Accents in phonics explained.

A few of our Jigsaw Phonics Q&A guests brought up "accents in phonics" by making these points:

“accents exist within phonics … The southern children didn’t have a clue what “half past” meant as they’re used to hearing the word ‘past’ spoken as ‘p-ar-s-t’ … my EAL children started to think that ‘p-a-s-t’ and ‘p-ar-s-t’ were two separate words with two separate meanings…”

Read that Q&A here.

“accents … how to deal with teaching phonics to children who might have a different accent to me” Read that Q&A here.

“accents … a substantial number of pupils have English as an additional language. Combine that with a northern accent and there can quite easily be misconceptions arising...” Read that Q&A here.

The main thing to realize is that the UK government’s phonics guidance is pinned to one particular variety of English: RP, or received pronunciation. That variety of English is often informally called southern English, Oxford English, the Queen’s English … you get the idea.

How do we know that?

It’s not made clear in any obvious way on the UK government website, but if you go to page 47 of the document English Programmes of Study Key Stages 1 and 2 , link here, you will find this buried note:

Some words are exceptions in some accents but not in others – e.g. past, last, fast, path and bath are not exceptions in accents where the a in these words is pronounced /æ/, as in cat.

You see it in the choice of words in the government lists, too. Some examples of CEWs from the UK government list are: once, ask and friend. “Ask” is on the list too because the assumption is that the “a” sound at the beginning of ask is the southern English longer ar sound (so it’s considered an exception to the “a in cat” sound). But for many northern English speakers the “a” sound is the short sound, exactly like the “a” in cat. So clearly, for the choice of words to make sense as exception words, you have to know that they are pinned to the accent that is RP (received pronunciation). The “a in cat” sound is just one example - there will of course be others (like the second sound in once - that varies between the more "o" sound in northern English and the more "u" sound in southern English too).

Isn’t that biased?

Yes and no. Well, obviously yes. It is biased. Why should the default be southern English? If you think about it, northern English makes more sense because the “a” sound is more consistently decodable - it’s “a” (in cat) in ask, past and just about everywhere else. But for historical reasons the default accent of choice has not been northern English … language is always political.

And there’s a weaker case for no, it isn’t biased. It’s expedient. Pinning a way of describing, explaining and teaching language on one particular accent keeps it simple. Dictionaries do the same thing. Go to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary online and click on the pronunciation of "ask" and you hear the southern English (RP) a-r-s-k, with the American pronunciation as the only alternative. Not even a look in for the northern English accent. Online dictionaries with pronunciation are brilliant teaching tools, especially if you have EAL students, or your accent differs from RP and you want some examples of RP pronunciations to start the discussion. It is possible to represent different accents accurately using the code that is the International Phonetic Alphabet, but you'd need a degree in Phonetics and Linguistics to be really proficient in it and it's just too complicated for everyday use.

Here’s another real-life example. In the Jigsaw Phonics Activity Slides Collection launched in August 2021, we added the common exception words for year 2 in Collection 3 (phase 5 sounds)* and it was clear that for speakers of northern English, the words pass, after, class, grass, past, plant and last are straightforward, decodable words that would belong to Puzzle the panda who signals real, decodable words. But according to the government list they are CEWs so they belong to Trick, who signals tricky words, because the assumption is the "a" sound is that southern English "ar"). So we put our own twist on that and created the sorting activity you can see here. Children will sort words into "'a' sounds like ar in car" or "'a' sounds like a in ant". The note at the bottom says "all answers are correct" - because they are, depending on your accent! Got to love an activity with no wrong answers! And hopefully one that might start some discussion … let us know what happens if you do it in your class.

*The CEWs and high-frequency words for year 1 are in collection 2. Check out the whole range here.

But what to do about different accents in the classroom - mine and the children’s?

Don't get stuck on thinking there is a correct “standard pronunciation” to aim for, like RP, because it doesn't really exist. So milk all the differences for all they are worth because that's learning gold. Talk about how people say things in different ways because that is just how it is and how it should be. Especially for a world language like English. Acknowledging and discussing our accents is so inclusive too - nothing is wrong, it’s just different. It’s brilliant phonological awareness training. You say it like this … but I say it like that, so why is that … what’s your story? Everyone feels seen, heard and included. And there’s much less emphasis on (non-existent) "right" and "wrong" pronunciation so everyone’s anxiety reduces and you can work with what you actually have, rather than what you think you ought to have.

Anything else about spoken versus written language?

Yes! Too much to write about here. But these two are important.

Firstly, bear in mind that all written language is artificial. Speech is the thing that the vast majority of us are hard-wired to acquire. Written language, including any kind of synthetic phonics, is a less-than-perfect way of trying to code the living, changing thing that is spoken language, and it will never be able to do the job faultlessly. Having said that, a synthetic phonics programme has been shown by robust research to be the best way of teaching reading and spelling. Thinking in historical terms, how long have people been literate? There's no survival advantage to being able to read and write. It's a code we made up because being literate is for sure extremely useful, but not necessary for survival.

Secondly, literacy teachers might be reassured to get the full measure of how English works. It takes no hostages. English is a tough language when it comes to teaching literacy because it has no clear and regular sound-letter and letter-sound correspondences. It’s what’s technically called a deep orthography. Other languages, like Italian and Finnish, have very clear letter-sound and sound-letter correspondences. There is a very useful key to give to children to crack the code in those languages, also called transparent orthographies, in the way that there just isn't in English. It takes 3-6 months for children to become fluent readers and quite accurate spellers in “transparent” languages like Italian and Finnish. In comparison, it can take years in English. Learners on the dyslexia spectrum are especially challenged, and any learner who naturally and quickly masters reading and spelling in English will be an outlier.

What’s your experience of accents in phonics? All comments are welcome!

This post was written by Sandra Pyne, co-creator of Jigsaw Phonics.

You can find out all about the Jigsaw Phonics team here.

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