Deciphering the code of English – simplified phonetics in your classrooms-predavanje održano u Ankari, Turska na međunarodnoj konferenciji IATEFL, Pronunciation SIG

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Ankara,Bilkent University: International Pronunciation Conference, 21st of November 2008

Prof.Danijela Bojanić: Britanicca School, Belgrade, Serbia
„Deciphering the code of English – simplified phonetics in your classrooms!“


“Nightmare” is a student`s synonym for English pronunciation! Disregarding the mother tongue, social background,  general education or age of our students -  the problem they define most frequently is pronunciation. Dealing with it is difficult, avoiding it makes worse. Many authors of course books “forget” to include pronunciation exercises, while others shorten them so much that they lose its function!  In the end teachers regulary have to fill in those “holes” somehow. One practical set of additional materials we originally designed, was  used  and really worked for more than 3000 students.
When I started to work on a specially designed practicum for pronunciation, I had many doubts. It was a question when to introduce the IPA and some fundamental sound formation rules of English. It was too late for Intermediate students, and seemed impossible for beginners! All possible titles written about pronunciation were highly theoretical and course books provided very little. I  had to work out some simple rules with examples. As the founder and owner of
“ Britanicca School” where I teach too, I started a research.
 I asked my students from different courses to attend free-of–charge, extra classes of pronunciation on Saturdays. Those who came soon made a large progress in pronunciation. After a while, I included these materials within the elementary course but ahead the first unit! The concept is based on a preview of very common sound foundation rules of English, given in strings of words, containing the same combinations, along with teaching the IPA!
 In order to use this approach, a teacher has to speak the mother tongue of his students and a proper dictionary with recorded pronunciation has to be used.
Today, this practicum is provided to all students of our school, and it is working perfectly. Many students said it was eye-opening and astonishing to find out that there are rules in English pronunciation and that they are comprehensible! Eversince I continued the research for higher levels and more complexed rules, but everything that is appliable to all ESOL students is my presentation!

                                Outline of the presentation:
- introducing main problems in teaching pronunciation and previous practice
- showing extacts from some course books containing pronunciation drills
- introducing the main principles of the approach I use
- showing the extracts from my rules
- displaying student testimonials and class footage
- evaluating outcomes of this practice in the terms of  the four language skills
- introducing practical aids for teaching pronunciation ( acceptable dictionaries, posters, student books, self-study books..)
- discussing the future solutions for ESOL students worlwide

              „Deciphering the code of English:
           simplified phonetics in your classroom!”

  Defining problems- seeking solutions

“Nightmare” is students` synonym generally describing English pronunciation. Disregarding the age, social background, different nationalities or gender of our students, pronunciation is the most common problem, they feel like deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics while using the IPA! 
Ever since I started teaching nineteen years ago, I have been trying to find a course book that would integrate a lot of good explanations and plenty of exercises in pronunciation.
An ideal course book never appeared, so I went through almost all professional literature and  encouraged by Jeremy Harmer’s point of view that a teacher does not have to stick to the book at all means, I created a handbook of simplified phonetics for students. Amazingly, it was not just a success, but it has also shocked my colleagues even more to find out that I introduced the IPA for absolute beginners as their very first lesson in English!
Necessity of integrating the pronunciation from the start

I always wondered why the course books could not have a simple introduction to English language in linguistic order. For the students who are learning English the first time there is no logic at all to commence with famous: “Hello. My name is Mike. What is your name?” which you have to read and make them repeat.
What about all 550.000 words in English? If not all, consider the 3000 Oxford terms at least. Are students going to learn pronunciation by repeating? How do we introduce the stress and intonation of the word and sentence?
Even if they just learnt how to survive by using the dictionary and reading the IPA, where would they find the dictionary when talking to people directly? No, that was not good enough. Our students have to understand and really learn the sound formation in English along with the IPA and other elements of pronunciation.

Children as teacher trainers

Children are the most innocent, most sincere associates you might rely on, but they are the cruelest judges of our work too!
I had a little fairy helping me out to simplify phonetics. Accidentally or not, I had to teach my nephew Lazar, an eight-year old how to pronounce English right. After first dozen of words, we felt worn out by “repeat after me” technique and I feverishly asked my nephew if he would like something new and much better.I warned him it was not going to be easy as “Bonnie wants a cracker” which he was used to. He curiously agreed and I knew this little pot was not going to be filled with knowledge, but was rather going to become a fire started out to enlighten the way! We made a short break, chatting about the things he found most difficult, asking about other children’s comments and after fixing an old blackboard on the wall, we started our experiment.

Turning it upside down

 I begun too high for this little fellow - with phonemes and sounds, soon concluding he knew nothing about it in his native Serbian! Then he asked me if there were any rules simple as “Two plus two makes four”. Before I continued, an idea had hit my head, heavier than Newton’s apple! We are seeing this problem wrong, we are teaching pronunciation upside down! We cannot start with sounds of English, we must start from the letters which produce sounds and show these rules!
Our students see only letters! It was so wrong teaching just phonetic signs and then letting them figure out how to make correct sounds from the letters which denote a word. The normal display of IPA is so wrong: /r/ like in rain and that’s it !?


The quest for secret code of English

No, the right way, the way our students see the problem is:
RULE 1: Letter –r- appears in words as –r- and –rr- which we both pronounce as sound /r/.
A) If the letter –r- is precedes other letters in the word like in:
Rose /
Here we transcribe the word sound by sound showing the rules of sound formation and at the same time students learn the IPA. It is good to write sounds under the letters of the word pronouncing the whole word in the end.         
B) –rr- makes sound /r/ and is usually found in a sandwich between two vowels:
 I have spent many hours creating explanations and searching for even easier solutions. My original concept was transformed and developed into instruction-set for beginner and elementary students. After my nephew used this method with ease and understanding, I introduced the practicum as compulsory material in my teaching.
Why are native English speakers as teachers incompetent of teaching pronunciation?

 It is not true that our student cannot learn pronunciation- it depends upon who delivers it!
I found many opinions to confirm that I was setting a good path. Michael Swan and Jeremy Harmer also support this attitude: teaching grammar and pronunciation is the core of English! They both support bringing down finally the wrong premises of the “Communicative approach” and native speakers as ideal teachers of English. Adrian Tennant, David Hutchinson, Mario Rinvolucri and Penny Ur have also discussed this touchy question.
The fact that native English speakers have ideal pronunciation is not enough to make an excellent teacher. Most of these teachers are unqualified to teach any grammar and pronunciation. First and the most important premise for serious teaching is that your students understand what you are talking about. If you explain English to beginners in English what do you get? Double nothing! This way my grandmother could teach Serbian to American ambassador in Belgrade, but can she?   There are some outcomes of having a native English speaker for a teacher if a student exercises the language that he had already learnt.  Only teaching English at academic levels is possible through English, but that’s another question. 


Opening Pandora’s Box

So, there we are, in our classrooms, at our first lesson, easily jumping over the pronunciation, word order and parts of the speech. Start off with whole sentences and complex questions???
 I felt really confused. Our students are not given the pronunciation rules, nor the basic English grammar. We are to start with the whole new complex structures of foreign language just like that: instrumentally, by heart, not with our mind and logics!
 I surely felt like opening Pandora’s Box, I started with pronunciation, but found many more riddles to solve. However, I was persistent to finish my first heroic task- making that pronunciation rules simple and understandable as possible.
My first pilot group that tested my rules as a guide through English pronunciation, generally made me lose more time teaching Serbian phonetics and some basic terms in grammar. There it was, another huge problem: we are taking for granted the level of our student’s general language knowledge! Very often the students are not likely to recognize even fundamental language and grammar rules of their mother tongue!

Setting the realistic tasks

My mission was partly accomplished and the feedback that I got from more than 3000 students in our school over the past 5 years was more than surprising. The students who learnt pronunciation in our school as the first lesson in English, later showed more competence at higher level. Still, I was thinking about the end of this road. How close to native speaker can a student be taught in courses?
Presuming a student should reach this proficiency level of pronunciation at the advanced level, reaching the native speakers, where do we teachers fit into the scale as stupid enough to study English at faculties for years, instead of taking a few courses! The conclusion was that the learner’s real abilities do not reach the goals set by courses. I would really like to see the student who reached perfect or at least close to perfect pronunciation, only attending courses!

The solution

 The focus should be moved from useless attempts to teach pronunciation with native speakers as teachers and poor materials within the books, towards educating professors who share L1 with their students and course books that integrate enough explanations and exercises. This will inevitably happen in our future, once when we analyze the disastrous effects of mono-approaches to language teaching, like the Communicative approach. For years now there are no effects of such learning for millions of students, who continually return to lower level courses and stay there even after years of learning!
Our students are much more capable of learning, if we use their mother tongue in explanations. The Communicative approach makes them seem less intelligent, making them speak like parrots, while in fact it is the native English speaker who cannot teach right! We ought to invest more into real professors who need good training and finally gather authors together with teachers around the globe, in order to put pronunciation back into practice!