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LTS Faculty Post Trish Pashby: Pronunciation Teaching—Moving from Fear to Fun

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Trish Pashby is a Senior Instructor II in the American English Institute and has been a teacher educator in LTS since the program began in 2004. She has taught many of the LTS courses over this time, and currently teaches her favorites, LT 541 Teaching Pronunciation and LT 528 Teaching Culture and Literature.

For me, pronunciation lessons are the most fun possible in the classroom. I love the whole process:

  • finding out who my students are, what they want, what they need;
  • creating opportunities for them to unveil simple yet hidden patterns of the English sound system;
  • observing as they compare how they had been previously producing a word (or phrase or text) to a variation that improves their intelligibility and confidence;
  • setting up practice drills followed by more communicative activities that allow them to work with the new pronunciation in various ways;
  • checking in with them about their progress and providing encouragement and guidance to keep going,

Sadly, only a handful of my colleagues share this passion. In fact, many English language teachers lack confidence in how to teach it at all (Baker, 2014; Murphy, 2014). This may partly be explained by the fact that “relatively few teacher education programs provide courses on how to teach L2 pronunciation” (Baker, 2014), which experts in the field (Derwing, 2010; Murphy, 2014) deem essential. The LTS program requires LT 541 (Teaching English Pronunciation) for students focusing on English. In this post, I will share some of the key areas we cover in the course. If you are a current or future language instructor who feels nervous about teaching pronunciation, I strongly encourage you to dabble and play with the following. Parts may lead to ways for you to build your confidence, and maybe even fall in love.

Intelligibility vs Comprehensibility vs Accent—and other “Big Picture” Issues

Munro and Derwing (1999) define intelligibility as how much a listener actually understands, comprehensibility as how difficult it is for the listener to understand, and accent as how the speech varies from the dialect of the listener. For example, substituting a “th” with /s/ in “think” or /d/ in “the” will probably fall under “accent” if the listener notices the substitution but has no trouble understanding. In diagnosing the pronunciation of their learners, teachers need to distinguish among the three, and prioritize the former.

Several key questions interact with this to create the “big picture.” What are the learners’ goals? Who will they be interacting with? What is possible? Reasonable? Desirable? (Don’t assume all of your learners want to acquire your particular pronunciation. Some may prefer another dialect of English. Or want to maintain a connection to their native language.) What about those seeking to sound native-like? What progress can they make and what role can you play in that? Can non-native speakers be good pronunciation teachers?

My answer to this last question: Yes, of course non-native speakers can be excellent pronunciation teachers as long as they understand the sound system of the target language and have the skills to communicate this to learners through effective practice activities. They can use their own voice to model the language but should also present a variety of models to their students, just as native speaker teachers should.

Advice: Keep your assumptions to a minimum and instead rely on (1) much communication with your learners and (2) current research in the field.

Suprasegmentals (Stress, Rhythm, Intonation)

For many teachers, especially those who are native speakers of English, suprasegmentals may present the most challenging aspect of pronunciation teaching and require considerable training of the ear. I clearly remember sitting in a phonology class years ago as student unable to distinguish one syllable from another—to my ear, none sounded longer, clearer, higher. However, suprasegmentals can play a huge role in the intelligibility and comprehensibility of your learners and will thus need your attention.

Rising vs falling intonation might be a reasonable place to begin—for example, exploring American English patterns for differentiating wh-questions from yes/no questions. I tend to start off my pronunciation courses with a lesson on “tonic stress” (the main stress in a thought group), essential for the international graduate students and scholars I work with. This is then followed with a session on word stress, also key to their intelligibility and comprehensibility. Rhythm (stressing content words and reducing function words) is covered in many pronunciation texts for students, yet not all experts agree on how accurate/effective this is. Dickerson (2014) argues this approach should be replaced with finding the “anchor” among the content words to complement the tonic stress.

To consider: How does intonation affect meaning in English? Where does tonic stress usually occur? Why might it vary from this position? What are typical word stress patterns in English? Which of these might be most useful for students?

Advice: Teach yourself–with patience and kindness–to hear/notice stress, intonation, and rhythm (most of which may lurk below your consciousness, especially if you acquired English as a child) and become familiar with the fascinating role they play in English communication. I recommend getting your hands on one or more pronunciation textbooks for students and carefully studying the exercises. In my case, I finally learned to hear stress via the first edition of Marsha Chan’s (1987) Phrase by Phrase.

LT 541: Students George Minchillo (center) and Yan Deng (right) teaching pronunciation to an international visitor (March 8, 2017)

Segmentals (Consonants and Vowels)

Set a goal for yourself to learn the phonetic symbols and details of articulation for all the sounds of the target language. You probably won’t be creating lessons for all of them, but you’ll want to be ready in case a student needs some feedback or instruction. If IPA symbols intimidate you, look into alternative systems such as “the color vowel chart,” which provides a very accessible way to for teachers and students to understand and manage North American English vowels: https://elts.solutions/color-vowel-chart/.

To consider: Which sounds most strongly affect intelligibility and comprehensibility? How do sounds change depending on their place in a word and the sounds surrounding them? What is the best way to convey this information to learners? What kind of practice is most effective?

Advice: If mastering all of the vowels and consonants feels overwhelming, pace yourself and start with a few at a time. Consider which sounds are most connected to your learners’ intelligibility and comprehensibility issues. You can also explore information on “functional load”: the frequency of a sound’s occurrence and in how many instances this sound distinguishes one word from another.

Designing Lessons

As with any subject you teach, you will need a framework/approach for designing effective lessons. Learners will need access to information and opportunities for practice. In the LT 541 course, we use Celce-Murcia et al.’s (2010) “communicative framework.” Lessons begin with clear explanations and demonstrations in which students can experience the sound or pattern, often with visual, tactile, or kinesthetic accompaniment. Tools like the following can play a role:

  • mirrors to observe lip, teeth and jaw movements
  • feathers to test aspiration of of /p/, /t/, /k/ at the beginning of words
  • plastic teeth with puppet tongue to show articulation
  • animated video of sound articulation http://soundsofspeech.uiowa.edu/english/english.html
  • rubber bands to stretch on stressed syllables
  • coins or other small object to illustrate stressed and unstressed syllables
  • kazoos to focus on intonation (humming will work too)

Tools from Trish’s pronunciation “toy box”

Students will need plenty of production practice, moving from very controlled exercises (with limited focus on meaning to keep the attention on the new sounds) to gradually more meaningful contexts. They will also need strategies to continue building skills outside of the classroom.

Integrating Pronunciation across the Curriculum

English classes focusing primarily on pronunciation are rare. Thus teachers must find ways to bring pronunciation instruction into courses that focus on other skills. These lessons may be less elaborate than those in a pronunciation course but can certainly cover both segmental and suprasegmental aspects affecting intelligibility and comprehensibility. Char Heitman, a guest lecturer in LT 541, presents a variety of such activities to use in a reading/writing course including having students search texts for specific spelling/sound correspondence examples, chart new vocabulary according to word stress patterns, and practice thought groups and intonation before discussing key ideas [http://eflteachingresources.blogspot.com/2015/02/shaping-way-we-teach-english-webinar_15.html]. Additional ways for integrating pronunciation across the curriculum can be found in several chapters of Tamara Jones’ (2016) Pronunciation in the Classroom: The Overlooked Essential.

Recommendations

Form a group with colleagues or classmates (or go solo, if you prefer) to tackle areas of pronunciation instruction most important and interesting for your teaching context. Resources might include the following.

Teaching Guides:

  • Celce-Murcia, M. et al (2010). Teaching Pronunciation: A Course Book and Reference Guide (2nd edition)
  • Grant, L. (2014). Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press
  • Jones, T. (2016). Pronunciation in the Classroom: The Overlooked Essential. Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press.
  • Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (1998). Pronunciation for Success. Aspen.

Student Textbooks:

  • Dale, P. (2004). Pronunciation Made Simple. Pearson.
  • Lane, L. (2012). Focus on Pronunciation 3. Pearson.
  • Grant, L. (2016). Well Said. Cengage.
  • Miller, S. (2005) Targeting Pronunciation. Cengage.

Journals in the field, such as TESOL Quarterly, regularly publish research related to pronunciation teaching. TESOL’s “Speech, Pronunciation, Listening” interest section publishes a newsletter with practical ideas for teachers [http://www.tesol.org/connect/interest-sections/speech-pronunciation-and-listening/as-we-speak]. Conferences are an especially enjoyable way to build your pronunciation expertise. The annual TESOL conference always features a number of excellent pronunciation workshops and demonstrations, from which I have learned many of my favorite techniques and activities for pronunciation fun.

References

Baker, A. (2014). Exploring teachers’ knowledge of second language pronunciation techniques: Teacher cognitions, observed classroom practices, and student perceptions. TESOL Quarterly, 48, 136–163.

Derwing, T. (2010). Utopian goals for pronunciation teaching. In J. Levis & K. LeVelle (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference, Iowa State University, Sept. 2009. (pp. 24-37).

Dickerson, W. (2014). A NAIL in the coffin of stress-timed rhythm. Proceedings of the 6th annual pronunciation in second language learning and teaching conference, UC Santa Barbara, Sept. 2014. ( pp 184-196).

Munro, M. & Derwing, T. (1999) Foreign Accent, Comprehensibility, and Intelligibility in the Speech of Second Language Learners. Language Learning, Vol. 49, Supplement 1, 285–310.

Murphy, J. (2014). Myth 7: Teacher training programs provide adequate preparation in how to teach pronunciation. In L. Grant (ed) Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching.pp188-224 Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

 

 

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