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Does pronunciation matter?

shutterstock_297003296Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer. He has been in ELT for over 30 years, and regularly collaborates with Oxford University Press and Trinity College London. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar ‘Pronunciation Matters’, on December 6th and 7th.

At first glance it would seem that it is not really possible to question the idea that pronunciation matters. How can you learn a language without learning its pronunciation? Who will understand you if your pronunciation is poor? And will you understand them? Yes, the case for teaching pronunciation seems pretty solid, but the reality in classrooms around the world is often very different. Time and time again, when I give talks and workshops on pronunciation, teachers confess to me that what I’ve said has been enlightening, but that sadly they don’t have time for pronunciation in a syllabus that is already busting at the seams. It’s logical, then, that if they are short of time something will have to give, and pronunciation is an obvious choice, especially with courses that focus more on written than on spoken English.

Teachers say they don’t have time to teach pronunciation in their syllabus.

But can we really push pronunciation out to the margins of ELT like this? Surely it does matter. The connection between pronunciation and speaking, for example, is immediately apparent to anyone who has started learning a new language. But pronunciation is also about listening; it is not enough to recognise a word in writing, because if you don’t know how it’s pronounced you won’t recognise it when listening to someone using the word. Spanish learners of English can fail to recognise the word ‘average’ even though it is spelt the same way in both languages. This is because they are expecting a four-syllable word and so fail to make sense of the correct, two-syllable pronunciation.

Pronunciation is also an issue for listening because of the way that words that are pronounced one way when said in isolation can sound quite different when they are part of a sequence. My own students kept using ‘Festival’ to start their essays. I couldn’t work out why and until they explained that it was the way I started any instructions I gave them in class. It wasn’t, of course. What I’d been saying was ‘First of all’ but because of their poor pronunciation they completely misheard what I was saying.

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Vocabulary, too, has a pronunciation element if we want to use a new word when speaking, and there are many examples of the connection between pronunciation and grammar. A rising tone at the end of an affirmative sentence, for example, turns it into a question to the ears of the listener. Thus:

pm2

Speaking, listening,  vocabulary – yes. But writing?

Less obvious, admittedly, is the link between pronunciation and writing, and it was clear to me for a long time, and to all of my colleagues, that pronunciation and reading are simply not connected. Or at least that is what I thought until I heard Michael Swan and Catherine Walter speak at the 2008 IATEFL conference in Exeter. Their session was about the problems learners face when reading in English. Poor pronunciation, Catherine explained, often lies undetected behind the poor reading skills of many students. If we want them to get better at reading, she proposed, help them to improve their pronunciation.

I listened to this concluding remark in amazement. Suddenly everything fitted into place. Pronunciation does matter. And rather than being marginal to the core elements of ELT, it lies at the very heart of teaching English. Grammar, vocabulary, speaking, listening, writing and reading – what holds them all together, what is common to them all, and what is central to ELT, is the very same pronunciation that got pushed out onto the margins some time in the mid-80s.

Pronunciation is the glue that holds everything else in teaching together.

How this is, how pronunciation operates as the glue that holds everything else in teaching English together, I’ll explain in my webinar in December. I’ll also look at goals for learners, because if the goal in the past was to sound like a native speaker, the situation today, with English being used the world over as a lingua franca, is not so simple. I’ll be looking at priorities for our learners’ pronunciation, too, because if there isn’t much time to fit everything in, we need to focus on what matters most.

So if you accept that pronunciation matters, and you want to find out more about what matters in pronunciation, join me in December, and we’ll put pronunciation in its proper place at the heart of ELT.

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#IATEFL – Improving pronunciation: helping students get ‘more value’ from their English

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Jenny Dance, who runs a language school in Bristol, tells us why pronunciation training is so important for her students and what led her to find a system that would allow them to practice more effectively. This blog post previews her talk at IATEFL this year, ‘Getting more value from your students’ English by improving pronunciation’.

Many students work hard to learn English vocabulary, and to develop accuracy in their usage and grammar – but when it comes to using the language orally, in real-life situations, they find a lack of understanding of pronunciation has a big impact on their capacity to communicate. To help students get the full value from the English they’ve spent time learning, they need the assistance of dedicated teachers, and engaging, effective pronunciation training tools.

‘Sound-scapes’ and making pronunciation visual

Making pronunciation visual – as well as aural – can make a huge difference in students ‘getting it’, and being motivated to improve. The Say It app can be used in the classroom to demonstrate the ‘sound-scape’ of English quickly and intuitively. Students enjoy recording themselves: they are motivated by the app to achieve a good stress-indicator match and a soundwave shape similar to the model. This video is a good example of how Say It works to support both the student and teacher in making improvements in pronunciation. It demonstrates, in particular, the power of giving students access to immediate feedback on their pronunciation (a topic researched by the psychologist James L McClelland in a study from 2002, at Carnegie Mellon University).

Stress placement

Understanding the stress placement in a word is another simple way to improve clarity in speaking. In my experience, students are often shocked to learn that misplaced stress can render their English virtually incomprehensible to native listeners. Recently, a Spanish cameraman student of mine told me he’d filmed the ‘rePLACE’ at a Real Madrid game. I assumed he didn’t know the right word, and that he’d meant the substitution; but in fact he had used the correct word, ‘REplays’, with the wrong stress placement. He had stressed the wrong syllable, and even in context, I had misunderstood.

Last week, I used Say It in the classroom to help students who were struggling to understand the difference between the pronunciation of the double-o spellings in ‘understOOd’ and ‘spOOn’. I had been patiently drilling and modelling the sounds, giving them rhyme examples and demonstrating the different mouth positions of /ʊ/ and /uː/.

As soon as I put the Say It app on the table, the students (one Chinese, one Spanish) could see, hear and touch the words on the screen. They immediately understood the difference between the double-o spelling/pronunciation in the two words. Using the app empowered them as learners; they had full control of the analysis on screen, and it demystified a point which had previously been difficult for them to grasp. The objective feedback the Say It app provided gave them more insight, and allowed them to focus on the sound and structure of the words, rather than the spelling.

If you think Say It could work with your own students, here are two suggestions for ways you could use it in the classroom.

Activity 1: ‘Where’s the stress?’

  1. Teacher puts 4 multi-syllable words on the board, and invites students to put markers where they think the primary and secondary stresses are.
  2. Students check, practise and improve their pronunciation using Say It.

Activity 2: ‘Student to student challenge’

  1. Tell students at the start of the class that they will be able to challenge their classmates to pronounce two words from the lesson as the final activity of the session.
  2. They should keep notes in the margin of a few words they think would be tricky for their classmates to pronounce.
  3. At the end of the class, student A says: ‘I challenge you to pronounce this word (written on a piece of paper)’.
  4. Student B looks the word up in Say It, recording themselves before listening to the model, and see how close they get before having the chance to analyse the sound and improve.

Jenny Dance will be giving a talk at IATEFL 2016 in Birmingham, on Thu 14-Apr, 11.00-11.30, in Hall 11a. The Say It: Pronunciation from Oxford app is available to download on iTunes – there also will be a discount of up to 40% from 13-22 April.

 

References

Teaching the /r/–/l/ Discrimination to Japanese Adults: Behavioral and Neural Aspects. James L. McClelland, Julie A. Fiez and Bruce D. McCandliss in Physiology & Behavior, Vol. 77, Nos. 4–5, pages 657–662; December 2002.


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The power of pronunciation in Business English

Business English pronunciation ESLELT teacher, teacher trainer and course book author, John Hughes, shares some classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes ahead of his webinar on 19th February. Register now.

Is there any essential difference between teaching pronunciation in business English and teaching pronunciation on a general English course? In many ways the answer is ‘no’. After all, in any type of ELT classroom we need to work on pronunciation in two ways: firstly, to help students with receptive pronunciation; in other words, to help them recognise features of pronunciation which affect their ability to listen and understand. And secondly, to help students improve their productive or spoken pronunciation; this doesn’t mean that they need to sound like a native speaker but that they are intelligible to a wide range of other people when communicating in English.

However, when we teach pronunciation in business English I do think our approach should be tailored to learners’ business needs and that they should have plenty of time to practice pronunciation for specific events. In addition, your business students can also use pronunciation to make their communication skills more effective. Let’s take a closer look.

Tailored pronunciation

Typically on a business English course (especially with one-to-one or small groups) we ask students about their needs for using English. Part of this will include asking them who they need to communicate with in English. If they answer, ‘colleagues working in our China offices’ then we already know that the students will need to listen to recordings of Chinese speakers in class. If, on the other hand, my students make phone-calls to the United Kingdom, then I might spend time focussing on the features of different accents within the UK.

Prepared pronunciation

In business English we also have to prepare a student for speaking at particular events; for example, if your student has a meeting in English coming up soon then you can predict the type of language he/she will need to use. You can practice using that language and identify any pronunciation problems that may affect the student’s intelligibility for the other participants. One useful technique is to role play the upcoming situation with the student and record the conversation. Then listen back to the recording and then pick out potential pronunciation difficulties.

Powerful pronunciation

Many effective presenters and speakers in the world of business also use pronunciation to make their message more powerful. So in my presentation skills classes I help students to work on stressing certain words and adding pauses for emphasis. Take this example which shows an extract from a presentation in which the stressed words are underlined and the / indicates short pauses between words and phrases. Try reading it aloud as you think the presenter said it:

Now I’d like to present the figures / for our most recent quarter / and / I’d like us to consider / the implications / for the rest of our financial year.

The speaker stresses the content words in the presentation and adds short pauses to break the sentences down. In particular, the separation and stressing of the word ‘and’ in the middle emphasises that the presenter has two distinct aims to the presentation. Having students mark transcripts of their own presentations like this can really add power to their communication.

To consider more of the issues behind teaching pronunciation in business English and to get more classroom ideas for teaching pronunciation in your business English classes, join me for my webinar on 19th February. Register now.

John Hughes is a teacher trainer and course book writer. For Oxford University Press he has co-authored on the Business Result series and the video courses Successful Meetings and Successful Presentations.


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Shadowing: a useful technique for autonomous practice of listening and speaking

Teen boy wearing headphonesIn this post, Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge ESOL Oral Examiner, shares a simple learner training approach to listening and pronunciation development using a shadowing technique.

Start by selecting a short audio text for your learners to work with. You will find a wide range of Creative Commons audio materials which can be downloaded as an MP3 file for educational purposes at www.elllo.org. The following transcript accompanies an audio text about Australia and is a good example in terms of its delivery, content and length:

The Australian flag has the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner. The rest of the flag is dark blue and then it has six white stars on it. I think they represent six different states in Australia, but I’m not really sure. My favourite city in Australia is Sydney. I lived there for about 6 months and it’s a really lively city. There are lots of young people and lots of things to do. There are also lots of tourist sites to visit, for example, the Sydney Opera House. Most people when they think about Australia, they think about the Outback. Very few people in Australia live in the Outback really, which is why it is so empty. There are huge empty spaces, like deserts, sometimes, where you can go for hours without seeing even one other person. When I was in the Outback, the most amazing sight I saw was Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it’s called now, which is its Aboriginal name. So Uluru is the biggest rock in the world, and it really is amazing when you travel through the Outback and then suddenly, out of nowhere, you see a huge rock that looks like a mountain. It’s an amazing sight, one of the best I saw in Australia.

Downloaded from www.elllo.org on 14/01/13

Analyse the vocabulary in the transcript to identify which items you would need to clarify for your learners. For instance, the words in bold would be items I would clarify if I was using this audio material with a group of pre-intermediate learners, for example. I have chosen these words not for their linguistic complexity but for the fact that they may be too cultural for some learners. Prepare copies of the transcript for the class.

Get the learners to put the MP3 file onto a USB or iPod. Before the shadowing practice, encourage the learners to listen to the audio text as many times as possible to become familiar with the speaker’s pronunciation. Prompt the learners to listen to the audio text on the bus, train or when walking to school. Instruct them to also focus on particular nuances of the speaker’s speech, such as the way the person pronounces certain individual sounds, the rhythm and the pace of the person’s voice, and so on.

Allow the learners at least two days of listening practice before you take them to a computer lab for shadowing practice. If possible, conduct some whole-class discussion about the audio text and what the learners can or can’t hear.

In the computer lab, demonstrate to them how the technique works. To do this, play the audio text in segments and simultaneously repeat what the speaker says trying to copy the person’s pronunciation with as much precision as possible. It is important that the learners notice that the technique is not a listen-and-repeat exercise. Allow the learners time for individual practice, but make sure they have small breaks during the process so that learners don’t lose motivation or get too tired.

Finally, when the learners feel that their pronunciation matches the audio text naturally, get them to record themselves using an audio-recording editor, such as Audacity, which can be downloaded for free at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

During the practice, get the learners to focus on the segments of the audio text which they are having problems with until they have fixed these problems. To do this, learners should listen back to the MP3 file as many times as necessary until they are satisfied with their pronunciation. Tell learners that they should continue the practice outside class for several weeks until they feel they have incorporated this pronunciation into their speech.

What do you think of this technique? Do you have any tips and tricks for teaching listening and pronunciation that you’d like to share?

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