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Incorporating Phonology in Primary ELT – A guide for early career teachers


Claire Venables

As an experienced YL ELT practitioner, I’m aware of how much time and energy is involved in teaching children. With everything we need to consider in our lessons, in a number of PELT contexts, focusing on phonology sometimes takes a back seat. Many teachers use ‘listen and repeat’ techniques but often give explicit phonology teaching short shrift. There is a prevailing belief that primary children are natural mimics and pick up pronunciation easily, and while this may be true of early years learners, it’s definitely not the case with all primary-aged children. In this blog post, I’m advocating for a planned approach to the development of children’s phonological awareness and for embedding a regular, systematic pronunciation focus in PELT.

Clearly, much phonological work can be done in response to issues teachers identify while monitoring learners’ oral production, much in the same way as for grammar and lexis. However, as Kelly (2001) highlights, we also need planned pronunciation teaching. He maintains how this needs to start with anticipating potential phonological difficulties that learners might have with the language and/or speaking sub skills that you are planning to revise or introduce. By considering this at the lesson planning stage, a range of opportunities for pronunciation focus during PELT lessons can be readily identified.

How to integrate pronunciation

 In my experience, the most effective way to integrate a regular phonological focus in PELT is via games, songs, rhymes, chants and stories. This reflects more of an intuitive-imitative approach to phonology and is therefore more age relevant. As Celce Murcia et al (1996) maintain, “This depends on the learner’s ability to listen to and imitate the rhythms and sounds of the target language without the intervention of any explicit information”.

Pronunciation through games

A wide variety of traditional children’s games use songs and chants, for example, the playground game, “What’s the time Mr/Ms Wolf?” which involves a group of children asking this question repeatedly to another child – ‘the wolf’- who answers back with different times – “It’s 5 o’clock”.  This game and many others like it provide a natural and enjoyable context for ‘disguised’ drill-like repetition of formulaic language. In this way, they become a natural vehicle for teaching and learning chunks of language and phonological features such as connected speech and sentence stress.

Classic children’s games such as “Duck-duck-goose” can be adapted to provide a focus on context-specific pronunciation problems. The children sit in a circle and another child walks around the outside, gently tapping each of their peers as they chant ‘duck, duck, duck…’ When they say the word ‘goose’ the child who was tapped must jump up and chase the first child around the circle, trying to catch them before they sit down in the now empty space. This could be used to work on any pair of words related to the class topic which contain challenging sounds for the learners. Think about minimal pairs or long and short vowel sounds or even singular and plural nouns. These kinds of engaging, kinesthetic activities provide lots of opportunities for production and recognition of phonological features in a child-friendly and memorable way.

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Songs, rhymes and chants

Dunn (2012) highlights how, “Rhymes introduce children naturally and effectively to the complete sounds of English as well as to stress and intonation.” Songs, nursery rhymes and chants are used with children by parents / caregivers even before they begin to speak. This type of pre-linguistic play is considered invaluable for babies to perceive phonemic contrasts (Cook, 2000). There is no doubt that they are a superb way to develop L1 and also have considerable potential for the L2 classroom. Two examples of children’s rhymes I often use with my lower primary learners are “This Little Piggy” and “Round and Round the Garden”.  Both are examples of rhymes that, although may not carry much semantic meaning for the language learner initially; provide children rich exposure to phonological aspects.

Creating songs and chants 

When we enable children to use English creatively, we are giving them a sense of ownership of their English. They can experiment, take risks and personalise to make their language use meaningful and more memorable. Enabling children to create their own songs and chance is another great way to teach features of phonology such as strong and weak forms, word and sentence stress and rhythm.

For the following activity, you will need to bear in mind that although aimed at children who are already reading and writing in English, they may not have had exposure to writing in this particular genre – even in their first language. They will need lots of support and multiple opportunities to experiment over the course of a school year. You can provide scaffolding by:

  • teaching lexis in context, not just word lists
  • focusing explicitly on syllables and rhyming words
  • providing age appropriate tools for discovering rhyming words: http://www.rhymezone.com
  • demonstrating how to create a chant, then creating one together before having the children try on their own or in pairs

Here are some possible steps for creating your own jazz chant or rhyme (adapted for primary-aged children based on Carolyn Graham’s earlier approach):

  • Select a lexical set related to a topic / theme you are working on in your syllabus or useful classroom language or even the children’s names (around 10 items)
  • Provide the children with some rhyming words – encourage older primary to search for these on rhymezone if they need extra support
  • Give the children extra words or phrases to enrich their descriptions e.g. for a rhyme or chant about food: fresh, frozen, delicious
  • Divide the words into groups according to the number of syllables
  • Choose a melody from a traditional or pop song (check the lyrics for appropriacy beforehand), for example when working on opposites you could adapt the child-friendly Sesame Street version of Katy Perry’s ‘Hot n Cold’
  • Provide rehearsal time and have the children record their chants using Audacity or similar software, they listen to their recordings and redo for increased pronunciation clarity. Monitor and provide helpful feedback re clarity
  • Have the children perform their new chants in mini groups as a carousel activity

Pronunciation via picturebooks

When choosing a picturebook and preparing to read it aloud to your class, also plan how to make shared reading useful for a focus on pronunciation within the story context. Here some top tips:

  • Check that the language in the picturebook hasn’t been overly graded so that it remains fully natural
  • Search for picturebooks which use consistent rhyme and/or repetition
  • Rehearse the story by reading it aloud to yourself or a colleague first to make sure you have a rhythmical flow
  • Modify the story length or the language if you think this is absolutely essential, but be consistent with maintaining the rhythm
  • Sequence the story over a number of lessons and read it in different ways. Involve the children throughout storytelling by questioning, using different character voices and intonation to express their feelings, joining in repetitive refrains and eliciting from the illustrations
  • Bear in mind that children have a great capacity for repetition and will continue to enjoy the story after multiple readings. This is providing they have many opportunities to participate, make personalised reponses and give their views on the characters’ actions and the plot
  • Have the children work with the story script after the storytelling session to provide a focus on phonics, follow up with a story-related song, and enable them to create their own chants or poems related to the story theme
  • They can work in mini groups or pairs to rewrite rhyming parts of the story dialogues between characters by changing some words. This sensitises them to how rhyme works and hands over control so they can develop phonology awareness collaboratively and more independently

I’ve briefly shared some of my favourite ideas for integrating phonology in PELT lessons in this blog post. How do you / could you further incorporate phonology in your PELT classrooms? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

References

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.

COOK, G., 2000, Language Play, Language Learning, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

DUNN, O., 2012, Introducing English to Young Children: Spoken Language. London, Collins.

KELLY, G., 2001, How to Teach Pronunciation, Essex, Pearson Education.


Blogger's Bio

Claire - Claire Venables has over 17 years’ ELT experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, materials writer and academic manager. Her passion has always been teaching children. Since 2011, she has been based in Brazil where she is an active member of BRAZTESOL and Director of Active English. You can contact Claire at info@activeenglish.com.br



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