Misleading guide words

In class this week I was revising some work I’d done on the pronunciation of the sounds /iː/, /uː/, /ɔː/, /ɪə/, and /eə/. I was preparing the group for some simple discrimination work in which the students would have place words in the appropriate column according to these vowel sounds. Prior to running the exercise I was modelling the target sounds using the guide words me, you, four, near and air. I wrote each of the words on the board (sorry – I still use a board) under the corresponding IPA symbol, modelled the word, and then asked the students to repeat it. Finally, I pointed at the guide words in no particular order and invited the students to pronounce them, helping if necessary.

Just as I was about to launch into the exercise itself, I noticed that one of the students was not ready to move on. ‘Are you OK?’, I asked. Clearly he wasn’t, and after some thought he asked me to model /eə/ again (guide word air). His brow furrowed further still. Silence, which I’m glad to say I was careful not to break. ‘So it’s like a long ‘e’ sound’, my student finally said. Momentarily this threw me, but I then I realised that this was actually quite a good description of what we were aiming at.

‘Yes, it is’, I replied. ‘That’s a good way of thinking of it’. ‘So it’s not …’. And here he pronounced the three letters of the guide word as he would do in Spanish, which resulted in a pretty good rendition of the sound /aɪ/. ‘No, no’, I hastened to confirm. ‘Think of your long Spanish ‘e’. That’s a much better guide as to how to make this sound.’

What a lovely lesson in how we look at things from different angles. It had always been obvious to me that ‘air’ is /eə/ and not /aɪ/. And one day it might seem equally obvious to this elementary level student. But right now, with Spanish as his first language, my modeling of /eə/was clearly in conflict with what he was hearing in his head on seeing the digraph ‘ai’, and his (subconcious)  inner voice was finding it difficult to deal with the conflict.

I suspect there are quite few lessons to be learned here. There’s the broad lesson of the need to give learners time. I know there are days when even now, after all these years, I tend to push things on, and so don’t give individuals time to sort things out in their heads. But in terms of pronunciation, something that I’d not really thought about that much, namely that guide words lead learners to the right pronunciation, has shown itself not to be so. Here the guide word ‘air’ was actually generating the wrong sound in this students head. Fortunately, this time the problem resolved itself favourably for all, but I wonder how many times in the past I missed that critical, quizical look in my rush to get through the lesson content.

Interestingly, having settled on a long ‘e’ as his guide word, the student was able to recognise and produce the /eə/diphthong during the activity I’d planned. This makes me think that perhaps it’s better in some cases for learners to devise there own guide words (or devices – why should they stick to words?) rather than trying to fathom out how the dictionary’s official choice is pronounced. Admittedly, what they’ll come up with will be L1-flavoured, but a long Spanish ‘e’, for example, is a lot closer to /eə/ than it is to /aɪ/, and as it’s intelligibility that we’re after, then we could have a meaningful and viable alternative to using the coursebook’s standard (mis)guide words.