Nine reasons to use phonetics in class

I spent about nine years of my teaching career wondering whether or not I should be using phonetics in class. After doing the DELTA, I’m a massive fan of phonetics and it’s completely changed the way I teach. There are a lot of issues with using phonetics in class, especially regarding accents. It’s true that not everyone speaks using the RP (Received Pronunciation) English that BBC news reporters do (I certainly don't, init). However, our students’ pronunciation can definitely be improved by using phonetics.

Pronunciation is a touchy subject. Some people say that as long as you can understand someone then it shouldn’t really matter about their accent. Others say that it’s impossible to have an impact on students’ pronunciation if they are not living in an English speaking country. I have found that using phonetics in class with my students definitely helps their pronunciation. I'm not so sure in the long term (when I'm not around to badger them about their pron).

Here are my nine reasons why you should use phonetics in class, no matter where you’re from.

Nothing like a good tool...
Photo by tontographer
A tool
Now that I know how to write phonemic script, it’s my most valuable tool in class. Using phonetics is a great way to show students how words are pronounced. Once you’ve taught your class the phonemic script, you can easily show them the difference between certain words, for example, beer /bɪə/ and bear /beə/ or sheet /ʃi:t/ and shit 
/ʃit/. I’d feel at a loss in class if I didn’t have it now.

It takes a while to learn how to write the script accurately and I always still check in a dictionary if I’m not sure. I had one student last year that didn’t believe that I knew how to write it and she checked on her phone every time I wrote a new word, she caught me out a couple of times. 

Make students aware
I don’t normally expect my students to be able to write phonemic script, unless they really want to. But it’s a great way of making them aware of the difference between spoken and written English. They will think you’re a bit nuts at first, especially if they have been learning English a few years and have never even heard of phonetics, but they normally see the benefits.

Once students are aware of the difficulties of English pronunciation, then you can help with individual word sounds and aspects of connected speech. Then it’s up to them whether they make the effort and listen to you, or not.

I have a right old laugh in class with phonetics. There are a lot of crazy sounds in English, especially the longer sounds like /ɜ:/ /u:/ and /ɔ:/, and students love making them. On my DELTA we had a great session on how to teach the class the whole chart in a couple of lessons (which I’m hoping to do a blog about soon) and it involves giving an action to a few sounds. The students loved watching me stand at the front and perform the symbols and even the shyer ones joined in. You can do loads of games with the symbols, and there are tons of online resources as well.

Encourage autonomous learning
I usually do a session on dictionaries to show students how they can practise phonetics at home. I might write up a tricky sounding word on the board and get them to find it in the dictionary and pronounce it, or I’d get them to find words in the dictionary to test each other, or look through their course book and pick out words which they find difficult to pronounce and then look them up. I also show them word reference and highlight where you can listen to words in English and American accents. Once they realise they have this tool they can hopefully study at home. I stress hopefully, but you have to give them a kick now and then.

Can you see what I mean?
Photo by runitsnano
A written way to distinguish sounds
As the average class has a mixture of visual, audio and kinaesthetic learners, it makes sense that some students need to see words written in phonemic script before they appreciate how they sound. It’s all very well repeating the word until you are blue in the face, but for some students they need to see how the word is pronounced.

Students love it, and appreciate it
I’ve only been really been using phonetics for about a year in class, but I haven’t had any complaints yet. When I taught the script to a group of adult students this summer they thought it was amazing. Some had been learning English for a couple of years and questioned why they had never been taught it before. They were all very appreciative and said it was one of the most useful aspects of the course.

Impress the parents
Last year I taught the script to two classes of 10 year olds. They found it hard but they enjoyed the challenge. At the end of term the parents commented on how they thought phonetics was a great way of teaching their children how to speak better. A few even said they had noticed the change in accent.

There’s nothing better than listening to your students speak well. Everyone can eventually learn the grammar and vocabulary, but improving students’ pronunciation is extremely satisfying. It’s hard work, and you have to constantly bang on about it to some classes, but you can see the progress pretty much immediately.  

How else are you going to teach them?
If you know of a better way to teach pronunciation, then I'd be keen to know; leave a comment below, cheers! Follow my blog with Bloglovin

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