This post continues with questions raised by teachers on the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL. The themes here are 1) whether to deal with consonants or vowels first; and 2) the use of phonemic symbols.

Consonants or vowels first?

Q1: While learning the sounds and the chart little by little, what should be focused on first, vowel or consonant? Consonants are easy to remember, but would that be logical? (Saima Abedi)

Since all sounds are in circulation from the start you don’t really have the luxury of excluding the vowels. If you leave vowels til later they will meanwhile default to their closest L1 equivalents, and leaners will have longer to rehearse and install in their memory synapse the ‘wrong’ vowel sounds – harder to put right later.

This is one reason for not applying a learning sequence for sounds, and for working across the board on all sounds, as needed, so they all gradually get better together.

You say consonants are easier to remember, and that may be true as they have a more precise place of articulation. BUT, and this is another point in favour of vowels, …. you can’t say many consonants on their own without vowels, so you are going to need vowels just to say the consonants.

Vowels are interconected….

Another fact to consider is that vowels are all interconnected, each one marks boundaries for others. This means that work on one vowel benefits all the others. They all shape and inform each other, so to know a vowel you need to keep cross checking with the other vowels since they all define each other. This interconnection also applies to several subsets of consonants. So my suggestion is to have all the sounds on the table, so to speak, and work wherever work is needed. In saying this I am not particularly taking issue with Kelly, just telling a different story, and perhaps agreeing less with the (insufficiently questioned) direction of our current pronunciation methodology.

Focus on the IPA

Q 2: When we are faced with a short-term class who haven’t used the IPA before, how far would you recommend using it? Would you use the IPA only in reaction to their most urgent needs, or spend more time with it?  (Eleanor Barnes)

I would work with pronunciation from the first moment of a new class. I would help them see how they can improve their intelligibility to others, by attending to sounds, by connecting sounds to make words, and by using the system of stress and especially unstress which is so characteristic of English.  So, I would attend to pron from the first word, and to connected speech from the first phrase.  This need not take up extra time since I piggy back pron work on the back of all the grammar and vocab work in the class. We would not do grammar and then later have a pron slot. Pron would be in play all the time and take place on the back of all other language practice, adding a further dimension to what we are already doing, and enriching the memory synapses by bringing a physical and acoustic dimension to the memory hooks.

Coming more directly to your question, to do all of the above Sts do not need to study the IPA. The IPA is not pron. Pron is making the sounds, while the IPA is just a way of labelling sounds – in this case with symbols – once you have made them. This can be quite useful. But labelling the sounds is not the same as making them. You have to be in the process of focusing on a sound, as distinct from other sounds, before its label starts to become relevant

Symbols as Labels

It is necessary that Sts learn sounds. It is not necessary that they are given the labels for those sounds, though I think it is helpful. The label without the sound is useless. Once a sound has been ‘found’ it maybe worth having a label for it. This can be a colour, a picture, a shape or even a number. But phonemic symbols give immediate access to dictionaries, and to writing down the sounds. The pron chart is for learning sounds not symbols, even though it is covered with symbols. But when you use the chart as part of learning the sounds, you tend to find the symbols get internalised ‘free of charge’, without effort.

Back to the short term class

And finally, to come back to the short term class in your question: Yes I would use the chart when working on any pron with them, if only to let them see, perhaps for the first time in their studies, that there is a system, that it is finite, that it fits on one page, that it is neither mysterious nor actually difficult, (though it is different from L1), and that there is a physical logic to where and how the sounds are made in the mouth. Even just seeing that provides a new outlook for the rest of their learning days.

And: No I would not focus on the symbol, nor require them to try to learn it. I would help them to focus internally on the four muscle buttons with which they make and shape new sounds.

What do others think about vowels / consonants first, or the use of symbols?