Can Phonetics be Fun?

By Robert Howard
London-based tutor with 20 years’ experience of language teaching

I was very interested to read Yolande Deane’s ideas on teaching the phonemic script posted on November 3rd.  She suggests that pronunciation practice is a very constructive way to fill a natural lull in a lesson.  It seems to me that the circumstances in which most of us teach mean that this is probably the most realistic approach to the teaching of pronunciation.  Pressure from language schools and colleges to produce high pass rates in exams means that we tend to ‘teach to the test’ and we all know that students can pass exams even if they have far from natural pronunciation.  As a result, we would all too rarely make pronunciation the main focus of our lessons.

I have also been turning to phonetics to fill – or actually to create – a more relaxed moment in a lesson.  This could be after the exams have finished or during a summer school where a lighter mood is normally appreciated.  One idea is to introduce some of the common English phrases that manipulate sound to emphasise their meaning.  Examples which are in particularly frequent use at the moment include done and dusted, splash the cash, tittle-tattle, fat cat and, of course, credit crunch.

Repeating sounds in this way is so central to the way English speakers express themselves that students should begin to gain some appreciation of it.  Just think of brain drain, rat race, cheap and cheerful, shop till you drop, wining and dining, chit-chat, no pain no gain

Drawing students’ attention to some of these helps them to become aware of the more playful side of the English language.  This seems to escape even the most perceptive learners in the normal round of grammar exercises and writing tasks!

Since literal meaning often takes a back seat (done and dusted has nothing to do withdusting, cheap and cheerful normally has a negative sense), these expressions lend themselves to guessing games.  They can be presented alone or in a context and provided the examples chosen are appropriate to the level of the class, many of the students will be able to make intelligent guesses as to their meaning.

Indeed, students often see the humour in some of these expressions, which means they will be more likely to remember them or at least the principle involved.  It might be worth trying pie in the sky, gobbledegook, culture vulture, fuddy-duddy and easy-peasy.

If students react well, suitable phrases can be chosen for pronunciation practice, especially where they involve repetition of the more difficult sounds. A case in point might be the short vowel in whiz-kid and the long vowel in wheel and deal or the th sound in through thick and thin.  Whatever the problem students are having, the English language is bound to offer a suitable expression to work with.

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