From the earliest school age, accurate pronunciation is crucial to learning. Poor pronunciation means poor fluency, which in turn means poor comprehension and expression. Therefore pronunciation accuracy is a key component to effective text-to-speech enhanced learning tools, assistive technology, and speech-enabled content.

The Impact of Pronunciation on Learners

While primarily referring to learning English as a second language, the research of well-known pronunciation specialist Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, gives us some clarity on the importance of pronunciation for all types of learning.

If pronunciation is lacking, listening effectively will also be troublesome, whether because the learner simply doesn’t hear key sounds or words, has not identified what a word means when spoken orally (even if it is known when written), or because so much energy has been dedicated to listening that the brain overloads and blocks.

But not as obvious is the impact of poor pronunciation on reading and writing. Author Catherine Walter explains that if learners are to read better, they have to improve their pronunciation. This is based on academic research into how we read. Competence in all four skills of speaking, listening, writing, and reading is closely related to competence in pronunciation. The same is obviously true for vocabulary, and even for grammar.

Poor pronunciation is also a limit for vocabulary expansion and usage. Students avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce.

The Relationship Between Spoken and Written Language

Various language skills are interrelated and develop early, including understanding and reproducing language, vocabulary knowledge, understanding the relationship between sounds and letters, grammar and sentence structure, processing information, and transmitting messages coherently. All of these skills are also necessary for reading. If a learner struggles with any of these skills it will impact their reading and writing ability. They will struggle with comprehension, decoding, and writing coherently.

Can Focusing on Pronunciation Help Students Read Better?

When a student has difficulties reading texts or interpreting the content, educators tend to give them more reading and comprehension exercises. This practice may be misplaced. Many times the students’ difficulties are not due to lack of mental structure building, but rather, to issues with phonology.

Brain scans show that when a learner with dyslexia reads unfamiliar words, there is an activation in the area of the brain which is home to Working Memory (Prefrontal Cortex), which is “temporary storage and manipulation of the information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, listening, and reasoning”. However, less blood flows to the language areas responsible for phonological awareness, referring to the ability to understand the difference and relationship between letters and sounds. This leads us to believe that working memory capacity is overloaded with a task that should be performed by the language areas. This prevents readers from decoding letters into sounds properly and therefore reading or comprehending the content.

Assisting Struggling Readers with Voice-enabled Reading and Writing Tools

It stands to reason that for assistive technology tools to be as effective as possible, pronunciation accuracy is essential.

Pronunciation quality is crucial in assistive technology tools that support struggling readers, providing the correct pronunciation of words while the text is read out loud. It is essential that assistive technology not only has a voice that is pleasant to listen to over long periods of time, but that has impeccable and accurate pronunciation.

Pronunciation Accuracy and Assessments

No longer only for literacy support, voice technology has a growing place within assessments and accommodations for students with learning difficulties or physical challenges. Specifically, in the attempt to level the playing field for all students, those with reading difficulties are able to have text read out to them. However, this can create a strain on resources for institutions, and text-to-speech tools are an efficient way to meet the needs of these learners.

Accurate and concise pronunciation is vital for objectively measuring the test taker’s knowledge and understanding. Pronunciation must be consistent for both instructions and the assessment itself so that there is no test bias or effect on the student’s results. An administrator has to make sure that synthetic reading has the same intonation, expression, pronunciation, pace, etc. as a spoken language.

Specific vocabulary and sentence structures must be respected and expressed correctly, such as:

  • mathematical expressions which require special pronunciations to ensure accurate interpretation
  • Greek letters in formulas and scientific constructs
  • homonyms with multiple meaning (scale – measure/scale – climb), homophones (to/two/too)
  • homographs (lead – to go in front/lead – a metal)

Advanced Students Benefit from Pronunciation Accuracy in Assistive Technology

While pronunciation is a key issue for those with learning and reading challenges, pronunciation affects students of all types. With more complex vocabulary, the connection between the written and oral word can be even trickier. Whether with scientific words, unfamiliar vocabulary, or when learning a language, reading a word silently can cause mispronunciation. Hearing terms pronounced while being read helps with familiarity and to make the connection between the written and spoken word. Imagine at elementary school a student reads the word ‘superlative’ and pronounces it silently as ‘super-lay-tive’. When tested she will not find ‘superlative’ on her test. Since the student will have missed the connections to the word it would not be an accurate representation of her actual knowledge.

Content Owners

For content creators, whose content is their main offering, pronunciation accuracy, just as academic accuracy, is crucial. In addition, in order to address accessibility needs and provide their content to a larger and more diverse population, they must create content that conveys the correct meaning, and right pronunciation based on the surrounding context. This is even more important for educational and academic content.

Publishers spend a great deal of time designing e-books and digital assets to make sure they are easy to use, accurate, and focused on the right learning objectives. In the context of a learning environment, it is vital that the same amount of detail be applied to the audio version of that content so that the student is listening to accurate content.

For example, the Public Safety Group: a Division of Jones & Bartlett Learning generates chapter by chapter audio files, where the Editorial team ‘proof listens’, listening to every chapter and ensuring accuracy such as the correct pronunciation of acronyms, or correcting homophones (The patient had tears in their eyes… the EMT tears open the gauze package…).

“Students must hear words correctly in order to comprehend vocabulary and ideas. This helps to build their reading and oral fluency as well as improve their comprehension and understanding of the content and concepts.”

As the team at National Geographic shared “Students must hear words correctly in order to comprehend vocabulary and ideas. This helps to build their reading and oral fluency as well as improve their comprehension and understanding of the content and concepts.” Read the National Geographic customer story.

Customizable Pronunciation Dictionaries and Fine-tuning

It stands to reason that if pronunciation is of key importance to learning, then having the most accurate pronunciation is a crucial concern when choosing assistive technology. Those looking into adding a voice to their content should look for excellent, natural-sounding voices as well as customizable pronunciation dictionaries that can be adapted to a content provider’s individual needs.

Content owners should look for a text-to-speech provider who is willing to listen to pronunciation suggestions and resolve pronunciation discrepancies by applying corrections to proprietary libraries, verifying the accurate pronunciation that the content owner provides.

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Read more:

OAKHILL, J. & KYLE, F. ‘The Relation between Phonological Awareness and Working Memory’. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 75
WALKER, R. ‘Pronunciation Matters’. English Teaching Professional, Hover, January 2014.
WALTER, C. ‘Teaching Phonology for Reading Comprehension’, Speak Out!, March 2009.
ALLOWAY, T. & ALLOWAY, R. ‘Understanding Working Memory’, 2. ed. Kindle Version. London: SAGE, 2015.