domingo, 15 de mayo de 2016

Pronunciation Integration #4: Selecting your pronunciation content

After some blogging silence caused by writing deadlines, burnout and a lot of belated grading, I  am back! I would have liked to write a more complete post today, but I thought I might put down a few lines on how to select the pronunciation features to teach in your lesson. I am currently covering this topic with my teacher trainees, and I believe it is a good moment to allow these experience-based reflections of mine to reach the written form! I guess I will be writing a more academic, citation-filled, aesthetically pretty post in the future. 

What do we need to consider when planning what pronunciation content to include in our lessons?

Well, a huuuge number of questions are in order (as usual!). Even though I expect to provide teachers with a somehow friendly guide as to how to make a responsible, yet effective decision, I would not want to trick them into believing that making this choice is an easy matter. So here we go!

When we say pronunciation content we are, in fact, referring to a large number of features, which I have tried to summarise in the chart below:

a) First, there's the pronunciation goals question (see previous posts on this): is your institutional/class setting aiming at  low accentedness, or  mutual intelligibility? 
If your group requires that your learners' accent reveals little of their L1 because they need to communicate in professional settings with native speakers of English and you need to do accent reduction, for example, then you have a longer list of things to consider, perhaps, as you will see below, since the inventory of features of teach may be larger. 
If you are doing English for International Communication, that is, English as the means to interact with other non-native speakers of English, the initial selection of features to teach may, in part, be inspired by Jenkins' (2000) Lingua Franca Core (see the blogs by Patsko & Simpson, and the site by Robin Walker to learn more about this). Note: in my very humble opinion, I would not treat the LFC as a conclusive list, because given your students' needs and starting point, you may want to introduce other features as well. Plus, there is always the question of what makes mutual intelligibility, as different L1s may perhaps pose different challenges regarding intelligibility with each other in English as a FL. (In this respect, you may remember the project by Nobuaki Minematsu I discussed in my PTLC15 report here)

b) Next, there's the most important source of information to consider, your students! Carry out a needs analysis (which may make you reconsider your answer to a) ) and/or a set of diagnostic tasks (if possible, recorded as an audio file), that may help you see where your students' areas of difficulty lie. Diagnostic tasks can give us a lot of information regarding our students' starting point, but they need to be designed carefully. You may want to make sure you do so by considering these points:
  • in order to have a more global view of your learners' strengths and weaknesses, you need to design a task that will enable you to test the same skills/content across the board, for example a reading-aloud task of a well-prepared passage (Note: Careful! Reading skills pose their own challenges), or a guided questionnaire with words/expressions you expect your students to use. You can write a dialogue or short passage (dialogues work better, in my opinion, as chunking is less problematic and situations are easy to perform) with enough variety in spellings, clusters, word stress or sentence accent examples to make sure you can even somehow "quantify" your results and test what you really want to test (validity). (It is essential that you go over the list of difficulties that learners of your L1 may have when using English to make sure you test the right things. See: "Contrastive Analysis" below, and check Ashton and Shepeherd, 2012; Kelly, 2000; Mott, 2011). You can then design a table/grid to see how each of your students tackled the problem areas or "traps" in their reading.
  • a semi-spontaneous speaking task is unbeatable when it comes to testing what our students' starting point is. We can ask our learners to introduce themselves by following guiding questions, or telling an anecdote, or reacting to a picture or stimuli. These less controlled tasks will give you clear a indication of their interlanguage errors and already-acquired features. As a result, you should have a more or less accurate snapshot of your learners' starting point, individually.
  • and/or you may want to carry out interactive tasks for pairs of students to role-play. Working with a partner helps students to lower their affective filters and may, to a certain extent, also soothe "recording anxiety". These tasks allow you to see how students  interact by employing their interlanguage accents and communicative competence.
(Of course, you should always be aware that your task and the recording activity themselves may induce shyness, as well as other performance difficulties or disfluencies.)

c)  Then, naturally, you will need to take a look at your (pre-set) syllabus and textbook. No, I am sorry to say  I am not implying that your textbook will in any way help you decide. With just a few exceptions, pronunciation tasks in textbooks (sorry, authors and publishers), are very poor, IMHO. But your textbook may have a lovely Word List at the end with the key lexical items you will be teaching . It will also list the grammar you will have to present. It has a tapescript section with the material your students will hear in spoken mode. It presents a number of reading materials with structures and vocabulary your students will be working on.

If you work at one of those places where the syllabi are "imposed", you may have been provided with a tentative syllabus, which will surely list the lexico-grammatical features to be attained by your class (and hopefully, if you are very, very lucky, perhaps some reference to what pronunciation features to teach). And if you take all the lexical and grammatical content, comb your reading and listening texts, and check the oral genres and spoken functions you will be will have an awful lot of information as to what pronunciation features you will encounter, albeit indirectly, lesson by lesson!

How do we use this information?

Now that you know what features your learners as a group may need to cover, and what individual challenges you need to work on, as well as what linguistic content you will have to teach, you can start making further decisions, which will depend on a number of factors, listed below in no particular order:
  • Contrastive Analysis: even though it has been undermined, the Contrastive Analysis Hypothesis (Lado, 1957) does provide us with a good way of anticipating which areas may bring about trouble for our learners, given the differences between English as L2/FL, and their own L1. For instance, in Spanish /p/ is not taxing at all, as there is a match in the place and manner of articulation in both accents. However, aspiration does need to be taught for this sound. So making a contrastive analysis of features will already narrow down the list of features you may need to tackle.
  • Similarity-Dissimilarity: the Speech Learning Model (Flege, 1992) also helps us re-visit our list of features by aiding us in the identification of those features that may perhaps take longer to acquire by L2 learners of English and may get fossilised, and thus, may require constant recycling and remedial work. For instance, sound /d/ in English may be perceived as similar to Spanish by learners, and as a result, fossilisation of Spanish [] for English may be more common than for other sounds. 
  • Frequency of occurence: I am not necessarily here considering the frequency of occurrence of the features in English (though it does certainly help to select what to spend time on!), but the frequency at which a certain pronunciation feature appears on your syllabus of linguistic content and skills. E.g.: Weak and strong forms are inevitably related to all tenses in English, since auxiliaries are ubiquitous. The velar nasal /ŋ/ is everpresent in continuous tenses. (See other posts on pronunciation integration here). Scanning your textbook's word list per unit will also give you an idea of what sound, spelling-to-sound rule, or suffix appears more often. Looking at what linguistic actions and functions you will be teaching (e.g. requesting, giving advice, etc), may help you see what intonation patterns can be of use.
  • Functional Load: The concept of functional load (Catford, 1987) can also contribute to our decision as to what features should be taught for intelligibility purposes based on contexts where they are contrastive . We know, for example, that sounds /ʃ,ʒ/ are only distinguishable in a really small number of words (just 4 minimal pairs?), which is why this combination in contrast has a low functional load. Word Stress, on the other hand, is to be prioritised (Derwing and Munro, 2015), as its functional load in distinction is important. Note: even though the theory claims that pairs like /d,ð/ have a low functional load, Spanish speakers, because of the allophonic split in comparison to English, will definitely need to be made aware of the distinction. So this particular criteria, in my humble opinion, needs to be taken with a picnh of a salt.
  • Systematically, incidentally or "collocationally"? The previous criteria may help you decide what features you may want to systematise properly and in detail, following a set of stages (ear training --> presentation--> guided and feer practice), and which features you may want to teach or correct "in passing" as a result of  mispronunciation or miscommunication while carrying out an activity. You will also need to decide if you want to teach the feature for students to start applying across the board, that is, by teaching the right spelling-to-sound rules, or pragmatic functions of intonation, for instance, or if you want to present it as a "collocation": that is, the feature accompanying the word or phrase (see my post on the intonation of viewpoint adjuncts).  For example, we know /ʒ/ is not a very ferquent sound in English, which is why you may teach it when you teach the word "usually" (which we introduce quite early in elementary courses when teaching the Present Simple!). You can always extend the application of this new feature by referring back to the previously-taught collocation; e.g: so when you find the word "visual", you remind students of "usually"
  • For perception or for production purposes (or both)? As we know, thanks to Richard Cauldwell, perception and production need different models, and the way we handle phonetics is indeed different in both models. We need to decide what we want to help our students to produce, and what we need to teach to train their perception and enhance comprehension. We may have to systematise some processes of linking, co-articulation, assimilation and elision for students to produce, but these elements will definitely find a better home in our listening lessons.
  • Teachability: this is the most difficult criterion to define. I believe that teachability needs to be defined by the group of students we have (age, motivation, phonetic coding ability, previous exposure and instruction) and our teaching context (time constraints, possibilities for extra practice, possibilities for further exposure...). We do know, however, that everything can be made teachable if we are creative enough and if we do enough research (sometimes based on our own trial and error experiences in the classroom).
Some final remarks:

I generally tell students that we have a sort of "moral duty" to teach pronunciation. Our instructional context may not always demand that we do, but if we are teaching the language, and we are training users of the language (and not just "writers" of the language), we have to teach the phonological features accompanying the lexico-grammatical content we introduce. Otherwise, we are somehow cheating our students. Or so I believe.

Teaching pronunciation effectively is about being selective. I have listed a set of criteria to choose what to teach, and when planning our lessons we need to take a "leap of faith", and decide to leave a few features out for next years' teacher to handle (hopefully!). We cannot cover it all (as we don't do with lexis, or grammar), and we shouldn't either. Decide what to be "incidental" or "collocational" about, and what to systematise in greater detail.

If you are selective, and make the most of integration techniques and choices, then you should not have any excuse not to do pronunciation work! You are doing pronunciation as you do grammar, vocabulary, reading or listening! (And you keep your coordinator, parents, and international exams happy as well as fulfilling your "moral duty" as a language teacher!)

Finally (for now, at least), success in pronunciation -this wonderful motor-cognitive skill-, is dependent on continuous practice. We need to provide constant prossibilities of recycling, re-noticing pronunciation features in new and old contexts, and we have to ensure continuous remedial work. Our body has memory, indeed, but we need to reactivate it as frequently as possible. And so we need to do when it comes to spelling rules, or to the abstract meanings of  intonation, for example.

Once again, hope you have found this useful. (If you need to cite this article, please check the "How to Cite this Blog" tab on top). Good luck in your feature selection!

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