Who’s afraid of the /bɪg bæd wʊlf/? by Joana Styliano

As some of you may know, I am a huge fan of Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart. I have come to realise it gets a bit lonely in that department but still I rise and gladly keep on selling its relevance. Let me share my passion and the underlying reasons. In my opinion, the phonemic chart is the ultimate tool for learner autonomy and how teacher friendly is it in error correction?
Oh well, first things first. Whether you have or have not attended my sessions on pronunciation in previous years, it is quite obvious that if you are aware of the sounds, there is very little you cannot say either as a student or simply as an individual. Funnily enough, being a native speaker makes little difference here – I have come across my share of native teachers who felt tackling the chart was too daunting a task and in the end simply avoided fiddling with it.
The great Adrian Underhill has bestowed upon us a phonemic chart which consists of all the sounds used in the English language. The trick is to give it a go yourself, as a teacher, and then explore it in class. I do not mean spend a whole term on it or keep at it until your students master it like proper linguists. Instead, guide them so they feel it can be their ally rather than the funny things on the walls at school.

Once students have learnt the basics – i.e. each sound, including diphthongs, and the differences between long and short sounds for example (yes, that alone is already step in the right direction) – correcting their pronunciation mistakes becomes much more visible than ‘mere’ drilling, thus appealing to a wider range of students within the spectrum of learning styles.

That’s all very nice but how to go about it? Ideally it takes about one lesson to introduce the sounds and let students play with them – give them dictionaries or allow them to use online resources (most of them have the transcriptions but I am a fan of http://www.macmillandictionary.com/ myself), and let them select words in pairs/groups for the rest of the class to guess. Don’t forget to include word stress since teaching them how to identify it will also make them more capable of noticing and correcting their own mistakes hence making them more autonomous learners.

When you are confident enough to take it to the next level, feel free to play games or literally to have fun with it – perhaps as a warmer or at the end of class. I use it with higher levels right at the start by introducing transcriptions of new words that students will then have to decipher and later on integrate into their work, either in writing or speaking – for example at FCE or CAE level. It is also interesting to use it to correct mistakes at lower levels (e.g. any Teens level), such as the usual ‘bear’ (/beər/ not /bɪər/), not to mention the use of phonics with (very) young learners.

The sky is the limit and there are endless resources to help you. I would like to suggest Mark Hancock’s work but do feel free to come and see me in case you are looking into this area.

I hope to have demystified /prəˌnʌnsɪˈeɪʃən/ so that you too find it as interesting and engaging! In the end it is pretty much like anything else: if you enjoy it, so will your students!