More misleading guide words

Back in March I posted about misleading guide words. Then the problem had been my use of air as a guide word for the diphthong /eə/. Yesterday, with the same group of students, the problem repeated itself, this time with the selection of a guide word for /aʊ/.

I had put the word now on the board and one of the students had given this some thought, and then based on his experience in March, had said that he didn’t like now and much preferred house. I said that house would do very nicely and preceded to change the word on the board when another student suddenly objected and said that she didn’t like house at all, and could she use out as her guide word. Of course, I said, writing both on the board. And off we went.

Episodes like that make me very happy as a teacher. They suggest real involvement on the part of my students. They also suggest that they are beginning to see that they need to make what happens in class work for them, and, more importantly, work through them. They are seeing, I think, that rather than slavishly trying to do whatever the teacher says, they have to make the teacher do what they need. Most of all, though, I’m fascinated by how what was obvious to me as a teacher (air for /eə/ or now for /aʊ/, for example), wasn’t so obvious to learners who were genuinely trying to make sense of the lesson.

In the case of these particular guide words, I assume that the problem lay (in part, at least) in the way that Spanish-L1 learners will be influenced by a Spanish reading of the letters on the page. Thus the vowel in air will sound more like /aɪ/ than /eə/ in their heads, and as a result is seriously misleading. Thankfully, this group is sufficiently at ease with me to admit to their uncertainties, the outcome being these really useful discussions and clarifications.

Yesterday’s class had more surprises in store for me, though. We got to the diphthong /əʊ/, which I modelled for them, and then we went on to a simple discrimination exercise based on the different pronunciations of the letter ‘o’. I did the modelling of a series of words that we were going to use in the speaking activity later in the class, and then we set about marking the exercise. Everything was going pretty well until we got to don’t. The whole class, with no exceptions, had placed don’t in the /ɒ/ column. For all of them, despite me prompting them to think again, don’t rhymed with not.

When you already know that don’t and not don’t rhyme, then they don’t sound the same at all. But I fear it is this prior knowledge that ‘colours’ our perception of what is heard, and when ‘innocent’ ears seriously and honestly listen to words and try to discriminate sounds, funny things happen.

We all looked at each other for a moment in silence, a silence that I ‘broke’ by modelling don’t without letting any sound out of my mouth. I did this again drawing their attention to my lips and the slight lip rounding in the second half of the diphthong. Everyone was watching me in studied tension. I then silently modeled words with /ɒ/, again focussing all attention on my lips. Fianlly we all made our first tentative attempts at words with /ɒ/ and words with /əʊ/, paying special attention to length and lips.

As everyone began to capture the differences between the two sounds, the tension finally eased. But it was broken altogether when one of the best student in class slowly lifted his head and said “Toda la vida diciendo don’t como not. No tenemos salvación”. (All or lives saying don’t like not. There’s no hope for us.).

But of course there is. They’re dream students, in fact. And if I can just be a little more flexible in my teaching, and a little more in touch with how they are hearing/conceptualizing the world I’m bringing to them, then together we can make real progress.

Watch this spot!