De-mystifying the Phonemic Chart

When I started teaching the chart seemed practically incomprehensible to me. Even as I grew to understand it (and Adrian Underhill’s layout is the only one that seems to make sense) it felt like a great cognitive load to place on students (‘Think English spelling is hard? Now learn all these symbols!’). The DELTA, if anything, made it seem less accessible (unvoiced bilabial plosive, anyone?).

Adrian Underhill, though, strips all that away through use of gesture and mime, by focusing on the chart as a ‘geographical map’ of the mouth which helps locate the physical movements we make in production, using simple prepositions of place to describe movement.

Bringing attention to the feeling of sound production and the movements between sounds, we become explorers discovering our own geography and forging new paths. It’s not about rote learning, it’s not reproduction but embodiment. The chart itself becomes a visual, auditory and kinesthetic tool to locate and solve issues.

So, like most things, if the approach is correct, the chart ceases to intimidate.

  • Use gestures silently to introduce the phonemes. This focuses attention on the physical movements (that which the learner has control over), rather than the sound (which can be elusive).
  • Focus on the movements to get from // to // – the lips rounding, the tongue moving backwards – and find /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ on the journey. Introduce // to /æ/ and feel the movement of the jaw.
  • Exaggerate the movement of lips, tongue and jaw. They can be modified once found.
  • Accept approximations – initially this is about discovery, raising awareness, not perfection.
  • Invite peers to model and correct. If a teacher is the only source, how can a learner manage outside a classroom? Students may have greater insight into the muscle movements in comparison to those of a shared L1. The teacher is only a model of their own production anyway.
  • Use accessible language to describe placement. Pron is relevant from the beginning in learning a language, students will not be required to present their findings to the International Phonological Association.
  • The symbols will be learned without overtly teaching them and once the sounds are familiar, the chart becomes a visual guide to connected speech and can be used in many ways throughout a course.
  • Use humour and energy, a lightness of touch. Have fun. This is not a chore.

I’m really looking forward to using Adrian Underhill’s approach in classes and finding what works with different students.


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