Pronunciation is a fundamental part of speaking for second-language learners of English. A learner can have accurate spoken grammar, a wide range of vocabulary and all the confidence in the world, but if their pronunciation is not easily understandable, communication can break down very quickly.
There are many different ways of dealing with pronunciation in class, and I hear teachers speaking about their work with student speaking in terms of the pronunciation work they do, the phonology they teach, and the phonics which are part of their lessons. Often, it feels like these terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. So what is the difference between phonology, pronunciation and phonics?
Phonology is the study of the sounds which make up a specific language, a variety of a language, or an accent within that language. For example, the phonology of English is different from the phonology of Spanish (there are different sounds in English as compared to Spanish). Equally, the phonology of American English is different from the phonology of Australian English. Again, there are sound differences which make these two varieties of English distinct. Even the sounded -r appearing after a vowel in ‘birds’ results in a phonological difference between British and American phonology, making a point for exploration from a sound pattern point of view.
Phonology work includes defining how specific sounds and sequences of sounds combine to make for intelligible speaking in whatever language is being studied. This is typically taught through the use of a phonemic chart, or specific phonemes from that language, which are used to fix the pronunciation of a word or phrase in a way which is more regular and pattern-based that the English spelling system. This is often accompanied by work on forming mouth shapes, lip position, etc. and developing awareness of where and how sounds are produced by different parts of the mouth.
By contrast, pronunciation work includes the broader set of approaches which can be used to develop students’ clarity when speaking. Pronunciation teaching might include phonology work (as above) and/or methods such as drilling, jazz chants, communicative tasks, dictation tasks, and any other way by which students can focus on how they produce the sounds of English in their speech.
Due to accents and other sound variations which exist for speakers, and the broad goal of intelligibility, there are no ‘correct answers’ in pronunciation work. As long as the result can be understood more clearly, then then the goal has been achieved. By contrast, the more rule-based study of pure phonology, describing how exactly sounds are produced, can lead to more black-and-white correction of errors. ‘Error’ is a difficult term to use with pronunciation teaching, as intelligibility is not so black and white in practice.
Finally, phonics is a term which is often misused to mean either phonology, phonetics or pronunciation work. In fact, phonics is less connected to pronunciation as it is to literacy. The Phonics system is a privately registered and marketed learning system which uses a blend of phonemes from the International Phonetic Alphabet (studied in phonology) and other letter-like symbols to help young learners to sound out words and build a phonetic connection to words as they learn to read. It is designed to help young learners to read out loud correctly through letter recognition, rather than aiming to improve or teach the sounds themselves.
The reality of the Phonics system is that it does not cover the full picture of English sound and spelling, and leaves a lot of regular forms undefined. As a way of sounding out individual letters and sounds in certain words, it works well, but very soon gets misapplied to longer and more complex words if used for too long as a system.
In summary, if you are teaching students how to form sounds using specifically defined mouth muscles and speech apparatus, and defined through phonetic symbols (phonemes) from a phonemic chart, you are teaching phonology. If you are helping students to be understood more easily through clarity of speech generally, you are teaching pronunciation. However, if you are teaching kids to read through the specific system which uses sound-letter combinations and symbols, you are teaching Phonics.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.