2nd January 2018

Phonics, phonetics or phonology? What’s the difference?

By Tom Garside

Informed pronunciation teaching is a challenge for new and experienced teachers. It involves a minefield of technical knowledge, confusion over accents and varieties of English, and when related to reading, involves a lot of fighting against the horrible spelling rules that English has held onto over the centuries. To get things straight, it is important to define the different interpretations of how the mechanics of pronunciation can be understood, with a view to addressing the sounds of English in the classroom. If we understand the different levels at which we can view the sounds of English, we will have a more informed range of teaching choices depending on our purposes, and those of our students.

Firstly, phonetics is the study of the sounds of human language. This means a classification of all the sounds produced in every language spoken on Earth. The only place phonetics has in language teaching is the consideration of sounds which learners may find difficult due to interference from the sounds of their first language(s). Thinking about the sounds of learners’ native languages helps us to make comparisons with the sounds of English, and to work towards a set of target sounds which may cause problems across languages.

By contrast, phonology is the study of the sounds in a particular language. Every language has its own set of sounds (or phonemes), which can be combined to pronounce any word in that language. By examining the phonology of different languages (as suggested above), we can start to think about why our students have problems producing specific English sounds. A good starting point to start thinking about the sounds of different languages is a Wikipedia search for (language) phonology, e.g. for Cantonese or Spanish.

Looking at similarities and differences between the phonologies of different languages can help us to identify issues such as ‘L1 transfer’, where the sounds in a learner’s native language cross over into English, causing meaningful problems for listeners (for example the famous l/r confusion in Japanese and Korean-speakers’ English – Japanese phonology contains a phoneme which is somewhere between the English /l/ and /r/ sounds, so there is no meaningful difference if the sound is pronounced as /l/ or /r/. This assumption is transferred to English, meaning that the difference between the words ‘long’ and ‘wrong’ may not be automatically produced in the learner’s English.

Another phonological issue for learners can be the physical complexity of a sound in English which does not exist in the learner’s first language. For example, very few languages contain the ‘th’ sounds in the words ‘there’ and ‘think’. The way these sounds are formed, forcing air through the tongue and teeth (and in the former example, also using the voice) is effortful and can even be seen as rude in some cultures (it involves sticking out your tongue). For this reason, ‘th’ sounds are often produced as ‘t’ or ‘d’, or even ‘s’ or ‘z’ sounds as a way of reducing effort. This is even true in many accents of English, where ‘th’ becomes ‘t’ or ‘d’ (Irish, West Indian and Indian English), or ‘f’ and ‘v’ (in South-East British English). This way of breaking down sounds and thinking about the different ways they are pronounced in different regions can help us to isolate points to work on in class.

The International Phonemic Alphabet (IPA) is a collection of phonemic (sound) symbols, organised by language, which enables teachers and learners to standardise their pronunciation by identifying and contrasting specific sounds which are present in the language they are studying. On an IPA chart of a specific language, symbols representing the sounds of the language (phonemes symbols) are arranged in such a way as to show how they are pronounced and what features they share. The most useful IPA of English was produced by Adrian Underhill, and condenses the full range of English sounds into the 44 most distinct sounds in English, which can be used to communicate any word understandably to any speaker of English. The main sticking point with phonemic symbols is that many of them do not resemble letters, so learning the IPA requires learners (and teachers) to learn a whole new alphabet in order to accurately relate sounds to spellings. This is a hard task for adults, so this system cannot realistically be used with younger learners who are still getting to grips with the English alphabet itself.

Although the word 'phonics' sounds similar to the words 'phonetics' and 'phonology, it is actually a system for relating sounds to spellings in order to develop reading and writing skills. The phonics system contains 42 ‘letter sounds’ which relate to the most common spelling patterns in English, and use letter combinations to relate sounds to spellings. These letter sounds should not be confused with the phoneme symbols used in the IPA. Although phonics can be used to teach pronunciation, it is mainly used for ‘sounding out’ words at early stages of language development for relating sounds and spellings. The main limitation of any system that relates sounds and spellings in English is that a huge number of very common words (which are often taught at early stages) contain very irregular and unpredictable spellings. It is estimated that around 80% of English words have predictable spellings based on how they are spoken, but working from the written word to the spoken form (as happens in reading out loud, or sounding out new words when learning to read) causes significant problems in this area. Silent letters, combinations of letters sounding different to their individual letters (as in wh- questions, ch- and sh- spellings) can be very confusing if addressed from writing into sound.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the phonics system is the lack of training that teachers receive in how to use it as a teaching system. A huge amount of research has been done into how best to order and stage sounds into lessons and curricula, but the reality is that often teachers are thrown into the deep end without the proper training in how to work with the system effectively. Combining focused study with specific sets of selected words, presented in the appropriate order, and contrasted with ‘sight words’ which do not follow the phonic ‘rules’, along with encouraging freer reading with story books and other texts, has to be handled carefully and requires some sophisticated structuring of lessons to achieve strong, predictable outcomes for all students.

Differentiating these three ways of working with the sounds of English is a good first step to becoming an informed teacher of pronunciation, so whether you want or need to familiarise yourself with the phonemic alphabet or the teaching systems which underlie phonics as a method for working with pronunciation, the best advice is to engage with the principles of the system fully, do some research and think about how to best implement these valuable teaching tools into your classroom. As with all delicate issues in language teaching, a little information is a dangerous thing. Do your homework, find training from an authority in the field, and you will do the best for your students in the future.

Are you interested to learn more about phonetics? Join our upcoming introduction to the IPA workshop here in Hong Kong.

Tom Garside, EfA’s Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.