Pronunciation through Sammy Diagrams: Activities and Syllabus

Taka Kumazawa


"To be effective as a teacher of pronunciation, it is essential to have an understanding of how the speech sounds of English are produced. Such knowledge will enable you to understand why your students have a foreign accent, since a foreign accent results partially from an inability to produce the speech sounds of English. In addition, it will enable you to take the necessary steps for correction of your students' pronunciation problem"(Avery & Ehrlich, 1992:11).
The purpose of designing this activity is to raise students' consciousness of the positions of the mouth when English sounds are produced and to improve students' automaticity in pronunciation by using repetition-drills. In order to produce native-like or understandable sounds, learners have to learn how they are produced and must acquire the accurate forms or positions of the mouth when they are produced. This consciousness-raising activity is particularly effective for L2 learners who cannot rely on natural acquisition like young native learners, but have to attempt to master the language through formal studying, intensive reading, and actually performing what they have learned in their classes. In addition, this formal teaching activity can be an effective lesson for L2 learners most of whom have heavy accents because they tend to confuse their native language with English. If they know the accurate forms to produce sounds, they are sure to be able to distinguish or see the difference between their accent and correct forms. This might enable them to get close to correct forms, which in turn may lead them to produce a native-like or understandable accent.

Another aim for this activity is to make L2 learners realize the importance of accurate pronunciation (native-like accent is preferable), and the importance of communication practice in order to communicate with natives English speakers. A further aim is to make them realize that they must spend considerable time to improve their pronunciation.

The academic goal for this activity is to give a variety in designing syllabus or lessons, especially in an educational system that puts less emphasis on teaching speaking. Some variety in teaching, along with being able to speak and produce accurate English sounds, or even by being able to communicate with native speakers of English may prove motivational for learners. The learners' success in this activity definitely can lead to increases in confidence, motivation to study actively, and interest in learning, and improvement in pronunciation.


This activity focuses on learning Sammy diagrams. These demonstrate the correct mouth positioning for pronunciation. The reason for using these diagrams is that the illustrations of correct forms help learners produce native-like or understandable sounds.
Another reason for learning Sammy diagrams is that learners have to rely on their memorization of the illustrations of how the correct sounds are produced. Therefore, in order to master the diagrams, formal teaching is one of the most appropriate methods: teachers formally lecture on the diagram to facilitate learners' learning; learners have to read intensively to memorize each form. The success of learners' memorization leads them to raise their consciousness on the correct forms and help them produce the accurate sounds.

Before learning the diagrams, students are asked to learn a phonetic alphabet. In order to understand each phoneme, learners have to know and distinguish each sound as represented by phonetic symbols. They have to spend considerable time to master each phonetic symbol. A short-term proficiency test can be effective here to make students review the material on phonetic symbols. One possible test-form is to make students write down phonetic transcriptions.

After memorizing the diagrams, learners are asked to draw the diagrams relating to each phoneme and to produce the correct explanation of how they are produced. A short-term proficiency test such as a quiz is an effective testing form in this case; it gives students an opportunity to review the materials in order to perform well on the test and gives them a short-term goal. A simple paper test will do.

There are many forms and explanations on the Sammy diagram that learners have to memorize so that learning should be done in sequence to facilitate learning. An ideal progression would be divided into at least four: short vowels, diphthongs, triphthongs, and consonants. Additionally, the formal teaching on the distinction between fricatives and affricatives is necessary before going on to teach consonants. Pre-teaching, formal teaching, reviewing, and testing should be done in that order.

After teaching the above, and when teachers are sure that learners are ready to take a next step, learners are asked to combine each series of phonemes and to produce the combination of the phonemes. Teachers have to go around to each student and correct their pronunciation. For instance, the two phonemes: [g] and [ou] are taught. Learners are asked to pronounce each phoneme individually and then to blend them. Teachers have to make sure that learners are following the direction of the diagram when producing and pronouncing each sound correctly individually. After assuring that learners are pronouncing each sound correctly, teachers go on to the next step, which is to pronounce the two sounds continuously. After completing the sequence, learners realize that [gou] is the combination of the two sounds expressing "go." This is the most difficult sequence of all, so teachers have to make sure that they have enough practices to understand this step.

To make students practice this sequence of phoneme blending, repetition drills are effective. This practice increases their automaticity in pronouncing and raises their phonological awareness (cf. Reynolds, this volume). Although the repetition drills might be found rather boring, the time should be used effectively since automaticity cannot be built up without many repetitions.

The final item in the sequence is a long-term proficiency test. This test is based on examining learners' knowledge of the phonetic alphabet, accurate forms of production, and native-like, understandable sounds. This test form should be productive and should test precise knowledge of native-like, understandable pronunciation. Interviewing each student can be the most effective test-form to listen each student's pronunciation: in this case, teachers give each student a written list of words and ask each of them to pronounce it.

Target students and setting

Target students are those who have some knowledge of the English language. Students must recognize and produce all 26 letters of the English alphabet. Another qualification to study this activity is to have mastered, at least, 1,000 English words (high frequency words). It just seems pointless to study this material without knowing the definition and the spelling of words learners are trying to produce.
I particularly intend this material for the first grade of high school students in the Japanese educational system. At this point, they should have learned at least 2,000 words and have learned some English grammar. This means that they have built up enough knowledge of the English language to start studying this material.

One disadvantage of studying English in the Japanese educational system is that students almost have no opportunity to listen to or communicate with native speakers except a few hours with the teachers on the JET program. Therefore, they are not able to know what pronunciation is accurate or not accurate. Because of a lack of opportunity, learning native-like or understandable pronunciation through communicating with natives is impossible; the communicative approach does not work under this system. Nevertheless, formal teaching of a phonetic alphabet and Sammy diagrams is one of a few methods useful for teaching the distinction between accurate and inaccurate pronunciation.

I intentionally avoided communicative methods in these activities; instead relying on audiolingualism which emphasizes using formal teaching, repetition, drills, testing, and reviewing. This is because audiolingualism is the only method used in the Japanese educational system, even for communication courses (I firmly believe that communication is best learned through communicating with natives, but in Japan it does not work in that way). This material can be taught through an audiolinguistic approach and can help to achieve success in accurate pronunciation to a certain degree.

Appendix 1. Sample exercises and tests (Attached with the answers to the questions)

Phonological Transcription Test

Phonetically transcribing following words

1. read / /

2. eat / /

3. pen / /

Sammy Diagram Test

Draw the picture of the shape of the mouth and tongue that is appropriate for its phonological alphabet and describe how it is produced.



Phoneme Blending Test 1

Pronounce each phoneme correctly and combine it all together and write down the word.

[ai] + [s] =

[m] + [ei] + [k] =

[s] + [au] + [n] + [d] =

Phoneme Blending Test 2

Pronounce each phoneme in front of interviewers and determine the word when each alphabet is joined together.

[ai] + [s] =

[m] + [ei] + [k] =

[s] + [au] + [n] + [d] =