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! 🙂

5 Awesome Tools for Audio & Video Editing

As someone who teaches pronunciation on a regular basis and prefers to do it with authentic materials, I have to edit tons of audio and video files. So here’s my selection of the best tools you can use for editing audio and video.

AUDIO

1. Audio Cutter

There are many online tools similar to this one, but mp3-cut.net is my ultimate favourite. It allows to trim your audio as precisely as possible by adjusting the start and end time manually. Pay attention to the last number: it’s deciseconds, guys, and it’s amazing. You can also fade in or fade out your audio. Finally, you can change the speed, volume and pitch of the audio. For more advanced users, there’s an equalizer function, too.

2. Audio Joiner

This tool is provided by the same platform as the previous one and has similar functionality. Before joining the audio files, you can trim them if necessary as well as fade in / out or crossfade them. Another good thing is that you can choose the format for your output audio file.

If you need more format choices, you can use this audio joiner tool instead but keep in mind that it doesn’t have the trimming function.

3. Voice Recorder

There’re various options available here. I know many teachers use Vocaroo, and it’s a good one with basic functions like retry recording, remove background noise and auto-adjust volume.

This voice recorder has a nice add-on: you can trim your recording if, for example, there’s a long pause at the beginning.

However, if you want to have some fun, go for this one. It allows you to modify your voice to sound like a man (if you’re a woman), a robot, or even a space squirrel.

VIDEO

4. Video Trimmer

If you already have a video and need to trim it, this is the best tool you can find. The functionality is impressive (for a basic user, of course): manual input for start and end time; rotation, speed and volume change; and other functions like cropping and looping your video.

Another great way to use this tool is when you do decoding practice with your students. By adjusting start and end time, you can play and re-play precise bits for your students to listen to be it just one word or a whole phrase (I found it wat easier to use than Aegisub).

5. Add Subtitles to Your Video

Now, this is something I’ve discovered recently, and it’s a real gem. Before, I used to add subtitles manually using a .txt file and time coding (to get precise timings, I was using Tool #4). I then reformatted the .txt file into the .srt one and added it to the video using a corresponding function in the video player. However, this tool allows you to do this much faster. It’s pretty intuitive: you type the phrases in the boxes on the right and then adjust the timing for each box at the bottom. Easy-peasy!

That’s it. I hope this info helps! These tools have made my lesson preparation easier and I can’t see why they can’t do the same for you 🙂

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.

Magic in the Classroom

This post is inspired by Zhenya’s post on livening up the classroom’s standard routines.

cm

  1. Post-it notes: The way I use them is not different from the ways described by other teachers. For example, when I want my students to write a possible topic for a discussion, I use these sticky notes. Then we stick them to the desk, and students are able to draw a circle on them voting for the topic they like the most. I also use them as a seta arrangement tool: by writing numbers (1 and 2) and letters (A and B) it’s possible to multiply the number of different seat arrangement combinations.
  2. Dices: I love board games, and I wish I could let my students play it more often… The last lesson of our course is a good opportunity to have some fun, so there’s always a board game at the end, and these colourful wooden dices are irreplaceable!
  3. The Bomb: It’s my ultimate favourite muhaha. I LOVE how students react when they realise it ACTUALLY makes the ticking sound. I remember one student dropped it when it ‘exploded’ in her hands. However, despite this incident, they all laughed and seemed to enjoy (especially boys). For those who don’t recognise where this beauty comes from, check Pass the Bomb board game 🙂 The bomb is an amazing tool to liven up any review activity (e.g., vocabulary, FL, grammar, etc.).
  4. Masking tape: Every lesson, my students fill in self-reflective check-sheets and set a goal for the second discussion. After the second discussion, they check if they achieved their goals or not and then stick the check-sheets into their textbooks. To make this process a bit more exciting (and to reward my students for the work they’ve done) I give them some cute masking tapes like these two. Sometimes I bring thematic stickers like Christmas stickers, etc.
  5. Some strange tiny objects: What are they??! Technically, these are the rubbers but in my classroom, they become chips that my students use when they play board games. I usually let students choose which ‘chip’ they want to use, and these three are the ultimate favourites (the fish-looking one is actually taiyaki, Japanese pastry snack). The others are mochi, onigiri, bamboo, tomato, melon, and aubergine.
  6. Timer: I use it so that I don’t have to depend on watch / clock. First of all, I HATE having anything on my wrists. Second, I don’t like the necessity of constantly checking my phone to end an activity on time. The timer is the easiest solution to these problems 🙂 Just don’t forget to change the battery when the time comes! And the beeping sound it makes when the time is up helps you to catch your students’ attention quickly.
  7. O-hajiki: All Japanese kids used to play this game where they have to hit one glass stone with the other, and whoever gets closest to the ‘main’ stone gets more points (or something like that). Whenever I take the bags with these stones out, students get excited and say ‘nostalgic!’. I use them as chips to cover some phrases in the check-sheets so that students (and I) could keep track on their FL use. The only drawback is that some students (usually boys) try to use o-hajiki the way they used it when they were children so make sure to keep an eye on those students who get too nostalgic and excited.

 

This is it! I hope to see your lists as well 😉