Pronunciation can be a tricky beast. The range of accents, national and international varieties of spoken English result in very few standard forms for learners to latch on to as they study. Switching between music, film, in-class listening and interaction with teachers can provide fantastic levels of exposure, but without guidance, how do learners know how their ‘sound’ is developing in English? The question of how can we help learners to ‘fix’ intelligible and systematic sound patterns as they learn is key to pronunciation teaching. As a key speaking skill, pronunciation needs to be developed in an engaging and relevant way while keeping the focus on the technical language systems that underlie spoken language. So what tools are at our disposal to help make the sounds of English more tangible for learners? The new printable resource Pronunciation Card Games uses phoneme cards and activity sheets to make pronunciation work more tangible and engaging for learners.
The International Phonemic Alphabet
The International Phonemic Alphabet, the set of symbols which represent the 44 most-distinct sounds of English, most often used contains the vowels and consonants of standard British English, a variety that a very small minority of English speakers actually use, but which goes some way to standardising pronunciation patterns for teaching purposes. From experience, the continuous application of these 44 sounds facilitates pronunciation work and systematises pronunciation in learners whether they are aiming for a standard British English accent or not. In drilling and pronunciation-focused stages working with learners who are used to working with American, Australian or other British accent varieties, it is often the case that the focus on sound patterns is of most value in helping them to isolate, identify and then apply pronunciation patterns, and that the range of accents in the room (including my own) has little effect. This is because of the systematic patterns which are made possible by the visual reinforcement of the IPA when it is transcribed onto the whiteboard or in tasks presented on written handouts. The Pronunciation Card Games resource pack contains the 44 sounds of the IPA plus an expansion set of American English sounds and common variants of phonemes for more advanced learners.
Fixed forms provide opportunities for learners
This focus on the visual element of the IPA is key. With a fixed, visual form, it is possible for learners to take time to process the patterns they see, rather than having to deal with the fluid, fast-changing spoken forms they hear. This processing time, along with the fixed forms presented visually on paper, give the opportunity to manipulate the sounds of words and phrases in front of them, to experiment with sound combinations, rules and patterns which would otherwise be glossed over and left unabsorbed.
Finding ways for language learners to gain time to form and test new sound combinations is particularly effective for the teaching of suprasegmental features of pronunciation, where sounds change in unusual ways due to the formation of other sounds around them. Word boundaries, complex clusters of sounds and stress-timing are challenging for learners from many language backgrounds. A focus on specific sound sequences in a fixed, visual form can highlight tricky patterns quickly and easily and lead to more informed language practice tasks. The worksheets provided in the Pronunciation Card Games resource pack help teachers and learners to frame their pronunciation work in reliable, focused tasks.
Gamifying the IPA
Breaking down the IPA into discrete units which can be combined in different ways opens up new ways of engaging with the features of spoken English. Phoneme cards including individual sounds, stress patterns, weak forms and variant sounds can help learners to engage more directly with pronunciation in practice tasks, working with specific features of spoken English before looking at ways in which they can apply what they learn in their own speech.
A visual resource for pronunciation teaching can also enable physical engagement for learners, as game pieces, counters and cards can be moved around, swapped out and recombined to test out new ways of forming words and phrases based on taught patterns. The visual, plus the physical resource, opens up the possibility of gamification and cognitive work as sound patterns are defined, applied and tested in the game.
In conclusion, combining visual and physical stimuli with pronunciation work can open up many possibilities for the classroom. As a starter resource for working with pronunciation in this clear, focused and engaging way, Pronunciation Card Games provides 10 activity templates, and contains 50 phoneme cards and 7 stress and intonation markers, meaning that you can transcribe any word or chunk of speech naturally and clearly for your learners.
The full resource book, Pronunciation Card Games, including the full set of phoneme cards, printed on quality card to cut out and use in class, is available here for £21.99.
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