Back in January 2013 I got a call from the school director. She asked me to fill in for a fellow instructor who had been away for 10 days and would not be coming for a month more. At first I thought it was for one of the prep-school classes I was being asked to teach. However, it was not the case. Instead, the director was asking me to take the responsibility for a class of 23 students repeating the phonology course taught in E.L.T department at Open Education Faculty of our institution.
Although I knew it would be quite a challenge and I would have to study as much as the students themselves, I accepted the request. The strange thing was that I was expected to go into classroom the very next day, which meant I would not have enough of time to prepare for what had been covered so far then and would have to be covered for the next 21 hours. Despite all the odds, I picked up the material from the school library and talked to some other instructors experienced in teaching phonology in particular.
I saw that the students had already studied quite a lot about sound articulation and phonetic transcription when I looked through the syllabus and the book for the course. It meant that I would mostly have to focus on sentence stress and intonation for the rest of the semester. It was good news because I felt the hardest part had already been dealt with.
Having spent the first hour with my new class, I thought and felt different. The students were still rather confused about even the basics of sound articulation and phonetic transcription. One problem they had was distinguishing ‘law’ from ‘low’ and it really was not easy for me to get them to pronounce /əʊ/ in ‘low’, which was also reflected on their ability to pronounce other words with the same sound. Another difficulty for my new class was with /iː/ as in keen. Not surprisingly they kept pronouncing all the words with /iː/ as those with /ɪ/ as in ‘kin’ or ‘bin’. I should also note that the students were not any better at the articulation of /æ/, /ð/, /θ/, /w/, /v/ or /ŋ/. Needless to say, they were unable to transcribe words with those particular sounds with ease.
I understood the class had many more miles to walk, and it would be a walk in the park for neither me nor them. I was well aware that I had to tackle those problems first before going on with sentence stress and intonation. When I got back home after the lesson, I studied the course book “New Headway Pronunciation Course” and made many notes about how the book explained the points regarding the students’ problems. The next day, I prepared 50 minute lesson plans for the classes to come and did a lot of search for some tongue twisters that focus on the sounds my students had difficulty with.
From the second lesson on, everything was in my control. I was teaching according to plan, and the class was responding as I hoped. The lessons included listening exercises from the book CDs, sound recognition exercises from the workbook, and tongue twisters from the Internet. There was a lot of drilling and laughter as a result of people producing strange sounds at times. The good thing was that nobody was offended by another, and the class was working in harmony.
I remember it took me about 8-9 hours to get students to develop a better understanding and command of the sounds in question both in articulation and transcription. It was exciting to witness the change that was happening. The next step to take was to help my students to transcribe sentences and mark the words stressed appropriately. I was confident that they would get over that challenge as well if assisted properly.
For the goal in mind, I got help from such websites as www.photransedit.com and www.upodn.com to be able to change sentences and short paragraphs into transcribed texts in a practical way. Thanks to those sites, I had at least two sets of activities to share with my class for each lesson. The response from the students to those tasks was negative at first because they thought they were too hard for them, but a couple of lessons later they were doing quite well, and I was doing my best to encourage them further.
Having spent 21 hours of intensive study the students were more comfortable with phonology and they had developed new strengths in terms of the requirements of the course. As for me, it was like I had taken a giant step forward in my approach to teaching phonology. When the exam results were announced 4 weeks later, it was great news, for 22 out of 23 of the students had passed the course, and that meant mission accomplished.