Home Dialect and Phonological Awareness

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There are many dialects of English arising due to regional and/or socio-economic differences in pronunciation. This means that any one phonic-based program may not exactly match with the pronunciation of all students and may result in students making errors in phonological awareness tasks, spelling and reading. Therefore, it is critical for teachers to be able to differentiate between errors that are due to a mismatch between the phonic code being taught and the student’s pronunciation versus a phonological awareness, reading or spelling difficulty.

Austin et al. (2024) noted that students with a reading difficulty “demonstrate errors in phonological awareness, phonemic awareness and spelling across a range of sounds, regardless of whether a phonological difference exists between dialects for that pronunciation” (p.15). In contrast, students without a reading difficulty often demonstrate different responses during these tasks.

Austin et al. argued that when a mismatch arises between a student’s pronunciation and the phonic program being taught, explicit instruction focused on the sound-symbol relationship relevant to their dialect should be provided.

Although Austin et al. focused on the differences between General American English (GAE) and African American English (AAF), similar types of differences could be looked for in other dialects. For example:

  • Leaving off the phonemes in words (e.g., /col/ versus /cold/ or /erb/ versus /herb/)
  • Substituting phonemes (e.g., /n/ for /ng/, /f/ for /th/, /d/ for /th/, /ngk/ for /ng/)
  • Transposing phonemes (e.g., /ks/ for /sk/)
  • Missing syllables (e.g., /difərənt/ versus /difrənt/).

These differences can impact on responses provided in phonological awareness activities:

  • A student who pronounces ‘cold’ as /col/ could correctly identify that it rhymes with ‘roll’ or indicate that the word has three phonemes. Similarly, if asked to blend /c/-/o/-/l/-/d/ into a word, the student is likely to say /col/ even though they have correctly blended the phonemes.
  • A student who pronounces ‘these’ as /dese/ would indicate that it begins with the same phoneme as dog.
  • A student who pronounces ‘thing’ as /thingk/ when asked to say the word without /th/ would correctly say /ink/ and likely spell it as ‘thingk’.
  • A student who pronounces ‘different’ as /difrənt/ would identify the word as having two syllables and if asked to say it without /dif/ would say /rənt/.

It is common when doing phonological awareness activities for students to be asked to repeat the word before doing the activity to ensure that they have accurately processed the word. However, if the student pronounces the word differently to the teacher, asking them to repeat the word in the teacher’s dialect is not helpful, is likely to lead to frustration and devalues the student’s home dialect impacting on their self-esteem.

Teachers need to identify differences in their own dialect and the dialect of the student to be able to determine if errors are due to pronunciation or poor phonological awareness. For example, students who pronounce /th/ as /v/ at the end of words, (e.g., /wiv/ for ‘with’) are likely to say ‘with’ rhymes with ‘give’. However, it they can correctly do rhyming activities with other phonemes which the teacher pronounces in the same way, then this would indicate that it is not a phonological awareness deficit.

Additionally, when teaching spelling to these students, teachers need to explicitly teach potentially problematic sound-symbol correlations. For example, if the student pronounces ‘cold’ as /col/ then the unpronounced ‘d’ on the end needs to be highlighted, just like you would highlight the unpronounced ‘k’ in ‘knife’. Students can be taught to ‘over-pronounce’ words they are having difficulty spelling correctly (e.g., say /diff/-/er/-/ent/). Teaching relevant morphology can also be useful (e.g., if you teach the suffix ‘ing’, then it is likely to help in the correct spelling of words such as ‘keeping’ even though the student pronounces the word as /keepin/).

As Austin et al. noted, helping students master the written language in their own dialect will support their acquisition of other dialects of English.

Austin, C., Moore, K., Kocherhans, S., & Herman, K. (2024). Phonological awareness: Phonemic awareness and Spelling: When home and school dialect differ. The Reading league Journal, 5 (10), 15-25.