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.
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”.
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.
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.
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:
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):
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:
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.
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.