This year’s West African Senior School Certificate Examination has been a peculiar one. Unlike the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination that ‘escaped’ the COVID-19 saga, WAEC got caught in the web of the pandemic — as far as the WASSCE schedule is concerned. But it is great that, after much anxiety and confusion, the exam has finally started.
How are you, my dearest candidates? I hope Mathematics, which you started with on Monday, was good. I hope you will carefully read this article because it has the potential to help you in the oral aspect of the English paper also holding in a few days. It is like a revision that will touch on key areas of the segment.
Oral English, no more written English
Remember that when you get to the oral section of the paper, you should switch your mentality to phonetics and phonology; that is, you should not mix up the terms or expressions given with the written form. For instance, when we talk about vowels and consonants in the oral section, we are no more talking about the a, b, c, d alphabet. Rather, you are dealing with the phonetic sounds such as /i/, /g/ and /r/.
You should know the way you write or spell these elements is different from the way you pronounce them in the oral English class. Although some have similar patterns as alphabetic and phonetic sounds (like p, b and t), others are not. So, in many cases, before you pick an answer to match an underlined sound, ensure you first pronounce it. Imagine if you are asked to pick a word with /g/ from this list: gentle, greed, agile and generator. You know some people will go for either gentle, agile or generator, whereas it is only in ‘greed’ that you have the given sound! The reason is that such people are still treating the /g/ as if they are dealing with the a, b, c, d, e, f tradition with which they were ushered into the primary school. So, gently pronounce the sounds – without disturbing anyone – before you pick any option.
Remember the difference between short and long vowels
WAEC and other similar examiners like testing candidates’ knowledge of the differences between short and long vowels. As a result, they usually give questions with options from both categories. This means you should master the differences in the pronunciations of the likes of bit and beat; pot and port; cat and cart; as well as pull and pool. Indeed, I dare say that any candidate who cannot differentiate between the pronunciations of the words in each pair is hardly ready for the exam. Consider being confronted with a question asking you to choose the word with /i:/ from among the following: skit, speak, with and bike. What will be your answer? To start with, ‘skit’ and ‘with’ are wrong because what you have in them is the short /i/, while you are looking for the long. Secondly, although there is letter ‘I’ in ‘bike’, it is a diphthong (ai) and, so, not correct. In other words, the correct answer is ‘speak’, because the ‘ea’ in it is pronounced as EE (/i:/), as you have in week, heat, deceive and receive.
Master the differences between voiced and voiceless consonants
Often, the examiner also wants to be sure whether or not you know the differences between the pronunciations of f and v, s and z. This means that, as a student, your pronunciation should stand out – from that of the crowds who say ‘foice’ instead of ‘voice’, and those who say ‘soom’ instead of ‘zoom’! And I am sure that is what many people blow every day! It can be a little more complicated when we consider the fact that in common words where you think you have and should say /s/, all you have and should pronounce is /z/. Consider the word, resume, in which the ‘ s’ should be pronounced as ‘z’, because you have a vowel sound before the letter ‘s’. I will not dwell too much on this because I don’t want to confuse you our dear candidates, though I hope our great teachers have taught you accordingly.
Coupled with words having s and z are those with sh. You should get their articulation right. Which of these, for instance, has /s/: assist, hazard, wash, zoom? It is ‘assist’.
Expect something on t, th, d and tha
Pardon me for not using the appropriate phonetic symbols here. I have to leave them out because they might get messed up in the course of production. But the fact is that many people do not know the differences in the pronunciations of words such as tree and three, wet and wealth, thee and deep. The point is that, as a candidate, you should master the consonant sounds represented by the underlined letters. If you are, thus, asked to choose another word that has the sound in the underlined letter in ‘this’, from among the following, you should know what to do: within, doubt, rethink and thrice. What is your answer? Mine is ‘within’.
A tip on rhymes
It is a pity that we cannot cover all the aspects of oral English in today’s lesson. But quickly note that, under rhymes, it is the last part of the word, like the last syllable, that you should mostly pay attention to. It is the last sounds of the given words that should principally rhyme. In other words, if they rhyme at the beginning or in the middle but do not rhyme at the end, then they cannot be the options you are looking for.
Assuming (pronounced as aZuming not aSuming!) you are asked to pick a word that rhymes with disgrace from among grace, great, ungrateful and disgraced, what will you go for? You dare not go for great, ungrateful and disgraced. The reason is that it is only ‘grace’ that really rhymes with ‘disgrace’.