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.