology throughout your classes – be consistent when correcting target language.

  • Use non-verbal correction – define which error an action signifies (e.g. when you tap your pen twice, it signifies that they’ve added an extra schwa at the end of a word) and then use it consistently in class until that speech habit has been formed.

  • Use an IPA chart and IPA where it speeds learner understanding.

  • Lower the affective filter with humour (e.g. poke fun at your own pronunciation, use tongue twisters, songs, big physical actions for different sounds – use your creativity!).

  • Encourage learners to practice at home – using mirrors for lip and tongue position, mimicking and shadowing songs and videos, reading aloud, recording and comparing themselves, seeing if voice recognition software (i.e. Siri, OK Google) can understand them.

  • Spend time ensuring that learners can accurately identify (and then produce) sounds that don’t exist in their first language.

Phonology Resources

What are your best principles for teaching phonology? Leave me a comment below.