Using Phonemes in the Classroom: / waɪ / Why?

/ waɪ /  Why?

When I’m unable to understand what a student is trying to say and have to ask them to repeat a word or phrase, it’s usually due to mispronunciation.  Often a student will keep repeating the same word in the same way and it’s only when I ask them to spell or write it down that I recognise the word.  Maybe over time as a teacher our ear adjusts and we’re better able to hazard a guess at what our students are trying to say, but learners of English aren’t, and won’t be, surrounded by teachers their entire lives.

Many would disagree, but in my experience stress and intonation are less of an obstacle to being understood than producing the wrong sound.  I’ll be interested to observe whether and how my opinion changes with more experience.   But whether or not the correct production of individual sounds is of most importance, there is no doubt it is important, so we should familiarise students with the different sounds in English – and the phonemic symbols are an accurate and consistent way to write down how a word is pronounced.

As well as being an invaluable tool in the classroom, the phonemic symbols give students a tool for self-study.  As English is not phonemically written, it can be difficult to know how to pronounce, but knowing the phonemic symbols means students can refer to a dictionary for pronunciation.  Giving students the tools with which to continue learning outside and beyond the classroom is vital to empowering and inspiring them to continue learning.

If students are able to read the phonemic symbols they can speak the sounds aloud.  By doing this with a number of symbols in succession they can say a word aloud, and correctly – before they know what it is.  This can help us to identify and remedy fossilised errors and overcome pronunciation problems caused by difficult spellings.  Is it more important to be able to spell a word correctly or say it correctly?  This largely depends on why students are learning the language, but the majority of students I’ve asked place more importance on spoken communication than written.

file000416620944There’s a fluidity to spoken language that we don’t experience when we learn individual items of vocabulary.  When the phrase all you need is love is broken down into its individual words the pronunciation is / ɔːl  juː  niːd  ɪz  lʌv /.  But when spoken aloud we say  / ɔːljəniːdɪzlʌv /. Notice how the vowel sound in the word you changes when put together with need.  The phonemic symbols can help us to highlight the way sounds change when language comes together – adjoining vowel sounds, or elision, for example – and build students’ awareness of the fluidity of language.

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