Andrew Weiler – One More Step to being Freer in Learning ESL

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Andrew Weiler

Andrew Weiler


I have recently been working with Hong Kong students who are enrolled in tertiary courses at the college I work in. Due to the difficulties they are experiencing because of their inadequate command of the English language, they come, or are referred, to the unit I work in.

As I work with them, either individually or in groups, on a range of matters, I am struck that many of them are not successful in articulating various phonemes or combinations of them in a way which resembles a standard of English which is easily understandable by native English speakers. Many of them have also not made the necessary adjustments to the unique melodic requirements of English, however this area I will not expand on for now.

At the times where I have difficulty in understanding a student or where her sounds are too far removed from what I deem to be acceptable, I have made it a policy to intervene. It is this intervention and what results from it which I will make the subject of discussion in these pages.

The actual case I will describe below represents a common type of problem which I now encounter day to day. Though the following was not taped, it represents a close description of what actually happened. The words below might not exactly be the same as the ones uttered on the actual occasion but the events are identical to the ones which actually occurred.

A few weeks ago a student, K, asked me to help her to pronounce the word “pharmacy”. I had worked with her a number of times before, both in class and individually, so she was familiar with my way of working. The following was what ensued as a result of her question.

T: Try to say it. Sometimes students will make a pretty good fist of saying words which they claim they can’t say.
K: I can’t.
T: Have a go and see what comes out.
K: Here she struggled trying to put /pi/, as the letter “p” is said in the alphabet, with /ha/.
T: Ok, I covered the “ph” with my hand leaving “armacy” visible, say the rest.
K: /ams/ tentatively.
T: I covered “acy”. Say what you can see.
K: /a:m/ (Standard Australian)
T: I now covered “arm” and left only “acy” uncovered and indicated she say it.
K: After some mouth movements and whispering to herself /as/.
T: Even though the first phoneme was not correct, I left this for another time.
I left “cy” uncovered. Try it.
K: Silence.
T: Do you know any words with the letter “y” at the end?
K: After some hesitation. Baby.
T: I went back to “cy”. Say this now.
K: Some whispering to herself.
T: I went back to baby and covered “ba”. Say that, pointing to “by”.
K: After some mumbling of the sounds to herself /bi/.
T: I now pointed to “cy”
K: With some hesitancy. /si/.
T: I now left “acy” uncovered.
K: /asi/

It appeared to me the awareness that words are made up from the addition of single phonemes, which can be subtracted as well, was not evident to K. Her approach seemed to be to utter words using her memory of them. When she was confronted by syllables or isolated letters, her response was either to freeze or to pronounce the letters as they are sounded in the alphabet. She appears not to have realised that phonemes are discrete arithmetic units in English, each of which can be written. The awareness that letters can evoke sounds which can be quite different to their name seemed to genuinely surprise her. This can be seen in the following when she attempts to utter “pharm”.

T: I now wrote down “photo”, thinking that this word might be familiar to her. Can you say this word?
K: /foto/. With no hesitancy.
T: I took her back to “pharmacy”. Now?
K: Silence with a quizzical look on her face.
T: I then wrote down “philosophy” -not a wise choice on reflection! What does this say?
K: She slowly got out something that sounded like Philosophy.
T: And this pointing to “photo”?
K: /foto/.
T: Pointing to “pharmacy”.
K: Silence.
T: I then decided to change tack and get her to work on how many sounds were present in the two letters (ph). How many sounds in “photo”?
K: After some thinking. Two.

When she said two, I decided to probe to see if she could split the second syllable, which she was able to utter with ease, into two. I asked her if it was possible to divide it up. She was adamant at first, no. When I covered “t” and left her with “o” to say, she had no choice but to come to the conclusion that “pho” consisted of two sounds also. She straight-away asked me if I was sure there were four sounds in that word. I then took her back and had her work over what we had done, but on this occasion she didn’t need much time. As I was not sure whether she was aware of what she had done, I asked her, “How many?” She replied with no doubt in her voice, “Four”.

T: At this point I decided to bring her back to the earlier problem. I wrote down “pho”. Say this now.
K: /fo:/
T: And this, writing down, “phar”.
K: Silence for a while with much mouth moving.
T: Say something.
K: /fo:a:/
T: I took her back to “pho”. Say this.
K: /fo:/

I took her backwards and forwards a few times yet she was unable to separate the /f/ from the /o:/. I then tried a similar strategy with “phi”. The same phenomena occurred. I then asked her to place her attention in her mouth to the first sound she made when she uttered “pho”. After a few attempts, she was able to transform her utterance into an awareness which she could articulate.

K: It’s an “f”! With some surprise. Even though she was mistaken in what she said, I decided not to intervene here, but leave it for another time.
T: I now pointed to “phar”. Say it.
K: Tentatively. /fa:/

The transitions from being able to:

  1. take the first phoneme out of “pho”
  2. label it as an /ef/
  3. be able to utter it in another phonemic environment.

I would suggest, are significant steps within her development as a student of language. She made these steps by resorting to the powers she has within herself, powers which she will need to continually exercise if she is to improve on and refine her English.

Previously, she seemed to not have come to the awareness that individual phonemes have their own character which can be abstracted from the linguistic environment they occur in. From what I have seen on many other occasions with students I have worked with, I believe that had I written down “farm” she would probably have had no problem in uttering the required sounds. The ability to read words already known is one thing. But to be able to separate sound clusters into their individual components (phonemes), from which one can be taken and uttered in another sound environment, requires an awareness of phonemes and a sensitivity to one’s auditory apparatus.

K was convinced at various times that /fo:a:/ was the only way to say /f/ + /a/. She had linked the phoneme /f/ to /o:/ from the word “photo” and she was unable to separate them. Not having the awareness that some phonemes can be added to other phonemes, and can be just as easily taken away, had limited her ability to improve her own pronunciation because phonemes didn’t exist in her awareness. Hence any refining was dependent upon working with the whole word, which was bound to be a poor approach in working on individual sounds that needed adjustment, insertion or deletion. Her ability to utter words which she had come across for the first time was also severely restricted.

The case presented here, I believe, provides some insights as to why some learners of a second language experience difficulties in improving on their pronunciation. Without having recourse to the awareness of what one utters at the phonemic level, improvements that can be made are limited. For example, how is it possible to refine a sound when there is no awareness of what sound is being made in the first place?

It is at the beginning levels of language acquisition that students can be best brought to the awareness of phonemes. When learners learn to place their awareness in their ears and in their speech organs, they will no longer need to be reliant on others for confirmation or support, but will be demonstrating their autonomy and independence, on the road to a quality in their pronunciation which would not require anyone else’s intervention. When I work with students like K, I know that this has not been part of their learning experience. They have in effect missed out on one of the building blocks necessary for learning a second language and thus continue to remain dependent on others for guidance.

© Andrew Weiler
Australia, July 7, 1992

The Science of Education in Questions No – 9, Une Education Pour Demain, France. June 1993.




Andrew has been working at subordinating his teaching to learning for over 30 years. In that time he has worked teaching ESL in a multitude of settings (as well as other languages on occasion), teaching teachers as well as managing a large language centre.

The writings, teachings and the person of Caleb Gattegno have heavily influenced him. Inevitably there have also been other influences that have shaped his current ideas and practices.

More recently he decided to put pen to paper and you can find the results of what he has distilled from his research and experiences on his site: Strategies in Language Learning. Very soon his first book Language Learning Unlocked, where he has put all this an into a more a coherent whole, will be available on his site and at other outlets.

He recently contributed to The Gattegno Effect with an article: The Road to Inspired Teaching, p 144.


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“One More Step to being Freer in Learning ESL” by Andrew Weiler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.