I often see the Sound Foundations chart (you can see it below) in classrooms, and teachers using it to bring pronunciation into the central arena of language work. But sometimes teachers say they have not been introduced to a basic method for using it and they end up treating it like an ordinary wall chart. In this article I’d like to speak to those teachers and offer you a basic method for using the chart, in fact a single core activity that powers up the chart, and from of which multiple other activities can be derived according to what you are doing. It is essentially a form of visual dictation, and once you get the hang of it you can adapt it to bring out the pronunciation content in any activity you are doing, without need for other materials.
But before we start let me clarify that there are two steps to integrating the chart into the heart of language work. Step 1 involves introducing the chart and its sounds to students, a process which will take you an hour or so across two or three lessons with your class. That is enough to get the chart into circulation as a fully functioning learning tool. Step 2 involves everything else, i.e. using the chart in your language class, a process which goes on as long as the students are learning English, almost regardless of level. So what I’m going to do now is describe a core activity for that second step, using the chart, applied to sounds, then words, then connected speech
Core chart activity for sounds
Remember this is the second step, so students have already been introduced to and ‘taught’ the chart and the sounds, even if they don’t remember them all or can’t say many of them well. All this improves once you integrate the chart into your work. Here is a basic way to use of the chart with your students, and it goes like this:
- You point at a sound on the chart (but don’t say anything).
- The students say that sound more or less (but not necessarily ‘correctly’).
- You then say “Ok lets listen to some differences” and invite a few students individually to say their version, while the others listen not just for what is ‘correct’ but to sensitise to the small differences between the several students, and then let the class adjust their own sounds in light of what they heard. If one of them is close enough, then you can invite the others to say it like that. (And if anyone offers a quite different English sound, then simply point at that new sound on the chart so the mistake is used for other learning).
- Once a ‘good enough’ sound is circulating you can develop its quality a little more using a variety of possible resources, e.g.: a word they know containing that sound, the CD dialogue containing that word or sound, a mime to help them find the muscle posture for the sound, the use of other sounds that contain clues, other correction techniques, and so on.
Now all that is just for a sound. And an essential activity at the early stages is not so much to get them to be 'correct'; but to help them to hear differences, especially between the 12 vowels. So, what about dealing with a word?
Core chart activity for words
This is a kind of visual dictation in which you get students to say individual sounds as above, but in a sequence of sounds, and you string the sounds together to make the word. Keep to one or two syllable words to start with:
- You write the word in normal alphabetic spelling on the board, and you say the word. And the students say it too.
- Then you point at the first sound of the word on the chart (but don’t say the sound yourself).
- Immediately the students say that sound aloud, and of course not necessarily ‘correctly’.
- You do a little repair on the sound if needed (as above for sounds).
- Do steps 1 - 3 for the second sound, and so on for the rest. As they do this they are holding the sequence of sounds ‘in the mind’s ear’, just as you hold words in a normal dictation.
- Then you ask the whole class to say aloud each of the sounds in turn. I find it helpful to indicate the succession of sounds very visibly on my fingers. That way I can gesture them to repeat, or go back, or go forward without actually saying anything myself. If they forget a sound they can listen to each other, or you can provide it.
- When they have said the disconnected sounds more or less ‘correctly’ in sequence you then say (jokingly) “OK, now in English….!” which just means connect the sounds into a single flow so it becomes a word. They laugh, and they know what the instruction means, and they do it and they can immediately hear the difference between a sequence of sounds and a word, and they realise what they did to make that happen. You may need to provide the stress placement.
With just a bit of practice you and the class will get quick at this, and it becomes a natural part of teaching a vocabulary item or analysing a phrase or correcting a sentence. There is nothing in language that does not have pronunciation in it somewhere. So, those were two basic chart techniques, one for sounds and one for words. Now for connected speech:
Core chart activity for connected speech
The chart looks as if it reduces everything to sounds, and it does, BUT as soon as students have got the sounds you run the sounds together into a word (as in the activity above) adding stress, and then you run the words together into a connected flow. Perhaps a student offers a short utterance you want to examine, or there is a short sentence on the audio cassette you want the class to examine, so:
- Point out the first word on the chart. Students say each sound aloud and hold them in their inner ear, and when the word is complete you ask them to say it “in English” - i.e. join it up.
- Then you do the same for the other words.
- When you have pointed out all the words you can leave the chart and get the class to say each of the words in turn. This will not be connected speech, it will be a sequence of words.
- So once again you say “Now make it English!” which simply means join it up into a seamless flow. Help them to do that, adding the stress and rhythm.
So, in this way you can take apart and put together snatches of connected speech. And remember, finding out what the sounds really are enables students to hear properly what they are listening to. Pronunciation is not just a productive activity, it has an essential receptive role.
Five more tricks with the chart
Now, we can’t prepare for every eventuality here, so you just use you good ‘teacherly’ tricks and common sense, but here are five variations:
- At step one for the word, instead of showing the spelling and saying it before pointing to the sounds, you could just say the word then start pointing, or just show the spelling and then start pointing, or you could do neither to reduce the number of clues. Or the word could be heard in context on the recording you are using, and then you point it out on the chart.
- When teaching a new word, and after students have said it you could ask “How many sounds?” and ask them to call out the number. It does not matter if they are wrong or right. The value of the exercise lies in listening to the word in their inner ear, and dividing the word into sounds in their inner voice. And the counting just helps to track that process. After they have called out a number you go through the word, with the class saying each sound and you using your hands to indicate one sound per finger. Having identified the sounds like this, you then point the sequence out on the chart. Again with them saying each sound as you point.
- Sometimes when you ask “How many sounds?” you can see that they are telling you how many syllables, because they are confusing sounds with syllables. That’s good, because you can then say “OK, how many syllables?” and deal with that answer, and then repeat the question “So, how many sounds?” Both questions are useful in enabling students to internalise, visualise and feel the words and sounds.
- In addition to those two questions there is a third: “How may words?” Do this for a phrase or sentence, not too long. It is done in the same way as no 2 above, this time counting one word per finger. Simply to answer the question they have to say the sentence slowly in their inner voice.
- As you see, the chart does not use example words (so learners are obliged to find the sound rather than remember a word) but that leaves you with a great exercise: take the vowel grid on the top left of the chart, the 12 boxes. Ask students to draw a grid of 12 empty boxes on a whole sheet of paper. Homework is to find one or two words for each of the 12 vowels, and to put them in the correct box. Next day have them compare in groups and then put the results on the board. Lots of fun and learning there!
And five top tips
- Always use a pointer at the chart, it is much more precise than using the fingers. It also has the great advantage that you can pass a pointer to another student, so it is clear who is to do something at the chart, who is conducting.
- The person who points is always silent. The rest of the class, except you, always say whatever sound is pointed at, NOT the sound they want to be pointed at.
- The chart is not just your space. Have it always at the front of the class, on or immediately beside the board, and have students come up all the time to point out sounds, words, phrases.
- If your class have dictionaries, then sometimes give them a few new words perhaps chosen from a text they are studying, ask them to look up the words and study the pronunciation, and invite different students to come to the chart (leaving the dictionary behind) and point out a word. If anyone gets stuck let another student come to help. Remember the rule: the person who points is silent and the others say what is pointed at. When correct, you get them to join the sounds together make the connected up word.
- And once again… The chart needs to be hanging on or right beside the board where it is visible and accessible to everyone. Using the chart is not the aim of a lesson, just like using the black board is not the aim of a lesson. But the blackboard is a kind of worktable that brings everything to life and makes language tangible. The chart is the blackboard of pronunciation. And pronunciation is in all language and all activities. In all of this, lots of mistakes happen and the chart makes this visible, tangible, workable, productive and engaging.
I look forward to hearing what you think about these or other chart activities.
For two approaches to the above activities you could have a look at:
- A guided tour of the chart (It’s in the 2010 archive section.)
- Extracts from my pronunciation workshop with teachers: www.youtube.com/macmillanelt
- Teaching resources
- Teacher development
- Teacher training