How to teach pronunciation Part 1: Phonics vs phonology

Pronunciation is an aspect of ESOL teaching which is often misunderstood. Clearly, pronunciation is an essential feature of students’ language, as it affects comprehensibility inspeaking. Without clear pronunciation, all the vocabulary, grammar and study in other areas of language is rendered useless, as any spoken message attempted by a learner cannot be effectively understood.

This article series aims to debunk a few myths about pronunciation teaching, and to define some principles for effective practice in this important area.

Myth one: Phonics and phonology are the same thing.

I often hear teachers talking about how they don’t use phonics in their classrooms, as they don’t have time to learn the IPA, or that phonics is a difficult thing to learn due to all the different symbols. This shows somewhat of a misunderstanding of the roles of phonics and phonology in language teaching.

Phonics is a teaching system developed to help young learners to read in English. It uses standardised sound prompts, composed of common letter combinations, to help learners ‘sound out’ spelling patterns. As spelling in English is very irregular, this system aims to cut through the confusion of these unusual spellings by focusing on what the spellings ‘sound like’ when they are spoken, enabling learners to speak out new words when they meet them in texts. This is an admirable goal, and the system has become incredibly popular over recent years, especially in international kindergartens and primary schools outside of English-speaking countries.

However, phonics has come under some criticism for reinforcing incorrect processing of letter sequences due to the same irregularities which phonics aims to address. For example, the system uses the letter-prompt ‘ch’ to represent the first sound of the word ‘child’ or ‘choose’, and the prompt ‘k’ to represent the hard initial sound at the beginning of the words ‘climb’ and ‘catch’. This causes problems for early readers in English as both a first and second language, when they meet words such as ‘school’, ‘character’ and ‘ceiling’, where spellings directly contradict the phonics ‘patterns’ they are learning.

Phonology, on the other hand, is a system whereby words are broken into true sound segments, or phonemes, based on their physiological features when they are produced. The International Phonetic Alphabet was developed to transcribe any word in any language into phonemic symbols, of which the most common 44 sounds (or more, depending on the accent being used) are collected in the phonemic chart, a systematically organised set of phonemes which can be used to transcribe any word spoken in English.

Although it takes some time and effort on the part of teachers and students to learn these phonetic symbols, the end result is a 100% systematic system for visualising and analysing pronunciation rules with students. An outline of the most commonly used IPA chart used for teaching English can be found in this video.

Moving away from the myths: principles for best practice

This is just one of the many misconceptions which surround pronunciation teaching in English. In order to get the most out of the ways in which we help learners to get the most out of their spoken English in a more confident and less effortful way, we should not rely on assumptions, but plan and deliver targeted, methodologically sound lessons and lesson stages. This will be the focus of the articles in this series, which aim to develop best practices in your pronunciation teaching, and think about the principles which underpin these valuable teaching routines and procedures.

In next week’s article, we will look more closely at drilling as a way of providing targeted guidance to individuals and groups of students as they learn new language. Then we will explore the phonemic chart, and think about the qualities of individual sounds and broader systems at work in English pronunciation, to inform your teaching further in this essential area of language education.

Tom Garside is a teacher, trainer and staff developer with a specialism in phonology and pronunciation teaching. His resource pack for pronunciation teaching: Pronunciation Card Games, brings a game-based element to this important area of study by using phoneme cards to help students take hold of their own pronunciation and develop awareness of the sound changes in the English language as it is spoken authentically.

Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a TESOL training event at your centre, or Sign up to the Language Point newsletter ‘From the Training Room’ for articles, resources and offers on Language Point products.

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