domingo, 18 de febrero de 2018

Event report: "Pronunciation: The Missing Link" - Chester Uni, Feb 17, 2018 - Part 1

Last Saturday I left the East to cross the Pennines and after a three-hour train journey I arrived in the wonderful and picturesque city of Chester.
Lovely Chester (credit: MNC)

PronSIG were holding a new event at the University of Chester: "Pronunciation: The Missing Link". It was a small but really friendly event, and the audience was really keen, so the atmosphere was right for us pron-thusiasts to share our passion, quandaries, and ideas.
(Credit: Catarina Pontes)

As many of you may have inferred from my posts, I take this whole pronunciation teaching thing really seriously, and I have always been affected by the tension between what I know about pronunciation and intonation in the real world, and what happens in the classroom, and what teachers need to know in order to make all this "real life mess" accessible to learners. I was happy to be in this event, because the talks were all about problematising many "set truths" in ELT, while still providing solutions that fit the reality of our classrooms.

I will be writing up a small report on the event, but if you want to see how it developed, you might want to check the #pronsigchester hashtag, where all the live-tweeting went on. As usual, all potential errors in understanding the claims of the presenters are my own. 

The first in line was the always great Richard Cauldwell, with "Pronunciation and Listening: The Case for Divorce". Richard reminded us of his great metaphor for the world of sounds out there: The Greenhouse, the Garden, and the Jungle. He also refreshed our memory in terms of how the Careful Speech Model, which is privileged in ELT in the teaching of pronunciation for production, does not hold for learners' perception of the "mush" of speech. This is why for the teaching of listening we need to embrace the Spontaneous Speech Model, a model that relishes the sometimes unruly (at least in terms of prescriptivist rules) nature of the "sound substance". The sound substance differs from the "sight substance" in a large number of ways, and traditionally, the teaching of listening has focused on the "logic of meaning", guiding learners to fill in the gaps based on meaning concerns, rather than on decoding the sound substance. Cauldwell invites us to put ourselves in our students' shoes and see how their hearings may actually be "reasonable hearings" in terms of the sound substance (one of the many examples was that of learners hearing "peoples" for "pupils". The speaker was producing GOOSE fronting all the way and yes, no doubt about the fact that it could have been, indeed, within the logic of the sound substance, been a "reasonable hearing". The logic of meaning and grammar would not have allowed it, of course). Richard then presented a number of cases of processes of connected speech ("streamlining processes"), as always going beyond the neat rules of assimilation and elision that we see in textbooks, and introducing a nice catalogue of processes and wordshapes we find for words like "certainly", "obviously", and many others.  Many  of these points will be tackled in Richard's upcoming book, "A Syllabus for Listening - Decoding".
Richard presented a workshop in the afternoon, but I am afraid I was in another session, so I cannot report on it. I know there was a lot of "mouth gymnastics" involved in the production of different soundshapes...

Gemma Archer was the next presenter, and her focus was on pronunciation assessment. It was an interactive presentation, and there was reflection on the number of reasons why teachers may not do pronunciation assessment in the classroom beyond box-ticking forms in speaking exams. We were invited to analyse different types of pronunciation assessment (passages, minimal pairs...), and their strengths and weaknesses. I would like to focus on the fact that by far one of the most widely criticised aspects was the fact that many pronunciation tests are based on reading aloud, which, as we know, is an altogether different cognitive activity. We know that having a set reading test allows for  the narrowing down of what we want to assess, and uniformity in the type of output we get from our learners, but it is always worth remembering that reading aloud is not speaking. A few interesting alternatives were presented: the use of Diapix, and of story boards, to elicit less controlled speech, while still making sure that some of the exponents of what we want to assess are there. It was not mentioned in the presentation, but my favourite form of less controlled pronunciation "test" or practice is role play, and for intonation, at least, Barbara Bradford's Intonation in Context is fabulous.

(I was up next, but I will be writing a separate blog post on my presentation.)

Catarina Pontes led a presentation called "Five Reasons why pronunciation must be included in your lessons". In a pronunciation event, this would sound like preaching to the converted, but as it was planned as an interactive presentation, it ended up being a very useful and engaging forum. Participants shared ideas of activities and resources they used in their classrooms, and some teachers voiced concerns connected to experiences encountered with students, such as reference accent issues, and the exposure to different accents.

Annie McDonald presented some ideas to help students decode spoken language better by listening in chunks. Annie presented a number of mondegreens and how they can be analysed to see what kind of processes students have engaged in to make sense of the sound substance. She moved on to discuss how the regular listening lesson primes students into making sense from their content schemata but does not teach them to decode the actual stream of speech so that next time they are encountered with a similar instantiation, they can recognise it. Annie tried an informal experiment: she selected a few sentences that students were meant to decode word for word, and she worked out her students' percentages of success (quite low). The following lesson, students listened to the text again and then they were able to decode some chunks of speech more successfully. Annie recommended the use of YouGlish and TubeQuizard to look up regular chunks of word clusters so that students can listen to the many manifestations of the same combination of words. Like Richard Cauldwell in the morning, Annie played collections of words/word clusters together, which enables students to get a taste of inter-speaker variation in the producition of the same lexical sequences.

Mark Hancock presented a number of interesting activities to make the teaching of tonic stress "simple". We all know what a nightmare the system of tonicity can be, and personally I always feel soooo guilty teaching the "rules", as I know tonicity is so context-dependent and there are so many exceptions. However, Mark Hancock succeeded in presenting some small contexts for participants to decide on where to put the nuclear accent (which he called tonic stress, as in many other pieces of work). There were some interesting debates, as some participants produced alternative versions (oooh, a flashback to my Phonetics 2 lessons!), and as others were not perhaps aware of where they themselves were placing the  nuclear stress (something at times I notice I may have trouble with myself when I analyse my Spanish speech). The activities presented were truly interactive and easy to apply in our lessons, and they centered around the following areas (I'm using the technical names here because I'm a phon-freak, but Mark was very careful in his simplification of these): deaccentuation of Given info, contrastive focus, intonational idioms/fixed tonicity, and stress shift. All in all, an interesting overview of tonicity with simple activities that I personally believe can help English learners become aware of tonic stress.

I once again want to thank PronSIG and Mark Hancock for having invited me to be part of the event. It's been a delight to go back to my first teaching pronunciation love, and to be around experienced teachers who have so much to share, and who also need someone to tell them that some issues are indeed difficult but that there are ways out. I'm really pleased to see how the teaching of listening is evolving, and how teachers are not being undermined or treated with contempt when it comes to how complex pronunciation can be, and how many thorny issues and sides to it there are. In my humble opinion, finding ways to simplify things for teaching should not mean making people feel dumb (as I have been made to feel in some contexts in the past), and in an event like this, it's clear that no one is treating pronunciation teaching lightly. So I am really happy to be involved in this joint quest for truth and teachability and to be able to share it with like-minded people.

My next post will be about my presentation. Personally, and given the feedback I got during lunch and some of my own hunches as I was designing it, it was also an unexpected surprise to realise how my research can actually inform English language teaching practices when it comes to the teaching of intonation for conversation (and not for monologue.....brace yourselves for a rant in an upcoming post!), so who knows...once my thesis is ready in two years' time...

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