By Alex Shung (LED Year 4, 2007- 2008)
I believe that raising students’ awareness of the sound system is very important in their language learning, and should be done at an earlier stage. Young kids acquire a language mainly through listening. If they are more aware of the sound system, they will be more sensitive to different sounds. This helps children recognize words more accurately through listening. Furthermore, if children are taught identifying syllables and the sounds of some common morphemes (such as ‘tion’, ‘pre’, ‘un’), their spelling as well as vocabulary building will be facilitated. Their pronunciation, as a whole, can be improved too. It is crucial to teach students to pronounce correct sounds as early as possible. If they are not aware of the correct pronunciation of a phoneme, the mispronunciation will be deep rooted as an error, and it will be hard for them to correct it in the future. This may hinder them from distinguishing sounds and hence recognizing words during listening.
While some schools are promoting Phonics, I prefer teaching IPA, as I believe it would be more helpful and useful to students. Phonics may be a good starter to raise students’ awareness of the relationship between sounds and letters. In a long run, however, it may bring about many problems. For example, students may usually resort to guessing the pronunciation of a word, instead of checking it from a more ‘authoritative’ dictionary. This adversely affects students’ pronunciation. Besides, Phonics mostly focuses on the relationship between sounds and letters, while putting less emphasis on the production of sounds. Students may not really know how to produce a sound of a certain phoneme exactly.
In contrast, teaching IPA would be more beneficial. Talking about sounds with our students without using the IPA symbols could be very abstract to them, in a sense that they may not be able to figure out the difference between ‘bed’ and ‘bad’ by sheer listening. Even if they hear the distinction, they may not be able to understand immediately that the ‘e’ in bed is the same as the ‘e’ in ‘egg’ or the ‘a’ in ‘many’, rather than the ‘a’ in apple. If symbols are used to represent the phonemes, the sounds can be ‘visualized’ to students. Whenever students see the IPA symbol /e/, they will know how to produce the sound and realize the difference between /e/ and the symbol ‘ae’, as the ‘a’ in ‘bad’.
Some may argue that it would be harsh for young learners to memorize the symbols. Yet, I believe that it is worth spending time teaching IPA. The symbols can be introduced stepwise and we should not only emphasize Phonics, which is mostly about the relationship between sounds and letters, but should also raise our students’ awareness of ‘sound’ itself; then, students would realize which sounds are in a language (while which are not, usually compared to their first language) and how to produce them. To facilitate our students to realize the subtle distinction among the symbols, i.e. different phonemes, teachers can integrate the idea of ‘minimal pairs’ in any activities. It would be good to let students compare the symbols with one another such that they can pronounce different sounds, even the very similar ones, more accurately.