Is it really necessary to teach pronunciation?

by Angie Conti



Pronunciation is one area of teaching which is often neglected, probably due the fact that it is perceived to be difficult. However, it is an area in which learners need guidance. We all know that English is not a phonetic language, which means that looking at the written word often doesn’t help students say it. Therefore, by helping students to understand and become familiar with the phonemic chart, we are giving them an indispensable tool in helping to make their communication intelligible.


Why teach pronunciation?

Mastering grammar, having a good knowledge of vocabulary, being able to read and write well, are all part of learning a language. However, not being able to pronounce words hugely hinders communication, especially since it is believed that, learners who are unable to pronounce words are also unable to understand them. This means that teaching pronunciation is an important area which should be dealt with regularly.


What are phonemic symbols?

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but 44 sounds in the language. This shows that spelling alone is not sufficient in informing learners how words should be pronounced. The phonemic symbols represent the ‘sounds’, thus illustrating the pronunciation of a word.


Is it necessary for teachers to know the phonemic symbols?

Like every other profession, English language teaching has specific knowledge that is not widely known outside the profession. Grammar, for example, is one of them, and knowledge of the phonemic symbols is another one. Unlike grammar, however, the phonemic chart is limited. So, although it may appear challenging at first, we have all overcome much bigger challenges!


Is it necessary to use phonemic symbols in order to teach pronunciation?

It is, of course, possible to identify the different sounds without using phonemic symbols. However, knowing the symbols will, almost certainly, assist in learning how to pronounce words. Here are some situations which illustrate the usefulness of phonemic symbols:


  • Dictionaries usually give the pronunciation of words by using phonemic symbols. Being able to recognize these will help learners to become independent as they will not have to rely on asking their teacher how to pronounce a new  word they may have come across.


  • Correcting pronunciation becomes much easier if both teacher and learner are familiar with the symbols, making it much easier for mistakes to be identified and corrections illustrated.


  • When learning new words, learners can write down the pronunciation as a reminder of how the word should be said,  thus avoiding what can easily become perpetual pronunciation errors.


  • Symbols are a visual aid which can illustrate to learners how the sounds of two words differ or that they are similar.  For example, they can see that ‘know’ and ‘no’ sound the same, whereas, ‘put’ and ‘putt’ are different.


  • Just as learners use a dictionary as a tool for vocabulary, and a grammar book for grammar, they should be able  to use a phonemic chart as a reference for pronunciation.



[This article appeared in the Summer 2009 newsletter]

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