Report and reflections after meeting with colleagues at Løken school.
There were 4 teachers present, including myself, and the headmaster. Mostly for practical reasons only teachers from 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade were present.
Reading the article Sounds problematic by Charles Januzzi in the group left us with some points that we discussed regarding our own teaching practice. I had prepared some questions but as the discussion went on I found my prepared questions redundant. However, I wanted us to keep in mind that the Knowledge Promotion should always be in the back of our minds when planning and conducting our teaching, therefore I also presented the aims and what they say about teaching of English sounds.
In fact, teaching of English phonemes is a part of the English subject from 1st grade. According to the Knowledge Promotion already after 2nd grade the students should be aware of and be able to recognize and use English phonemes. The Knowledge Promotion says:
The aims of the studies are to enable pupils to
· listen for and use English phonemes through practical-aesthetic forms of expression
· recognize the relation between some English phonemes and spelling pattern
After 4th grade they extend the aims in written communication:
· understand the relation between English phonemes and letters and put sounds together to form words
In addition there are aims, especially after 4th grade that demands the knowledge of and ability to use English phonemes. (The Knowledge Promotion, 2006)
Although we agreed that we were all aware of the aims, there were some differences in how we teach the English phonemes. While 1st and 2nd grade almost never talk about specific sounds, 3rd and 4th grade had more specific teaching of sounds, more in 4th than in 3rd.
The article mentions two sounds that can be seen as problematic; the /r/ and /l/. (Jannuzi, p. 46). This led us to discuss several other sounds, like the TH, in words like three, or the U, in words like cup that might be problematic for Norwegian learners. While discussing different sounds we also reflected somewhat on the reasons that some sounds are more difficult than others and that most of our pupils find it easier to pronounce the sounds the American way. When it comes to the /r/, most students seem to automatically use the American pronunciation in most words and that this is caused by the fact that the English they are usually exposed to is American English through movies, music and games. This fact led us to discuss the importance of out-of-school exposure and I presented some findings from a study by Muños and Lindgren that claims that out-of-school exposure is the most significant learning platform for most of our students, but the more we expose the children to English in school, the less significant the out-of-school exposure will be. (Muños and Lindgren, p. 119) We agreed that although it is not important what kind of English we use, it is important for us as teachers to be consequent in the way we pronounce words when teaching. We also agreed that already from the very beginning we should talk about different ways of pronunciation in order to not cause insecurity and conflicts when children are working with tasks at home.
Another question that came up was the necessity of teaching English phonemes. Why should we teach sounds and focus on sounds problematic? We have probably all heard and been more or less embarrassed by well-known persons speaking in public where a lack of skills both of pronunciation and intonation is highly visible. That leads us to consider the importance of having a reasonably correct spoken language to be taken seriously and not appear foolish when using a foreign language professionally. The foundation for this is made already in the start of foreign language learning. Starting to focus on sounds already from the 1st grade is therefore a necessity. Teaching the youngest children proper pronunciation makes it easier for them when the demands for even more oral participation will come at a later stage. We believe that the more secure they are of how to say a word, the more secure they will be of speaking the language when it is required, and the more they learn.
Agreeing that teaching English phonemes to students is important raised another question: How should we do it and how are we doing it already? All teachers present at the meeting use songs and rhymes to learn words and sounds. We listen, we repeat, we learn songs and poems by heart, but we seldom work on specific problem sounds, at least this is the case for the youngest children. In 3rd and 4th grade there is more focus on particular sounds through reading simple texts and talking about words and pronunciation. Teaching sounds in all grades should neither involve sounds without context nor should it be teaching of words that has no meaning to the children. (Pinter, 2006, p. 68) But it is possible and necessary to focus on specific sounds that occur in texts, songs and rhymes. Especially with the older children that is starting to have a knowledge of many words, it is possible to withdraw some words from texts we are working on and have a closer look at them by for example reading and comparing words with same sound but different spelling, or find all the words that have a particular sound. Another factor we found important was the exposure of English as we also discussed earlier. Having a “focus sound” that is also visualized in the classroom by words, drawings, pictures or objects might be a way to go. There are many roads towards learning English sounds, but the main thing is that we actually do it.
To sum up the task at hand; these are the kind of discussions that we feel that we always have too little time for. The feedback from my colleagues and the head master was that such educational discussions, especially when they are planned around a certain theme, are very fruitful. Two of the teachers made a positive point about the fact that we were so few and that all of us were teaching in the lower grades, this, they said, made them more comfortable with participating in the discussion and to ask questions if they wondered about something. Although we might have arrived a bit far from the details of the article we were presented with, we still had a very interesting and inspiring discussion with a lot of reflection on teaching of English phonemes and sound problematic.
Carmen Muños and Eva Lindgren. Out-of-school factors – the home. Early Language Learning: Evidence from the ELLiE study, 103-122
Jannuzi, Charles, (2013), Sounds problematic, English Teaching Professional (88) at www.etprofessional.com , 46-49
Pinter, Annamaria (2006), Teaching Young Language Learners, Oxford University Press
The Knowledge Promotion (2006) from http://www.udir.no/Stottemeny/English/Curriculum-in-English/