Saturday, October 2, 2010

Teaching Phonetics and Phonology to Elementary Education Majors

My career has taken an interesting trajectory: in my final semester as a TA, I had to adapt the introductory linguistics class I had been teaching to foreign language majors for an audience of elementary education majors instead. Needless to say, there are some differences between these two groups of people. Then, in an interesting twist, I ended up becoming an elementary school teacher myself. This has given me a unique glimpse into the kinds of information my last class of undergraduate students would have been privy to before sitting in my linguistics class, and it has helped me to see where they, and I, went wrong in trying to develop their understanding of linguistics. Hopefully by sharing some of this information with you, I can help you to understand where your students are coming from before it is too late to adapt your teaching to best help them.

The biggest difficulty I had with my elementary education majors, other than their increased likelihood over my former student base not to have studied any languages other than English (and maybe Spanish), was in teaching phonetics and phonology. This is probably the most difficult unit to teach to any group of students, but what I didn't know then that I know now is that elementary education majors have often been exposed to the vocabulary of phonology in a different context from the way linguists use it; thus, they may have already heard words like "phoneme" and "phonological" and have attached definitions to those words in their minds. Unfortunately for both of you, the definitions they know and the definitions you want them to know do not always match up.

Education majors talk about phonology within the context of literacy; "phonemic and phonological awareness" is a buzz-phrase that most of them probably know, having to do with a child's ability to isolate the different phonemes that are being realised in some way in words. In a typical elementary word study activity, teachers might pronounce the sounds in a word separately and have students try to blend them together, for example:

Teacher: (holding up one finger for each sound) [b] [i] [t]
Students: (in unison) "Beat!"

Or, the teacher might say the full word and point to her fingers or to counted-out blocks as the students say each separate sound in the word. In more complex activities, the teacher might have students blend a word and then change one sound to make another word:

Teacher: (holding up one finger for each sound) [h] [i] [t] [s]
Students: (in unison) "Heats!"
Teacher: "If I change the 'h' sound to [m], what word do I get?"
Students: (in unison) "Meats!"

The point of these exercises is that students need to be able to break words into component sounds and build words out of smaller sounds in order to read. Students who come from homes with less frequent exposure to language may not have developed this awareness of the sounds that make up words to the same extent as other students, but making sure that all students have this understanding of spoken language before trying to make sense of the sounds attached to graphemes sets them up for greater success in literacy.

The problem when trying to teach about the purely linguistic understanding of phonetics and phonology to elementary education majors is that educational texts on this subject often confound the definitions of "phones" and "phonemes." I have seen texts that introduce the term "phoneme" with the appositive "phonemes, or speech sounds," for example. If you want to teach your students a dichotomy between phonetic variations that do not make a difference in word meaning, and phonemic variations that do--a concept which is already difficult enough to understand the first time you are exposed to it--you need to be aware that many of your education majors are coming from a world where they see words inappropriately defined from a purely linguistic sense. Knowing this ahead of time and pointing out to students that "for this class, it is not safe to rely on what you have learned in your education classes about what a phoneme is" may help draw students' attention to the difference you want them to notice.

A further problem is that educational texts often simplify their written conventions for the sounds of English by representing sounds based on typical spellings rather than IPA standards. Thus, many students will have seen things like /ch/ representing the initial and final sounds in "church," or vowel symbols that use the straight- and curved-line conventions to distinguish "long" and "short" variants of the letter 'a'. Again, students from other backgrounds will probably have been exposed to things like this in dictionaries that do not use IPA transcription, but your elementary education majors will be confronting this system more frequently in the coursework they do outside your class. To help your students feel less threatened by the use of a different system, you might want to seek out an educational text, such as Honig, B., Diamond, L., & Gutlohn, L. (2008). Teaching Reading Sourcebook (2nd ed.). Berkeley: Arena Press/Consortium on Reading Excellence, Inc. (which also has a painfully confusing vowel chart that squeezes the front-back/high-low trapezoid into a V), and spend some time in class making comparisons between the text's charts and the IPA chart.

Fortunately, if you know what your students want to do with the information you're teaching them, you can better hook their interest and build a foundation for your teaching to actually be useful. Rather than just trying to sell them on why linguistics is important for capturing information about all the world's languages, convince them why they need to understand linguistics to be better literacy teachers. In my word study training this summer, several students kept asking, "how do you actually know whether letters count as just one sound?" Instead of just doing your usual phonetic transcription activities, have your elementary education students race to see who can break down a written word into the correct number of phones the fastest, or have one group of students try to transcribe phonetically the sounds that another student pronounces in doing a mock blending activity to make sure they come up with the same number of sounds. Read a Dr. Seuss book to your class and have them try to identify how many times the rhymes are minimal pairs and how many times they involve insertion or deletion of a sound. Ask them to think about whether and how they would organise a word wall (a common practice of posting new words on a wall as students learn them and having students do interactive activities with the visual words) by sound rather than just by spelling (most word walls group words by first letter); what would be the advantages and disadvantages of doing this for different age groups? If you can relate your lessons to what your students are doing in their other classes, and point out the differences wherever you can, then hopefully you can help your students not only take a greater interest in what you're teaching, but avoid confusion as they navigate different approaches to talking about it.

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