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Pronunciation and phonics

Both pronunciation and phonics instruction relate to sounds. Phonics are used to teach reading to learners and pronunciation is about improving spoken communication. Phonics refer to a teaching method which focuses on decoding skills, such as grapheme-phoneme correspondences / spelling-sound rules or phonological awareness. 

Whilst there is evidence supporting the fact that teaching phonics in L1 may help with recognition and pronunciation of individual words and improve reading accuracy, it does very little for reading comprehension (Smith & Conti, Breaking the sound barrier, 2019). 

However, L1 phonology differs from L2 phonology and many of us have observed in our own classrooms over the years of our teaching experience that our learners often carry their knowledge of L1 phonology into their MFL lessons. This often leads to poor and inaccurate pronunciation which also affects other skills, especially listening as students struggle to recognise and decode TL vocabulary in speech thus affecting their comprehension.

In terms of SLA, the research suggests that students need to pronounce/say a word/chunk or a phrase correctly several times to transfer it accurately into their long-term memory (Woo & Price, 2015). Sounding words out and saying them aloud also supports more durable retention and storage in long-term memory (via Language teacher toolkit: Steve Smith’s blog).

In 2016, The Teaching Schools Council conducted the review of language teaching pedagogy in England (Bauckham). Based on observations of lessons and interviews with a vast number of teachers, the review concluded that there should be a planned approach to teaching phonics, hence the three pillars of progression – phonics, vocabulary, and grammar.

With the launch of the new GCSE imminent, NCELP’s, MFL Review’s as well as Ofsted Subject Review’s heavy focus on teaching of phonics, many teachers worry about the ‘correct’ way of teaching phonics in their classrooms.

Whilst grapheme-phoneme correspondences will become naturally established though routine practice of all four skills within our classroom, there are some instances when teaching phonics explicitly is the most appropriate approach, this applies for example to teaching French where the differences are more complex (liaisons, silent letters etc.) or specific characters in German or Spanish (ß, ä, ñ).

As a teacher of German, I use the embedded approach to teaching phonics. This seems to work for my students. So, instead of planning a structured lesson purely on phonics, I teach phonics and pronunciation within our communicative practice.

When introducing new vocabulary, chunks, SB, we annotate the SB for pronunciation first. I train my students from the first lesson in year 7 to use the same annotation for each letter/sound (not introducing all at the same time – maybe 4 at a time). We extensively practise sounding out new vocabulary with me modelling accurate pronunciation and using activities such as:

  • I say/you say

  • say it loud

  • say it in a silly voice

  • whisper it

  • tell it to your friend

  • I say a word/students finish it

  • I start a sentence/student finishes it

  • reading aloud

We have a lot of fun with this, and students love it! 

After modelling and extensive work with the SB, we carry on practising using dictations/translations and other listening activities. This practice is completed on MWBs (there is nothing written in ex.books at this stage, most of the work is oral or on MWBs). This is important for me – the teacher as I can immediately see, how my students are doing and whether I need to adapt my teaching – responsive teaching – formative assessment.

Examples of activities:

  • normal dictation

  • delayed dictation

  • gapped dictation

  • simple translation

  • minimal pairs

  • faulty echo

  • listening pyramids

All of the listening work here is done with my own resources ‘live’, later on I also introduce recorded listening using vocaroo or attaching recording made on my phone via dictaphone. I try to use other colleagues’ voices as well or other native speakers, sometimes our own students that are native speakers.

Much later on we move to listening tasks from the course book, so students are sufficiently prepared for formal examinations and know what to expect. 

I use a lot of online platforms, such as lyricstraining, teachvid, easy German, Deutsche Welle – Nico’s Weg, songs to encourage independent learning as part of the homework as well. 

In summary, I don’t teach phonics in isolation, they are and always were an integral part of my lessons. There are of course occasions when I teach certain phoneme-grapheme links explicitly, especially with my lower-attaining students but in most of lessons phonics teaching is embedded and practised via the four language skills.

For more on listening, please read this post where some of the activities are explained in more detail.


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