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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.

pm1

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.

webinar_register3


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

sayit1

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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‘Value for money’: Helping your students get more from words and phrases they learn


Young woman wearing headphones and writingJenny Dance, who runs a language school in Bristol, UK, 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.

Helping learners improve their English pronunciation is a challenge for all EFL teachers – native and non-native speakers alike. English has so many unusual spellings, borrowed words and unpredictable pronunciations that even the most dedicated learners and patient teachers can find it tough to make good progress in this area.

And yet in my experience, improving a learner’s pronunciation is one of the most effective ways of raising their overall level of English. In his ‘Pronunciation Matters’ blog (5-Jan-12), Robin Walker, pronunciation expert, comments that pronunciation training helps with fluency, confidence and listening skills – all of which are at the forefront of effective communications. He goes on to quote studies showing the impact poor pronunciation has on writing, reading, vocabulary acquisition and grammar.

I wanted my students to be able to make the most of the English they had already worked hard to acquire. They may have been able to understand the word ‘comprehensibility’, and even write it with confidence – but I wanted to hear them using it fluently in their speaking, too. Improving pronunciation is, in a way, getting more ‘value for money’ from the words and phrases already learned.

It was also important to develop a more robust and objective system for helping learners assess, practice and improve their pronunciation. I felt students would benefit from seeing and having controlled access to the sounds they were producing. And with the rise of the touch screen and hand-held personal computers, I could see there was a big opportunity to enhance the way teachers and students approached pronunciation training.

Misplaced stress in a word can render it far less intelligible than an incorrect vowel sound. We aim to remedy the high frequency, high impact errors to help learners improve quickly. So with the help and feedback of a number of my students, we worked with Oxford University Press to develop Say It: Pronunciation from Oxford. The concept is simple: listen to the model sound (30,000 words, taken from the Oxford Dictionaries), record yourself, compare yourself and re-record until you’re happy you have made a good match to the model.

Using Say It in the classroom, either one-to-one or with a small group of students is a highly effective way to work on pronunciation skills. The teacher doesn’t need to listen and correct in real time – instead, you can review and discuss the sounds together, creating a real sense of partnership in the learning process. Because the assessment is clear and objective (for example, you can compare the stress placement at a glance), both teachers and students can understand the changes required to improve. Often, students are able to correct themselves to a large degree, which is a much more powerful learning experience.

sayitprintscreen

Recent research shows that pronunciation is learned at a cognitive level (Gilakjani et al, 2011), in much the same way as a tennis player will visualise hitting the baseline rather than think about all the physical, mechanical elements required to execute the perfect tennis stroke. Say It seems to produce a cognitive response, with users responding quickly to the visual signposting of key features: stress placement and syllable structure. The soundwave and visual indicators give the student the ‘access points’ to the sound they need to produce.

Using Say It, learners can visualise, touch, listen to, dissect and perfect their pronunciation. It’s a quick, fun and effective way to practise and learn. For my students, pronunciation training is not about sounding like a native speaker, but rather being confident that you’ll be understood. As Camille, an FCE student told me about her experience using Say It: ‘Now, when I get on the bus and ask for a ‘single’ ticket, the driver will understand me!’

You can find out more about the Say It app for iOS here.

Reference

‘Why is pronunciation so difficult to learn?’ A. Gilakjani, S. Ahmadi and M. Ahmadi,

English Language Teaching 4 (3), 74.


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Poetry and the ESL classroom: how rhyme can work for your students

Diverse Elementary ClassPrior to becoming an Editor for Oxford University Press, Mexico, Lysette Taplin worked as an English language teacher and author for a number of primary and secondary series. In this post she promotes World Poetry Day by sharing some practical tips to use in the ELT Classroom.

Poetry is an effective tool in English language teaching as it enlivens the class, giving the students a motivational buzz while stimulating their creative writing. The emphasis on the sounds and rhythm of language aids students’ phonological awareness, building a foundation for correct pronunciation and intonation, which in turn has a strong correlation to proficiency in reading and listening. In order to celebrate World Poetry Day, this blog aims to present a selected poem from the OUP series Step Inside and provide ideas for ways to exploit poetry in the English language-learning classroom.

As an ELT Editor for OUP, I had the opportunity to work on an inspiring series of reading anthologies for primary school students. The series Step Inside promotes extensive reading by using texts from a variety of genres, including poetry, fables, myths and legends, fairy tales, fiction, non-fiction, and comics.

The following excerpt has been selected from a poem included in Step Inside, level 4:

Wayne the Stegosaurus

Written by Kenn Nesbitt

Meet the Stegosaurus, Wayne.

He doesn’t have the biggest brain.

He’s long and heavy, wide and tall,

But has a brain that’s extra small.

He’s not the brightest dinosaur.

He thinks that one plus one is four.

He can’t remember up from down.

He thinks the sky is chocolate brown.

Using poetry to teach pronunciation

This humorous poem can be used to focus students on English pronunciation by working with rhyme.

In your class, put students into pairs and give each pair the lines of the poem cut up into strips. Have them work together to identify and group the lines that end in rhyming pairs. Tell students that rhyming pairs are two words that end in the same sound, for example Wayne and brain, tall and small. Highlight some of the difficult spelling patterns, for example Wayne, brain; tries, eyes; white, night, etc. while emphasizing the pronunciation of each of the sounds. Then, tell students that they are going to create a rhyming chain. Instruct students to choose four rhyming pairs from the poem and write down as many other words that rhyme as they can. Have some volunteers write their rhyming words on the board to check answers as a class. Next, read the poem aloud and have students order the lines from the poem. Ask volunteers to read the poem aloud to check answers as a class.

Rhyming Schemes

The pattern of rhymes in a poem is labelled with the letters A, B, C, D, etc. To identify the rhyming scheme, tell students to look at the last word in each line. Tell them to label the first set of lines that rhyme with A, then label the second set B, etc. In the case of the poem above, the rhyming scheme for each stanza is AABB because the first two lines in the stanza rhyme with each other as do the last two lines.

Below is an example of an ABCB rhyming scheme, excerpt taken from Step Inside, level 2:

Art Class

Written by Penelope McKimm

Art class can be lots of fun,

With so many things to do!

Cutting, coloring, painting, drawing,

Sticking things with glue!

Have students illustrate the poem

Have students work in groups of six. Encourage them to think about what happens in each of the stanzas and then, choose one of the stanzas to illustrate. When they have all finished illustrating their stanzas, have them put them in order and present their work to the rest of the class.

Writing

Give students a handout of a poem with some words missing. It could be the same poem students were working with before, or a different poem.

Wayne the Stegosaurus

Written by Kenn Nesbitt

Meet the Stegosaurus, __________.

He doesn’t have the biggest __________.

He’s __________ and __________, __________ and __________,

But has a __________ that’s extra __________.

Put students into pairs and have them brainstorm words to complete the gaps. Encourage them to include rhymes, but tell them that they can change the rhyming scheme if they wish.

Another activity which provides students with scaffolding for their poem is to tell them to write a five line poem with the following structure:

First line: a noun

Second line: four adjectives

Third line: an action

Fourth line: how you feel about the noun

Fifth line: the noun

This activity can be carried out individually or in pairs or small groups. Encourage students to use a thesaurus to think of exciting adjectives, for example superb instead of good. Below is an example of a five-line poem

T. Rex

Fierce, fast, green and scaly

Goes out hunting daily

Makes me shiver to the bone

T. Rex

Both students and teachers often tend to fear poetry, but by providing the proper scaffolding, we advocate creativity and give our students sense of accomplishment. As teachers, we need to make it clear to our students that it is okay to make mistakes. The most important thing is to let their imaginations run wild, and then have them go back and edit their work once they are finished.

Please note that not all titles are available in every market. Please check with your local office about local title availability.


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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.