The Story of Sounds: Episode 21: Discovering the vowel /e/

It’s a lot of fun working with the vowel /e/. Just about every language has one or more versions of this sound. In English it is one of the more frequent vowels sounds, probably in third position after /ǝ/ and /ɪ/. When you look at the Sound Foundations chart you can see that /e/ is located on the far left of the chart, below /iː/ and above /æ/. This already tells you something…. for example it tells you:

1.. that /e/ is formed with the tongue at the front of the mouth

2.. that the jaw is a bit more open than for /iː/

3.. and a bit more closed than for /æ/

In other words for /e/the jaw is, so to speak, half way open, and the too tongue is neither up nor down, but in ‘mid’ position.

Let’s take three exploratory journeys inside to help you find out what you are doing so you can help your students

Journey 1 starting from /iː/ and sliding to /e/  

Using the clues given by its location between /iː/ and /æ/on the Sound Foundations chart, try this:

1.. Say /iː/and notice that your lips are a little spread and your tongue is forward (check in a mirror or with your finger tip)

2.. Notice that the tip of your tongue is not touching your top front teeth, because to do so would stop the air flow and the sound.

3. Also notice that the tip of your tongue may be touching, or is near to, your bottom front teeth.

4.. Now say /iː/, make it quite long, and slowly slide to the sound/e/. So you are doing this /iː …… e/

5.. As you do this notice that you have to lower your jaw a little.

6.. Notice too that as your jaw lowers, so does your tongue, and that the tip of your tongue remains either touching or near to your lower front teeth. This means that jaw and tongue move together, like one unit.

7.. So this is the territory of/e/, and it is around here that different languages make their different varieties of/e/

8.. Now you can continue this journey by sliding to /æ/ and you notice that the same thing happens, your jaw and tongue drop a little further, and your tongue remains close to or touching your lower front teeth.

Conclusion? This helps you and your learners to locate the territory of /e/ and it also gives you a way to get there, by sliding between /iː/ and /æ/. Now let’s try a couple of other journeys.

Journey 2

1.. Say (your version of) the sound /e/ and experiment with changing it a little, by moving tongue, lips or jaw to a slightly different setting. Just try to change the sound a little. If your L1 is not English, then say this sound in your own language. How is it different from English? Sometimes I ask any Spanish speakers in my class to say/e/ in Spanish, then in English and to feel the difference.

2.. Here are some instruction I use, try them on yourself and your students. “Say it with less energy…” because learners often lose the sound by over-energising the English, trying too hard. Or for the Spanish speakers I say “open your mouth just a little and use less energy…”and this may help them get from Spanish /e/ to a more English /e/. Or I might just say “Change it….” This is perhaps the most useful instruction of all, as it requires students to connect with their muscles (lips or jaw) and make some small alteration that changes the sound perceptibly. And once free from the grip of the L1 sound they are able to look for a different muscular setting.

Journey 3

1.. Another approach is to hear the sound/e/ in your inner ear, your ‘mind’s ear’, and when it is clear inside, then say it aloud, noting any ways the external sound is different from the internal one.

2.. You can do this with your learners by giving them a single model of the sound/e/ which they must not repeat aloud, but only listen to internally. And though you say it only once they listen several times on their internal ‘tape loop’.

3. And only then do you ask them to say it aloud, and to compare that with what they heard internally.

4. It is also interesting to ask them to listen round the class to the other versions of the sound, and I say “Listen to the differneces…” (which validates everyone. “Can you hear the differences?” “Yes, they usually say”. From this I may choose one of the versions and ask the class, “Can you say it like her/him?”

 Other simple instructions which can help learners to experiment and let go of sounds they have got stuck with are “Slower”; Faster”; “Less energy”; “More energy”; “Make it longer”; “Make it shorter”; “Relax”; “Whisper it” and so on.

Have fun experimenting!


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Introducing the pronunciation chart at beginner level

A question from Kathryn Irwin

Hello Adrian, I just wondered if you have any tips or advice about introducing the chart to beginner or elementary level students? What kinds of activities would you recommend in the first few lessons?

I understand that you prioritise the physicality of making the individual sounds over teaching the symbols themselves but surely students also need to come to grips with which  sounds are represented by each symbol, if you know what I mean. This can seem a little overwhelming to students in the beginning, especially to those who do not have a Roman script, such as Arabic, Chinese or Korean learners.

Something which I also find challenging with any level of class is the fact that in my current teaching situation I get a new class of students every 4 weeks and, even at higher levels, some students may never have seen the phonemic chart before whilst others are very familiar with it and can recognise any transcriptions I write on the board. I just wondered if you have any advice for dealing with this kind of situation where it is not possible to gradually build up a knowledge of the chart due to lack of continuity with the same class.

Hi Kat: There is a post on my blog on introducing the chart that gives a dozen different ways of doing it. Click here for that particular post. Here for example is no 7 from that post, introducing the chart with students’ names.

1.. Instead of using vocabulary items, ask students to say their own names, with an English pronunciation (as an English speaker might say it). You can help them.

2.. Ask each to count the number of sounds in their anglicised name

3.. And then to come to the pron chart and point out their name on the chart. Other students say the sounds as pointed

4.. This time of course everyone knows what sound the student is looking for, but still the same rules apply: the class say whatever is pointed at, wrong or right, while the person pointing does so silently, enabling them to hear what the class are saying and to correct themselves if necessary

Regarding learning symbols, look at it like this. The symbols are names (in this case visual) for an experience (which needs to be physical as well as auditory, or else it is not much of an experience). When you have the experience, ie the sense of a muscle posture coupled perhaps with a certain movement or release, and an acoustic sensation, then to name it (associate sound with the symbol) is easy. If however you don’t have the experience and you try to learn the symbol, you’re just at sea and confused, because you are trying to learn the name for an experience you don’t yet have.  If you try to learn the names of a new group of students before meeting them it is very difficult as there is no experience to which to attach the names. If however you meet them and get to know them then in due course to attach a name to your experience (of each individual person) is no longer a problem, in fact you welcome it since it gives a label for the experience which enables you to refer to this person, to remember and think about them.

In summary, all I’m saying is once you have the experience of a sound then to learn the symbol is free of charge. If you try to teach symbols without experience of the sound, which I never do nor ever have done, you and your students will get into a mess.

So, I don’t teach the chart, or the symbols. I think many teachers perhaps may go wrong here. What I do is to introduce the chart, or more accurately, put it into circulation, so that it is available as a tool, and pretty soon the students learn the symbols anyway through simply using them, but not through me teaching them.  But I don’t mind if the students never learn the symbols, That is not what it’s about.  The chart is a tool for discriminating sounds. It is the whiteboard of pron, that’s all.

And regarding phonetic symbols, you don’t need those particular symbols, it could be a colour or a number or an abstract mark, it doesn’t matter, but you need some kind of name for the sounds, just like you need a name for students in your class.  In English it cannot be a letter of the alphabet even if some of the symbols look like it! Of course in another language letters of the alphabet may work instead of phonemic symbols (eg Spanish). I have even used this same chart with no symbols, just empty boxes. And it works just as well! In this case students simply relate sounds to the location on the chart. But of course that doesn’t help them when they look in a dictionary!

Regarding rolling enrolment to your class, have a look at the tips here. Hopefully this will suggest some ideas to experiment with.

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Is it best to teach pronunciation during early childhood?

Here is another interesting question from the Oxford TEFL Online Diploma course I was involved with last month, this one from Clare Sheppard:

Hi Adrian,   Kelly says that after childhood our ability to adopt an unfamiliar set of sounds diminishes somewhat (p.4). Therefore I wonder whether it is best to teach pronunciation during early childhood. How would you approach teaching pronunciation to very young learners, and could the chart come into play at all with such a set of students?  Thanks!

Hi Clare,   I think it is always helpful to have pronunciation in circulation as an available focus of challenge, from the very start of the course at whatever age and throughout every lesson. Pron is the physical aspect of language. Without this physical connection the learning process can get stuck in our cognitive mind processes. Sure pron is easier at the younger age, but it is necessary all the time and for all ages, whether more difficult or not.  We must do what needs to be done, regardless of perceived difficulty, at any age and for any learner. Without the physical discipline of pronunciation the different parts of the language cannot hang together and support the learning of each other. Without pron the integrity of the language is eroded. If students are always practising pron as it comes up in the lesson that means they are all the time practising and whatever the language of the moment is. Whenever you practice pron you also rehearse vocab and grammar, so you practise pron kind of free of charge! And the bonus is that repeating is not really repetition, because though they might have the right words in the right order, the pron can always be challenged by immediate feedback from the teacher inviting the student to say it faster, slower, clearer, more connected, more expressive, containing stress, containing delight, clarifying word endings, more relaxed, and so on according to the different needs of each student. So the language is being practised while the pron is being challenged.

The chart is not something to teach. It is a help for the process of learning. The chart is to pron what the white board is to grammar and vocab. Use the chart with kids just the same. They love it. If you don’t have a chart arrange their shoes at the front of the room for the twelve vowels and gather round and practice, or distribute the twelve vowels to 12 pupils like this:

“So, who want to be /i:/ today?…. You? OK, So, who are you?”

“I’m /i:/”

“ OK, who’s she?”

“She’s /i:/”

“Yes, now, can you point to yourself on the chart?”

“Ok, so now, who’s going to be /u:/ today?”

…..and so on… and then:

“Ok here is the word me, what’s the vowel?”

“It’s /i:/….”

“Right, so, who is that?… ok stand up if you think it’s you….?”

……and so on….

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Do teachers need a detailed knowledge and understanding of articulatory phonetics to teach pronunciation effectively?

Three weeks ago I was a guest tutor on the Oxford TEFL Online Diploma course.  They run this and other teacher training courses throughout the year. Click here for info. The participants were asking a range of interesting pron questions, to which I was trying to make useful responses. Happily I have permission to reproduce a few on this blog. Here is one.

Greg Black’s question:  To what extent do you think that teachers need a detailed knowledge and understanding of articulatory phonetics to teach pronunciation effectively?

My response:  I think teachers do need a certain kind of knowledge. But in my view it is not primarily a theoretical or descriptive knowledge they need, such as is usually taught through books, and is certainly useful, but rather the ability to experience the physicality of the sounds and sequences of sounds in their own mouths, muscles and breath. If they can learn or be in the process of learning the physicality of the sounds, words and connected speech they are making, then they know at first hand what it is they need to do to help their students and they can set about finding the best ways to do so

This way, teachers do not even need to remember their explanations and techniques, almost better if they don’t in fact, because this means that rather than give a neat remembered piece of information, probably the same as they gave last time, they are going to look and sense within themselves in real time and in front of the students. And this brings about a quite different learning relationship. It’s like when a dance teacher tries out the step she wants you to learn, not merely to demonstrate it, but to see for herself just what you need to do and where your difficulty might be, and what she needs to do to assist you. And you learn even from her process of learning. I use a term from neurology proprioception to describe this process. It means sensing the movement of your muscles, knowing what they are doing.

As one develops this knowledge and this habit for on-going physical inquiry, I think one builds up a knowledge that is responsive, robust and helpful to the learner. And then suddenly all the theory falls into place, quite effortlessly. I tried to use this approach when writing my book Sound Foundations, that is to help the reader to start with a direct and physical experience of producing the sound (or word or stress or intonation), and then it is much easier to label it and discuss it. For example, once you have direct experience of your students you can more sily learn their names and talk about them and remember them. But it’s difficult to learn their names until you meet and experience them. Same with pron.

In my view the real knowledge a teacher needs comes from experiencing pronunciation physically, and observing that experience in order to help students replicate something similar.

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The Story of Sounds: Episode 20: Discovering the vowel /ɔː/ starting from /ɜː/

The vowel sound /ɔː/ is what I call an ‘extreme vowel’ of English, because it requires two fairly extreme movements that seem to be ‘off the map’ of many of my students’ experience. This is because the lips are further forward and more rounded that they expect, and the tongue is further back than they expect.

One way I help students to find this sound in their mouths is to build on three awarenesses that are already in circulation, three things they have already been experimenting with and which are now perhaps well established, as described in Episodes 14 – 19. They are:

1.. That the learners have worked on /ɜː/

2.. That they can locate button 1, lips forward and rounded, or back and spread

3.. That they can locate button 2, tongue forward or back.

So try this:

Journey 1

1.. Find /ɜː/. Feel the lack of muscle tone in lips and tongue in this relaxed, central, neutral position.

2.. Say a long /ɜː/ and as you do so round the lips and push them forward, which will modify the sound. It will no longer be /ɜː/ in fact it will not be any standard English vowel. Keep saying this modified sound while you also bring the tongue back, probably further than you expect. This will modify the sound even more… and….

3.. This should bring you into the region of /ɔː/. And now to fine tune this vowel sound here are a couple of things you can do

Journey 2

1.. Check how your /ɔː/ relates to /uː/ which is just above it on the chart. Say both.

2.. Sliding from /uː/ to /ɔː/ several times

You should notice that the forward and rounded lips do not need to change much between the two sounds,  but that the jaw may drop a little, and the back of the tongue also moves down and further back in the mouth as you move towards /ɔː/.

3.. A second check is to see if your tongue is back enough. Take the position you have got for /ɔː/ and suck air in through the mouth. You should feel and hear a rasping sound coming from friction between the back of the tongue and the back of the soft palate. This shows how far back the back of the tongue is. If you do not hear the rasping sound, try drawing your tongue a little further back.

And now just experiment with these variables.

This is a good example of using a known sound position to discover an unknown sound position, or a more familiar to discover a less familiar. And all the time I am trying to help learners to navigate around new sounds primarily by re-connecting with their muscles in order to dissolve the grip of the L1 habitual / automotised position. And they are hearing self and others experimenting. And sometime hearing me too. But copying me and repeating after me is not for me a primary way of teaching as it tends to obliterate rather than enhance this inner search for new muscle positions and awareness.

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Improvisation and pronunciation teaching Part 2: A technique for improvisation

 In this post I’d like to conclude what I started to say about improvisation and pron teaching a couple of posts ago.

To improvise well in my response to a learner’s utterance means to engage with what they are working on in making the utterance, to see what they need to work on to make it better, to select a doable improvement that they are ready to attempt, and to find a way of making this intervention.

And this requires two things of me, the teacher:

1.. That I attend not just to the learner, but to their learning. I need to get closer to their learning so that I can see the moves of their awareness, what they are trying to do, what they actually do, and what they think of what they have just done. All this tells me what is going on in the learner’s awareness. For example, it may be that the learner can indicate on the chart the four sounds of a word, but does not say the final one. Does she see that there is something to work on here? Is she aware or not that there is a sound missing when she speaks? Does she hear the final sound when I say it? Does she think she is saying it? Is her awareness at the moment simply not tuned into final sounds? And so on…

 2.. I need a range of differential responses ready, and I need to be free enough not to use any of them. My choice of which to use must be guided by the learning in front of me, not by which one ‘worked’ last time. So perhaps I don’t use any of the ready-made responses, but instead alter one, or tailor a new one. The range of possible ready-made responses could include: Asking her to point out the sounds on the chart; Getting her to compare that with what she actually says; Asking her to say each of the sounds she points to, separately and then together; watching to see when, if and where a penny drops/an awareness is made: seeing if she spots the difference when someone else says it with/without the final sound, and so on.

(A separate issue, which I mention in order to put to one side, is holding the space such that I can attend fully to her, while also engaging the attention of everyone else in what is happening, and having other differential demands to offer to each other student in a personally calibrated way, thus to one, “say it faster”, to another, “join the words”, to another “use less energy” to another “try slower and clearer” and so on).

Going back to my analogy of the cocktail party in the previous post, Step 1 above corresponds to listening to what the other guest is saying, to know where they are coming from and what is important, thereby to inform my own next contribution which is Step 2, to make a fresh and relevant contribution that takes the conversation somewhere worthwhile, and which is more than just a habitual or stock response that I use in situations like this.

It is in this sense that I want to develop my ability to improvise in pronunciation teaching, whether dealing with sounds, words or connected speech, because only then can I work from where the student actually is.

An improvisation technique that has helped me: And here is the single technique that has probably helped me most in respect of improvisation in pronunciation teaching. When a student makes a pron mistake that they cannot immediately improve on:

1.. I say the mistake the way they are saying it, internally in my vocal apparatus but visible to the students, or if I say it aloud, then it is as if to myself. This gets me closer to the muscular moves (in the mouth) that the student is making.

2..I then say the required (correct) version, which gets me closer to the muscular moves that the student needs to make.

3. If these are single sounds then I might say each aloud, as if to myself as a personal inquiry, but also audible to all. First I say the two separately, then close together and then if possible as a glide. This shows me exactly what movements in the mouth are required to get from the mistake to the new version, and as I realise this I say aloud eg: “Ah, so lips forward and tongue back a bit” which is what the student in question needs to do.

4.. This process takes 5 or 10 seconds. All the students have witnessed it and tried it in themselves (not because I asked them too but because muscle evokes muscle) and maybe even the student in question has been able to apply it. And if not, I now know exactly what the student has got to do, and I can go about it according to my experience and skill.

I hope you have managed to follow this! It’s difficult to put a shift of awareness into words as I’m sure you have found. The issue of improvisation is something I intend to explore further, maybe I’ll start a separate category for it on this blog. In the next post I hope to resume the vowel ‘Story of Sounds’.


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The familiar /iː/ and /ɪ/, but also the mysterious /i/. How many phonemes do we need?

Natalia Malenko puts the following excellent question. But before you read it look carefully at the difference between the three symbols above….

Natalia says….I have noticed, as probably some other lecturers/teachers have too, that in some dictionaries there is an interesting fashion of transcribing words with an /i/ (with a dot on top but no colon length marker) for the final sound in words like happy, empty, archeology and the like.

Maybe I have missed something vital in phonetic conventions? What am I supposed to say to my students? How to explain this, if there is no such a sign in the IPA chart?  How would you explain that? Please, help me solve my personal dilemma, what is this mysterious sign? My kindest regards,  Natalia Malenko

Hi Natalia     It is a question of how finely you want to distinguish sounds. The science of phonetics tries to distinguish all sounds. Phonology on the other hand is concerned with what are the fewest distinctions that give learners everything they need (typically given today as 44 in RP English for example).

As EL teachers we are probably interested in phonemic rather than phonetic distinctions. We agree that each phoneme is actually a package of allophones (variants) of that phoneme which make no change in meaning, and these allophone variants can be understood as being somewhere in the box that surrounds each phoneme on the chart.

In the 70′s and 80′s learner dictionaries general subsumed /i/ under /ɪ/ thereby stating that the sound at the end of happy is phonemically part of the allophone set of /ɪ/. Personally I think that is a reasonable decision for teachers and learners, and indeed I still cannot myself reliably hear a distinction between the sound at the end of happy and /ɪ/.

However, more recently dictionaries have tended to say  “No, the sound at the end of happy actually has the quality of /iː/ only it is shorter, thus transcribed like this /i/, ie using the same symbol with the dot on top but without the length colon. And this extra vowel phoneme /i/  gives us a total of 45 phonemes for RP. My view is that this is a case of phonetics infiltrating phonology, misleading students and teachers by adding a complication that may be of interest to phoneticians, but may not help students and teachers.  What’s the point in giving and teaching symbols for allophones?

If my students do ask about the /i/ I tell them whenever they see it they can use /ɪ/. However, if they are ready for a fuller answer I simply point at /iː/ on the chart (remember I have the pron chart on the board all the time which makes everything much easier) and invite them to say /iː/, which has length as indicated by the colon. But, then I cover the colon with my finger and again point to the symbol, now of course without the colon, and ask them to say it like that. This obliges them to hear and say long /iː/ and short /i/and I help them to sense and hear and say the difference, responding to presence or absence of the length marker. It’s a nice activity (which by the way you can do with all five of the so-called long vowels on the BrE chart) because it shows students that they are already in possession of the short sound /i/if they want to use it, but otherwise my advice is to use /ɪ/.

What’s more, and this is neat, it demonstrates that the phoneme /i/ is already on the chart, and that when you want to evoke it you simply cover the colon of the top left symbol /iː/ with your finger.

I have met teachers who think the /i/ v /ɪ/ distinction is valid but who think it is not useful for students, and I have met teachers who think students should learn this distinction. So, as with many things, there is no Big Correctness out there, it is up to you. But… the phoneme symbol in question is on the chart!  Adrian


Thank you for your response. I liked the way you put it and your reply is exhaustive. Natalia

Posted in The chart and physicality | 3 Comments

Forthcoming pronunciation courses and presentations with Adrian Underhill…

22/23 April 2014 EAQUALS Conference Budapest  I will be presenting on pronunciation learning and teaching at this unique quality association, and also on my work with Jim Scrivener on Demand High Teaching

1/2 May 2014 APPI Conference Porto I will be back at one of my favourite conferences after a gap of a few (too many) years, presenting sessions on Pronunciation and on ‘The Jazz of Teaching and Learning’ which is about the role of improvisation and spontaneity in the classroom.

30 June – 11 July at Bell Teacher Training in Cambridge, July 2014 A 2-week practical and intensive teacher training course. From Sounds to Storytelling: A complete pronunciation and connected speech workout. Enables participants to conduct an exciting and in-depth exploration and review of their own pronunciation from sounds to words to connected speech to self presentation and public speaking in the form of oral story telling without notes.   Click here for information

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Improvisation and pronunciation teaching Part 1: Cocktail parties, jazz and pron

In the last few years I have been exploring the role of spontaneity and improvisation in teaching, and have written and spoken about it here and there (IATEFL TD Newsletters 2009/2010; ETP issue 82, 2012 (with Alan Maley); IATEFL Conference Liverpool April 2013 (also with Alan) ; IATEFL Webinar Sep 2013; and various talks with titles like “The Jazz of ELT” and so on).

I’d like to round off 2013 with a few words first about this idea in general, and then about the particular application to pronunciation teaching.

To start with, take these three different activities:

Teaching a lesson

When teaching we usually have a plan, either on paper or in mind, and either more or less detailed. Once the lesson gets underway however a learning conversation develops, mediated by what actually happens, and to lead or facilitate this process with quality we have to let go of the lesson plan and follow the energy, curiosity and attention in the room. We enter a living and unprepared engagement with learning itself. Once this is dealt with and if nothing else suggests itself we may rejoin the plan though by now it may have been reshaped. But more usually by now something else has suggested itself for our curiosity and attention.

Whether or not we leave the plan, where the lesson is marked by student and teacher engagement in the learning, improvisation is bound to occur since that is the only way to be present to what emerges and not governed by what worked last time.

Playing jazz

And this classroom process is like the way that a jazz musician departs from the sheet music and starts to improvise, retaining (more or less of) the framework of the original music while responding in the moment to what the other musicians are playing.

A cocktail party

Something similar happens at a cocktail party. You may go with things you want to say to  people but you probably also hope to leave ‘script’ aside in order to respond creatively and freshly to what other people are saying and thinking. When I ‘over-stick’ to my script I miss the essence of the moment and risk being rather a bore.

The dark matter of teaching

In the first example, that of teaching, I propose that this kind of improvisation takes up a significant part of the lesson, yet since we don’t really observe it or describe it in our pre- or in- service training or have a place for it in our methodology we can’t really articulate it. Instead we are sensitised to the set piece moves of ELT like the steps of a listening exercise or the sequential steps given in the teachers book, and so on. I argue that this invisibility of improvisation makes it less easy for us to get better at it. And since this improvisation is hard to see, and because it is at work during so much of a lesson, I call it the “dark matter of teaching”

Teaching, also a performance art

By contrast the jazz musician, unlike the teacher, very much sees the process of improvisation, and can discuss it and evaluate it, and thereby develop ways to get better at it. And getting better at it, as with teaching, which requires both technique and listening well to what is happening. The same is true in drama training, where on day one of the course you’d expect to work on improvisation, to talk about and evaluate it and to see how to improve at it. Improvisation would not in that case be dark matter.  It would be ‘light’ matter, visible matter. I think of teaching as a performance art where preparation of some kind is essential, but the art lies in the performance.

Balancing the plan with what happens

As for the cocktail party example, or any other aspect of our daily lives like buying a newspaper or encountering a stranger, I can do this in a way that is governed by my routine or habit, where I am not present to it and therefore rely on my routine or habit to see it through. So there are two choices, I am less engaged and attentive to the moment so I rely on my routine from the past, or I am more present and responsive to what the moment offers and can be free from my ‘repertoire’.

Another illustration: Even a picnic has a both a plan and an improvisation. When I take some kids for a picnic in the woods I probably make a plan in order to have the ingredients for some fun, like going to a nice place, with maybe some grass and trees and a stream or lake, or rocks to scramble on, and food and water, balls and games, and an idea of time and things to do in what order and when to get home etc. And that plan helps me get things together and provide a rich setting to work in. It ensures useful ingredients, but it is not the cooking. And now, to have a really good time I need to be available to what happens, to drop the sheet music that got me there, and start to improvise, to respond to what happens as it unfolds, the discovery of a magnificent climbing tree, the ants getting in our cake, Jackie’s shoe in the river, and all the kids’ games that evolve. If I stick too much to my plan I will miss something. I know this because I have ruined picnics by failing to read what the moment offered and sticking to my need to control (and my fear of losing it). I’m happy to say I have, like you, also had wonderful picnics marked by receptiveness to what unfolded.


I am talking about improvisation in ordinary life and in the classroom that lifts us beyond the sheet music, liberates us from the ready made plan. It is not new to be aware of this, but it would be new to value it, discuss it and critique it, and thus develop ways to get better at it. Improvisation can be done well or badly and thus has quality criteria. Experience does not of itself mean we get better at it, and inexperience does not mean we cannot develop our  improvisation from the very beginning.

And who knows, maybe improvisation is an ingredient of the mysterious and elusive “Factor X” …. the quality that makes the good teacher good….

I’ve gone on longer than I intended, so before the year ends I shall stop, and in my next post pick up this theme and apply it specifically to pronunciation teaching. Meanwhile … Happy New Year!

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The Story of Sounds: Episode 19: A bit more about working with /ǝ/ and /ɜː/ and a discovery about stress and unstress

While you are working with these two sounds /ǝ/ and /ɜː/ there are some other useful insights to be gained. Although these two central vowels have different symbols, they are for our practical classroom purposes formed with the tongue, lips and jaw in the same position, that is with the tongue, lips and jaw relaxed and as far as possible without muscle tone (and if this is not clear then revisit Episode 18 before you continue).

However there is a difference which is crucial for spoken English: while the vowel quality is practically the same, /ǝ/ is always unstressed, short, minimal, while /ɜː/ is stressed, long and clear.

So this brings us to an interesting and illuminating question: If the two sounds have (almost) identical vowel qualities, what else is it that we are hearing when we hear the difference?

Lung or pulmonic pressure, the basis of stress

A large part of the answer is that in /ɜː/ we are hearing (aside from its length) the extra volume and power of the sound, caused by extra lung pressure brought to bear on the exhalation that is producing the sound.  To put it differently the stream of air forced out of the lungs and through the vocal cords is under greater pressure for /ɜː/ than for /ǝ/. This pressure is produced by the muscles. Technically this is referred to as pulmonic pressure, which just means that lungs provide the pressure. And this is precisely the pressure that is used to stress an English syllable, so it is worth getting to feel this muscular pressure in the body, to develop the awareness or proprioception of this lung pressure, in order to be able to help our learners to operate the stress system. And we could call this pulmonic pressure the fifth muscle button (see my May 2012 post Making pronunciation physical: Finding the ‘muscle buttons’.

So far this is just words, so here are three simple exercises for you and your students to get to the heart of what makes a syllable stressed. First making use of the /ǝ/ and /ɜː/ distinction.

Pulmonic pressure Ex 1

Say /ǝ/ and /ɜː/ alternately, and notice:

1) the greater volume of /ɜː/

2) the greater muscular effort of your lungs when producing /ɜː/. You can notice this by putting you hands on your chest, and on your abdomen, and on your sides. You may also be able to notice stronger air flow out of the mouth. What you are noticing here is pulmonic pressure.

Pulmonic pressure Ex 2

Now try this with a fricative consonant, and if we take a voiceless one you may find this easier to observe.

Say /f/ and make it last a couple of seconds. Now say it more strongly as if it is stressed like this /’ff/. You will immediately be able to hear the higher air pressure producing a stronger version of /f/

But now alternate greater and lesser lung pressure so that you can really get the feeling in your body of what your lungs have to do to stress a syllable

Like this /ff…’ff…ff…’ff…ff…’ff…/

You should have the sensation of alternating strong lung pressure with weak lung pressure.

Pulmonic pressure Ex 3

Do the same thing with another unvoiced fricative consonant /s/.

Say /s/ and make it last a couple of seconds. Now say it more strongly as if it is stressed like this /’ss/. Again you will be able to hear the higher air pressure producing a stronger version of /s/

Now alternate the two so that you can really get the feeling in your body of what your lungs have to do to stress a syllable

Like this /ss…’ss…ss…’ss…/

And once again you should have the sensation of alternating strong lung pressure with weak lung pressure.

This may not seem much, but one day you may suddenly realise what a breakthrough this is! This pulmonic lung pressure is the basis of stress, and its absence is the basis of unstress…

And as I said we might call this the fifth muscle button…

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