In which I reflect on the five week pronunciation course I taught for my university’s summer program…
I outlined a lot of what I planned to do in this post, and managed to carry a lot of it off. If you’re interested in what I planned to do pre-camp (particularly if you’re planning to do this yourself) you might want to have a look at the document below:
As ever though, some things got missed off due to scheduling changes, and everything (as ever) taking a fair bit longer than expected. Overall though, the experience was a great one, and the class was reasonably successful. This was in a large part due to having 4 groups of enthusiastic, interested and willing students to work with. When I taught in a private institution I was uncomfortable with the fact that money was always the bottom line, even to the point of being detrimental to learning. However, in this case, the fact that the students paid to take the course made them all the more motivated. I also found myself wondering whether having no exams on the course made the students value learning more for its own sake. Anyway, my camp students rank among my favourites I have ever taught (of course as a teacher I have no favorites though).
I’m going to split the rest of this post (and the ones that follow it) into several sections, covering the general areas that comprised my course. I’ll try to cover a bit of what I did, how the students and I felt about it, and anything I’d do differently next time.
Lets start with the models part of this, a part of the camp that caused no small amount of problems for both myself and my students . I started off the course by attempting to introduce the students to the concept of a range of accents and pronunciations, both first and second language with this video:
As part of the discussion, we talked about which speakers the students liked best. Many of them chose the Korean English speakers on the grounds of intelligibility, which I thought was a positive thing for them, as it’s a far more achievable target than sounding like a native. However, when asked a slightly different question about who they would like to sound like, students overwhelmingly chose the native speakers. The idea here was to show that there are a range of accents that one can aspire to. On reflection, this was a bit of a mistake for a couple of reasons. Firstly, using this as an introduction to the course, and especially asking students to reflect on it and choose models seems unfair when they have little technical knowledge or self-awareness where pronunciation is concerned , and the model examples were not particularly understandable in terms of content. Were I doing this again I might put this section at the end of the course, rather than the beginning. I think largely this may have served to confuse, rather than clarify.
Multiple models also make teaching difficult from a practical point of view. Throughout the course I tried to give the students a range of options, rather than just a single model. For example, for teaching vowel phonemes (where different pronunciations make the most difference) I used two vowel quadrilaterals for US (California) and UK (RP) English, and got recorded samples from American teachers to back them up. I also encouraged students to use forvo.com to find their own samples.
This is all well and good from a World Englishes point of view, but I think possibly was trying too hard to be open to different pronunciations. For one, in most classrooms, I believe that it still falls on the teacher to be the main pronunciation model, due to a combination of student expectations, lack of access to technology, and convenience. This made it tough on me (my American accent improved immeasurably), but more importantly it made it tough on the students, who I felt wanted a single, definite answer, rather that one that started “Well I would say it like this but…”. As the camp went on, I came to realise that it may not be so important to show students a range of possibilities, firstly because their ability to reproduce them may well be limited, but also because I feel like the examples are filtered through the student’s own impressions of pronunciation, so that what they hear is not what I model anyway. In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to simply do the modelling myself with my accent, and then work individually – I think my desire to be a responsible global citizen might have got in the way of being an effective teacher here.
Nonetheless, during the camp I stressed the fact that difference was natural and expected, and some of the feedback that I got remarked that this helped students to feel at ease. I also made sure I spent some time with each student “man to man”, as my students, including the girls, described it in their feedback. I think that one on one work is crucial in pronunciation, especially with vowels, and that in the end, distinction is far more important than reproducing them like a native speaker. Anyway, this leads me to…
This was something that I wanted to tackle during camp, as I felt that it was a real problem area for students in general, and one that gets scant attention from teachers and coursebooks alike, at least in any systematic way. I suspected that this may be due to the degree of difficulty in teaching it, and having done so, I can certainly confirm that it is extremely difficult.
My aim in doing this, and course in general, was to raise students awareness and give them a basis from which to work as they continued their studies. Too often students see English vowels through the prism of Korean vowels, and many different sounds in English (schwa, the a in ‘walk’, o as in ‘stop’) tend to become the Korean sound ㅓ, which is a back and slightly open vowel not unlike the British o in ‘cod’. Teaching students that these sounds were different was my first priority.
I started with a general introduction, and asked students to watch the (rather wonderful) video below, and simply write down as many words as they could.
They then tried to put them into groups based on vowel sounds. We then went through, checked answers, and I introduced the IPA symbols for each sound. Over the next couple of weeks we looked at each sound in turn, usually in combination with those that were close to it in the quadrilateral. The process I followed was usually to find out if the students could do it already, simply by asking them to pronounce a minimal pair (this caused a lot of hilarity at times). We then looked at a few models, and then tried distinguishing them, first with me modelling, then with the students working in pairs to produce them, both as phonemes and in minimal pair words. At this point I tried to get around to everyone and sort out any problems. As I said above, the focus was on getting two different sounds and having students produce them consistently. Finally groups tried to find examples of each sound in a list of 1,000 common words, and present them to the class. Making a video blog (more on this later) of some of these words was often a homework assignment.
For some extra activities related to vowels (it gets fairly monotonous just practising saying sounds day after day), I had the students create role plays based around minimal pair confusions, such as “hit” and “heat”, which were quite successful in terms of humour, care in pronunciation, and demonstrating that occasionally correct pronunciation of sounds can be very important, particularly if there’s a ‘sh’ sound in the examples above.
In general I think that the students found this aspect of the course really difficult. Vowel sounds are incredibly difficult to explain, and although students made a great effort, ‘ae’ and ‘e’ still ended up very similar sounding. As I said above, not having one definite model made it even more frustrating for students. I’d also have liked a lot more one on one time to work on this. For myself, I’m a bit torn about the effectiveness of this. It certainly raised the students’ awareness of vowel sounds, but whether it improved them significantly is a bit of a doubt. I suppose though, by my own admission, this course was a basis to build on, and I might have been expecting too much.
I think this is enough of this novella for this post. I have a lot more that I’d like to write about, which I will hopefully have time to do over the next week or so before the semester starts in earnest. Thanks for reading, and I’d love to read any comments that you have, either by tweet or below.