In my previous posting, I expressed the need to give our students tools in order to become independent learners. I suspect that many other teachers will agree that knowledge of grammar and grammar terminology has a place in the English language learner’s toolbox. What about other terms? When it comes to developing clear speech, is it helpful to know what intonation, stress, and voicing refer to? How about the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)? Is there any point in teaching it? Let’s consider these questions.
To some degree, the same case can be made for pronunciation terms: knowing what certain patterns and aspects are called allows students to ask about them by name or conduct an independent search for answers to their questions. It certainly can’t hurt to know that there are voiced and unvoiced consonants. And for a non-native speaker, it seems wise to call attention to the different intonation patterns: rising, falling, rise-fall, etc. Again, the knowledge of such terms doesn’t have to be quizzed, just promoted.
As for the IPA, my practice has been to use the symbols sparingly. I place them on the board, for example, when teaching or correcting a sound so that a given symbol serves as a reference, but I don’t require students to memorize the symbols. Familiarity is what I strive for. The one exception happened recently when a private student clearly stated the goal: I want to know the symbols. He felt it necessary to master the IPA to be clear on the individual sounds and to be able to understand how to pronounce new words on his own. Of course, one can argue that between the audio samples of pocket translators and online dictionaries, students can always hear the correct pronunciation of a new word. However, my counterargument would be to ask about the necessity of teaching children math when most math problems can be solved by a calculator. At the very least, what if you don’t have immediate access to a calculator? Likewise, what if a student is studying with only a traditional dictionary available? As with the terms, it doesn’t hurt to know the symbols. In learning the IPA, my student became more aware of the problems he had with some vowel sounds as well as one or two consonant sounds. One downside is that the so-called International Phonetic Alphabet, has variations, so it’s not as universal as one would hope. Even so, I sense his confidence has increased because he has a new tool at his disposal.