A 'Eureka!' moment with phonemes!
a cry of joy or satisfaction when one finds or discovers something.
'...and then the answer hit me. ‘Eureka!’ I cried as the light bulb glowed brightly '
If you look at the dictionary definition above of 'eureka' you will see what always used to seem to me to look like just a bunch of odd letters as in /jʊ(ə)ˈriːkə/
I sort of knew phonemes could help one to pronounce the word, but never really quite got it. My head just didn't seem to go there. Later in this post, I provide some excellent resources from the British Council website to assist students to learn the phonemic chart.
At university I remember we had brushed over phonemes as part of an introductory course in linguistics.
Although I liked the idea of phonemes, once again, I just could not retain the symbols in my head long enough to ever really come to grips with them.
The reference books we were referred to by our lecturer all had quite scholastic articles on the matter that delved further and further into minor pronunciation differences and so much detail that I felt like Alice as she was about to fall into the rabbit hole.
Sure, when I looked at the phonemic chart it all kind of made sense, but when I looked at alternative phonemic spelling one finds in dictionaries without a chart at hand, I found myself not being able to remember what each of the symbols meant besides the more obvious ones that represent some of the consonants.
The next time I came across the phonemic chart was when I did my Celta qualification to teach English to foreign students. However, again it was a case of 'Okay it makes sense when I look at in on the chart' but I could not get the symbols to stay in my head, especially the ones that related to the vowel sounds (the monophthongs and diphthongs)
How could I ever learn the Phonemic Chart?
It's the sound you find in the last syllable of 'mother' and 'sister'.
Oh brother! I could never remember which way the upside down /ə/ was facing when writing it on the board.
Another question that would nag at me was, 'Why was it called 'Schwa' as opposed to Schw'uh' ' which would more closely resemble the sound it indicates?'
My students laugh at my exasperation when I question why even when it is written out in phonemes it is spelt /ʃwɑ/
Surely it should rather be written /ʃwə/ and pronounced like that just to make it all a little bit easier. It's not though.
Anyway, anyway, I go into such detail just to let you know I found it hard to retain phonemes. If I had the chart with me I would have to laboriously keep cross referencing between the chart and the dictionary phonemic version of the word.
I knew instinctively that if my students could get a handle on phonemes that be one of the keys to open the doors of opportunity for them to continue to develop their fluency independently as they move forward with their lives.
By assisting students to come to grips with the phonemes can provide them with such a great tool for self-study. When they leave your class or school they will always then be able to work out the pronunciation of a new word they come across by themselves.
That with the proviso that it appeals to them. I always advise my students that if something doesn't work for you, then find other language learning tools and devices that do.
That's all well and good, but how on earth could I ever teach it if even I couldn't quite remember it?
Eureka! A Phonemic Breakthrough Moment!
I will show you what I mean below, but first two disclaimers:
1. My drawing abilities are pretty poor and students laugh at my attempts at any illustrations on the board. I have a running joke in that I always sign and date any drawings I do on the board. I then ask my students if they would like to take a pic of it before I erase it as who knows perhaps the Tate Modern Art Gallery may want them one day.
2. When I did some more reading for this blog, I found that what I thought was a new idea has been done before with illustrations that are far better than mine although I could not find that many illustrations for all the sounds online.
Eureka! A sheep lying on it's side!
That however does not take away from the fun we had in class as the students and I became excited as they shouted out ideas to incorporate the phoneme symbols into drawings that would remind us of the sound each one represents.
Okay here they come! Don't laugh and without wishing to restate the obvious, like I said, I am no artist nor illustrator.
/i:/ as in sheep
That's my attempt at a sheep lying on its side.
/ɔ:/as in door
/ɒ/ as in on
/æ/ as in cat
Here I tried a cat with sunglasses
/ɪə/ as in ear
/ʧ/ as in 'church'
My students and I laughed with excitement and there was a real sense of discovery together as we came up with these visual clues and at how bad my artwork was.
We really seemed to be all hearing the same proverbial penny drop as phonemes began to look like something we could now approach with more enthusiasm and interest
'If the penny drops' means if you suddenly understand something. The origin of the phrase according to the Urban Dictionary is as follows.
The phrase dates back to the Victorian Era and the popular penny-slot arcades. The penny would often stick halfway down the slot and the user would then have to either wait, or give the machine a thump before the 'penny finally dropped' and they could begin playing.'
The British Council website has an excellent on line interactive chart that will help you and your students hear the sounds of English by clicking on the symbols and hear sample words at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/phonemic-chart
For brilliant teaching online resources follow Teaching English – British Councill – British Council and if you are learning English visit and like LearnEnglish – British Council
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