Tag Archives: Fluency

Winter Pronunciation Camp Reflections Week 4 (Part 2)

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

Thursday

I wanted to keep working with the poem that we had started on Wednesday, but get students speaking and listening much more. I’d been concentrating hard on unstressed syllables and rhythm the previous day, and I wanted to see if the students were capable of hearing, and reproducing these features. Having read an interesting article on using speaking speed as a measure of natural pronunciation (the thinking being that unstressed syllables and assimilation and elision should lead to utterances being delivered faster), I wondered if it would be possible to do the same with the poem.

Shadowing is the method of trying to reproduce a piece of spoken text as accurately as possible. You can read Arizio Sweeting’s description of it here. In the old days this would have just been a case of listen and repeat, but technology makes this process a lot easier and a lot more autonomous. The idea is that students can record a piece of speech, listen back to it and figure out where it differs, and then have another go at recording any difficult sections.

One problem I faced with this was it took an awful long time to set up. We don’t have a language lab here, so I had the students bring their computers to class. I tend to prefer this anyway as students then have the software on their computers. However, this means factoring in time for lateness, forgetting and setting it all up (answers on a postcard as to why you’d pay a load of money for an “intensive” English camp, and then spend the entire time moaning, shirking and generally doing anything to avoid speaking English). This then led to having less time to do what I really wanted, which was to step them through a process of listening, recording and editing, and largely resulting in them doing a series of one shot recordings and not doing that much in the way of comparison. Still, there were one or two really excellent attempts, and again this is something that I’d really like to incorporate into the course more next time, especially with shorter pieces of language like the chunks I have been teaching. I’m also wishing for a simple way to show pitch change in Audacity.

Friday

One of the students final projects in my colleague’s class is to make a short film in English. By Friday the scripts had been written and the students were ready to start filming. Ever on the lookout for ways in which I can apply what we do in class to other things, Friday’s class was a read through of the script from each movie. The class started with each student reading their lines to themself, with me helping with questions and modelling. We then moved on to a full reading. This was a really enjoyable class to teach, but it would have been nice to make it a bit more student centered, and to find a way of having them figure things out for themselves. This is something that I can definitely improve in general I think. Anyhow, probably the best part for me was trying to teach my students to swear. Whenever we do anything like plays or films, the students are always keen to include some effing and blinding, which would be fine if they could do it properly, but it usually just ends up sounding awkward and forced. When it came up in the script then, I spent a good deal of time trying to coach them into getting it a bit more natural (and more committed). I am someone who is generally fairly reserved and serious in class, so my students were rather shocked to hear it. I don’t generally use it in class, as you never really know who might be offended by bad language, but the students brought it up, and if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it properly.

This brings me to the end of this post, and probably the end of the weekly updates. This final week has been more about testing and feedback, so expect two or three posts looking at that process. I’d like to thank everyone who has been reading these posts, and especially those whose comments have kept me interested in writing them (I think I’m over 8,000 words now!). Expect more soon.

Cheers,

Alex

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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

Winter Pronunciation Camp Reflections Week 1

So we’re back at the time of year when everything in my life goes mental and I have to stop blogging for a while, as I’m involved with creating my own camp program and teaching it 5 days a week (actually I’m in the middle of teaching 9 days out of 10!) as well as dealing with impending MA deadlines (if anyone suggests doing a module on assessment, I recommend considering your friendship with them immediately). Expect that this winter I’m resolving not to just go quiet for six or seven weeks, but to try and blog about this pronunciation camp as I teach it.

These blog post are going to be somewhat hastily put together I’m afraid. I’ll try to do some more polished reflections after the camp has finished, but for now these will detail what I’m doing and how I’m felling about it. They’re actually based on my experimental audio reflections which I’ve been keeping daily, and are so far proving extremely helpful. Anyway, here goes week one…

Wednesday

This was a bit of a get to know you and introduce the course sort of day. I started off with my favourite name game, in which one person starts by introducing themselves and saying one thing about themselves, then each successive person must remember and introduce everyone else before they introduce themselves. While it’s not particularly exciting or innovative, it does involve maximum use of students names, and is a big part of the fact that at the end of week one I know everyone’s name already.

Then as a get to know you activity we wrote five answers about ourselves and mingled trying to guess what the question was (idea stolen from this excellent thread). It was interesting to see how different groups interpreted this – some were very keen on guessing the questions, others used it as a much more general basis for a conversation. I was happy either way, and it seemed to generate a lot of activity in every group. It also worked well for me to meet students on a one to one level, and is possibly leads to the development of more rapport, as the encounters are much more personal.

I then shared my four key goals for the course, which are:

  1. Students will learn how to improve their pronunciation?
  2. Students will increase their receptive and productive pronunciation power (!)
  3. Students will increase, an be able to measure increases in, their fluency.
  4. Students will be more aware of the learning process through reflective journalling.

Having explained these a little, we then moved onto a bit of reflection. I posed three questions to the students to talk about, then write a short journal entry for homework. These were about the importance of pronunciation, the students experience of and ideas for pronunciation teaching, and their thoughts on their own pronunciation.

One thing that arose during this, is the level of monitoring I should do during reflective conversations. I made sure that the students were aware that their reflections were their own, and there was no need to share them, so it felt a little off to try to monitor reflective conversations like this. I think from next time I’ll make a clear policy that I won’t monitor unless invited to.

Thursday

On Thursday I introduced students to one of my processes for the camp, what I called “The Learning Cycle”, but which is neither cyclic nor especially about learning. It might be better termed “the habit-changing process”. Anyway, it essentially uses the following four stages:

  • Discovery (of undesireable habits)
  • Correction (finding out how to do it right)
  • Goal directed, attention focused practice
  • Good habit formation

The idea is to raise habits out of unconscious production, change them, then reintegrate the new improved habit. Today’s calls focused on the discovery stage through a diagnostic test (designed by David Kim and published in the 1999 KOTESOL PAC Proceedings). Running a diagnostic test for many students simultaneously is tricky, but I came up with a way to do it. I gave the students 15 minutes to read the test sentences and record them on their phone. I gave them the sentences plain so there wasn’t too much second guessing. Then together we analysed them in class, with me providing both good and (hilariously to the students) bad models. I think this was actually a pretty good way to do it, as it allows many problems to be pointed out in a short space of time, and hopefully develops better listening skills and pronunciation awareness in general. However, the odd check I have done since shows students marking themselves very harshly, despite encouragement, so if you’re doing this keep an eye out for that.

Friday

Friday was perhaps the least satisfying day of the week, for reasons that I will outline. I’m trying to give students the tools to improve their pronunciation, so today turned into a bit of an information dump. I gave students British and Korean vowel quadrilaterals, plus my own consonant chart, and explained how to use them. Now, this would be incredibly useful to me, but the students just didn’t seem to “get it”. Having set some goals for improvement  for the test, I gave them the task of learning how to produce the sounds correctly using the materials I had just given them, and then building these into a set of common words that they could make into an Anki deck to do deliberate practice with (I also introduced howjsay and forvo to provide some models).

This was disappointingly badly done, and left me feeling like I hadn’t really conveyed my point (in truth I hadn’t really). The effort that’s required to change a feature of pronunciation, especially one that’s ingrained in a young adult, is significant, and I’m not sure that the students realize that it takes daily focus (in fact, on a show of hands most seemed to believe that having mastered a sound they would then produce it correctly each time). Anyway, my solution is going to be leaving it for a couple of days, but then conducting a proper practice session, carefully staged, with theories elaborated and Anki decks built during the class, and revision assigned for homework. This will likely be a new way of working for the students, so it’s important to model it carefully for them, rather than just expect them to do it straight off the bat. I’m hoping for better things next week.

Saturday [ 😦 ]

Due to the new year holiday we ended up with a make up class on the Saturday of this week. I suspected that students wouldn’t be particularly up for long lectures, intensive pronunciation focus or anything else resembling hard work (I also suspected the teacher wasn’t really up for this either) . I’d introduced my students to IPA in a homework assignment, but wanted to help them learn it. When I learned, the thing that helped me most was actually using the thing, so with this in mind I designed a scavenger hunt around the building (inside, it was -10C out) with all of the clues written in IPA. The clues also had to be earned by correctly pronouncing words like “epitome” (thanks Mike) having found the pronunciation in a dictionary.

Overall the event was a great success, and got rave reviews from the students. Honestly I saw it more as a bit of light relief after a hard week, but I’m sure the students did get a bit more familiar with the IPA. However, one incident did lead me to doubt the usefulness of teaching IPA. When I set the key words for the clues, one student immediately looked up the voice sample pronunciations on his phone. Smart enough, and it left me wondering whether IPA might be a little less useful these days than in days of yore.

The final thing I want to share was my opening activity for the day. Lifted from Nation and Macalister’s (2009) Language Curriculum Design, I started a fluency tracker for my students. Basically it’s just a graph of their fluencies in various areas. We started with reading fluency. I allowed each student to choose a graded reader, and set them 4 minutes of reading time. They then counted the lines that they had read. We’re going to test this regularly to see if they improve, and also look at writing and speaking fluency too. One thing that ER fans should note is that several students asked to borrow the books to read at home!

Alright, that’s this week’s rambling done I think. Any suggestions, comments and criticisms very much welcomed.

Cheers,

Alex

 

Pronunciation Camp 4 – Habits: Revealing, Correcting, Practising and Linking

I’m getting towards the end of the blogging marathon that is writing up my pronunciation camp from the university’s summer program. If you want to read what went before this, check out my other posts: Models & Vowels, Consonants, and Intonational Chunks & Fluency.

In my view, pronunciation is something that, most of the time, happens unconsciously in first and second language production. Especially in one’s second language, the cognitive load of meaning making, accuracy and fluency mean that concentrating on the physical act of making sounds is impossible. And so it should be. Pronunciation in many ways can be seen as analagous to sport. This fascinating article on the science of “choking” also has implications for pronunciation – the idea that there is an implicit and explicit memory suggests that, for the most part, people who have been speaking English for a while (such as my students) are largely using the implicit system, as using the explicit one would cause too much strain on their brains, and begin to affect the other consumers of cognitive resources listed previously.

To further this analogy (helpfully, with something that few of you will be familiar with), I grew up playing cricket. Batting in cricket requires a complex range of physical and mental tasks: different styles of shot, risk management, physical endurance, anticipation. However, most of the physical performance is done using implicit memory, and that’s when you invariably bat the best, as the shot-making comes naturally and worry-free and leaves you to concentrate on higher-level thinking about strategy or what kind of sandwich to have at tea-time. Of course, actions don’t start out in the implicit memory – they get there through repetition. As a batsman in cricket, you only have one innings in which to bat, and so playing games is often not the best way to build automaticity, as often you are not performing for a long time before you’re out. This is where ‘the nets’ come in. The nets are roughly equivalent to a batting cage in baseball – somewhere where you are free to practice new skills without risk or to analyse what you already do and take steps to put it right. “The nets” is very much how I see a pronunciation classroom.

In the first few posts of this series I concentrated more on developing new(ish) skills. This time I want to focus on the second function of “the nets”, habit breaking and remodelling. This is something that developed over the course of the camp, and that I wish I had had more time to concentrate on from the start. Much of my students pronunciation contains what I would refer to as “bad habits” (I realize that I could work on my terminology a bit here); either things that creep in over time, or more likely, things that were never taught right (or even likelier never taught) in the first place. These are very much part of the implicit memory of my learners, and so are performed unconsciously.

The problem for a pronunciation teacher is that a lot of the work that you do is in a space already marked out for pronunciation, and so students are explicitly focusing on it, meaning that some of their implicit errors go undetected.  This also explains why students sometimes seem to “backslide” and make mistakes that seemed to have been corrected previously, as after explicit practice they then revert to using their implicit memory when not focusing on pronunciation. Thus a part of any pronunciation class should be trying to generate and record any bad habits, and work on solutions for breaking them. However, getting students to focus on something other than their pronunciation and getting at the implicit errors is not always easy.

Fortunately, these days the pronunciation teacher (at least the Korean one) has a huge advantage in that almost every student has a smartphone, and hence a personal, digital recording device in the palm of their hand. This means that students can much better evaluate their own, or someone else’s, pronunciation after the event. This has several advantages: the student can hear words as they actually say them, not as they think they do; a listener has more than one chance to pick out errors; finally, the recording can be played, or sent to the teacher for confirmation. So we can record errors as they are generated, but how can we go about generating them? I used two techniques: emotion and time pressure. The first was slightly geekily inspired by Labov’s sociolinguistic research on phoneme variation in New York accents, where he had subjects describe a time that they were in danger in order to distract them from the real aim of the experiment. I did very similar, in asking students to describe frightening or joyous experiences. I also often combined this with time pressure, using the 4-3-2 technique (explained here by Paul Nation). All of this was recorded, and then examined by the students for any errors.

So, once you have generated your errors, what can you do? Well, the first thing to say is that each student will have different errors, and these will exist at the phoneme and the word level, and will sometimes vary between the two (for example, f will be pronounced correctly in ‘finish’, but not in “fight”). Whatever the error, it needs to be recorded, corrected and practised. This approach is something that I developed over the course of the camp, and my recording system needs to be better next time, but due to time constraints this time, I used this pre-made (and not by any means bad) recording system that I found online.

Next, correction can take place. At a phonemic level, I tried to cover as much as possible in class (see the first two posts in this series). At word level, I aimed for a more student-reliant approach. Over the course we learnt about the IPA system so that students could find pronunciations in dictionaries, and we also looked at forvo.com for getting models, especially of different varieties of English. Then, of course, comes practice, and building good habits. If a particular phoneme is a problem, then I advised students to concentrate on it for a week or two any time they were speaking English. It’s best just to concentrate on a single phoneme at a time though, so as not to overload the student. Hopefully, after a couple of weeks of concentration, the correct pronunciation of the phoneme should become habit.

At word level, especially where there is variation from an otherwise correctly pronounced phoneme, the variation is likely cased either by the word being incorrectly learned in the first place, or by interference from the first language. In the case of my earlier flower/fight example, “Fighting!” is a Korean term of encouragement, but with no /f/ in Korean, it’s often transliterated as “Pie-ghting!”, hence the interference here. The trouble with words is that they don’t always appear in conversation that often (unlike phonemes), and so a more systematic practice is required. for this, I suggested the flashcard program Anki, with the correct pronunciation transcribed or recorded. This means that correct pronunciations of words can be practised much more regularly, and hopefully also become good habits.

The final piece in the pronunciation class puzzle has to be linking what you do in class back into more “real life” stuff. Too much focus on making sounds can lead to the class losing a bit of context – it’s a good idea to show your students that what you are doing actually has some application in the real world. Fortunately, during the camp students were required to produce both a speech and a play for the final week, so we had plenty of chance to apply what we’d learned to real things.  I was able to tie my class in with my colleague’s speech class, so that every Thursday was “speech clinic”, where we’d work in large and small groups to analyse students’ speech pronunciation, apply anything we had learned so far, and generate more errors to work on the following week. Towards the end, we also dedicated a lot of time to play rehearsals, where there are some great opportunities to teach the value of intonation in making students speech more interesting, but that’s for another day perhaps.

And that is about the shape of my pronunciation camp habit theory. If you found this helpful, please consider leaving me a  comment below, or following me through WordPress or on Twitter (@breathyvowel).

Cheers,

Alex

#KELTChat Summary: Automaticity & Fluency (23rd September 2012)

This a summary of the #KELTChat that took place on Twitter on the 23rd September 2012. It is dual posted on the KELTChat Blog and my personal blog The Breathy Vowel, but feel free to only read the one version!

On Sunday night we witnessed one of the busiest #KELTChats ever, with over 200 tweets sent in an  hour on the subject of Automaticity & Fluency. Along with regular members, I’d really like to mention the great contributions by two first-timers (I believe): @bora_maren and @jankenb2. Welcome to the community 🙂

We started out chatting about how important fluency was in our classrooms. The consensus was that it is important in every context, but especially so in Korea, where the bias of school teaching (we will return to this later) is towards grammar and vocabulary, and some teachers are guilty of treating language as knowledge, rather than as a skill, especially where speaking is concerned. We also pointed to the fact that opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. I think this is why those of us who teach at universities, such as @languagebubble, put fluency “at the forefront” of their classes.

For @keisenhow it was not only speaking fluency, but thinking fluency in English that was important, which she tries to promote through a task based approach, with thinking time built into a pre-task stage. Combined with relevant tasks and good modelling this helps her students to access the language that they need to complete the task.

We then had some fascinating ideas about the nature and role of fluency. @jankenb2 felt that fluency helped students to free their minds to focus on meaning more (I think I may have Matricized this a little in transcription), and @tamaslorincz added that it might also help with accuracy and range. @chopedu summed this up nicely with a metaphor: “Like learning to drive, we struggle before we can relegate the mechanics to the subconscious and just focus on the journey”. I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with this view on fluency though, for me meaning should always come first, but I am in no doubt that fluency helps to deliver quicker and clearer meanings. The beauty of #KELTChat was that this was then jumped on by both @bora_maren and @chopedu, claiming that form should sometimes come before meaning, and that students could not focus  on meaning, accuracy and fluency all at once, and that performance in the other two factors would drop if students focused on just one. This thread of the discussion then moved on to the role of repetition and games in the classroom. I suggested that simple speaking tasks could be redone with different audiences, and different focuses each time, and @jankenb2 highlighted the role of games in maximizing repetitions within an environment where they are actually required (ie. not just endless drilling).

While all that was going on, another chat within a chat was taking place about the role of fluency within high school classrooms. @bryanteacher (another brilliant recent addition to the #KELTChat squad) suggested that he focused much more on fluency activities, and introduced us (well me, at least) to the concept of ‘unlocking’ what the students already know. This was heartily agreed with by @annehendler, and the point was raised that it often meets opposition from school teachers who prefer to focus on the eminently more measurable and testable quality of accuracy (@josettelb).

At this point @alexswalsh chimed in with a very good point about the fact that fluency activities were strongly tied to motivation and the reasons the student is learning English. This seemed a good point, and again goes back to the testing culture here – why bother putting in the effort to be able to produce something fluently when all you need to do is check a box on a multiple choice exam. @michaelegriffin, @languagebubble and myself all agreed that motivation is crucial in developing fluency, but that we may be able to ‘sow the seeds of motivation’ by giving enough space for fluency in our classrooms. The flip side to this argument came from @alexswalsh again, suggesting that a) students may just throw chunks of language together to finish a task, and b) that doing fluency activities with large classes is not practical because many students simply revert to the L1.

Another issue that came up for public school teachers is that of level, and teachers not trusting their students, or not thinking fluency activities were necessary at lower levels. @bryanteacher pointed out that any “low-level” middle school student has a good few years of English education behind them, and this would seem to make the case that fluency needs to be concentrated on from the very beginning, a bit like what I understood Demand High ELT was all about.

The penultimate part of the discussion stemmed from the motivation thread, and considered how we could make an atmosphere in our classrooms that was conducive to practising and building motivation to achieve fluency. We talked in terms of a “safety zone” (@languagebubble), of which features might be “thinking time” and a “friendly atmosphere” (@bora_maren), or a “social presence” (@keisenhow). “Lightheartedness and laughter” and improving student dynamics through team building are important for @languagebubble.

Actually, that wasn’t the penultimate bit of the discussion, as another thread popped up at the last (this is not the easiest #KELTChat to summarize, in case you hadn’t noticed). This brought in a bit more SLA research which says that students learn linguistic features in predictable sequences. What does this mean for fluency though, @chopedu asked @jankenb2? The response was that even when students seem to be backsliding (I assume in terms of grammar and lexis), especially in conversations, this may still be a sign of progress, and again brought us back to the separate concepts of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.

Finally we did get down to talking activities, which for the sake of my tired fingers I’m going to present as a list.

In terms of book recommendations @languagebubble and I also highly recommended English Firsthand for developing fluency, especially at lower levels.

And that more or less rounded off the chat for the evening. Both moderating and participating was a thrilling experience, it seems like every chat is better than the last right now, so thanks to everyone who joined in! I’m going to leave the final word to @bora_maren, in one of my favourite #KELTChat tweets ever:

“It was my first time joining.I enjoyed it a lot. It was a bit confusing and I am still dizzy but I am sure i will get better.”

Pretty much sums it all up I think.

Cheers,

Alex (@breathyvowel)

PS I’ve tried to be as accurate here as possible, while weaving the various threads of the chat into some kind of cohesive whole. If anyone feels that they’ve been misquoted, misrepresented or misused, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to correct it. You can also see a Storify of the important bits of the chat here:

http://storify.com/breathyvowel/keltchat-23rd-september-2012-automaticity-and-flu

Pronunciation Camp 3: Intonational Chunks and Fluency

This is the third part of my series of posts on the pronunciation course that I taught over the summer. You can read Part 1: Models & Goals and Vowels here, and Part 2: Segmental Consonants here.

As I mentioned in my preview post, my university wasn’t quite as keen as I was on having a pronunciation camp, doubting the saleability of such an endeavour. In order to make it a bit more appealing, we threw in a fluency aspect as well. I had at first thought about conveniently ignoring this side of the course, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to include it. For one, the ability to make sounds and words is a key part of fluency, and two, supra-segmental aspects go hand in hand with fluency, and you can’t often can’t work on one without automatically working on the other.

It’s my view that it is impossible to achieve fluency without repetition. I’m not necessarily talking about drilling here, though it plays a big part, but also repetition of tasks and situations. The big problem is of course, how to get a lot of repetitions of something without it becoming monotonous. Examining my own Korean skills (always a great source of inspiration for my teaching), I noticed that in daily pleasantries I am much, much more fluent than any other area, mostly due to doing these every day – and because they’re real interactions, they’re not even boring. Too often English lessons don’t leave time for students to chat about the small things using language that they already know, but perhaps don’t use that often because they have limited opportunity outside the classroom. In other words, we’re too focused on learning and not enough on practising.

On my course, I reserved the first 20 minutes or so of each lesson for what we called “small-talk time”. Most days we took a different conversation starter, and looked at the pronunciation, especially the intonation, but also anything that we had looked at on the course so far. As I said, fluency and supra-segmental features are closely related – you can’t teach sentence stress and thought grouping if the sentence is riddled with hesitations – and so teaching them together seems to make sense.  Every morning, I would choose a conversation starting chuck (eg. “That’s a nice _____!”), drill it, and then have the students try to draw the intonation contours in their notebooks. They’d then hold them up and try to choose whose was most accurate. The best contour was then transferred to paper and stuck on the wall each day, leaving us with something that looked like the below.

I deliberately tried to steer away from teaching rules for intonation, with the exception of rising intonation for yes/no questions and falling for Wh- questions, as I wanted students to absorb it more than think about it. It’s my view that just constructing sentences uses almost all of a lower level students cognitive resources, and I don’t want to further overload them. The lines on the pictures were just there as a reminder for students. As evidence for this being a successful approach, I’d like to show you here some of my students’ own creations, if you can look past the somewhat unusual nature of these conversation starters, you’ll see that the intonation lines are pretty spot on, as was the pronunciation when they said them out loud.

At first getting students (and teachers!) to recognize intonation is tricky. It’s probably something that no-one has ever focused on with them before. The first thing to do is get the students to reproduce it accurately, and they can do this without being explicitly instructed. My aim was not only to teach the intonation though, but to make students think about it, and perhaps help them to figure it out if they need to in the future, hence the diagramming. So, once they can produce it accurately, how can students be helped to represent it visually? Firstly, I think that intonation can generally be felt in the throat – vocal cords seem to vibrate in different places according to the pitch. Getting students to track this with their hands, by moving them up and down according to where they think the sound is coming from, helped them to visualize the intonation (this seemed to work for me and my students, and I’m interested to know if it does for anyone else). Another more technical method is to use a sound analysis program like UCL’s WASP which draws the intonation for you. This can also provide great fun for students trying to match the teacher’s model. However you find it out, it seemed to me that drawing the intonation helped students to realize what they were doing/had to do, and also reminded them of the intonation when they hadn’t heard or used the phrase for a while.

Once we’d figured out and diagrammed the intonation, it was practice time. I would generally walk students through the first couple of exchanges of a conversation, and then let them try it for themselves. When working on something new, I’d start by keeping the exchanges very short, shouting “Change partners!” every 30 seconds or so, but gradually lengthening the times to allow more complex conversations, and also allow students to use previous days conversation starters. I also found it was important to some days not teach anything new, but just to allow students to have twenty minutes of simple conversations using the things that they had already learnt. This also gave me an excellent change to circulate, tackle individual problems and join in some conversations to try to make them more challenging, or just provide an expert speaker model.

Of course, even this can get boring after a while, and it’s handy to have a couple of different activities up your sleeve to keep things interesting. One of the ones I used was based on an article by Gatbonton and Segalowitz (that I found through an excellent post and discussion about automaticity on Scott Thornbury’s blog) which talked about creative fluency activities – activities that require multiple repetitions of language but with some kind of customization. They key point is that, in order to be interesting, these activities need a communicative purpose. One great way to do this is for that purpose to be predicting the majority view of a group.

One Monday morning, we looked at the chunk “Did you _______ this weekend?” along with it’s rhythm and intonation. I then asked each student to supply an answer to the question that they thought some, but not all, of the class would also have done. I wrote these answers on the board and then selected the five that I thought would be closest together in terms of how many people did them the previous weekend. I then asked students to secretly mark which ones they had done in their books. I then drilled the five questions they would need (eg. “Did you eat chicken this weekend?”) until everyone had the pronunciation down. They then had a set time (three minutes worked well) in which to mingle and ask as many people the questions as possible. Once they had finished, they made a prediction about which activity was most popular, and we checked the results. Those who predicted correctly won a candy.

Although this activity takes a while to set up first time, for a relatively low amount of speaking, it’s eminently repeatable, and can be customized for many different chunks of language. As Scott says in the post linked above, these activities are great for the end of lessons when you have some time left over.

In the feedback from the camp, the small talk, conversation and intonation teaching was by far the most popular element of my course. I’m going to to a much more detailed feedback post in the future, but for now I’d recommend doing this to anyone. In fact, it’s going to become a part of my general English class this semester. Putting phrases on the wall really works well, as it gives the students something to start their own conversations with – sometimes just saying “OK! Free talking!” can be intimidating in terms of where to start, but this meant students could get straight into conversations. The intonation too seemed to sink in much better for the repetition than it ever would have otherwise.

Again, it’s time to finish another overly long post. I hope you enjoyed it. I think I have at least 2 more of these in me, so please come back soon if you’re after more, or leave me an encouraging comment below.

Cheers,

Alex

References

Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’, TESOL Quarterly22, 3.

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.

Cheers,

Alex