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How to Teach English Pronunciation Using Phonemes and Games
Correct pronunciation is often overlooked in the field of language teaching. English textbooks and instruction manuals barely touch the subject.
However, correct pronunciation is a major part of learning English! The number of words with similar sounds but completely different meanings can cause a lot of confusion if the correct pronunciation is not learned.
Can pronunciation be taught at all? Yes! Just understand that textbooks may not always cover all approaches to learning this important language skill.
Wrong ways to learn pronunciation
Learning pronunciation along with introducing vocabulary is a common mistake. Listening learners and EFL students who speak a similar language may be able to easily understand the pronunciation with this method, but those with a significantly different mother tongue will struggle.
Learning pronunciation by drill is another popular method and can be effective for some – especially when combined with studying inconsistent spelling patterns in English. However, handicaps still apply to some students.
Can we effectively teach these students for whom traditional textbook suggestions fall short? Again, yes! There is one starting point that all students can benefit from, and that is the study of phonemes.
First step – Presentation of phonemes
A phoneme is the single sound that makes a distinct difference between similar words. For example, in the word family ‘at’ (cat, fat, mat, sat) the phoneme is the initial letter (/c/, /f/, /m/, /s/). Using phonemes to teach pronunciation focuses on these distinct units of sound. The best way to start is by having students listen and identify these differential sounds.
Introduce phonemes in pairs for best results, such as /t/ and /d/. Ask students to repeat the sound and then the simple words: ‘tip’, ‘dive’, ‘tuck’, ‘duck’. Drawing diagrams of how to hold your lips and tongue can also be helpful. Visual learners can also benefit from phonetic language symbols to help distinguish between phonemes that are spelled the same but sound differently; ‘th’ in the two words ‘thank you’ and ‘there’, for example.
Second step – Practicing the phonemes
Once students understand the concept and can identify phonemes, they will need to practice making the sounds accurately. This is where pronunciation charts can come in handy. Many sounds like ‘r’ and soft ‘g’ are articulated inside the mouth and can be frustrating for students to try and copy. Diagrams of the correct mouth and tongue positioning for these sounds can be found in many books and blown up for older classes.
By now you’ve probably realized that teaching pronunciation to ESL students will take time. Learning a second language requires, to some extent, a reprogramming of the brain; new neural pathways must be created to process the new information. It’s like a child learning to speak at an accelerated pace – new facial expressions and sounds must be learned and implemented.
The third step – pronunciation of words
When we learn at the phoneme level, we take sounds and make them meaningful. When we work on pronunciation at the level of conversational dialogue, a new set of obstacles appears.
Anxiety is a fairly common symptom among ESL students. Fear of failure makes them stiff and nervous, and this is often visible in their behavior. Repetitive verbal games such as jazz songs, clap rhymes and other structured activities can relieve much of this pressure and allow students to focus on pronunciation and intonation Classroom rituals such as learning a short greeting for used at the beginning of each class will help increase self-confidence.
Learned helplessness is a less obvious obstacle. This refers to our psychological tendency to ‘give up’ after a few failed attempts, especially if there is negative feedback from the teacher or classmates. The solution is simple – keep it positive! Praise any progress, no matter how small, tape the student’s progress so he/she can hear their improvement regularly, and don’t forget to give the slow learners just as much credit as the fast ones!
Finally – a word about accents
Cultural identity is the last and perhaps most important issue to address. ESL and EFL students who are learning English purely for business often do not intend to assimilate and do not want to completely give up their accent as it sends a clear message about their roots and history.
The main objective here is not to achieve a hypothetical standard of English pronunciation, but simply to ensure that all students can be easily understood. Any ‘foreign’ accent will, in the end, probably be no more distracting than that of native English speakers from different parts of the world.
Games can be useful here, too, to break the ice and ease tension around accents. Imitations are a great way to help students improve their pronunciation and have fun too. Many famous personalities can be used as models and students will have a great time guessing who they are. Often students will find that their pronunciation will improve significantly as they imitate the speech patterns of their favorite actors and celebrities. They can even imitate the teacher for an added touch of hilarity!
All of these ideas can be expanded and modified to fit the needs of your particular classroom. Teaching pronunciation to ESL students is very necessary, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. Just work with it a little during each class and watch your students’ skills grow!
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