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:

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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/