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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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‘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.

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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.