By Singapore Teaching Centre, British Council

27 November 2023 - 09:00

Teacher teaching phonics to two kids

Confused about the difference between teaching phonics and teaching pronunciation? We’ve outlined some of the similarities and differences below for you. 

What is phonics?

Children naturally learn to listen and speak from those around them, but when they learn to read this can sometimes be a big jump. Phonics helps children learn how to read by making associations between the sounds they know and the letters and words they are just beginning to recognise.  

What is pronunciation? 

Pronunciation is how words are said, in a way that can be understood by others. You may know the meaning of the word, how to spell it, and how to use it grammatically in a sentence – but if people can’t understand you when you say it, then that is a pronunciation issue. 

How are they similar? 

Phonics and pronunciation are similar because they both involve the sounds of English.

English is tricky because the sound-spelling relationship is not 'transparent' as it is in many other languages which have an alphabetic script. In Spanish or Bahasa Melayu you can see a written word and know how to say it, or hear a word and know how to spell it – but that’s not the case in English.

If you read the following phrase out loud to yourself, you’ll see what we mean. 

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'Yes, English is weird, but it can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.'

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The 'ough' spelling combination makes a wide range of different sounds here. In tough it makes two sounds, 'uf' (/ʌf/). In through, it makes a long 'oo' sound (/u:/) but in thorough it makes a very short 'uh' sound (/ə/). In thought, it makes an 'or' sound (/ɔː/) but in though – which looks almost exactly the same – it makes a long 'o' sound (/əʊ/). 

As you can see, this kind of sound-spelling variation makes both learning to read, write and say words in English difficult! 

How are they different? 

Phonics and pronunciation are different in their goals, the tools utilised, content covered, and (often) the audience. 

The goal of phonics is to teach children the basics of how to read. Phonics helps children learn how to decode, so they can 'sound out' the words on the page. The goal of a phonics program is to build up fluency, or the speed of reading, so that children have more cognitive space to think about what they are reading. Phonics programs help children hear the sounds (phonemes) in words and connect sounds to letters (graphemes) and words. 

On the other hand, the goal of pronunciation instruction is to help students to communicate intelligibly, so it is important for students learning English as second/additional language. Explicit lessons in pronunciation look at the 44 sounds of English (the phonemes) but also look at other crucial features for being understood when speaking, such as word stress, sentence stress and intonation. However, pronunciation is a skill that is usually integrated when teaching English language learners. 

One key difference about the students themselves is that when children start learning to read through phonics, they are already producing a lot of language and can make most of the sounds in English accurately (through constant exposure and 'practice'). Students coming to English as a second/additional language, however, bring the 'baggage' of their first language with them. Many of them struggle with making the sounds in the first place because they don’t exist in their first language. When reading aloud, they use the phonics system of their first language to sound out letters and words, so this is often inaccurate in English. 

How do they look in a classroom?

In order to teach the sound-letter relationships, many schools use a systemised approach, such as Jolly Phonics. During phonics instruction, you may see children saying the sound 'z' and flapping their hands like the wings of a bee (because bees make that buzzing sound you hear in 'z'). You may then see students playing a game where they name items beginning with a 'z' sound – zoozipzebra. Later, when they do some writing practice, they may notice that the 'z' sound can also be written with an 's' as in busy or music.  A phonics program is not essential, but phonics can help support students who have a difficult time making the connection between the sound and sight of words. 

During pronunciation instruction of the same sound, you might see the teacher showing students how to open their mouth into a smile, bring their teeth together and position their tongue just behind to make the 'z' sound. For students who don’t have this sound in their language (like Spanish), the teacher might get students to touch their throats to feel the difference in vibration between an 's' and 'z' sound. She might then give the students a set of words with pairs such as zoo/sue or bus/buzz to practise distinguishing and practising the sounds. There is quite a lot of repetition in drilling the words, along with frequent correction. When teaching new words such as liaison, she might write /z/ under the letter 's'  to remind students about the sound.

Do I need to know pronunciation symbols?

In dictionaries, when you look up a word you usually see the pronunciation transcribed next to it between slashes, for example:

word /wɜːd/

The transcription is based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and features a lot of symbols that most people won’t recognise! These can also differ from dictionary to dictionary, making it more confusing. Luckily, these days, online dictionaries usually include a sound file, or you can use Google Translate to hear how something might sound (although this sometimes isn’t accurate for phrases or sentences). So, for learners, being able to read those symbols isn’t that important anymore.

However, in adult language learning classrooms, some familiarity with pronunciation symbols can be a useful short cut, and it can also help learners when they are studying on their own, or taking notes, However, it’s not essential – exposure to lots of oral models through listening materials and through the teacher is more important. This is even more true in young learner classrooms. In fact, IPA should not be used with children who are still trying to learn the letters in their first language/English – this would add unnecessary confusion!

In short, IPA may be a useful tool for some older learners or adults, especially for those who need to self-study – but in what’s most beneficial, for both children and adults, is clear modelling and a language-rich environment. Having said that, for teachers, it is a useful tool to have in your toolkit and forms part of your own subject knowledge. You just need to make pedagogically-sound decisions about if, when and to what extent you should use pronunciation symbols in the classroom.

In a nutshell …

To summarise, while both phonics and pronunciation instruction relate to sounds, phonics is used to teach reading to students in preschool or primary school setting, and pronunciation is about improving spoken communication for older or adult students learning English as a second/additional language. Because of these different goals, different skill sets are involved and different tools are used. Which of these areas would you like to develop your skills in? 

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