Number one for English language teachers

Pronunciation skills: The idiot sounds /ɜː/ and /ə/

Type: Article, Reference material Video material

Did you know that there is not one but two idiot sounds in the phonetic chart? In this video, pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill looks at the visibility and the physicality of these sounds, helping learners with the long vowel sound /ɜː/ and the most famous of all the phonemes, the schwa /ə/

Tip 1 /ɜː/ Rhyming words

To help learners master long vowels sounds, it’s important to encourage them to focus on the sound, not the spelling of words. It’s also important to recognize that learners often find it tricky to hear individual sounds within a longer word so begin by focusing on short words. With /ɜː/, ask your learners to make a list of 1-syllable words that contain this sound and have the same final consonant but have different combinations of vowels. Drill the correct pronunciation, starting with just the vowel sound then adding the final consonant sound, followed by the first consonant sound.

fur/sir/were/her

bird/word/third/heard

hurt/shirt/dirt/pert

Tip 2 /ə/ Remove the schwa

Many unstressed vowel sounds tend to become schwa. Because it is a short and unassertive sound, there is a danger that in focussing on it in classroom sentences, it might lose its naturally weak character. However, the following is a simple exercise you can do to highlight how often the schwa occur in sentences:

  • Prepare a short text (three or four lines long). Wherever a schwa would be said in a word – insert a gap-line instead of the vowel(s).
  • Leave all other vowels as they are. In class give out the text and explain what you have done.
  • Ask learners to go through the text and work out what the missing written vowels must be. This will raise awareness about the many ways that the schwa sound can be spelt in written English.

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