“You Say, I Say”: Navigating Accent in Phonics Instruction

English is an official language in 67 countries. While all English speakers use the same 26 letters to read and write words, they do not always say words the same way.

Standardised pronunciation of ‘leisure’ in the UK…


Standardised pronunciation of ‘leisure’ in America…


There are said to be at least 160 distinct English dialects throughout the world. Each dialect has its own vocabulary, grammar rules and distinct way of pronouncing words (accent). If you use a language, you have an accent (though you might not think that you do!).

Graph showing countries where English is an official languageEnglish is an official language in over 86 countries – think of all the accents!

A difference between the accent of instruction and the accent of a student has the potential to cause some students difficulty in learning to read and/or write. When phonics instruction is informed by accent, teachers can respectfully acknowledge any differences and minimise the difficulties that may arise from them.

There is no such thing as a “good”/”right” or “bad”/”wrong” accent. Class, ethnic and regional differences, as well as immigrant language influences, can contribute to accent differences. Consequently, accent can be an important part of a person or region’s social, cultural and historical identity.

I was told to ‘change my accent’ by a very southern lecturer… I have been a very successful teacher in a school with many different accents. We celebrate diversity and that should be extended to accents.”

Jane McDonald, Teacher

A 2016 study in the south of England found that many teachers with regional accents have been encouraged to “modify accents that were somehow deemed inappropriate for education”. As one participant put it, “it makes no sense that teachers have to sound the same, but teach the children to be who they are.”

The goal of pronunciation is to be understood, not for everyone to sound the same! For educational purposes, the English language’s phonics system has been standardised and is known as the ‘Received Pronounced’ (RP) English. It is used in the phonetics of English dictionaries and translation dictionaries. The American English equivalent is known as General American (GA) and Australia has Standard Australian English (SAE).

Children usually acquire an accent by copying the pronunciation of words spoken by adults and other children around them. The more a person is exposed to an accent, the more likely they are to understand the accent. Standardised pronunciations are important touchstones for children learning to read and spell, something teachers should reference while respecting the diversity of accents found in their classrooms and beyond.

Implications for teaching

Teachers should:

  • Help students to develop a positive interest in differences in accents (‘I say the word this way; some people say it a different way.’).

  • Value all accents equally.

  • Help students to identify similarities between accents in pronunciation.

  • Help students to analyse the points of difference in the pronunciation of a word.

  • Be comfortable using your own accent but be aware of ways in which your pronunciation differs to that of students and instructional materials.

  • Expose students to RP, GA or SAE (whichever is appropriate), treating this pronunciation as a point of reference. Phonics Hero’s games and Phonics Lessons are now available in these three accents.

  • Help students discover that they have the capacity to develop and change their pronunciation in the direction of any accent if they want to for the purpose of more accurate spelling, social integration or acting.

To help you identify specific differences between one accent and another, I’m going to draw your attention to some common differences and give you some examples.

How Vowels Vary Across Accents

In English, the biggest difference between one accent and another is typically in how vowels are pronounced. Differences may be caused by the degree of jaw drop, the rounding or relaxation of lips, the raise or relaxation of the tongue or the amount of air flowing through the nose.

The GA accent has a total of 16 vowel sounds, while RP and Australian English have 20-22 (some short, some long). GA is commonly described as having short vowels and wide diphthongs. The mouth is typically more open in GA than in RP.

Common accent differences in vowel pronunciation include:

  • Pronunciation of ‘o’: RP uses a rounded lip sound for the short /o/ sound in words like ‘hot’. In GA the ‘o’ is pronounced as a less rounded vowel sound, similar to /ah/, so ‘hot’ sounds like /haht/.

  • Pronunciation of ‘a’: One of the most obvious differences in pronunciation of ‘a’ is heard in the so-called ‘bath’ words (e.g. bath, laugh, pass).

  • Pronunciation of ‘oo’: There is a long /oo/ pronunciation and a short /oo/ pronunciation. In RP ‘book’ is pronounced with a short /oo/ but in some English accents it is pronounced with a long /oo/.

    The word ‘roof’ is most often said with a long /oo/ but in some areas of America is said with a short /oo/.

  • Some accents have vowel sounds longer than the standardised, while others have shorter vowel sounds. In Australian English, vowel sounds tend to be longer in duration and also more nasal than British English. For example, in Australian English ‘today’ can sound more like ‘to die’!

How Consonants Vary Across Accents

Consonants are more likely to be similar in pronunciation from one region to another than vowels, but there are some exceptions. Common accent differences in consonant pronunciation include:

  • The pronunciation of ‘r’: Whether an ‘r’ is pronounced after a vowel sound within a syllable is one of the most noticeable differences between English accents. In a non-rhotic accent, the sound /r/ is only allowed before a vowel, so the /r/ is heard in ‘red’ and ‘pride’ but not in ‘car’ /c/ /ah/, near /ne//a/, square /s/ /k/ /w /e/ or nurse /n/ /u/ /s/.

    A word-final ‘r’ is heard if the next word starts with a vowel, as found in ‘The car is coming soon’. Most accents of England, including RP, are non-rhotic, as are the accents of Australia as well as many Southern, Northeastern and African American Vernacular forms of American English.

    GA and most accents of North America, Scotland, Ireland and some parts of south-western England, are rhotic. The ‘r’ is heard at the end of a word ending in a vowel and ‘r’.

  • The pronunciation of ‘t’ and ‘d’: RP pronounces ‘t’ as /t/. In many American accents, including GA, /t/ and /d/ both have a very light voiced pronunciation between two vowel sounds in a word, or between an /r/ and a vowel sound, so ‘writer’ and ‘rider’ sound the same.

  • The pronunciation of ‘th’: In some accents (for example some Irish accents, American Cajun or Creole accents and Caribbean English), ‘th’ is pronounced more like /t/ or a /d/, for example /tree/ for ‘three’. In others, including Cockney and North East English accents and some African American Vernacular English, /f/ is used to pronounce ‘th’, for instance pronouncing ‘thing’ as ‘fing’.

  • The pronunciation of ‘l’: L-vocalization is a process by which an /l/ sound is replaced at the end of a syllable by a vowel or semivowel sound like /oo/ or /w/. This sounds like /ˈbɒto/ for ‘bottle’ and is heard in some London accents, particularly Cockney, in the mid-Atlantic US states and in some African American accents.

Deletion and Addition of Sounds

Phoneme deletion

In some non-standard accents, certain phonemes may be deleted. The most commonly deleted are:

  • H: h-dropping occurs in many English accents (including Cockney, Brummie and Yorkshire), in some Jamaican and Caribbean English e.g. /appy/ for ‘happy’. It is not often found in American English.

  • G: g-dropping occurs most often in words with the suffix written ‘ing’. It is a feature of colloquial and non-standard speech of all English-speaking regions these days, in all social classes.

  • T: t-glottalisation occurs when a speaker swallows the /t/ sound in an unstressed syllable of a word rather than speaking it aloud. We hear it when ‘water’ is pronounced /wah-er/. It is common in British English accents in London, Liverpool and Leeds and in Scottish English.

  • Final consonant deletion in a syllable is common in some African American accents, particularly in front of ‘t’, ‘d’ or ‘k’, for instance /pas/ instead of /past/.

Phoneme addition

In some accents, phonemes are added to words, sometimes creating an additional syllable. My Australian husband laughs when I say the word ‘film’ as /fill-um/, with two syllables. That’s the pronunciation used in the region of Northern Ireland in which I grew up!

Some accents, such as the Southern American accent, feature ‘vowel breaking’ when the short vowel in a word is turned into a diphthong. The resulting sound preserves the original vowel but it is preceded or followed by a glide so ‘cat’ can become /ca-yut/, with two syllables.

Teaching Strategies – Reading

There is no community expectation that students will all sound the same when they read aloud. Consequently, the impact of an accent on a student’s reading accuracy is potentially less than that on spelling accuracy in which identical products are expected. English texts are written in either British or American English, neither reflecting regional characteristics. There are some visual differences between the two – for example, American English uses ‘or’ rather than ‘our’ (as in ‘color’), ‘er’ rather than ‘re’ (as in ‘center’), ‘z’ rather than ‘s’ (as in ‘recognize’) and ‘l’ instead of ‘ll’ (as in ‘traveling’). This is because American English spellings are mostly based on how a word sounds when spoken while British English retains the spelling of words absorbed from other languages.

Strategies to include in reading instruction:

  • When introducing students to letter-sound correspondences use the instructional format:

    When you see this (grapheme), your mouth says…(phoneme).”

    This format is also useful in discussion about individual accent differences.

  • Teach the letter-sound correspondence that would be made by the majority of students in the school.

  • Expose students to an appropriate standardised accent such as Phonics Hero lessons or games. Here’s how to switch the accent in Phonics Hero.

  • Develop awareness of the similarities between two accents (‘When we see this grapheme, we both say…’). For example, in teaching the first group of letter-sound correspondences in Phonics Hero, it is likely that students with different accents will say the sounds for ‘s’, ‘p’, ‘n’ and ‘m’ the same.

  • Explain a difference between the accent of the instructor and the accent of the student(s) when it is likely to cause errors in reading or spelling. Use a video or picture of mouth position and/or a mirror to make the difference visible. Phonics Hero’s Phonics Lessons include videos modelling the creation of all the sounds.

Where the accent of a reader may affect reading-related performance is in tasks in which students are asked to match rhyming words or to identify words with similar sounds. The problem? What rhymes in one accent may not in another.

Been doing poems in Y6 and the teacher said mud and wood do not rhyme. But mud and flood does. We’re in Greater Manchester but he’s from Essex.”

Carol, Teacher, Facebook

Consequently, teachers should be aware when tasks and tests may be biased against speakers whose accent does not match the accent of the person who wrote the material.

Teaching Strategies – Spelling

All English speakers, regardless of accent, are expected to spell words in the same way, using the conventions of either standard British English or American English. Certain features of some accents can reduce spelling accuracy if students are taught to write what they hear themselves say. Phoneme or syllable addition or deletion are likely to have the greatest impact. If a student’s accent is adversely affecting their ability to spell accurately, you must intervene. Show students how to modify their pronunciation when this is helpful for spelling.

Strategies for teachers to include in spelling instruction:

  • Explain the importance of saying every sound in a word for the purpose of spelling.

  • Identify any accent differences that are likely to cause spelling errors and explicitly teach the most helpful pronunciation.

  • Ask students to use their ‘spelling voice’ to facilitate accurate spelling, e.g. ‘Say /Wed-nes-day/’.

  • Have students write a letter they do not pronounce in a word, due to accent, in a different colour to the rest of the word, as shown in the following images:

  • Use a different colour to highlight sounds lost in a glottal stop due to accent.

  • Encourage students to visually check that the spelling of the word written matches what is seen in books.

Happily, research suggests that, for most students, accent differences do not significantly impact reading and spelling performance. Although they may impact students with specific learning difficulties or auditory processing difficulties, lack of explicit and systematic phonics instruction has a much greater impact.

If you are prepared to explain the subtle differences between a standard accent and a particular non-standard-accent – ideally, this blog post will have added several tools to your teaching kit! – and use high-quality phonics programs that model standardised accents, you can teach reading and spelling with confidence.

Author: Shirley Houston

With a Masters degree in Special Education, Shirley has been teaching children and training teachers in Australia for over 30 years. Working with children with learning difficulties, Shirley champions the importance of teaching phonics systematically and to mastery in mainstream classrooms. If you are interested in Shirley’s help as a literacy trainer for your school, drop the team an email on info@phonicshero.com

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