The Story of Sounds: Episode 22: Discovering the vowel /ʌ/ part 1

In the previous 21 episodes of the Story of Sounds we have explored 24 consonants and 8 monophthong vowels. I have tried to tell their stories from the inside, not offering the external technical descriptions you might find in a phonetics handbook, but guiding you towards the internal kinaesthetic sensation, the internal signposts to look for when you are actually trying to find or make or rehearse of alter a sound in your own mouth, throat, lungs, nose.. This internal feeling or sensation concerning which muscles you are moving and how much pressure you are applying is referred to by neurologists and physiologists as proprioception. When we learn any new physical skill (touch typing, dance, a musical instrument, knitting, a sport, etc) we rely on our proprioceptive sense to take us beyond the initial clumsy movements to smoother faster more fluent coordinations.

Go here for my post on proprioception. And here for the video of my plenary workshop last week on proprioception.

Our sense of proprioception enables us to get behind our habitual repertoire of movements and to learn the sophisticated movements and coordinations that relate to the new activity. It is the same with pronunciation, where we find ourselves in the grip of our mother tongue, necessarily habituated to the muscle movements and postures that make the mother tongue sounds.

So to learn a new set of sounds we are not starting from zero, but from a set of L1 habits that yield a set of distinctive sounds, many of which are not quite the ones we need for the new language (even if some are ‘close enough’). And we find ourselves in the grip of muscular habits. And this is where we need our sense of proprioception, to help us feel and sense the muscles enough to interrupt their habit and to tweak their movement. But if you are not connected with your sense of proprioception, it is less likely that you can liberate yourself sufficiently from the mother tongue grip, of if you do it will be more by chance, and you may be less able to find your way back to the new sound later.

I said this post was about /ʌ/, but I have spent a little time on these other matters which I think are fundamental. I intend in the next few posts to deal with the rest of the vowels and diphthongs and to complete the Story of Sounds. Meanwhile I invite you to revisit Episode 14 and Episode 15 which contain insights that affect the learning of all vowels, and also to look at the proprioception links given above.

But just to introduce /ʌ/ and the next post: /ʌ/ is an interesting sound. Some native speakers articulate it in a way that is close to /ǝ/, and others do not use the sound, substituting /ʊ/ in its place. It is also quite close acoustically to its two horizontal neighbours on the chart / æ/ and /ɑː/

I hope this has been useful or interesting. Next post in a few days will be Discovering the vowel /ʌ/ part 2!

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Videos from Feb 21st Accentuate Conference, London

Videos from Saturday’s Conference “Accentuate: Bringing pronunciation to the fore” can be viewed at the links below.

The conference was put on jointly by IATEFL Pronunciation SIG and NATECLA, at the British Council in London.

Click here for the link to the playlist which includes the opening plenary from David and Ben Crystal, and sessions from Mark Hancock, Roslyn Young and Piers Messum.

Click here for my closing plenary talk “Proprioception in learning new sounds, words and connected speech”

For the full programme see the post below

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Visual impairment and using the pron chart

To followers of this blog: A true story to start the year…

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Here is a very special post which tells a story. It starts last September when Laila, who lives and works in Spain, meets her new class. This follows two months after our Pronunciation and Storytelling programme at Bell Teachers Centre, Cambridge, last July.

I find it touching, which is maybe a hallmark of a transformational  event. There is a quality here which you can feel, and is without words, a simple and fully human quality which we can all recognise, and perhaps aspire to in our teaching. Focus not on what I write, but on the experience of Laila the teacher, and Carme the learner, through the words of Laila and her pictures, and at the end through the words of Carme.

4 Sep 2014, Laila Khairat Gomez wrote: I have a new C1 class of 6 students who are really nice. My biggest challenge is my eldest student, 53 years old, her name is Carme 🙂 and she is visually impaired.

No one told me about this before my lesson, so I had prepared lots of eye contact, physical-mingle type of activities which I had to leave out on the spot and come up with other things to do instead.  She has a really positive attitude towards learning and towards life itself , so that makes it much easier for me considering the circumstances.

So this has definitely made me reconsider many of things we take for granted when we plan a lesson and I need to be as creative as possible regarding presentations and prompts. It’s being an interesting thing to work around. It’s probably the best time to give Teaching Unplugged a shot 🙂

Here is a pic of my classroom 🙂 As you can see, the phonemic chart was there to welcome me as I entered for the first time.

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I am happy to say I have used it from day 1, although I had to present it in two slots – first vowels and diphthongs and on the second day consonants. This is because Carme leaves half an hour earlier than the rest and I thought that even though she could have perfectly followed all the physical awareness exercises, as she would’t be able to participate pointing at the chart or seeing where the others were pointing I thought it would be best to do the presentation once she had left.

Any advice on this Adrian? I will also say that I am quite satisfied with the work we’ve done so far with the chart… One my students even confessed to have been practising the position of the vowels while walking on the street 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Today my tutor came to observe my class for the first time and she congratulated me specifically on the way I integrated pron work throughout the lesson. She did suggest though I could include more drilling both choral and individually.

4 Sep 2014 Adrian Underhill wrote: Hi Laila. Thanks for this. Your classroom looks lovely! So glad to hear you have got started straight away with pron, and doing it this way you will learn as you go and get better and better at it!

Take your tutor’s advice and do a bit more drilling, as long as it is attentive Demand High drilling, ie practice without becoming mere repetition. Perhaps I don’t do enough of it myself, but I suggest only do it when a student has made a discovery that is worth practising, and even then keep stopping to check who is doing less than they can, and help them to keep the bar high.

Re Carme, these are my thoughts to push against, test and improve. For the purpose of this advice I will assume she is quite blind, so adapt this for how much she can see:

  1. Tell her what the chart is, describe it, let her feel it or whatever is her way of knowing it.
  2. Describe that there are 44 boxes, and that when you point, a sound is indicated. Have her listen to the class at work using it.
  3. Give her a pointer and have her point at symbols on it (which she can’t see, so it will be random) and you say the sounds. Keep going til she begins to understand that there is a logic, and it becomes less random. Have other students watch and learn as this goes on. Include everyone in all of this.
  4. Maybe have her listen to some of the class working with it even if she cannot see
  5. Ask her how the chart, and the activities using it, could be adapted to work for her. This could be:
  6. a) She has a personal copy of the chart and puts some braille/feeling/touch sensitive things in each box.
  7. b) Could just be a raised number on each box.
  8. c) Or she might like to have the lines of the boxes raised so she can touch them, and she would get to know each box by location.
  9. d) Or whenever you point on the class chart, another student sitting by Carme puts Carme’s finger in the correct location on Carme’s own touch version of the chart.
  10. e) Or she makes her own touch version of the chart, much smaller, raised edges
  11. f) According to how she deals with writing and reading (?) check if she can make use of phonemic symbols. Does she do braille? Do phonemic symbols work in braille??
  12. The rule of thumb is, do all the usual activities, and ask C what adaptation would enable her to enter the activity.
  13. Maybe let her play with the Sound Foundations app (if she does touch screens) and play with the chart on the screen til she learns the layout (without seeing it)

Careful not to patronise by being too kind, over helpful, anxious, making it easy etc.  Assume she can do miraculous things, and be guided always by what she can do. Be with her, not with yourself (this advice is for all of us).

Laila, those are my immediate thoughts. Maybe the situation is different from what I am imagining, but can you adapt this?  Tell me what you think. This is a wonderful opportunity that has been offered to you. Now you can really practise being taught by your student.

6 Sep 2014, Laila Khairat Gomez wrote: Hi Adrian, Thanks for all the great advice 🙂  As far as I know, she can’t read at all or look at images on paper or screen… but she said she writes emails on the computer. Taking this into account I have made a chart with the raised boxes like you suggested and will try to use it next week with her and the rest of the class.

One of the things my tutor suggested I should work on is building up cooperation in the classroom and educate the rest of the students in verbalising anything they do, which at the same time is good speaking practice.

Some of the ideas you suggested could be integrated into this objective, like have her point and I say the sounds, also others could speak as she does so to help her to make her way through and memorise the locations of the sounds and have someone next to her help her get to the box that is being pointed by whichever student is at the chart.

I’m really enjoying the challenge. Will keep you updated with the progress. Thanks again. Here’s a pic (I am not really crafty so this is quite an achievement. 🙂 )

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7 Sep 2014 Adrian Underhill wrote: Hi Laila. Great! That looks really good. She’ll love it! I agree that you should build up cooperation in the class, so that this becomes of interest and importance and care to everyone. This is a great opportunity for real community building.

Check she’s ok with it, and invite her to talk in class about how they can help her and how they should/not treat her, and ask how she can help them too. With the aim that whenever an activity comes up that assumes some sightedness, the class can pause and sort with her (in public, not 1:1 you and her) how she would like to join in the activity. It’s much better when there is real life to focus on, the whole class can grow up and stop behaving like ‘students’. Tell me how it goes !

9 Sep 2014 Laila Khairat Gomez wrote: Hi Adrian, So on Monday I gave Carme her own chart and she was delighted and very grateful. 🙂 Despite that, at the beginning as I guided her hands through it she found it unnecessary to keep moving through it while others spoke because the inner part of each box had nothing on it to her.

It was really a matter of how I presented it to her and how awfully I explained myself ;( because as soon as I said that the intention was kind of like learning the keys on a computer keyboard, by location and so that this way she would be able to participate when we use the chart she was quite engaged.

She confessed to be very interested in working on her pronunciation and found all the discovery exercises (movement of tongue, lips, jaw) very helpful. She asked me to keep the chart so that she wouldn’t forget it at home.

Today she walked in with a grid drawn on a sheet of paper and with some notes (tongue moves back, jaw drops, lips go rounder) and asked me to please go over it to make sure it was correct. Someone had done it for her but she was so happy to have understood the dynamics of the vowels.

We have worked on it very little so far but I try my best to integrate it all I can. I’ll keep you updated.

9 Sep 2014 Adrian Underhill wrote: Hi Laila. Brilliant! Now what about raised phonemic symbols so she could feel them? That would help in knowing each sound ‘box’ on the chart. If they have velcro or magnets on the back she could make words, corresponding to what is written on the board. She would need a velcro board or a magnetic board. Some ordinary white boards are magnetic, so she could come up to it like the others. Sounds like she is delighted to have her needs taken seriously, and equally. Keep going and keep inquiring!

15 Sep 2014 Laila Khairat Gomez wrote: Latest news… I upgraded it and now it’s absolutely tactile! See picture below. I used plasticine and some strong glue 🙂 She loved it!

She blamed me for having spent some time during the weekend training her muscles saying out the vowels while in company of her friends and family!!!

It’s great that she can now fully participate when we use the chart… We just keep verbalising where in the chart we start ( top left / second line/ bottom line 2nd box) and she is finding her way through. She prefers I keep it for now but today she made sure that it’s really FOR her and that when the month is over and I get a different group of student she will be able to take it home. Isn’t that great? Thanks Adrian for the help and support 🙂

I still need to work on my presentation skills when it comes to the chart and refer to it even more throughout the classes. 🙂

25 Sep 2014 Laila Khairat Gomez wrote: Hellooooo. Today was my last class with this group and it has been great. They have all thanked me again and again for introducing them to the chart.It’s incredible how well they did on a phonetic dictation game we did :))))) they were arguing about the vowels, the stress, the shwa !!!!! Amazing!

Carme participated in this quiz with her tactile chart and was sooooo engaged in the task she forgot she had to leave early. She took it home today with her and a broad smile on her face:) The chart has added a whole new dimension to my teaching style and experience and it’s been great to see how wonderfully students respond to it.

A great anecdote : one of my students went to a lesson done by one of the TESOL Certificate students which are offered for free .. And at one point she asked the teacher “can you show me in the chart???” And the poor trainee went blank, blushed and couldn’t help her but then my student stood up, went to the chart and showed her which of the two vowel sounds she was debating about and they figured it out together!!!!! I feel so useful 🙂

25 Sep 2014 Laila Khairat Gomez wrote: Hi Adrian. I just landed in Madrid and can’t wait to hug my dog :))) Here is the photo of the tactile version with the plasticine. Thanks for all the support through all your emails.

la foto 1 BlogLater Hi Adrian, I arranged a short meeting with Carme to get some feedback from her in retrospect. Interesting points:

  1. Her previous experience with pron was when teachers would focus in a pair of phonemes during a lesson and they would listen-repeat- discriminate. She knew about shwa.
  1. This was her first experience with pronunciation from a propioception physical- awareness approach and it has made all the difference to her.
  1. She carries her chart to class and uses it for reference both in and out of the classroom.
  1. She is happy we put this on your blog and to mention her name.
  1. She is so efficient and excited about this that she even wrote the following letter . (I can’t stop smiling 🙂 )

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Posted in General, The chart and physicality | 4 Comments

Webinar: Teaching Difficult Sounds

On 13/11/2014 I will give a webinar in the Macmillan Education Online Conference

This is a one week online conference with many different speakers each day. Click here for the programme and to book your place.

Teaching Difficult Sounds


Part of the Exams session at the Macmillan Education Online Conference 2014, this webinar will boost your confidence in teaching pronunciation and provide you with practical tips and techniques for tackling some of the trickiest sounds, such as th, r, l.

Who is it for?

The Macmillan Education Online Conference 2014 is open to all teachers and professionals working in ELT and is FREE to attend

During this webinar, Adrian will discuss:

The pronunciation chart and how it helps learners

Finding the muscles that make the new sounds

Using easy sound positions to find the difficult ones

How to correct and practise these sounds

How to make optimal use of learner errors

Insights into pronunciation that shed new light on typical problems.

After the conference this webinar will be available on the Macmillan ELT website and on YouTube. I’ll post the links here when I get them

Hope to see you there!    Adrian


ALSO…. Check my 3 minute video series on pronunciation, here, and let me know what you think… thanks!



Posted in Products, courses, conferences | 2 Comments

Observations on the American English chart … and the vowel /ɑː/

Beatriz Cabrera Portillo asks about the American English chart, and also about the vowel sound /ɑː/. She says:

1) When comparing your magnificent two phonemic charts in both BrE and AmE, I’ve realised that a “long a” is not included in the American chart. Parallel to this, the group of dipthongs ending in “schwa” are not inserted in the American chart either.

2) As the “a” sound is not analysed in your blog and after researching in several resources, I am a bit doubtful about the position of the  mouth in the vowel articulation of words like but as opposed to it in words such as car. Is it possible to say that both sounds share the same mouth position with the only difference in the length? Thanks in advance. Beatriz

Thanks for your comments Beatriz. Yes, it’s interesting to compare the BrE and AmE charts. There are several noteworthy differences, two of which you have pointed out.

Length marks are not normally indicated in AmE learner dictionaries, (eg the Macmillan English Dictionary) not because AmE vowels cannot be long, as they certainly vary in length, but because length is considered a less predictable way of identifying a vowel sound as being one phoneme or another. So, as you point out /ɑː/ on the BrE chart becomes /ɑ/ on the AmE chart. Furthermore the sound /ɒ/ (as in hot) on the BrE chart does not appear on the AmE chart, that sound merging mostly with AmE /ɑ/ and occasionally with /ɔ/.

The three ‘weak’ diphthongs of BrE, that is the ones that glide to schwa /ǝ/, likewise are not considered part of the phonemic set of Standard AmE and so do not appear on the AmE chart. Again, see the MED for learners of American English.

Regarding BrE / ʌ/ and /ɑː/, no they do not share the same mouth position. Length is a factor, but the vowels have a different acoustic quality. Put briefly, the centre and back of the tongue needs to be lower for /ɑː/ than for / ʌ/ . Thus the tongue is positioned differently, and consequently /ɑː/ has a greater volume of vibrating air in the mouth above the tongue.

I intend before too long to get onto the remaining vowel sounds in the continuing Story of Sounds …. Meanwhile, I hope this is of use….      Adrian


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The problem of explaining sounds to learners

This is a really great question from Ruth about the problems of explaining sounds to learners. I hope my answer opens up a different but doable line of action.I have put this on the front page as I think it may be of interest to everyone. Please add your thoughts.

Ruth says:   I was in Oxford in Oct 2012 when I heard and watched you present these ideas – really fun and engaging. My main issue is how to explain what happens in the mouth if the students aren’t yet au fait with the English of explanations: relax the sides of the tongue to allow air to escape. I’ve practised demonstrating to the wall (!) how to move, say, from an /n/ to an /r/ , using my fingers to yank parts of my tongue around to demonstrate what I’m saying. As I’m about to teach some elderly Japanese ladies the actual difference between /r/ and /l/, they may be put off! Any ideas?
Do you supply an internal diagram of the mouth? Or, have any other practical ideas?
Many thanks, Ruth

Hi Ruth. Thanks for your comments. I’ll try to gave an answer to your question, though first I’ll answer another question which may throw a different light on yours, and that is “How do learners come to know what is going on in their mouths when they make they sounds of a (new) language?” And my reply is that while a variety of different activities and insights help, the most important is the one that is neglected in our methodology, namely learning to sense kinesthetically the movement of lips, tongue and jaw, and to sense or feel their position in relation to each other and to the palate and teeth. This is not the same as cognitive ‘knowing about’ that we get from books and university courses, which is what gets emphasised if the teacher over-intervenes with pictures and explanations. This has a place but if it is the primary intervention by the teacher it can distance the learner from the direct internal kinesthetic awareness of the position and movement of the muscles and parts of the mouth which make the sounds. The best word for this process, as I say elsewhere on this blog, is proprioception.

Of course we and our students already use most of these pronunciation muscles in speaking our L1, movements which became automotized in early childhood. But when we learn another language later we need to reconnect with those muscles in order to loosen the mother tongue phonetic grip and set up new movements and positions, which in turn will gradually automotise too. This is no big deal and we face this when learning to knit, or type, or play a musical instrument, or dance. I use the metaphor of dance because it has both individual positions and steps, and a connected up flow which is the purpose of it. This is like language.

But to teach dance it is not enough to dance well, you have to know what you are actually doing with your body and be able to transmit it in terms that help the student do it too. And it’s no good spouting the theory of dance, or just describing the movement in words that are heard by the student’s cognitive mind.

First you the teacher need to know what your body is doing, for which you need internal proprioceptive insight and intelligence, which, second, places you to know what the student’s body is doing. You know this through your own proprioceptive empathy, and what you can see and hear. Now you are well placed to help the student make the changes needed.

To come back to your question Ruth, I’m less concerned with explanations of how sounds are made (though that can be a useful back up) than with directions for experimenting with lip, tongue and jaw movement, which is already embedded in playing with the different vowels. So if they have not much English I will get them to experiment playfully, perhaps by watching my mouth / lip movements, and I will catch a student who makes a sound different from L1, or similar to L2, and help them to experience that new position by asking them to say it louder, softer, longer, shorter, with a consonant etc, all the time noticing it and feeling it to try to fix it in proprioceptive memory. If it is on the chart I point to it, to give it a ‘name’. Then maybe I get them to say another sound and then see if they can return to the one they have just discovered; and so on.

I don’t use internal diagrams much. I have nothing against it, but my priority is always to build up an experienced internal proprioceptive map, for which the chart itself is a sort of suggestive, two dimensional prototype.

With your ladies, I would always work from what they do. Get them to play with words with /r/ and /l/ initial, medial and final. See what they do. Ask what they think about it and what they notice. My most frequent, in fact my magic, class instruction is ‘change it’. Which is brilliant because it puts the ball in their court to feel what they are doing and to find some way to make a small change. And that is the beginning of proprioception. Also have a look here for a few activities on a similar line

So to conclude, I am not trying to transfer a lot of information, but to cause them to experiment. And like all teachers I find a way to do it that with the language they already have. I hope the above helps, even if it is not quite the reply you had in mind!

Posted in The chart and physicality | 3 Comments

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 tongue too 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.

Posted in General | 7 Comments

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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