In this post I’d like to start a list/discussion of useful pronunciation teaching techniques. One of my favorite teachers-who-write, over at The Other Things Matter, inspired by another one at The Breathy Vowel, tweeted the following:
Then later he mentioned something about cellphones and progress in the pronunciation area. I wonder what progress that was? I was particularly interested in the “comfort zone” hashtag, as every time I’ve had the chance to do a pronunciation workshop with teachers, from any background, invariably the feedback comes in that for any or all of three reasons, the vast majority give pronunciation short shrift: 1. “I’m not that good at pronunciation myself, so I don’t feel confident helping learners with it.” 2. “Isn’t choral repetition pronunciation practice? That’s the only technique I’ve experienced.” 3. “Grammar and vocab are on the national exams; learners don’t need pronunciation practice.” I’m gonna skip #3; while it may generally be more true than false around the world, I figure human nature is such that if #s1 & 2 get dealt with, #3 will be less relevant. If teachers have the skills and confidence, they’ll want to help their students when the opportunity arises. Funny though — I think there are far fewer resources to help learners improve their pronunciation (or at least understand the problems) than there are on grammar, vocab, or the 4 skills. Once in awhile some cool-seeming self-help software shows up (what’s become of “Pronunciation Power”?), and self-access websites and youtube videos are burgeoning (e.g. English Central, but what exactly is the learning process here?), but nearly all of them aim at comparing a learner to a native speaker model… Not getting into the “native” argument here. However, I will make the claim that any pronunciation teaching or practice should be aimed at helping the learner achieve more recognizable English. This applies to the abilities to distinguish between heard utterances and produce less ambiguous-sounding utterances, and it’s aimed at the accurate-enough construction of segmentals (isolated sounds – whether or not the ‘phoneme’ exists), and the ability to recognize and effectively enough utilize the suprasegmental (linked sounds, intonaton, stress) pronunciation patterns.
And that’s the problem with most of what’s out there — a great deal of it isn’t that different from “listen and repeat”. Even the famous British Council Ipad app is lacking in this area, at least for free. The problem with “listen and repeat” is that the pronunciation problems learners have exist largely because they cannot notice the problems. They may know the problem exists, but if it’s still happening, it’s quite possible they may not know why. In other words, they cannot hear it. Add to that that so many of the issues are also not visible while a speaker is uttering something (e.g. the vowel sounds of ‘bed’ and ‘bad’), and it’s no wonder that so little time gets spent on raising learner awareness of pronunciation issues. So — I just want to start a list of teaching ideas. The items in this list are based on the idea that if learners could hear the problem, they’d eventually stop making it. Therefore, they can’t hear them. Therefore effective pronunciation help comes in the form of techniques/exercises that allow learners to feel, see, and/or touch the sounds. While I can’t remember where I first came across a few of these ideas, the idea of using the body’s other senses (arguably, our multiple intelligences) was given to me by Karen Taylor de Caballero many many years ago.Here’s a list of 1 free website and several techniques/tools that go with this idea. PLEASE share with me any techniques that you use. I would love to grow my repertoire. It’s of course important that students do these physical things… the teacher probably doesn’t need as much practice 🙂 Before we get started, finally, let’s remember that anybody with a smartphone brings a mirror to class everyday… opportunities abound!
update: the videos of segmental techniques posted here in response to reader comments were filmed during a CBI pronunciation workshop with pre-service and in-service teachers for whom English is a 2nd language.
1. The ‘chopstick’ test: feel the difference between /l/ and /r/
1 chopstick (or pen) across the mouth, way back, held by the lips. No teeth. Say ‘right’ without touching the chopstick with the tongue. Say ‘left’, pushing the chopstick out of the mouth on the initial consonant. Repeat a lot with any appropriate words. Progress to words that require both sounds (preferably /r/ before /l/), such as ‘really’ and ‘world’. Learners know when they have produced ‘l’ successfully because they have moved the chopstick.
2. Paper for seeing aspirated plosives
Hold a piece of paper vertically and loosely level with but a couple of centimeters away from the spot where the lips join. Say a few minimal pairs with the un/aspirated plosives (‘bill’/’pill’, ’till/dill. ‘kill/gill’)… SEE the difference.
3. Fingers on throats for feeling voiced/unvoiced pairs
Place a finger or two on the skin just under where half the species has an adam’s apple. Take a deep breath, and exhale producing a constant but alternating /s/ – /z/, toggling the vocal chords on and off while noticing them through feeling the vibrations. Move on to problem minimal pairs for learners (depends on their L1)
4. One hand as upper teeth, the other as the tongue – remote manipulation
Hold left hand horizontal to the ground, palm down. Bend the fingers as the teeth of the upper jaw. Hold the right hand in a loose fist under the left, also palm down. This is the tongue, at rest. This is also its position during an American-style /r/. Extend the fingers of the right hand to touch the first joints (alveolar ridge) of the left hand’s fingers. This is where the tongue is at the start of the /l/. Play around with other sounds requiring tongue movement and the upper mandible. Essential here is that students do this while they are enunciating problem sounds/words. I’ve always found this to be especially powerful because it involves simultaneous sight, touch, and sound. Students are more able to understand and begin to adjust the mechanics that have been causing them problems.
5. Quick whiteboard drawings – visualizing the inner workings
I’ve found producing the relevant bits of this drawing quickly on a whiteboard (minus the labels) is a snazzy and efficient visual technique for illustrating a problem and a correction. Practice a few times and it shouldn’t take more than ten or fifteen seconds..
A resource hosted by the University of Iowa, Phonetics: The Sounds of American English has been around for ages, and checking it out again tonight was like visiting an old friend. Animation and clear video of a real person, combined with the name and phonetic symbol of the sound; it could only be bettered if it were possible to put two problematic sounds on the screen at the same time, which, come to think of it, it is. Would be great if other varieties of English had sites like these to help us out. Please let me know if they exist.
Did you know that (with a couple of stretches) all the vowel sounds (of American English anyway) are represented by a color in which they occur? Karen Taylor de Caballaro and Shirley Thompson put this together and I still haven’t found a simpler way for students to get the distinctions between vowels down. The link above takes you to non-ipad friendly interactive proof. Here’s a picture, with the colors approximated to vowel shape (front to back & high to low. Now all you have to do is make sure students can say these colors, and from then on new vocabulary can be discovered/acquired as a ‘red’ word, or a ‘blue’ word, etc., by (teacher or the students) referring to colors or the chart. Tip: start with a ton of words for students to sort through by color of the stressed syllable.
Pronunciation: Suprasegmentals (Intonation, stress, etc.)
1. Rubber bands for seeing and feeling word and sentence stress
Hold a rubber band as shown. Stretch it on the stressed syllables and words as you speak. Used faithfully, this rapidly raises learner awareness of the regularity of rhythm and the essential differences (if any) in intonation between English and their L1, as they can feel and see the difference at the same time, even if they have trouble hearing it.. And it’s less noisy than ‘beating out’ the rhythm. I like to turn learners lose with rubber bands as they have conversations in pairs.
As (1) above, replacing fingers and rubber bands with quick knee dips. Gets quite raucous and autonomous/discovery oriented with pairwork conversations.
3. Backchaining/Frontchaining for hearing unstressed/reduced syllables
One of the very few techniques I’m aware of that lets students whose native language doesn’t do much syllable de-stressing HEAR unstressed syllables (mostly schwa awareness-raising). Primarily choral repetition drilling (which I usually do while using (1) above so that students simultaneously feel, see, and hear the stressing/reducing, backchaining assembles a focus utterance from the end of the isolated utterance to the front, one or two syllables at a time. Invariably, this one produces “aha” moments that have been remembered by learners. Having to produce a nearly inaudible “uh” and then do it again with a fronted stressed syllable that, when combine to carry meaning, forces the learner to notice the unstressed elements. Assuming noticing is indeed step one to acquisition means we’re on the way. Frontchaining is the same, only the other way around. I can’t say why but I find backchaining moire effective. The video below actually gives an idea of #s 3 & 4 here.
4. The wave for getting the rhythm and tone
I used to get learners to hold their index fingers up in a straight-ahead pointing position. We would then move our fingers up and down according to the intonation of whatever utterance we were focused on. Then I wondered if maybe cross-culturally all this pointing might get a bit aggressive, so I developed a full-handed wave instead. I prefer it now — flows a lot more like the rhythm of speech flows, and maybe students get a bit of a kick out of it because it’s bit hip-hoppy. In any event, it allows us to see and feel the rise and fall and flow of speech.
That’s all I got — please add techniques you use in the comments.