When I got back from the UK at the end of 2020, I decided that the time had come to put some sort of order into my books, papers and paperwork, and to begin to throw out what I was never going to need again. In doing so I came across a stray copy of Issue 50 of Speak Out!, the journal of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. Glancing through the contents list on the cover, my eye was drawn to an article by Donna Brinton (2014), one of the co-authors of Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (Celce-Murcia, Brinton, & Goodwin, 1996). In her article, Donna makes a case for revealing (some of) the complexities of the English sound-spelling system to our learners.
This seems like a pretty fruitless exercise, you might think. The irregularities of English spelling are so vast as to make any time spent on unravelling them a waste of time. Take the letter ‘u’, for example. It can be pronounced numerous ways:
/uː/ as in crude, rule or numerous
/ʌ/ as in fun, much or pronunciation
/ʊ/ as in put, full or cushion
This can’t look good to learners coming to English from more transparent languages such as Italian, where the relationship between what you see and what you say is one-to-one, or almost so. Nor can it be much fun for learners coming from languages like Chinese that aren’t written using an alphabetic representation of their pronunciation. Worse still, the above examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The letter ‘u’ also appears in combination with other vowel letters to represent all three sounds above and several more besides, leaving our poor learners with the above and:
/uː/ as in group, soup, through, blue or juice
/ʌ/ as in country, southern or enough
/ʊ/ as in could, should or courier
/ɒ/ as in Austria, because or sausage
/ɔː/ as in bought, ought, taught, cause or daughter
/ɑː/ as in (RP) laugh or aunt
/ɜː/ as in journey or courtesy
/aʊ/ as in our, loud or sound
/ʊə/ as in pure, sure, during, curious or tour
In her contribution to Speak Out! Donna gives an excellent, brief history of English spelling and pronunciation over the centuries, and in doing so offers us the insights her title promises. But space prevented her from arguing in depth in favour (Oops! ‘favor’) of openly working on the regularities and irregularities of the English spelling system in class.
Can you openly deal with something as irregular as English, some of you might be asking? Is it worth pointing out any regularities when there are so many irregularities? Why don’t we just teach learners the IPA symbols? Why don’t we just get them to use online dictionaries which always have the pronunciation file for learners to listen to?
These are fair questions, and for a long time (aka 25 years or more), I just waived off my learners’ complaints about pronunciation and irregular spelling with the affirmative version of Donna’s ‘Is English really crazy?’. But a few years ago a colleague here in Spain introduced me to phonics, and not long after I found myself, first, helping primary school teachers about to embark upon phonics with their very young learners, and next, looking at adapting a UK-based phonics course to a Spanish-L1 environment for one of the ELT publishers operating in Spain.
Both experiences served to help me see that there are far too many regularities for them to be ignored. Knowing what a word you are reading might sound like, or at least being able to make a good guess, has advantages, particularly for learners who do a lot of reading, such as people who use English for professional or academic purposes. Joanne Kenworthy makes this point in the chapter that she dedicates to sounds and spelling in her excellent (but sadly out-of-print) manual on teaching English pronunciation (1987).
Learners who will be using English for academic study and those who need to read scientific and technical texts will meet many new words. If, during their period of English classroom learning, they are taught strategies for arriving at the pronunciation of words and develop confidence in using these strategies, then their passive ‘reading vocabulary’ can be put to active oral use if necessary.Kenworthy, 1987: 97
More recently, Catherine Walters argued convincingly in favour of learners being able to deal with the English sound-spelling relationships in a contribution she made to Speak Out!. Based on her own research into reading in English as an L2, she suggested that knowing the pronunciation of words (or not) could have a major impact on reading fluency, and that for learners of English from alphabetic languages ‘teaching pronunciation will help L2 learners read better.’ (Walters, 2009: 4. Italics in original).
Coming back to Kenworthy, and looking at the use of dictionaries, it is worth citing her again because of what is simple common sense, but is possibly all too often forgotten by us as teachers because of our joy in exploring the vagaries of English both online and in paper:
Of course, dictionaries can be consulted, but all learners know that this is a time-consuming and sometimes impossible strategy. It is far more efficient to be able to predict the pronunciation of a word from the way it is spelled, even if this means coming up with two possible pronunciations which can then be ‘tried out’ on listeners.Kenworthy, 1987: 97
And what about IPA, Robin? You seem to have avoided that. Surely, the answer is to teach our students the IPA alphabet?
And that’s what I used to think, too. (Again, for a long time.) But the longer I spent watching how teachers of very young learners went about using a phonics approach, the more I begin to think that although my science background made the IPA very appealing to me, it could just be that not only was it not appealing to many of my students, but that it was actually an added burden for them. Not only did they have to unravel the complexities of the English spelling system, but they had to learn a whole bunch of obscure symbols, as well.
Cracking the IPA code for me was massively confidence-boosting in my journey towards professionalism in ELT. All teachers, as professionals, should be competent and confident in using the International Phonetic Alphabet. But should all learners? For learners from an alphabetic language the IPA can be confusing, particularly when an IPA symbol and alphabet letter coincide in form, but are pronounced differently, as with /u/ and ‘u’. And it can be outright intimidating where non-alphabet symbols such as /ʊ/ or /ɜ/ are used, whilst for learners from non-alphabet languages, it must be a nightmare to have to learn how to deal with the English alphabet and take on the IPA at the same time.
Dare I suggest, that our time, or rather out students’ time, might be better spent ignoring the IPA and getting to grips with the sound-spelling relationships of English, regular and irregular? If teachers can do this successfully with very young learners (and they can), surely we can do the same with teenagers and adults. As I have indicated above, Joanne Kenworthy gives us some good pointers as to how we can help learners with English spelling. Sadly, I don’t have space for them here. But I could put together a group rules for next Sunday. Would that be of use to you?
Brinton, D. (2104) ‘Is English really crazy? Insights into grapheme/phoneme correspondence.’ Speak Out! 50: 18–22.
Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kenworthy, J. (1987). Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.
Walter, C. (2009). ‘Teaching phonology for reading comprehension.’, Speak Out! 40: 4–7.