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Here are some of the main criteria:
- Comprehensible: are learners able to identify the sounds and are their articulations understood by native speakers?
- Social Acceptability: are learners producing sounds that are aesthetically acceptable to the ears of native speakers?
- Ease of Production: do learners have a good chance of successfully learning to produce the sounds?
- Number of familiar words (functional load): do the sounds occur frequently in essential &/or very useful words?
- Likely to be a bad habit affecting other sounds: are errors getting in the way of other important targets?
Functional load, frequency and meaning
Confusing / θ / and / ð / will rarely lead to misunderstanding, but confusing /s/ and / θ / , / ð / or /z/ can. This is likely to affect learners of English from French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Russian language backgrounds. Speakers of these languages do not have separate phonemes for these English consonant sound contrasts.
The consonant contrasts affect many common English words, so poor production of these sounds will be noticeable. Teaching should focus on both recognition and production. Difficulty of production should not be too great, because the above consonant sounds are produced at the front of the mouth i.e. this motor skill is not too difficult to learn.
How much phonetics and phonology do teachers and learners of English language need to know and use?
Language is a means of communication. Differences in sound systems have a phonological basis: they depend on variation in speech organ positions or breath control. Teachers must understand the physical aspects of sound production.
Teachers will not necessarily teach these to students, but this knowledge will provide a basis for teachers to identify the physical reasons for inaccurate approximations of foreign language sounds, enabling them to give precise instructions which will help students correct faulty pronunciation. Unless teachers understand how students are using their speech organs in producing a native language sound and what they should be doing to reproduce the foreign language sound acceptably, teachers will not be able to help students beyond a certain stage of earnest but inaccurate imitation. Incorrectly articulated consonants will affect the production of vowels, as vowels will affect consonants. Students therefore require steady practice and muscle training. Pronunciation is a motor skill that needs practice.
Phonology lessons will centre on:
- Hearing: physical demonstration. Discrimination exercises e.g. ship or sheep? / ɪ / or / i: / ?
Which vowel sounds occur in: “it”, “bit”, “eat”, “fit”, “feet”, “seat”, “sit” ?
- Production. Physically making sounds.
- Expanded contexts. Phrases and sentences as well as phonemes between closed consonants.