jueves, 27 de agosto de 2015

Coming up with your own pronunciation "tips and tricks"

During these last few weeks I have had the chance of carrying out my favourite activity in my third-year teacher trainee Lab courses: the "tips and tricks video sessions". Basically, the task requires that students devise their own 3-minute teaching pronunciation video tutorial around a feature/contrast assigned to them, and following a number of guidelines. Some of the videos I show for inspiration and to see different styles -apart from those by students in previous courses- include the YouTube tutorials by JenniferESL, Rachel's English and some videos by Clear Speech Mastery, among others. (Note: Perhaps I don't always agree with everything they say, but I think it is good to show different ways of doing things! - Note 2: I have posted two of these video tutorials by my students in my Pronunciation Bites Facebook page.)

Now, one of the requirements of the task includes the presentation of a number of "tips and tricks" to introduce and teach the feature, and I generally ask students to come up with their own systematisation techniques. Many people find this really scary, as they may not have experienced this (or any!) type of pronunciation instruction in their lives as English learners before, so they may feel they have no "models" for pronunciation teaching.

So this blog post is precisely about pronunciation teaching, and it will introduce ways of finding inspiration so that you can devise your own "tips and tricks" for your lessons.

As we all know, teacher training courses (at least in Argentina....we take it really seriously!) may introduce a lot of technical information. This may result in trainees later either introducing a lot of technical terminology in their primary/secondary school lessons, or directly blocking out pronunciation work. Many teachers feel paralysed about the whole thing and don't know how to go about it. So what do we do with all the knowledge we have? How do we make pronunciation "teachable"?

These are a few steps I personally believe we should follow:

1. Study your feature

Yes, I am one of those people who believes that in order to teach "this little" (thumb-index finger gesture) you need to know "this much" (wide arm gesture). OK, perhaps not sooo much. But there are a number of things you do need to know about the features you are going to teach (I insist, however, that I do not wish you to get "terrified".....):
  • What are the characteristics of this feature? 
    • If it is a vowel, what do we know about the height and part of the tongue raised, the jaws, the rims, the lips? Is there anything about resonance worth learning? What about its spellings?
    • If it is a consonant, what do you know about its voicing, muscular and breath energy, manner and place of articulation? What do the production stages reveal about this sound? Are there any complex spellings? What allophonic variants are there? How is this consonant affected in certain contexts, or due to coarticulation?
    • If it is a process of connected speech, what rules and restrictions are there? What features are involved? How does it affect perception and production? What coarticulatory gestures do we need to teach?
    • If it is a tonicity feature, what rules are there to teach? Are there any exceptions? How does this set of rules affect meaning-making practices? How is prominence perceived and produced?
    • If you want to teach a context for a particular tone pattern, what is the manifestation of this "melody"? What communicative, grammatical, illocutionary contexts reveal a high frequence of occurrence of this tone? 
    • If you wish to teach word stress, what rules and exceptions can you trace? If it is a polysyllabic word, what can you predict in terms of the suffixes / prefixes employed? If it is a compound word set, what grammatical information can you collect in order to make sense of the rules?
  • Is this feature in your students' own L1? 
    • Is it "worth" teaching explicitly then?
    • Does your students' L1 have a similar sound/intonation feature? If so, what features do we need to teach? Can we use their L1 as starting point? (E.g.: I can use my Spanish /a/ sound as a starting point to teach /æ/, by drawing my students' attention to the smile, the spreading of the lips, the fact that my lower teeth get "covered or hidden" -in an toothless-elderly-person fashion- by my lower lip and the skin below. My students can try both vowels in front of a mirror).
  • Are there any common "tips and tricks" and rules to teach this feature? What do those focus on? How effective are they? (Try them!) What do they fall short of for them to be successful in my context?
Plus, a set of things all ELT teachers should learn at some time or other:  How does pronunciation work differ from other areas and skills of language learning? What different ways are there of doing pronunciation work? How does the whole process of acquisition or learning of our own L1 and an L2/foreign language set of phonological features work? What psycholinguistic theories inform our processes of perception and production of speech?

Knowledge is power. The more you know about your feature, the more confident you will feel, and the more informed your decisions will be. If you carry out Contrastive Analyses, you will be able to be more "economical" in your explanation, just teaching the bits that will be challenging for your students (E.g.: in Spanish, /p/ is also bilabial and plosive, but it is not aspirated. So what you need to teach for /p/ is its aspiration. So don't spend time explaining how the bilabial and plosive aspects of this sound need to be addressed....)

2. Make selections

Now that you know what your feature is and how/where it works, you need to look at your students, and your syllabus, and make the next set of decisions:

Are you going to teach your feature for production, for perception, or both?

If you are going to teach your feature for perception, it would be useful to think about all the processes of connected speech (coarticulations, linking, reductions, elisions, stylisations) it may undergo, to be able to prepare your learners for all the "sound shapes" (Cauldwell, 2013) (and tone shapes!) they may acquire in "the jungle" of real life speech. This is a really challenging area, worth another blog post...in the future.

If you are going to ask your learners to produce the feature (though you will have, of course, to do listening discrimination and ear-training work anyway!), move on to the tips below. Plus, see how and when you will be introducing the spellings for the sound, or the communicative values of the intonation choices you wish to introduce.

3. Explore your own production of the feature

Now that you know some basic technical stuff about the feature and about your students' L1, you need to try the feature yourself. Several times. And use your senses.

"Denaturalise" the production of this feature. How? Be narcissistic: Look at yourself in a mirror, record yourself using your phone/notebook webcam, take pictures of yourself. See what you are doing, how you are doing it, and put it into words, into simple words: "when I produce /æ/ I smile, I can see my upper teeth but not my lower teeth as my lower lip covers them. The sides of my lips are spread backwards. My cheeks get puffy (BTW, the latter is one of my students' discoveries!)."

Make comparisons: What do I look like? "When I say /æ/ I look like a clown; I look like a person sucking a slice of tangerine; I look like an elderly person who has lost his/her lower teeth...."

What does it sound like? Produce the sound/intonation feature several times. Does it sound familiar? Is there any real life sound the repetition of this sound evokes? E.g.#1: a former student who played tennis regularly told me that the LOT sound in isolation reminded him of the bouncing of the ball on the court during the tennis matches. E.g#2: I think of a cat somehow coughing/choking (?) when I produce many /æ/s in succession.
(Credit: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/6MTIwY3_-ks/maxresdefault.jpg)
What does it feel like? Think about your physical reaction towards the changes and stages in the production of the feature (going slow motion may help!) and once again, put it into words. "I feel as if there was someone stretching my lower lip and my skin to the sides when I go into /æ/). Place your fingers to the sides of your lips (Underhill-style!); rest your chin on your palm and the fingers to the sides of your lower cheeks to feel the downward movement of the jaw.

Also think about your emotional reaction to the sound. Do you look happy when you say /æ/? Are there any "feelings" this sound/intonation feature evokes?

Find reference points: Look at your L1 starting point. What changes do you need to make to get to the L2 quality (or at least go "towards" the L2 quality?). Or what L2 sounds already learned can you use as reference? E.g.: To produce /æ/ I can lower my jaw, if I start from English /e/.

3. Give your tips a sequence, a wording and a set of gestures

You have now got technical info that informs your own production of the sound/intonation feature. You have got a set of multisensory and cognitive tips you can teach, a whole "bag of tricks". (Remember that only one pronunciation tip will not always do the trick. We all have different learning styles, diverse abilities in terms of phonetic coding, and we have different degrees of  awareness of what we do with our organs of speech. Therefore, we need to cater for different styles and "intelligencies")

So now you have to give your tips and tricks some sort of shape. Try to explain your discoveries in simple words, following a clear procedure, and allowing students some time to experience your guided "experiment" with mirrors or mobile phone cams. Use gestures, hand and body movements, "body gym", to accompany your tips. Use reference names or words (colours, animals, celebrities) to refer to the features (E.g.: the "yes, but" tone pattern; /æ/, the "cat", or "black", or "Harry" sound). (BTW, I owe this last "reference word" tip to Prof. Iannicelli, and Prof. Terluk. Plus, I want to acknowledge my former students who came up with "Cat in the Hat", and Harry (from One Direction) as reference items for for /æ/ and created tasks related to these reference words ). Recycle your gestures and tips all year round, as words or utterances with these features re-appear. Remember that a "one-off" systematisation session may not do the trick. Pronunciation is physical, motor, and as such, we need our muscles and our brain to work towards new habits, and we must practise, practise, practise (pretty much like going to the gym!)!

4. Test-drive your tips and if necessary.....recalculate! (GPS-like!)

Once we have got our tips and tricks ready to go, we need to try them out. In my experience, watching the tips "in operation" has helped me see whether my "mental and "physical associations" with the sound are actually transferrable. For instance, my association with the Puss in Boots from Shrek for /æ/ did not find a home in my students, as they could not relate to it, and they would represent their "choking" feelings with other types of noise. (Fair enough! It is a bit crazy, come to think of it!)

So by trying the tips out, monitoring students' reactions, listening to students produce the features, and assessing their output, we can reach a conclusion as to how effective a certain tip can be for a particular group. My best tips have actually stemmed from my most unsuccessful tips! (Recalculating....recalculating...) Paying attention to my students' attempts at producing a certain sound after my instruction, and noticing that the output sounds were not really what was expected, helped me find alternative ways to address the sound features that were not being taken up by my students. E.g.: many of my students focus on the "puffy cheeks" effect of /æ/ but fail to drop their jaws enough, and their resulting sound is the old fashioned [æ] sound, closer to /e/.  At times, then, our tips may help students address a certain aspect of the sound/intonation pattern we are teaching but we may need to find other ways to address other features (in my case, students were not addressing tongue height and jaw-lowering properly, but the lip spreading was appropriate, so  I had to seek new strategies to draw their attention to the features that were missing).

Of course...this can even become a whole research project in itself! "The success of the "puffy cheeks" tip in the acquisition of /æ/ in Spanish learners of English"...:p

Final Remarks
  • Whether you want to teach a native-like variety of English or you go for a more "English as a Lingua Franca" for intercultural communication approach, vowel quality is one feature that has been agreeed needs to be taught. And I would personally suggest that we should all come up with our own "tips and tricks" to teach vowel quantity and quality since these are some of the most "abstract" aspects of pronunciation to systematise -together with intonation, that is (worth another post!).
  • I recall Robin Walker hinting at the fact that at first there is no need to reach a 100% accurate target, but we should aim at leaving the L1 "area" towards a differentiated target to build a new interlanguage L2 contrast which can then be fine-tuned. So perhaps we may not get our students to reach an accurate final target or quality at first with our tips, but the moment we make students aware of the differences between their L1 and English as an L2, and we start building proprioception skills, a whole new set of abilities are awakened, which will surely allow for changes at some point in the future. 
  • Of course, depending on your context, you will work harder on helping a learner fine-tune a contrast towards complete accuracy, or perhaps just make sure they reach a close quality that allows for a contrast different from their own L1 quality but which makes it all intelligible. (I have a set of expectations with my teacher trainees that I may not always have with other groups of students)
  • As we all know, pronunciation teaching is in a way, a craft. What works for one learner may not work for others, and if we want to do our job well, we need considerable time, face-to-face, especially, with our learners, working on the challenges and difficulties of each learner in particular. Perhaps we might need a longer, and more personalised session than for other skills, if we compare the time it may take to grade a written task, versus the time and energy it takes to grade or give feedback on an audio file or a student producing something live in front of us...but it has to be done! 
  • As we all know, speaking is a "fleeting" product, and the moment our learners produce their sounds/intonation patterns, they are gone! So, school permitting, recording or videotaping does really allow students to reconstruct their production and have something to cling on for later improvement. I cannot stress this enough! 
  • Finally, pronunciation, as we are always reminded, is physical. So we have to work towards the training and awareness of our bodies. Aftet all, we are working on people's articulation and motor skills and not on a written sheet of paper, so we have to tread carefully, find ways around, be respectful, and allow students to see the magic -and not the threat-, of it all.
Hope you have found this post useful. It does look like my own Pronunciation Teaching Manifesto, to be honest!

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