Teach English in ShA'erqin Zhen - Baotou Shi

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Skipping phonetics and phonology entirely with ESL learners is an easy thing to do. Indeed, I first avoided it because I believe students should aim for being communicative, and that so long as pronunciation does not impede understanding, we all need to be a little less concerned with how people sound. After all, most people who use English as a second language worldwide will most probably use it with other non-native speakers. And if they should be fortunate enough to have the chance to use it with native speakers, I would hope that those native speakers would be open-minded enough not to be bothered by accents. Never mind that even as native speakers there are times when we cannot readily understand each other. But you see, I speak English mostly with Turks. As I like to tell them, they are lucky to only have a slight accent, and are generally quite easy to understand. Linking words within a sentence and stressing correct syllables also comes easily to them, and it doesn't take much effort for them to get it right. Their issues with pronunciation can be overcome by simply having them repeat problematic words correctly several times. The only significant problem they have with phonemes is to mix up the sound of "v"s and "w"s. Very easy to rectify, as they have no problems distinguishing between the sounds, nor difficulty in producing them. Both voiced and unvoiced, "th" is a difficult sound for many to produce, but that is true for any number of nationalities or ethnicities. Irish friends of mine also pronounce "th" as a "t"! This doesn't impede understanding, so I would argue is not so important. A cursory demonstration, using your own tongue position and exhalation as a guide, can show them how to produce the sound. After that, it is up to them to decide how important it is, and practice or not as it suits them. At a later date, however, I taught several Japanese children whose families were stationed in Istanbul for work. This was my first experience teaching children who weren't fluent in the Roman alphabet. And here is where I had to finally admit that the teaching of phonemes and phonetics was something that needed to be addressed. In fact, there were two very specific ways in which the students benefited. In the first case, teaching phonology and the phonetic chart forced us to address problems with specific sounds in the English language, some of which obviously were a struggle. Separating the notorious "r" and "l" requires a lot of work, and the longer you avoid helping the students to form the correct sounds, the bigger disservice you are doing them. Not being able to accurately produce the "l" and "r" sounds, put simply, can impede understanding, causing a breakdown in communication. In this case, a little research into the subject had me using steady conditioning as a means to teach the distinction of these phonemes. Five minutes every lesson spent listening and choosing which word they hear, before repeating the words themselves. The emphasis is on marking the distinction through listening first, and doing this consistently over every lesson until it becomes an easier distinction to mark, rather than covering it in one lesson, attempting to have students position their tongues any specific way. The hope is that eventually they will be conditioned to recognizing the difference between the phonemes, thus making their reproduction come more naturally. The second way in which the phonetic table benefited was to give students a tool to be able to work on pronunciation in a teacher's absence. Most Turks would use an online dictionary, ignoring the phonetic spellings and choosing to click on a megaphone icon to listen to a word's pronunciation. With students who are just learning the Roman alphabet, however, pronunciation can be more complicated, and every tool they have access to is of value. Learning the phonetic symbols can give them a sense of achievement and pride, and it doesn't have to be boring if you can come up with entertaining ways to introduce and practice them. This in turn rewards students with their very own means to practice pronunciation without your help. Lastly, I would be amiss not to address the use of phonics as it applies to word building. Teaching letter combinations which tend to produce certain sounds, for instance tr + ain, r + ain, st +ain, suffixes like -sion and -tion, or any other letter groupings with rules that generally define their pronunciation, can help students to conquer words in pieces, rather than just one letter to the next. This is very similar to the teaching of phonics for early readers in native English, and indeed the materials used for native English readers are very helpful in the case of ESL students as well, at any age. Breaking words into pieces draws the focus away from where it would normally be, at the beginning of a word. Of course, the English language is riddled with exceptions when it comes to pronunciation rules, but phonics is a good place to start before delving into the complications those exceptions present. So there you have it. At some point as a teacher, you will be faced with taking the decision to stop avoiding phonology and phonetics, and for good reason. Though the temptation to just let students talk as they talk is, in my opinion, generally not such a terrible thing, there are times when you have to accept that the teaching of phonetics has its place. Phonetics can help some students to produce language that is more easily understood. And in the end, it is all about communication.