Pronunciation Camp! (Not the other way around)

That’s two jokes(?) and I haven’t even started writing yet.

I have a confession to make. I like to geek out about pronunciation. I wrote a paper diagnosing areas in which one of my old students could improve her pronunciation last year, and since then I’ve been itching to get into some hardcore pronunciation teaching. Thus when topics for an intensive summer camp class were requested, I immediately threw my hat in the ring to teach a pronunciation course.

Is it a good idea, or even possible?

The administration was, justifiably, a little anxious about the course, perhaps figuring that it’s not the most instantly saleable course in the world. Nestled next to creative writing and speech making I’ll admit that it doesn’t sound so much fun. With this in mind, we added another element – fluency. Given that pronunciation is an important factor in fluency, this doesn’t seem so bad.

I think it’s definitely a good idea. I’ve met very few Korean adults who aren’t worried about their English pronunciation, to the point where I’m often asked (even an hour into a conversation) whether I can really understand people’s English. This means that it is a concern for people, and something that I think often gets pushed by the wayside in teaching, either due to lack of time (I am very guilty of this in my term-time freshman English class), lack of knowledge on the teacher’s part (I wouldn’t have wanted to attempt this before I spent several months with my head buried in a pronunciation textbook) or a belief that pronunciation will simply be acquired through usage.

I think that the third point deserves a little more comment here, as I think it probably holds true, especially for suprasegmental features of speech. Certainly as far as my Korean learning is concerned, I have very little idea of rules for intonational functions of Korean (if it even has any), but I have picked up on the way that certain phrases are pronounced to convey surprise, point out the obvious, or to berate your friend for being an idiot almost unconsciously. However, this has come from over two years of exposure and usage in everyday situations. My potential students are coming at this from a more classroom background, where at best the English will have been rather staid, and at worst they will have been discouraged from speaking at all.

I also believe that many of my students fall into the trap of wanting to view the sounds of English through the prism of the sounds of Korean. This becomes clear when they try to distinguish walk and work, both of which often come out sounding virtually the same. This may well come from the transcribing of English words into Korean that seems, sadly, still to go on in some schools here.

So yes, I think it’s a good idea, that it can help raise students awareness, and hopefully give them the skills to improve their pronunciation as they continue their studies after the course. Will it work, I hope so – maybe you can help me decide…

What do I want to do?

I’m hoping to focus more on the segmental features of English than the suprasegmental. I’m going to teach lower level learners, so many of the features of intonation that I could introduce them to occur in English that’s above their level. This course is more about repairing and improving what they already have, rather than teaching them anything new. I’m also of the opinion that a lot of suprasegmental features are much more of a native speaker concern than non-native, and given that it may well be that these students will be using English as an international language means that I’m not sure that many of them really need to learn about stress timing.

Of course, teaching pronunciation requires actually doing something with it. 5 weeks solid of minimal pairs practice doesn’t sound like much fun for teacher or students. This is where the fluency aspect comes in – I’m planning to work pretty hard on small talk as a base for practising our pronunciation. I’d really like to equip my students with a good base of ways for getting a conversation started and questions which they can answer quickly and fluently, in order to ease their way into a conversation and build their confidence. Again, this is something that helps me enormously in Korean.

In addition to small talk, I’d like to also concentrate on small words. I’m going to focus on applying some of the segmental and word stress features to the 1,000 most common words in English, on the basis that if we can pronounce the problematic ones of these fluently, they will occur often enough to make a significant improvement in the students speech rates. I would also like to focus on encouraging students to use simpler vocabulary – so many problems with intelligibility here stem from the fact that students want to directly translate their L1 ideas into L2, rather than working with words they already know, leaving them with sentences like “I want to diminish my soju drinking.”

The final piece in the puzzle is hopefully going to be providing a space and structure in which students can do their own analysis of pronunciation, and reflect on their own targets and struggles. I’m also hoping to link this in with the other courses, especially the speech making course, in order that the course has a realistic theatre for them to test their skills.

How am I going to do it?

Awareness raising is a big part of this course, so I’d like to try as much as possible to get the students to distinguish the features. This means I’ll be using a lot of materials like this awesome video about vowels (hat tip: @daylemajor) and seeing if students can distinguish them and apply them to our small talk and the 1,000 words. There will of course be some minimal pairs practice, hopefully communicative, as well as lots of bingo and spot the difference games. I’m also hoping to throw the IPA alphabet in there as well.

The reflective side I would really like to handle through video journals, so as to give the students more speaking practice, and to provide a record of their progress. It would also be great if this became a habit, but I suspect that might be asking a bit too much. This is where I could use a little help, if anyone has recommendations for a good, easy to access video site for regular blogging I’d be very grateful to hear them.

I’ve just looked down at my word count and seen the 1,100 word mark tick by, so I’ll leave it here. Thanks for staying with it if you did. I’ll be trying to blog regularly about the course as I don’t think this kind of thing is tried often, and it will be interesting to see how it goes. If you’re interested, I’d love it if you subscribed or followed me on Twitter, and if you have any suggestions for fun pronunciation activities, or anything I might have overlooked, please leave me a comment.




8 responses to “Pronunciation Camp! (Not the other way around)

  1. That sounds like a really interesting course, I look forward to following your progress.
    Do you know Mark Hancock’s pron books? He also has a website with more fun pron activities..Hancockmcdonald..or maybe the other way round!

  2. Hi Rachael,

    I don’t know the books or the website, but I’m off to look it up right now. Thanks for commenting, I’ll definitely be updating regularly on this one.


  3. Hi Alex, sounds like a good foundation for a course. I love a good geek-out about pron also, and I can second Rachael’s recommendation re: Hancock. I know ppl freak out at the mention of Headway these days, but I also always found the Headway pron books (Bowler & Parminter, I think, available in various levels) useful & varied. Please don’t leave out suprasegmental features though. You can look at intonation even in 1 word utterances (eg: “really”) – and arguably in many cases where ppl don’t understand the words, they may still understand the intent via intonation (eg: expressing sympathy, anger, concern etc.) and you mentioned doing a lot of listening work to distinguish sounds, but many sounds are harder to identify in connected speech (due to catenation, assimilation etc.) and sts love suddenly realising they can decode this type of utterance, it’s not just “noise”. Plus it will be variety for your sts, more of a “whole picture” of pron, and they really get a kick out of having a go at some connected speech & intonation whatever the level – maybe you could focus on high frequency chunks eg “what’ve you been up to?”, “what are you doing?” etc. Keep us posted on how you go, looking forward to it!

  4. Hi Sophia,

    I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to your comment. I spent a long time planning the camp in detail, then disappeared off to my old home town in the mountains for a while. Anyway…

    I’ve done a fair bit of thinking, and I think I’ve got it down to a good balance of stuff, including your suggestions (which were close to what I was planning anyway). In fact, the way I’ve planned it there may actually be more concentration on suprasegmentals, but a lot of the learning will be implicit and practice based rather than looking at rules, which I think is largely impossible anyway.

    I’m starting every day with a 10-15 minute small talk session, in which we look at and practice questions and conversation starters (including intonation), many of which will be based on high frequency chunks. Hopefully doing these everyday will increase fluency at the beginning of conversations and hence build confidence. It should also implicitly help students to pick up on intonation patterns.

    Then the main lessons will be focused on segmentals (mostly vowels) for 2.5 weeks, and supras for the last two. I’m also going to tie all this in with the speech making class, with every Thursday being a clinic for students to ask questions and practise with a focus on pronunciation and fluency (including a bit of editing for simplicity).

    Anyway, this is a bit of a preview. I’m planning to put the whole thing up in blog form in the not too distant future.


  5. Sounds like a great framework! Hope you found some good resources to help you too, as quite a job to design a special purposes course on your own…although you seem like you are more than well on the way! Good luck, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

  6. Pingback: Pronunciation Camp – The Aftermath | The Breathy Vowel

  7. Pingback: Pronunciation Camp Review 2: Segmental Consonants | The Breathy Vowel

  8. Pingback: Pronunciation Camp 3: Intonational Chunks and Fluency | The Breathy Vowel

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