Winter Pronunciation Camp Reflections Week 4 (Part 1)

This post is the latest in a long series. The usual disclaimers about not being a real camp and rambling apply.

Monday

Monday started with another go at reading fluency, for which their scores seem to be going up. I had a great comment from Carolyn Kerr wondering if I thought that the increase in reading fluency related to the pronunciation teaching. I hadn’t consciously made the connection here, but seeing the comment brought to mind some research I saw once that connected pronunciation and reading. It’s a great question; I’d say that I’m sceptical about it at the moment. As I remember the research largely related to the teaching of segmental features, whereas I’m focusing more on suprasegmentals. However if anyone’s a bit more familiar with research in this area and wants to get in touch I’d certainly enjoy a discussion.

As with last week we used Monday morning to set some goals for the week, and to reflect on how successfully we’d met last weeks. I say ‘we’, when I actually mean the students, but actually perhaps a public process of reflection would give the students a better model to follow. I hope that these reflections are serving to keep the students on track through the camp. I’d actually like to read them, but sadly time dictates that I can’t (I think I might want to digitize the reflections next camp so I can at least look at a few).

The main activity of today was in the discovery stage of my learning progression. We played Just a Minute again, but this time with a real pronunciation focus. The idea is that speaking extemporaneously like this means that students are not focusing too much on pronunciation, and so errors and slips happen. The idea is to find these out so they can be worked on as part of a individual program of improvement. Working in groups, the students played a round of the game while recording. They then tried to identify any pronunciation problems in the recording. While the game was enjoyable, the listening and analysis portion wasn’t so well done, with little of use coming out of it. The reasons for this, I would estimate, are many. For one, it was Monday morning and the students didn’t seem to be feeling all that analytical (this is the week of the camp when everyone starts to flag under the weight of work, early mornings and, mostly for the students, hangovers). However, the act of listening for errors, especially on a less than ideal recording, is hard enough for someone trained. For untrained L2 speakers this may be all too much. To help with this though, I feel like two things could happen. One, be more specific with what students should be listening for (sounds, words, supraseg. features). Two, developing listening skills should form a part of the course. One way in which this could be done is to play more recordings publicly (I tend not to do this out of sympathy for the students) and do the listening myself, but providing guidance on what I am listening for and good or bad examples.

Tuesday

I started Tuesday with another chunk: “______ ‘s/’re getting _____er __________”. So far the chunks I have been doing have had a good response, but this one fell a little flat. This may well be to do with the week 4 flagging described above (I too feel like I am on my last teaching legs). It may also be that it feels a little less “communicative” than the others (which have all been questions or requests). The students managed to produce it fine, but when it came to adapting it to their own ends they really seemed to struggle.

After that we did a little more work on intonation in questions. While it seems like this is pretty basic stuff, especially as Korean does similar things with questions, it actually turned out to be very useful practice. One thing I enjoy about teaching pronunciation is that I’m still learning myself, and there’s always something new to discover. Today it was the fact that where a question has rising intonation, the tonic stress is marked by a drop in pitch. This contrasts with a falling intonation* declarative statement/information question where the stress is usually marked by a slight rise in pitch. This exercise went pretty well, but I’m harbouring slight concerns that I’m not providing enough opportunities for freer practice. My idea has always been that they can practice in other classes, but maybe this isn’t realistic? I think that these kind of reflections might be best saved for a post-hoc analysis though, as I’ve come a bit too far now to change direction.

Wednesday

Started off Wednesday with (again) a bunch of hungover, rather grumpy students.  The first activity I did was 4-3-2, with the aim of producing (unrehearsed) a speech that they were working towards in another class. Initially this was not popular, but as 3 and then 2 came and went it was noticeable how much better they performed, and how much more confident they became. My colleague (who they see after my class) commented on how well they had done in debates in his class, and I really do believe that the performance may have been as a result of this activity.

Then I did one of my favourite activities in pronunciation class – poetry. Poetry for children often works well for this – more mature stuff goes way over the heads of most learners, and the rhythm is much harder to pick up. I’ve been using “My Parents Sent Me To The Store” by Kenn Nesbitt in this camp, which you can find in this free sample of his poetry. I start off by asking students to identify the most common vowel sound in English, and then sit back as they reel off every sound in English except schwa. None of them ever believe me either, until I make them play “Schwa Wars” (from Teaching Unplugged, Thornbury & Meddings) and reveal the final answer. After this, I read the poem and they try to mark some of the instances of schwa that they missed. The final part of the lesson is the students trying to read it themselves, after a choral drill and practice alone and in pairs. At this stage most of them still struggle with reducing syllables, even with the rhythm drawn on the board, but some are at least starting to get the idea.

I really think that unstressed syllables are one of the most important things to master in pronunciation. While it is certainly a native speaker feature, and you can get by without it, using word and sentence stress is a lot more difficult if you don;t have unstressed syllables to contrast with. And it’s actually always the unstressed syllables that are the problem, rather than the stressed ones, unless the stressed syllables are completely unnaturally stressed in order to make them stand out. Also, better production of unstressed syllables should lead to greater speaking speed and fluency.

Again, this lesson felt like a bit too much theory and learning and not enough practice. This is something I have to work on for next time I think (if there is a next time). However, balancing everything out is incredibly difficult, and as I said before, is probably best dealt with at the end of this course.

This brings me to the end of Wednesday and the end of this post. As always comments are welcome, and Thursday and Friday’s reflections will be out later in the week.

Cheers,

Alex

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7 responses to “Winter Pronunciation Camp Reflections Week 4 (Part 1)

  1. From what I remember of my college days long ago, it was found that working on pronounciation helps deaf sudents remember vocabulary items a bit better, even if their prononciation is horrendous. There is some connection between the working of the mouth and storage in the brain. Remembering vocab assists in reading comp., so perhaps the connection is there.
    Naomi

    • Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for your comment. I was thinking along the same kind of lines as you. I would have thought, then, that it would be the segmental features that made more of a difference here, rather than suprasegmentals. Given that I haven’t taught segmentals that much during this camp, I don’t think that the improvement in reading fluency can be attributed to this. Also my students already have enormous vocabularies, so probably not due to improvements in this area either.

      I think I’m putting it down to getting back into the students’ using English daily, and also a simple desire to increase their reading speeds.

      Alex

  2. Please forgive a tired brain that can’t fill in the blanks. What goes in “______’s getting ______er _______.” ?

    My other thought on the post is that it’s interesting how, like reading, it seems that students are more successful at pronunciation with material that is “easy” for them, whether it’s stuff that they produce themselves or stuff made for a lower level (like the poem for kids) than theirs or stuff that’s similar in their language (like intonation in questions and statements).

    Thanks for another really interesting post!
    Anne

    • It was supposed to be a useful way to describe states of change. It’s getting hotter, university fees are getting higher.

      As to your other point, it is indeed interesting. Most students seem to have reasonable intonation because they just map Korean onto English. This works for intonation, but as you say, for stuff that doesn’t correspond, like word stress, they’re nowhere near as good.

      As I said in a previous post, I’m surprised how hard it is for them to concentrate on pronunciation when doing other activities, even simple ones, but it is. I wonder if I need to try and develop their monitoring skills?

      Alex

  3. Pingback: Winter Pronunciation Camp Reflections Week 4 (Part 1) « David's ESOL Blog

  4. Hi Alex,

    Thank you so much for writing this up. It has been quite interesting following your progress. Selfishly, I am also super thankful because I know I will be expected to come up with material for a university camp this summer and greatly appreciate seeing the ins, outs and what have yous of your process and execution.

    One more note, I definitely agree in the belief that a feedback sheet would/should greatly aid students in tailoring their feedback in a more constructive way than just “good”. I was wondering if all your students are the same age. You may know better than I, but many of my classes could care less about face unless they find themselves in class with students of a different age. Perhaps that could have brought about the issue. It is a funny one considering how indirect the culture tends to be, many students (and co-teachers alike) can be brutally straight forward.

    You’re a teacher all can look up to my friend. Thanks again for taking the time to share.

    John

  5. Pingback: Winter Pronunciation Camp Reflections Week 4 (Part 2) | The Breathy Vowel

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