My Thoughts About KK and other Pronunciation Symbols
There are many different sets of pronunciation symbols being used to represent the different sounds in English. I will focus on four different groups:
1. English dictionaries use many different sets of symbols. They call them pronunciation keys, guides or symbols. I have included some examples for you. You can see that non of them are the same, but they do have some things in common. Most of these symbols are easy to learn.
2. The IPA(International Phonetic Alphabet) is the most standardized and widely accepted set of pronunciation symbols, so I will discuss it. I believe this system will prevail globally since it's creating a global standard. If you learn this standard it will be useful for learning many different languages. However, it's like buying a Ferrari when you only need a basic car.
3. KK is a system used in Taiwan to help Taiwanese people learn American English. Most of the comments on the internet are fairly negative regarding this system.
4. Phonics International is a company that has created an easy-to-use Alphabetic Coding System for units of sound in English. Their coding system is similar to those used by many of the children's dictionaries.
I would define all of these systems as re-spelling systems. The purpose of these re-spelling systems, is to help students to get the English pronunciation right since a sound can have many different spellings and a spelling can have many different sounds. This is why the English language is a rather difficult language to learn.
These re-spelling systems were created to help improve English learning, however, sometimes they can complicate the learning process.
For some students it can create another layer of learning, sometimes confusing students or causing them to lose interest in English. I thinks it's OK to learn a re-spelling system, as long as it's easy to learn and is useful in language acquisition.
If too much learning time is spent on the re-spelling system, I think it can be negative. I think there is a time and a place to introduce these pronunciation systems. If I drew an analogy to building a house, the pronunciation system would be the shingles on the roof and one of the last things you need to do before the house is finished.
If I have to make a choice between KK and IPA, I would choose IPA. Personally, I don't think that either of these are the best way to learn English for young learners. Students need to spend more time learning with their ears for language acquisition to take place. KK and IPA make use of the eyes. I think KK or IPA are more useful for advanced students or professionals. For example, I am starting to become interested in IPA since it gives me a more exact way to pronounce and explain the sounds of words. I think this is why KK is used in Taiwan. It's good for teachers.
As an alternative to learning KK or IPA, technology helps us to learn the right pronunciation. I think using technology is better than learning a re-spelling system. Students can use I-Phones, I-Pads, MP3 players, e-books, interactive books like Leapfrog, interactive whiteboards, youtube videos and the list goes on.
As per Wikipedia, KK is an out-dated system. Wikepedia says, "Many of the pronunciations in Kenyon and Knott (KK ) seem antiquated today and dictionaries such as Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, ed. John C. Wells, Longman Group Ltd. 1990, ISBN 0-582-05383-8, have replaced it, providing more contemporary pronunciations.
I agree with Wikipedia. KK is a very old system. It was created in 1944. Watch the video above from John C. Wells. He is talking about how pronunciation changes over time. For example, look at KK symbol on card 54(whale, what, wheel, wheat, white, which, why). KK uses the "(h)w" sound, but the current preference by Americans is the "w" sound. Both sounds are being used, however more people are using the "w" sound when saying, whale, what, wheel, wheat, white, which, why and other "wh" words. Who uses what pronunciation depends mostly on age and location. In Britain, they changed to the "w" sound about 100 years ago.
KK and IPA use many symbols that can confuse young learners. For example, in KK the "<i>" is used to represent the "long e" sound. The "<e>" is used to represent the "long a" sound. And the "<ai>" is used to represent the "long i" sound. Many new symbols and relationships have to be remembered. I believe this is one of the reasons why many students have a difficult time speaking English. I believe they spend too much time learning the rules about grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. They focus on all the details, but they fail to see the big picture.
Students should spend more time, reading, listening, talking and learning by making mistakes. I believe this is how language acquisition takes place. If students spend their time learning rules, they soon forget the details and many of the rules. It's like filling up a cup with water, but the cup has a hole in it.
English is my native language and I think KK and IPA are more confusing than many other systems. I think they are not easy to learn, remember or use. I think learning them might be easy for the best students, but it is a nightmare for the rest. As well, even if the good students can learn it, they won't use it very much.
Students learn KK and IPA in a way that is not natural, so it is easy to forget. It's similar to when I try to remember Pinyin. I always find that I have to go back and relearn the rules. The time would be better spent using the language. I think KK and IPA makes learning English more complicated.
When you ask students about their experience with KK, the words "useless" and "not useful" comes up very often. As well, many schools have introduced this system, but they have stopped using it. KK is being used less and less. Since all students don't learn the same way, I have found a few students who like learning and using KK, but not very many!
There is so much English learning software and many websites for English learning. There are so many choices that it's sometimes difficult to decide which ones to use. My point is, KK is being left behind as a tool for learning English. There are many other learning choices that have a better result because they are more interesting and fun.
KK reminds me of my experience in Taiwan learning Chinese. The same English word is often spelled in many different ways because there are 3 different systems being used for converting Chinese to the English alphabet. For example, I live in Chingpu. This word is spelled, Cingpu at the local elementary school. It's spelled, Chingpu at the local police and fire station, but Qingpu on the highway sign before you get here. Instead of helping people, it often confuses people.
Perhaps, I should re-think how I learn Chinese. Maybe, I should try to learn the Chinese characters instead of using a re-spelling system or indirect system. Recently, I have been following a Taiwan Teacher on Facebook. Her name is ShaoLan. She teaches foreigners how to speak Chinese using the internet. She has a good system for teaching Chinese to the world. It's call Chineasy. ShaoLan has recently appeared on Ted Talks. I think a good system for learning can make it easier to learn very difficult things.
I think students should learn basic phonics as part of some fun activity. After learning basic phonics, they should spend time reading and listening to comprehensible input. Don't spend so much time learning all the little pieces and rules, but rather focus on using the language.
As I have mentioned above, KK is really just a re-spelling system. Why not just use the English alphabet to learn and teach the sounds and reinforce the sounds by reading books and listening to comprehensible input. If you look at the dictionaries from American Education Publishing, Merriam-Webster and Scholastic, you can see that their re-spelling systems are easier to understand.
Students should understand that there are many variations from country to country and also within the same country, but don't spend too much time learning or thinking about all these differences. Listen more, read more. Think less about rules and more about enjoying and having fun with English. At some point you will speak easily and the pronunciation will come naturally to you.
Having said this, I will provide an easy way to remember KK and IPA by using simple stories. The time won't be wasted since you are learning a story and you are practicing speaking English. You will be using your ears more than your eyes. Look under the KK section for Card 1 and you can see an example. This section could take some time to develop, but I will try my best. I am doing this because some parents feel this is a good way to learn, but I don't want to spend too much time to teach this to my students. It's there if you want to use it and if you are going to learn KK or IPA make sure it's fun and interesting.
I have also included another section called Phonics International. I believe some of the material at this sight is useful for summarizing how a sound(phoneme) in English can have different spelling(grapheme) and how a spelling can have many different sounds. I am looking into the course provided by this company to see how good it is. I think that their Alphabetic Code Charts are awesome!
It's important to consider how much time you want to spend teaching phonics to your students as a percentage of the precious time you have with them. Secondly, you need to consider how you are going to deliver phonics to them. If it's easy to learn and fun for the students, PHONICS can be very useful for English acquisition.
Happy English Learning,
New World English
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