What do we need to communicate to our Literacy students?

There have been numerous times teachers have been lost for words in the classroom. With lower levels, the scope for communication is limited, and perhaps even more so with A0 students, who are absolute beginners and come to class with very little or, although rarely, no English. However, the success of a teacher’s communication with A0 students depends on their perspective. It is as easy as you make it! 

In this article, I will address the questions, ‘What do we need to communicate to our Literacy students?’, and ‘How do we do it?’

With Literacy, our main focus is on phonics, rather than vocabulary or grammar. Of course with phonics, what needs to be conveyed is articulation. With advanced learners, one can use the phonemic chart to explain where each sound comes from, and expect students to learn and remember phonemic symbols that then make it easier for them to understand pronunciation, much the same way as one does with university students learning phonology. A0s however do not have the language for this, so what can we use instead?

I have experimented with using phonemic symbols and drilling the sounds with the phonemic chart to allow students to observe the movement of the tongue and teeth as one slides across the chart. This became too teacher centered and overwhelming for students. There were far too many symbols to remember in addition to the graphemes, and there was not always an obvious answer as to why a certain grapheme had a certain symbol. Take the example of ‘th, which is articulated using either one of two sounds, ð and θ. Knowing the symbols did not make articulating the sounds easier.

I then thought about diagrams to do this, but this just complicated things for me and the students. Again, a certain amount of language was necessary to explain diagrams to students, having to describe the movement of the arrows, the place of the tongue, teeth, vocal cords, etc. This is something I have seen university students of phonology struggle with themselves. 

So how is it done?

The answer is to keep it simple. I do not get into manner, place and voice of articulation for all sounds. I reserve these details for vowels and more difficult sounds like ‘p’ and ‘b’ for Arabic speakers, or the difference between ‘th’ in that and thin.

Teach students the words tongue and teeth. I know the Arabic words for them, so when they clarify meaning to each other, I know they have understood what the tongue and teeth are. I use my hands to gesture a mouth, with the pointer and thumb of one hand acting as teeth and the pointer of the other hand acting as tongue. When students struggle with sounds like ‘t’, I show them where the tongue should lie for the correct articulation of t. i.e. the tip lies at the line right behind the upper front teeth and in front of the alveolar ridge. This is useful for Arabic speakers to know as they articulate ‘t’ as the Arabic ‘ت’, the articulation of which requires the tongue to remain at a slightly forward position than for the articulation of ‘t’. The case is similar with ‘d’ and ‘د’. 

This brings us to the next confusion. If ‘t’ and ‘d’ are both articulated with the tongue in the same place, what is the difference between them? The voice of articulation is a much easier aspect to teach students than manner and place. A trick I learned in university when studying phonology, and then to use in classroom following the advice of a more experienced teacher was to have students notice the movement of the vocal cords. Voice is determined by whether the vocal cords in the throat vibrate or not. In English, sounds are either voiced or unvoiced. If the cords vibrate the sound is voiced, and if not, the sound in unvoiced. Articulate ‘t’ and ‘d’ and notice the difference by placing two fingers on your vocal cords. i.e. the spot right at the top of your neck, under your jaw in between the center and side of your throat. Have the students do the same and you have taught them voice of articulation, without using having to use any language at all!

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