Pronunciàtion Gìdes in Children's Dictionarys
Pronunciation Guides in Children's Dictionaries
Màking spelling and speaking easier for
Making spelling and speaking easier for learners
Note: All the special marks here to help
pronunciàtion should be the same grav acsent on the vowel
letters a e i ou - as à è ì ò ù. -
but some browsers may chànge these intu very strànge
marks. I am sorry if this happens as it will make the page
ùseless to u.
The pages presented here include 'Spelling without traps for
readers', with gìdes for pronunciàtion,
but not consistently, so u may pick out the spellings that u think
would help lerners mòst. See explanation.
How can lerners find out from dictionarys how to pronounce new
vocabulary thay fìnd in reading?
Mìgrants to our shors
inclùde meny who can speak English but cannot read it, but
also others who can read and wrìte English well - yet cannot
speak it. Voice tecnologies can help out, but a book dictionary is
always handy. Pronunciàtion keys for adults can ùse
the International Fonetic Alfabet and other sofisticated
gìdes, but thèse ar too hard for children and for
mòst mìgrants still lerning English.
My fields of study as a psìcologist ar literacy and
imaginàtion. Dictionarys ar fasinàting on bòth
In the 1980s I lookd at forty children's dictionarys and
wurd-books and found out that ònly 4 gàve eny help
about how to pronounce the mòst tricky wurds, and ònly
2 gàve a pronunciàtion key for all wurds.
No wonder children often dare not use their full vocabulary because they could be laughed at. No wonder children often dair not ùse thair full vocabùlary becaus thay could be lafd at. (Yule, 1989)
Now I hav updàted this study, 25 years on.
I hav lookd
at 36 dictionarys and wurd books currently on the market for children
and scools. Haf of them still giv no gìde at all, especially
thòse for yungr children. I suppòse it is
assùmed that adults will read the wurds to them. Of the
remaining haf, 8 dictionarys sometimes giv a gìde to
pronunciàtion, 3 often du and ònly 7 always du. That
is, the advantage is givn to the lucky children who ar alredy
mòst adept in English.
The eleven dictionaries which giv 'ocàsional' gìdes differ
wìdely in the wurds that thay select as needing an aid.
Ùsùally thay giv no clu to the mòst common
irregùlar wurds, such as who, was, are, so again the advantage
is for English-speaking children who ar alredy fairly literat, and
leave out beginners and lerners of English language.
4 màjor tìpes of pronunciàtion
gìde ar provìded in dictionarys for children It is
strìking how thay diverge in how thay represent the
spòken wurd. Which ar the mòst helpful for
1 How to sho stress in a wurd,
and segment sillabls
2 Unexpected initial letters,
3 Speech sounds that English spelling dus not
4 Dìalect issùes
5 Long vowels
1 How to shò
stress in a wurd.
Shòwing where the stress gòs in a wurd is
important, becaùse children can be hùmiliàted when thay get it
wrong. 'Melanncoly' and 'elly-jibble' - ha ha.
There ar fìve ways that dictionarys commonly sho stress
plàcement in wurds - bòld print, underlìning,
màcrons, apostrofès or stops after the stressd
siillabl. Hevy màcron dìacritics and èven mor,
apostrofès or stops, disrupt the visùal lìne of
the wurd and ar mor difficult for children to ùse than
bòld or underlìned sillables. Underlìning is
easy to copy in handwrìting. Bòld print is probably
least disruptiv of the visùal lìne of the wurd; it is
intùitivly understood, and it lessens the difference in
appearance between the pronunciàtion gìde and real
But some of the ways ùsed to màke clear the
stress in a wurd can màke a pronunciàtion gìde
look very unlìke the spelling that the children must lern to
wrìte themselvs. Problem issùs ar how to represent
sillabls, and the obscùre unstressd vowel schwa, which in IPA nòtàtion is the
Where should sillabls be cut in shòwing where the stress
gòes? Cùriusly, dictionarys often differ in what is a
sillabl in a wurd. For exampl, should it be tem-pru-cher or
temp-ruh-chur, rest-a-ron or res-tuh-ront? For
the sàke of children's understanding of the linguistic
structùre of wurds, I would hòpe that
pronunciàtion gìdes would segment wurds bì thair
morfèmes - into the segments of meaning.
We kno that longr wurds ar harder for children to read and
spell. Cutting wurds into sillables may trì to màke
them easier to tackl.
In mì yùth, children's comics
lìke Tiger Tim never worryd about ùsing long
wurds. Thay just split them up with hìfens and then the littl
bits wer easy. So children who mìt still be stuck at scool in
thair Year 2 reading book, out of class could be enjoying de-tect-ive
stories with brill-iant hero-ic char-act-ers hav-ing a-maz-ing
ad-vent-ures. Edùcàtors heapd scorn on this practice,
but I hav never seen eny reserch that justifìd the scorn.
Three of the 4 dictionarys also split up the longr wurds with
hìfens. Why du I feel less happy about this than I did about Tiger Tim? One reason is that Tiger Tim's hìfens aimd to màke it easier to read wurds
sìlently for meaning. But du hìfens màke it
easier to speak the wurds aloud smoothly? I understand that there
has not yet been comparativ reserch to fìnd out whether
children fìnd easier pronunciàtion gìdes that ar
choppd up with hìfens, or no hìfens at all, and
relìing on bòld print that marks the stressd sillabl to
màke visibl a sort of segmentàtion, whìle the
wurd itself remains hòl and neat-looking. It may be that the
mor letters ùsed in the pronunciàtion gìde,
màking it longr, the mor that children will need hìfens
to read the sillabls, and Jolly's gìde ùses fewer
letters, - altho when it dus hav a really long wurd, how du
children còpe with a pronunciàtion lìke
All the dictionarys represent the slurrd sillabls in one way or
another, but some of thair representàtions of the slurrd
vowel, the schwa, ar mor làbord than in the casùally
spòken wurd. It is hard not to pronounce the gìde fuh-roh-shus as fuh-roh-shus, despìte the
underlìning of the roh, or temp-ruh-chuh as
temp-ruh-chuh despìte the bòld print for temp. It may be mor help to a chìld to pronounce ak-tew-el so that it sounds lìke actual than
pronouncing it as ak-choo--uhl.
Three of the children's dictionarys represent the unstressd
sillabl in a wurd with up to fìve letters, which can
màke quìte a bisness of them. d-u-h-n-t for the
fìnal sillabl in accident - is that really necessary?
The wurd bicentenary has 11 letters but the
pronunciàtion gìde in one dictionary tàkes 20
caracters - nearly twìce as long buy-suhn-teen-uh-ree ! Another dictionary tàkes the simpl approach of bòld
letters for the first letters of a stressed sillable, then following
with spellings resembling conventional spelling, as in temperecher.
When spoken with the stress on the bold letters, the slurring follows
naturally - temperecher becomes temprecher, and acsident becomes
One dictionary simplifies further bi representing mòst
slurred vowels with a different shape of e, a single caracter, which
may màke for less labored pronunciàtion, and also has
the effect of making the gìde look mor lìke a normally
spelld wurd. I think this approach could be tested as to whether it
might be the mòst effectiv as an aid for children - to be as
visually concise and as close to the conventional spelling as possibl
- that is, relì on bòld print to show the stressd
sillabl, and for the rest, giv the closest possibl
approximàtion to the lexical form of the wurd as in the
exampl of acsident rather than ak-suh-dunt.
2. How can lerners find the wurds in
a dictionary when the initial letters ar not the same as the initial
- for example, knock?
One dictionary provides a handy tàbl that sets out
misleading initial letters and letter pairs. For your information,
by the way, the list is incomplete - mòst alfabet letters can
be misleading in initial place, and nearly two thirds could be solved
if spelling simply dropped the misleading initial letters when thay
ar really surplus as in ghost, guess, who, gnaw, knight,
rhinoceros, write, scheme and who.
One dictionary solvs the problem by categorising wurds
according to vowel sounds, and then setting them out alfabetically on
each list, which is easy to scan down - but this is a specialised
spelling dictionary, which dus not include definitions.
3. How to show English speech sounds that
English spelling does not discriminàte.
English spelling ùses th for both this and
thing, and has no distinctiv spelling for the sound 'oo' as
in put, book and wolf.
Some dictionarys simply ignore these differences. Others
màke distinctions such as dh as in this and th as in thin, oo
as in book and ooh as in boot. One dictionary ùses thinner
and thicker letter- shapes for th - th is thick as in thair,
and thin as in thin. Strong OO as in boot is larger,
weak oo as in book is smaller. These ar intuitively easy to
understand, but ar not easy to copy or to type on a standard
keyboard, However, this may be the mòst helpful way to
distinguish these pronunciàtions in a dictionary, and again,
it keeps the dictionary gìde looking similar to the real
Fourth - differences in dialect. What about English
pronunciàtion gìdes internationally and in
multicultural societies lìke ours, which has such a wide range
of accents on the street? For children and English lerners
pronunciàtion gìdes hav not so much a descriptive
function as prescriptiv - a gìde to how thay can speak the
wurds and be understood by the commùnity around them, and
how, hearing the wurds or seeing them in print, thay can find them in
the dictionary with how to speak them.
Well, in fact, pronunciàtion keys in dictionarys show
how litl dialects and acsents really matter when it comes to spelling
- and hence, it should follow, to spelling reform, where this is
always raised as a reason why imprùvement is impossibl.
Spelling is a standardised convention, lìke a line-sketch, and
pèpl then pronounce it in thair òn dialect lìke
thair òn individual fotograf - you could say an audio-sketch,
contrasted with an audiògraf. There ar no problems in the
spelling dog regardless of whether it is pronounced
lìke dog/dawg/ or daag according to
individùal accents. The pronunciàtion differences that
do occur between English dictionarys and Australian ar in fact
trivial.1 A general sort of broadband works. And this will apply in
desiìning spelling imprùvement too.
The fifth and last important issue concerns the so-called long
vowels A E I O U. Thay ar the biggest problem in English spelling -
as well as for any attempts to màke it mor
ùser-frendly. Long vowels hav the greatest number of
different ways to spell them. The children's dictionary gìdes
may spell them in some of the mor unusual ways - for example, uy
One dictionary ùses ligatùred letters, ai, ee,
ie, oa, ue, which màke the spellings look shorter, though I
gather there has been no reserch on whether this is tactic is wurth
the trubl. The patterns, ai, ee, ie, oe, ue, ar common in real
spelling, and so can màke the pronunciàtion
gìdes look mor familiar - less strànge than as in, say, meg-uh-luh-may-nee-uh. It can still look rather odd with -
for example mechooer, and oaaisis, even though that one
resembles the real spelling better than oh-ay-sus.
I would lìke experiments that simply placed a grav
accent as diacritic over long vowels - that is, the same letters as
for short vowels, a e i o u, but with accents over them. This would
achieve two things - align A E I O U with the short vowels a e i o u
that thay so often toggle with in wurds lìke nàtion,
national, fìnìte and infinite, and so help to visually
clarify thair meaning and relationships. It would also be concise,
unlìke than the present common clumsy 2-3 letter
representations in dictionary gìdes. This tactic has seemed to
work well in informal trial of pieces of text, but mor experiment is
needed to see how intuitive and easy such a marking would be for
Conclusion - How ùseful for different categories of
lerners, inclùding English-language lerners, ar the different
ways to represent speech sounds in children's dictionarys? Reserch
is needed if it dus not exist - I hav not found it.
But some things can be said.
1. Who is disadvantaged
The pronunciàtion gìdes of mòst
children's dictionarys cater mor for the advantagd children in
what thay assùme lerners alredy kno, and so leav out much that
others will not kno. How can thay be made mòst helpful to
those who need them mòst - the educationally disadvantaged
children with small vocabularies and poor reading skills, and the
non-nàtiv lerners of English language (EFL) - who now number
mor than its nativ speakers?
The way to go may be to tri to màke the
pronunciàtion gìde look as clòse to present
English spelling as possibl. But how ùseful ar special
caracters which ar lìke different fonts of the same letters.
Ar ligatùrd letters wurth the bother?
There ar many signs that informal spelling practices ar changing
rapidly, and also that Anglo-American literacy crises ar by no means
solved, and spelling difficulties ar proven to be implicated.
Many spelling reformers hav thought that the ideal way to begin
spelling reform would be as a dictionary pronunciàtion key,
becaùse it is completely fonemic. Children's dictionarys in
many other modern countries need no pronunciàtion gìdes
for vocabulary becaùse thair spelling is consistent.
Nevertheless this is not so simple for designing mor
ùser-friendly ëEnglish spelling for the English language.
You can see from this that existing pronunciàtion keys for
children's dictionarys would be clearly impossible candidates as
spelling reform, altho the newer come the clòsest.
A dictionary pronunciàtion key might represent the
first level of a spelling reform - the alfabetic principle of
letters representing sounds, - but there ar good psycholinguistic
reasons why this would be inadequate as a full reform. It is a
practical necessity that any English spelling improvement must
maintain the general appearance of present print. It must take into
account the special features of the English language, and it must
better match the needs and abilities of readers, spellers and
lerners. That is, primarily, it must facilitate reading and writing
by eye as well as by ear, and reading for meaning as well as
representing the spoken language. This means a visual appearance for
print that can show wurd relationships, wurd structure and grammar.
(Appendix 2 notes the other five major principles for an English
There ar many reasons, including commercial, why it is in
the interests of dictionarys to seek to promote spelling
improvement that would promote wider literacy by reducing its
difficulties. What an increasing demand for dictionarys there could
then be, from the wide swathe of populations world-wide that
currently cannot read well enough to ùse one.
1 There is an aurally còded spelling dictionary that dus
hav to take account of dìalect because it categorìses
spelling according to its pronunciàtion. It gets round this by
plàcing wurds twìce, with markers to sho the Scottish
Explanations of the spelling changes are on the spelling reform pages.
If eny spelling attracts yur attention, consider how u would imprùve it for lerners.
If any spelling attracts your attention, consider how you would improve it for learners.
Consider also the functions of etimology - the origins of the wurds. Is this spoild by remuving spelling traps?
Consider also the functions of etymology - the origins of the words. Is this spoiled by removing spelling trraps?
The spelling here is bàsd on seven linguistic principls, which u may be àbl to wurk out.
And see BBC Text Guide to Pronunciation as a base for the Dictionary Key and Beginners First Learning in English Spelling Rules on One Page
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