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5 Pronunciation Tools for Educators—and Why They Matter

November 10, 2022 by Amy Foxwell

From the earliest school age, accurate pronunciation is crucial to learning. Poor pronunciation means poor fluency, which in turn means poor comprehension and expression. That’s true whether your students are learning to read, studying a second language, or mastering a specialized field—each of which contains its own complex vocabulary.

In short, pronunciation is important at every level of education, in virtually every subject. There are simply too many words for a single educator to teach perfect pronunciation of every utterance, to every student, every time. Luckily, educational technology provides a solution: Self-service pronunciation tools allow learners to improve their language skills on their own, in or out of the classroom.

Here are five pronunciation tools that can help students at any level improve literacy skills, as well as learning outcomes in any subject. Keep reading past the list to find a detailed explanation of why accurate pronunciation is so important for learners at any age.

5 Pronunciation Tools for Reading and Language Educators

No matter what language or subject you teach, tools like the ones that follow can help students improve their pronunciation. That said, because we’re writing in English, our examples mostly stick to that language. You can easily find similar tools in other languages with a quick Google search.

We also focus on self-service edtech: Tools students can use on their own. That helps learners improve outside of class time—although these solutions work just as well in classroom group settings. Try these pronunciation tools to give your students an advantage as they learn:

1. Interactive Phonemic Charts

English-language dictionaries typically stick to a standard set of pronunciation symbols, each of which indicates a particular phoneme—the smallest audible unit of a word. Learning these symbols allows students to understand pronunciation simply by consulting a dictionary, print or online. It gives a visual language for audible signals.

The best way to learn pronunciation symbols is with an interactive, audio-enabled phonemic chart. Such a document displays each phonemic symbol; click on one to hear the sound it indicates.

Here’s one example of an interactive phonemic chart.

2. Audio Dictionary Apps

For students who don’t have time to learn pronunciation at the level of the phoneme, it’s helpful to hear words pronounced accurately. For that, an audio dictionary is ideal—and many of these tools are available as mobile apps.

Here’s an audio dictionary for Apple’s iOS.

Here’s one for Android.

While these are both English-language dictionaries, a quick search should turn up similar tools for any language.

3. Language Education Software

Vocabulary is a core element of education in any second language—and accurate pronunciation is essential to truly building that vocabulary. Digital language education apps can help learners improve pronunciation while also studying grammar, diction, and all the elements of a new language.

While many language apps charge a fee, they may be available through your institution’s library or edtech department. If not, check with your local public library: They often make these tools available for card-holders.

Here’s one language app that’s popular with public libraries.

4. Language Learning YouTube Channels

Looking for a free pronunciation tool (unless you count viewing ads as a cost)? Look no further than YouTube. You’ll find no end of channels dedicated to language education, including a few that focus on English pronunciation in particular.

For example, the BBC Learning English channel goes in depth on pronunciation in a variety of short, helpful clips.

Of course, students don’t need a dedicated language-teaching channel to build their skills. Listening to native speakers give brief, entertaining talks can be a fun way to improve pronunciation. Try the TED-Ed YouTube channel, which features a growing list of quick educational videos on a variety of topics, all with entertaining animation that boosts comprehension.

5. Text-to-Speech (TTS) Tools

Text to speech is perhaps the most helpful of all pronunciation tools because it can be applied to any written content. ReadSpeaker offers TTS tools that integrate into all major learning management systems (LMS), as well as TTS solutions for online content, documents, and forms.

Of course, TTS supports pronunciation only if the TTS engine’s pronunciation is accurate, every time. In addition to in-depth quality assurance protocols, ReadSpeaker offers customizable pronunciation dictionaries. Whether you teach first-grade English or post-graduate medicine, this feature ensures your TTS will pronounce everything—including jargon, proper nouns, and technical terms—accurately.

Because of the comprehensive, flexible nature of TTS as a pronunciation tool, we’ll focus on this technology for the rest of the article. Keep reading to learn why pronunciation accuracy in assistive technology like TTS is so important for learners.

The Impact of Pronunciation on Learners

Pronunciation accuracy is a key component to effective text-to-speech enhanced learning tools, assistive technology, and speech-enabled content. Here’s why.

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, Walker suggests, 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 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 student’s 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 (the prefrontal cortex), which the journal Science describes as the site of “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. That 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

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, TTS allows those with reading difficulties to have text read out to them. However, this can create a strain on resources for institutions, and TTS tools are an efficient way to meet the needs of these learners.

Accurate 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, and pace as a spoken language.

Specific vocabulary and sentence structures must also be 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.

The Importance of Accurate TTS Pronunciation for Content Owners

For content creators, whose content is their main offering, pronunciation accuracy is just as vital as information accuracy. 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, with the 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. The publisher’s editorial team then “proof listens,” playing back every chapter to ensure accurate expression, such as the correct pronunciation of acronyms, or correcting homophones. For example: “The patient had tears in their eyes” versus “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 told the ReadSpeaker team following a TTS partnership, “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.

Try ReadSpeaker’s demo to see how state-of-the-art pronunciation correction works.

Contact us to find out how ReadSpeaker provides the very best in pronunciation accuracy.

Read more:

Sources:

https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2012/01/05/pronunciation-matters-part-1/
https://www.lobe.ca/en/blog/childrens-hearing-health/relationship-spoken-written-language
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.

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