The Effect of Pronunciation on Spellings and Comprehension

I conducted this study to find answers to the problem whether or not pronunciation affects spelling and comprehension of the students in learning English as a Foreign Language.

As a researcher, I tried to prove if learners of the English language from Middle East had common errors in writing correct spelling of words with letter ‘r’, be it in the middle or at the end of the word, and if their comprehension was affected by pronunciation. Specifically, I aimed to answer the questions: (1.) Is there significant effect of pronunciation on spelling? (2.) Does pronunciation affect comprehension?

I conducted this study in Non-Destructive Testing Technology Institute, 2nd Industrial City of Dammam, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for eleven (11) weeks on the 2nd quarter of SY 2008-2009. The participants involved were thirty (30) Arab students enrolled in my General English class. They were all first year college students taking up Welding course. These participants had previously learned and acquired British English.

My purpose of conducting the study was to provide an output that will be of help to teachers to understand if the same problem is encountered or will be encountered by them, and to encourage them to use teaching strategies appropriate to the learning style of the learners. Likewise, the result will be beneficial for them to help students improve their spelling and comprehension in learning the English language.

My attempt to do the study was inspired by my own experience as an English teacher in dealing with the non-native speakers of English in a vocational school particularly Non-Destructive Testing Technology Institute where I taught General English to Arab students who had been exposed to British English, or who had previously acquired and learned the language. Since I was using American English, a minimal confusion occurred on both parties in the teaching-learning situation.

There was confusion in the production of the ‘r’ sound in words with middle, or final ‘r’ (i.e., welder, worker, world, marker, car, cutter, etc…) and in spelling of words like center, color liter, meter, and the like. The problem is similar to the ‘intrusive r’ mentioned in the study conducted by Bryan Gick of the University of British Columbia (cited in

Considering this experience, as a researcher, I conducted the study immediately after a week of teaching.

Accordingly, linguists have long been interested in intrusive r for a variety of reasons. The importance of early descriptions of the phenomenon as it appeared in early British RP, such as that provided by Jones (1917). Intrusive r was first recognized as relevant to phonological theory by a group composed mostly of American Structuralists, who identified it as bearing crucially on contemporary discussions of the phonemicization of low vowels and glides (Bloomfield 1935; Trager 1943; Whorf 1943; Swadesh 1947). Although somewhat later, and with a more dialectological focus, Kurath’s (1964) analysis should also be included in this category. Interest was renewed by the Generativists and following generations, beginning with Kahn’s (1976) dissertation on syllable structure and continuing to the present day (e.g., Mohanan 1985; Vogel 1986; Broadbent 1991; McCarthy 1991, 1993; Harris 1994, chap. 5; McMahon,Foulkes, and Tollfree 1994; McMahon and Foulkes 1995; Giegerich 1997; Halle and Idsardi 1997; Gick 1999).

“Intrusive r” says Gick, “may be viewed simplistically as the extension by analogy of a historically attested final /r/ to words historically ending in a vowel (generally this applies only to the set of non-glide-final vowels: /@, a, O/). Thus, in dialects with intrusive r, normally word-final r and zero alternate, depending on whether the word is vowel-initial, as in the following examples.”

“1. R ~ Ø alternation in historically r -final words (e.g., E Mass.)

a. tuner [tun@] ü tuner is [tun@r Iz]

b. spar [spa:] ü spar is [spar Iz]

c. pore [pO:] ü pore is [pOr Iz].”

Gick also explains that “in some dialects, this process has extended to all words ending in /a/, /O/, and /@/,. as shown below which is commonly known as intrusion.”

“2. R ~ Ø alternation in historically vowel-final words (e.g., E Mass.)

a. tuna [tun@] ü tuna is [tun@r Iz]

b. spa [spa:] ü spa is [spar Iz]

c. paw [pO:] ü paw is [pOr Iz].”

But Gick emphasized that “in most dialects, this alternation never occurs following other vowels. Gick (1999) points out that “the historical development of intrusive r followed an identifiable and necessary sequence of linguistic events: vocalization, linking, merger ( or near merger), reanalysis (intrusion), and generalization.”

In the study conducted by Gick of which he aimed to determine if intrusive r has the same pattern with intrusive l, he found out that “the same pattern is reflected in existing dialect typologies as well. He said, “such an ordering is valuable in pinpointing the present stage of development of the highly parallel intrusive l. This sequence proceeds historically as follows.”

“Postvocalic liquids undergo vocalization. Philadelphia (S Pa.) is well known for this behavior: “In Philadelphia, word-final /l/ is vocalized with great frequency” (Ash 1982b, 162). This process, by definition, applies only to liquids (and possibly glides). Vocalization may be thought of as one instantiation of a more general phonetic process known as final reduction (or, conversely, initial strengthening), which may apply to any consonant. Final reduction is a property of apparently all consonants in all dialects of English studied to date, whereby the articulatory movements of postvocalic allophones tend to be “reduced,” or less constricted, compared with those of prevocalic allophones (Browman and Goldstein 1995; Gick forthcoming a). Liquid consonants, however, are unusual in that they involve multiple lingual articulations (e.g., the tongue front raising gesture and tongue root retraction for /r/; Delattre and Freeman 1968). When liquid consonants undergo ?nal reduction, it is only the anterior articulations (i.e., the coronal constriction for /l/ and the tongue front raising for /r/) that are affected (Giles and Moll 1975; Ash 1982a, 1982b; Hardcastle and Barry 1989, 15; Sproat and Fujimura 1993; Gick 1999, forthcoming a).”

However, according to Gick “the posterior articulations, that is, the tongue dorsum retraction for /l/ and the tongue root retraction for /r/, remain more or less unaffected (see Gick forthcoming b and Gick, Kang, and Whalen forthcoming for further evidence in support of this analysis of liquid vocalization in English). The result is that final allophones tend perceptually to have a stronger “vocalic” component (Sproat and Fujimura 1993) than initial allophones (hence the term vocalization). In its most extreme manifestation, vocalization may result in a complete loss of the anterior articulation.”

On the part of the students, trouble came from the way how I pronounced the words, spoke and wrote the spelling of words using American English. On my part as the teacher, trouble came from the way how the students pronounced the words, spoke and wrote the spelling of the words using British English.

Focusing on pronunciation and spelling as a teacher-researcher, I noticed that when some students wrote, they occasionally omitted letter ‘r’ from the word that ends with letter ‘r’ and even changed the spelling following their own pronunciation. (i.e., ‘otha’ instead of ‘other’; ‘neva’ instead of ‘never’; ‘welda’ instead of ‘welder’; ‘computa’ instead of ‘computer’; ‘teacha’ instead of ‘teacher’). Another observation was students’ pronunciation of few words with letter ‘o’, like for examples, ‘follow’ is pronouced as (fol-o) instead of (fal-ow); ‘blood (blod) instead of (blad); ‘box (boks) instead of (baks). As a result, some of them wrote the words in reference to the way how they pronounced them.

Analyzing the situation, my input appeared to be another kind of English to the students and that the students’ feedback, on the other hand, seemed to be another kind of English to me though I already had knowledge about the difference of British English and American English.

As a researcher, I described it as the encounter of two Englishes experiencing difficulty in trying to meet half-way. As a result of the observation I made, the comprehension of both parties was affected. Either I or the students experienced trouble in dealing with the English language.


My research employed quantitative and qualitative approaches in analyzing the data gathered and observed. In the eight written and two oral quizzes I gave, 27 out 30 students were found to be consistent in their errors in writing the spellings of the words with final and middle ‘r’ by dropping them out of the words resulting to inaccuracy in spellings. Five of the written quizzes I designed were to allow the participants to write words with middle and final ‘r’ to complete the sentences. The other three, were to instruct them to write the unknown words with middle or final ‘r’ based on the context clues given. I conducted the two oral quizzes by reading the instructions aloud to let them write the words with middle or final ‘r’. However, similar results were obtained. There were errors in spellings even if I pronounced the words the way how American do it.

Based on these facts, my study proved that pronunciation had a significant effect on spellings of some words, though my study was only focused in determining the words with middle and final ‘r’. My study also found out that pronunciation affected comprehension in learning a new English for the students who were exposed to another kind of English of which reduction of the final sound is practiced . This is the idea confirmed based on this study.

However, the problem raised in the study was not focused directly on the difference of American English and British English but to determine and discuss some common errors committed by the learners as influenced by their pronunciation. This was the reason why the participants of this study performed differently than what I expected as a teacher in trying to teach English using American English.

General Reference : American Speech, Vol. 77, No. 2, Summer 2002, Copyright © 2002 by the American Dialect Society.

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