Grading Pronunciation

A few thoughts on pronunciation in response to a question about how to grade pronunciation. The short answer: don’t. If a person is easily comprehensible, we should not be giving them grief about their pronunciation. Think about all the varied local accents in English and how pronunciation is used to put people into categories. We judge a person’s social status, geographical origin and education by their accent. As for non-native speakers, as long as they are comprehensible, we tend to find their accent charming. When we are not a native speaker, our judgement about pronunciation is colored by our own. Anyone who talks like us has a “good” accent, and someone who speaks differently has “poor pronunciation.”

This was brought home to me in an English class I was teaching many many years ago.  As a matter of fact it was so far back in the dark ages that I was still asking students to read passages out loud in class. I asked a boy to read a paragraph, which he did fairly well, with only a couple of hesitations, but when he had finished, the class burst out laughing. I asked why. They said that it was because he spoke English with the local “Agennais” accent. It was true that the boy had a strong local accent in French and many of his classmates were the children of teachers and bureaucrats from other regions. I was amazed and told them that I didn’t hear any difference between him and them. As far as I was concerned they all had the same accent in English, a French accent.

Another reason not to grade pronunciation is that we don’t want our students to focus on how they are saying words. We want them to focus on content and meaning. A child doesn’t learn to walk because we give them lessons in how to pick up their feet and how to put them down. A child learns to walk because it wants to go somewhere. When our students are engaged in communication, they will speak so they can be understood. In other words, children don’t learn to talk because we give them lessons in phonics. They learn to speak because they have a message they want us to hear.

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