Visualizing sentence stress for A1+/A2 learners

This is something I always do with my high-level students when we look at word and sentence stress, but somehow I’ve never done it with my low-level students. Well, until yesterday 🙂

It all started with that exercise from Speakout Elementary coursebook (which I love for its focus on prosody). The task was for students to underline the key words in each sentence, then listen to the recording and check themselves. And then it struck me: why not showing them how word and sentences stress looks? If I explain it in an easy way, they’ll understand it, they’re smart. And so I did it.

First, we looked at word stress. We took some words we learnt previously and the students told me which syllables the stress fell on. I then quickly recorded myself saying these words using this tool: https://online-voice-recorder.com/. We then looked at the audiogram and checked where the tallest vertical line was. I told them that this is how word stress looks.

I then uploaded the coursebook recording here: https://mp3cut.net/. We played it sentence by sentence looking at how the tall vertical lines corresponded to the words in each sentence. We identified the tallest lines in each sentence as the main stressed word (I decided not to use the term ‘nucleus’ not to overwhelm the students). We then listened to the melody, i.e. whether it went up or down (I’ll try using Praat next time to visualize it) and practised saying the sentences in the exercise more naturally.

This is what my students saw on the big screen.

We then recorded each student saying one of the sentences and checked if their sentence stress was in the right place, which they found quite amusing 🙂

Finally, we did a role-play based on the dialogue in the exercise, but the students had to come up with their own content. They tried their best to use polite intonation and appropriate sentence stress, and this made quite a difference!

After the role-play my students said that they now felt more confident to go to a shop or a cafe and interact with people who worked there becasue they knew they sounded polite.

I will definitely keep using these tools to visualize English speech for my students. Audacity produces a bit more accurate audiograms though (I did not use it because I have to get permission to install any extra software on my classroom PC).

If you decide to try this with your students, let me know how it goes in the comments section! 🙂

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Lesson Plan: Raiche – Drive

I have never taught a lesson based on a song. Yes, for real. However, this song just got so deeply under my skin that I had no choice but to create a lesson plan for it. It is quite meaty because there is a lot to unpack and explore but it is a very engaging and inspiring lesson. At least that is what I think 😀

Lesson Details

Level: B2+-C2

Format: groups (could be adapted for 121); online / offline

Duration: 90′

Materials: access

Procedure:

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: Raiche – Drive”

PSLLT 2021

As some of you know, instead of attending the IATEFL conference, I ended up attending the 12th Annual Pronunciation and Second Language Learning and Teaching conference. This was not planned at all and I learnt about this conference one day after the registration had been supposedly closed, but the organisers were kind enough to let me register and attend. To make a long story short: this conference literally blew my mind, gave me an understanding of what my next CPD step should be (will be announced later), and pushed me to start planning how I am going to re-design my pronunciation course.

Below are short summaries of some of the talks I attended yesterday and the day before yesterday (I simply cannot summarise all of them!).

1) Foreign language learners’ views and attitudes towards the type of label used in perceptual training: phonetic symbols vs. keywords
If you ever wondered, which is better – phonetic symbols, keywords, or something else (e.g. pictures) – here is the answer: more students prefer phonetic symbols, so it is definitely worth teaching them. The use of keywords only will most likely confuse them and create a double cognitive load because, as we all know, letters do not equal sounds. I usually use phonetic symbols + keywords to create a stronger link. You could also try using pictures, e.g. flags, geometric shapes, etc.
Another thing to try is the Color Vowel Chart developed by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. I have not used it with my students but it seems to be pretty popular among ESL/EFL teachers in the U.S. and Canada.

2) Whose input matters? The influences of various input sources in adult L2 phonetic learning
The aim of this research was to see if adult learners actually differentiate between teacher’s pronunciation and other L2 learners’ pronunciation, and which they prefer as a model.
A fake language was used. Participants were exposed to 3 models: teacher, students, and test (teacher and student). Different voices were used to ensure reliability. For the test model, they had to decide which pronunciation is better based on the knowledge of how these words sound when produced by a teacher or student.
Results: Participants showed a preference for the teacher talker pronunciation. This means that not only are they sensitive to various phonemic features (in this study, aspiration), but it also matters who produces target words. For us teachers it means that we have to be aware of what kind of pronunciation model we give to our students (does not come as a surprise, right?).
Personally, I think that aspiration, for example, is an important feature and should be practised and acquired by students as it enhances intelligibility because in fast speech, an unaspirated /p/ can sound very similar to /b/. However, as for /th/ sound, it seems that more and more people nowadays do not articulate it as clearly as they kind of should. Some speakers pronounce it as /f/ and /v/, some go for /t/ and /d/ or /s/ and /z/. As Dan Frost said, when middle-class women in their 20-s stop using these interdental consonants, we will know that /th/ is officially dead, and this might happen even earlier than we think!

3) Talks about teaching prosody: Put prosody first and Using lip synching to teach L2 prosody
These two talks introduced great ways of working on prosody which is usually the most crucial point in acquiring a more intelligible L2 pronunciation, especially if we talk about learners whose L1s are syllable-timed. One of the activities was very similar to what I do with my students, but it was using phrases instead of numbers, so I will definitely give it a try! Another activity focussed on students doing regular lip-synching exercises to better understand how rhythm in stress-timed languages works. They would start with slower songs and slowly progress towards faster ones. I have never tried anything like that with any of my students and am excited to actually try and see how it goes. These talks also made me think that I do not focus on prosody as much as I should (probably due to the fact that my students are mostly Russians, and Russian is a stress-timed language). I do have one Japanese student and several French and Italian students, so I already know who my guinea pigs are going to be 😀

4) Multiple talks about the use of visual feedback in pronunciation training
Research has shown that students are likely to improve their pronunciation faster if they can see their speech; for this, we can use software like Vowel Viewer, Audacity and Praat (I am already working on this). Unfortunately, to be able to use these tools effectively, you need some advanced knowledge and understanding of lab phonology, which is, obviously, not taught to CELTA and Delta candidates (so a degree in Linguistics/Applied Linguistics will be of great help).

I officially pronounce PSLLT conference the best conference I have attended in 2021!

Image source: https://brocku.ca/psllt-2021/

My Top-10 Resources for Teaching Pronunciation Physically and Visually

I am a strong advocate of the physical approach to pronunciation teaching. I mean, how can you pronounce a sound if you have no idea about what’s involved in the process? Articulation comes first, and only then it is followed by imitation. So if you want to teach pronunciation physically and visually, here is the list of 10 invaluable resources for you to use:

  1. Introduction to Articulatory Phonetics: Vowels and Consonants.
    These are two short but informative videos aimed at teachers and linguistics students that give you insight into how vowels and consonants are articulated.
  2. Seeing Speech
    This is a product of collaboration between researchers at six Scottish universities, including my alma mater, Edinburgh University. The sounds on this website are visualised in three different ways: MRI, ultrasound, and animation. This is a great tool to use in class.
  3. SPAN: Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge Group
    This is a project similar to the one above. Some differences are: MRI only; separate words and sentences are recorded as well.
  4. Tools for Clear Speech and Sounds of Speech
    These are two different resources for animated versions of English IPA sounds. Both of them are using American English, which means that some vowel sounds are missing though.
  5. Interactive Pronunciation Animations
    This one is good for introducing the sounds of British English to young learners. Funny cartoons contextualise each sound and make it memorable.
  6. English Club’s Learn English Pronunciation
    This page offers a range of resources, from an interactive phonemic chart to various pronunciation games, that will keep your students engaged.
  7. The Sounds of English
    This is basically a ready-made British English pronunciation course on YouTube. Not a single sound is missing! What I like the most about these pronunciation videos is that they focus on contrasting sounds and minimal pairs as well. Can be used both in class and at home.
  8. Pronuncian.com
    Good for practising minimal pairs and getting ready-to-use lessons on American English pronunciation.
  9. Youglish.com
    This is an amazing website that lets you listen to the pronunciation of whole sentences, not just single words. You can search for any phrase, e.g. a famous movie quote or just some common everyday expression, and listen to all possible pronunciations. Other resources you can use for this purpose are TubeQuizard and Playphrase.me (the second one is limited to three phrases per search).
  10. Tongue Twister Database
    I personally think that tongue twisters are a great way of practising pronunciation, from single sounds to the features of connected speech to stress and rhythm. This is probably the biggest tongue twister database out there.
  11. BONUS! A 15-minute morning pronunciation practice with the amazing Hadar Shemesh. As someone who is taking singing classes and studied drama and acting (for a short while though), I know that your vocal apparatus needs to be warmed up before you can use it fully. This video introduces a range of exercises for the muscles involved in speech articulation. A tip from me: don’t resist yawning – it’s unavoidable!

Know any other useful resources? Give me a shout, and I’ll add them to the list 🙂
Have a question? Get in touch, and I’ll help you out 🙂

Banana? Banana!

This is a lesson plan I presented during the last ELT Lesson Jam, organised by Myles Klynhout, Rachel Tsateri and me.

Intonation. One of the trickiest aspects of pronunciation to master. Yet, so much depends on it. Even the simplest, the most innocent words, pronounced with a certain intonation, can sound rude and even threatening. So, how to raise awareness and provide our students with an opportunity to practice intonation?

Banana!

What I do is I say the word ‘banana’ in different ways – neutral (flat tone), unsure (rise), surprised (fall-rise), and irritated. Students have to identify the emotion involved in each different case. I then ask them to say the word using these emotions. After that, I offer them to brainstorm other emotions and try saying ‘banana’ using them (e.g. ‘enthusiastic’, ‘bored’, ‘surprised’, ‘relieved’, etc.). They then work in pairs saying the word ‘banana’ and trying to guess the emotion.

Step 2 is a role-play (image 1). Each pair of students gets a scenario. They have to role-play it, but they can only use the word ‘banana’ (they can use this word as many times as they wish). They have some time to rehearse (you can monitor and help out). After that, each pair has to perform their role-play in front of the class, and the listeners have to guess what is going on (roughly). The student whose guess is the closest to the original scenario gets a point. The student with the highest score wins (you can give some award to them).

Step 2. Role-play

Step 3 is real-life dialogues. Student A asks a question, and student B replies with different intonations. Student A has to guess how student B feels. You can rearrange the pairs ad conduct this activity one more time.

Step 3. Real-life dialogues

Step 4 is, obviously, a freer practice. Students share some short stories about moments when they experienced strong emotions. They have to use intonation as an instrument to make their stories as vivid as possible.

Unchained

I remember when I was in a kinder garden, we had English classes there, and one day, my teacher approached my mom and complained that I was pronouncing ‘father’ with the Russian rolling /ɾ/ instead of the English /ɹ/. ‘You have to pronounce it right’, my mom said. Okay, I got it, I have to pronounce it right, end of story.

I never questioned pronunciation and kept taking in for granted, even when I became an English teacher myself. As a student, I worked hard on getting rid of any tiny hint of Eastern European accent and felt the happiest when someone would say ‘You’re from America, aren’t you?’. I was proud of my enormous effort paying off.

And then the ELF concept came in. I was in my second year at university as a teacher and one of our CPD readings for summer was Murray’s English as a lingua franca and the development of pragmatic competence. While this one does not touch pronunciation (as follows from the title), my further research on ELF quickly led to the fact that everything I knew about pronunciation and its place in ELT instruction was not what it seemed.

The main question is: Does it make sense to aim for 100% accuracy (something I used to think was compulsory)?

The answer is no. And yes.

What makes this difficult is the fact that L2 proficiency is still most likely judged through the speaker’s pronunciation (Goodwin, 2001). Hide and Poel report that, in their study, the learners with audible foreign accents “were perceived as unintelligent, stubborn and malfunctioning by people in their academic and administrative environments” (2000, p.17). However, at the same time, everything we need is just to achieve a “threshold level” of speaking ability where we become intelligible to most listeners (Celce-Murcia, 1996).

Simply saying, while the main concern is intelligibility (i.e. how well you’re understood by your listeners), the anti-foreign accent views still prevail and having a foreign accent indeed becomes a sign of bravery.

So what we, as teachers, should do about this? Educate our students about ELF, teach them the basics (as prescribed by the ELF methodology) and then let them go and face those views on their own? Or do whatever we can to help them get rid of their L1 accent thus contributing to the world-wide hegemony of native speakerism?

There’s no win-win solution to this issue.

What I personally think is that it’s always a matter of choice. We can let our students know how the situation is right now, tell them about various approaches and let them decide what they want: bare intelligibility (which is good enough) or a ‘native’-like pronunciation (which is also good enough). It is they who will use this language to communicate, so it is up to them how and what they want to learn.

Before, whenever my ability to copy ‘native’ pronunciation would let me down and I would produce something Russian-sounding, I would feel devastated. Now I feel nothing close to this. It does not matter how I sound. I am Russian, so what? I am learning Norwegian at the moment and while I pay close attention to articulating single sounds, I do not get crazy about copying the very melody of the language. That is how Norwegians speak, and it is beautiful, but I am a foreigner. I am still proud of how far I got with mastering English pronunciation, but not because it makes me sound ‘native’-like. It is because it makes it easier for me to help my students when it comes to pronunciation.

Of course, it depends on your goal. If you want to integrate into local society, then probably mastering every single aspect of local pronunciation makes sense. However, most of our students simply learn the language to travel or to use it with foreign clients. Pronunciation in business is a tricky matter though, but as a client, do you expect to come to Italy and find native English speakers there to have business with? No, you will do business with Italians (and any other foreigners who work at a particular company you choose), and as long as you understand each other, it is fine.

Give your students a choice, show the opportunities they have; do not decide for them. When they make an informed choice, it becomes much easier for them to cut all the noise around them saying that sounding foreign is bad.

We feel the most insecure and unhappy about the decisions we made because we were told to.

Continue reading “Unchained”