Ship or Sheep?

Well, I’m back in the UK for a while, have started full-time at a new school and something interesting happened in class this week…

‘Back to the Board’ is a vocabulary game played in two teams, each of which has a representative who sits with their back to the board.  The teacher writes a word on the board and each team explains the meaning of the word to their representative.  The first representative to guess the word correctly wins their team a point.

ship_sheepThis week I began a lesson with my afternoon A2 students by playing this game.  About midway through the game I wrote the word ship on the board, and here’s what happened:  The first team immediately began ‘bleating’ at their representative, and describing a ‘white animal in a field’, while the second team – led by one particular student – kept repeating ‘opposite expensive!’.

Of course this led beautifully to a pronunciation analysis using the phonemes to differentiate between sounds.  But I was particularly interested in the fact that while the first team had understood the word to be one with a different vowel sound – /ʃiːp/ as opposed to /ʃɪp/ – the student in the second team had confused not only the short and long vowel sound but also the unvoiced consonant sounds at the beginning of the word – understanding /tʃiːp/ instead of /ʃɪp/.

This student is also in my morning A2 group, and the following day I played the game again, and again he misunderstood a word from its written form: explaining choose to his team by pointing to his shoes.  Obviously differentiating between the unvoiced and ʃ sounds is a challenge for him.

I was curious about the way in which these misunderstandings had come about.  It’s common for students to mishear a word that’s being spoken and produce the wrong written word or spelling, but in this instance the mistake was reversed – and, as the student in question is Arabic, it would seem to be a problem with alphabet and script.  Earlier in the week I had delivered a very thorough introduction to the phonemes and their symbols, including some brainstorming as to the possible different spellings for each phoneme.  Given that this student is making mistakes ‘in reverse’ though, it may be useful to look at sound-spelling relationships in reverse: the possible sounds a spelling can produce, as opposed to the possible spellings of a particular sound.

Incidentally, I’ve just finished my first week with this group, and delivered my phonemes lesson on my second day with them.  I had already picked up that the student I mentioned before has a reputation for having a somewhat lackadaisical approach to learning, so was very pleasantly surprised when he asked that I repeat the phonemes lesson with his afternoon group.  Because the content of a pronunciation lesson has a very different focus to that of a grammar or skills based lesson, for example, it has the potential to reach students who might otherwise be unenthused about learning.

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