15th January 2019

3 Step Guide to Flirting with Phonology

By Sean Martin

One of the biggest fears of trainees embarking on the Trinity Cert TESOL (and some experienced teachers) is what I have come to describe as ‘phonolophobia’ or ‘phonemophobia’; a fear of phonology and the phonemic chart. It’s only natural to be worried about facing up to something new. By starting the Cert TESOL you’ve taken the first step to conquering that fear. The next step is to explore the IPA chart itself. As with most phobias, it’s probably irrational. The more you get to know it, the more you use it, the more you will develop a useful relationship with it.

For developing any relationship, getting to know your new partner is essential. So, where do you begin your new relationship with phonology? Here are 3 steps to conquering ‘phonolophobia’.

1. Watch

Try watching Adrian Underhill’s video ‘Introduction to Teaching Pronunciation Workshop’. The video is about an hour but well worth it. Watch it in stages. The first section deals with the phonemic chart and its organisation. Adrian Underhill presents this in a manageable and practical way, deconstructing it into its major components and not only identifying what they are but why and where they are on the chart and the relationship between the individual components of the rows and columns of each section. In some ways it can be viewed as similar to the Periodic Table. They both demonstrate logical sequences.

2. Tailor the Chart

Below is my own preference of how the chart can be divided, but there are many other ways to try and suit your own. It can be as fundamental or as analytical as you like, again depending on your preference. Either way, you can build on or adapt your personal version as you become more confident. You can progress from this to trying out some tasks that centre around the organisation of the chart in general or sequences of phonemes. Design some of your own or follow those you might find in books e.g. Underhill’s ‘Sound Foundations’.


(click for larger image)

3. Focus on some tasks

A good place to start, because they are so visual, is the progression pattern of the vowel sounds /i:/ /I/ /ʊ/ /u:/, which are nicely illustrated by showing how the shape of the lips changes from /i:/ what is known as ‘spread’, like a cheesy grin to /u:/ what is known as ‘rounded’, like a pout. Try making the sounds from /i:/ to /u:/ looking in a mirror and see how it works. The change in the position of the mouth parts is the key to finding your way around the phonemic chart, whether its vowels or consonants.

One practical and effective exercise to familarise yourself with this is to create some small flash cards showing the shape of the lips for the top row vowels. Then, you can use these to match them to the appropriate phoneme. This will reinforce not only showing how the sounds are formed but make the association between the mouth shape and the phonemes and the sequence in which they appear.

Once you have mastered this, cut up the phonemes and create the correct mouth shape for their production. An extension of this task would then be to arrange them in the correct order, according to how they are produced. You might want to do this with or without the support of the flash cards showing the shape of the lips.

These tasks will help you overcome your ‘phonemophobia’, at least with some of the vowels. You can then progress to making your own tasks for the other vowels progressing from ‘closed to open positions and consonant sequences, or adapt games e.g. ‘Scrabble’, ‘Happy Families’ card game. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Phonology Scrabble
Picture courtesy of Tom McCoy and the Yale undergraduate linguistics society.

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Sean Martin over the last 10 years in Hong Kong has worked in a variety of TESOL settings, including teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors, including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity Colege London cert.TESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.