The Pizza Aquarium

Posted on March 20, 2013 by

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In The Long And Short Of ‘It’ I talked about some issues surrounding the “short i” and mentioned that I hadn’t come up with a way to get students to produce a short i, or /ɪ/. After some trial and error, I have managed to come upon a strategy that seems to have worked, at least for my older students.

The special challenge with older students is that they have already been exposed to a lot of mispronounced words. They’ve all gone through at least a year of English at this point, if not many years, and they’ve always heard short i pronounced like long e (long e = /i:/ = e like in meet). They’ve all heard “eet ees” instead of “it is” so many times that we not only have to teach them the right way to say all of these words, but get them to unlearn the wrong way.

The older students are also arriving at the point where accents typically solidify. There is some research that suggests that students are more likely to achieve native-like pronunciation in a second language if they practice that language before around age 12. My sixth graders are right on the cusp of missing this window, and while it’s not impossible for older students can learn foreign sounds, it’s probably best if we can at least get the students able to pronounce the full phonetic inventory of English by sixth grade.

I started out trying to address this issue with my sixth graders by just giving them a speech about how the letter i was not pronounced like the Georgian /i/ in any of the vocabulary words in the book we use (English World 2) and that ‘i’ would almost always be pronounced /ɪ/, like in “bit” and “ship”, or /aɪ/, like in “bite” and “light”, and that they should almost never pronounce it /i:/ like in “beet” and “sheep”. I had gone over and over this plan in my head for two weeks before settling on a final version, and I had several examples of each proper and improper pronunciation, and several of what we call “minimal pairs”, which are examples where two words with different meanings differ only by a single sound (for instance, it vs. eat, ship vs. sheep), which were chosen to show the importance of getting these pronunciations right.

And of course, by sheer coincidence, the reading that day was called “The Aquarium”. Note the i pronounced like /i/, which sort of contradicted the main point I had just spent several minutes making about not pronouncing i like /i/. Embarrassing. It sort of took the wind out of my sails when I had to amend my statement and admit that there were in fact two vocabulary words in English World 2 in which the letter i is pronounced /i/: pizza and aquarium. This goes to show the importance of timing in lesson planning.

At first I considered this a setback, but I guessed that at least now the kids would have some idea about the number of exceptions to English rules… or maybe I just made an entire class of sixth graders hate English forever. Trying to recover, or maybe just shift the blame onto other languages, I explained that both “pizza” and “aquarium” were foreign words – “pizza” from Italian and “aquarium” from Latin – and that’s why they were pronounced weirdly. (And not only are these both loans, they’re both surprisingly recent – apparently “aquarium” was borrowed around 1830 and “pizza” around 1935.)

Undaunted, I wrote every word in “The Aquarium” that contained the letter i (ignoring digraphs like the ie in “friendly”) on the board, in columns – one for short i, one for long i, and one for Pizza Aquarium i. Short i got the most: holiday, it, fantastic, dolphin, big, little, fish, fifty, sixty, silver, this, swim, in, beautiful, jellyfish, pink, sending, and pictures. Next was long i: hi, white, behind, I, ninety, and like. Finally was Pizza Aquarium i, with just one word: aquarium. We drilled the pronunciation of these words (focusing on long and short i) until all the students could say the short i reasonably well.

I think that the counting was what helped the most, though. We counted out the words with each pronunciation, and at 18:6:1, it was clear that the short i was overwhelmingly the most common, and I explained that this would be true in general. That was the point when the kids seemed to get the idea that the short i pronunciation wasn’t some weird exception that their Amerikeli mastsavlebeli insisted on for a few random words, but was in fact the default setting, and they should gear themselves towards noticing and pronouncing short i correctly.

These kinds of lessons – that may be a little complicated, but that end up making a big difference – are my favorite kinds to give. Just using pronunciation drills hadn’t been working, so I tried a variety of tactics – I brought in some phonics, some phonetics, some etymology, some very basic statistical textual analysis, and then some more practice – until the message got across. Sometimes the road is bumpy, but if you have enough tools in your teacher’s toolkit, you’ll be able to get there.

I also think it’s important to let the kids understand that the language does have logic even if it is not always apparent, and it’s important to start arming them with the tools to uncover some of that logic as they move on to more advanced topics. In my experience, students respond really well to these types of lessons – pattern-finding lessons – especially when they are used sparingly, as a break from rote memorization-based lessons.