Improving spoken English: intermediate/advanced

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-08-45-33

A new year, some new speaking classes for my students of English at a French university. It’s one thing to give students feedback on their spoken English, but what should they be doing to improve. Here are some ideas for students working with individual feedback in terms of individual sounds (phonemes), connected speech (stress, rhythm, intonation), and more generally.

Phonemes

The main problems involve

  • consonants in English that do not exist in French: h, th
  • vowel contrasts involving vowels not present in French
  • the s sound in plurals (present in French but not pronounced) and the third person singular of the present simple (he walks)

To work on /h/ try

To work on th, try

  • Sounds of American English (online or app) for articulatory information (voiced and voiceless lingua-dental fricatives)
  • shadow reading, paying attention to segments with th.

To work on vowel contrasts, try

You can also look at this interactive IPA chart to contrast, for example, a French uvular /r/ with an English alveolar one.

Connected speech

French and English stress patterns differ in two related ways

  • vowel length
  • sentence stress

In French, we don’t distinguish between short and long vowels – French vowels are generally all the same length. But in English, some vowels are longer and some shorter. In French, each syllable generally has the same weight. In English, there is quite a difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.

This means that French speakers of English sometimes have difficulty with sentence stress: transferring French intonation patterns means all syllables tend to be the same length (too short) and receive the same stress. Teachers might give feedback such as the following:

  • too many stresses: every syllable is the same length and has the same stress
  • clipped delivery: the syllables are all too short, with no long vowels/diphthongs
  • no weak forms: syllables are equally stressed, with no shortened, unstressed syllables

The sound schwa is the weakest unstressed sound, and also the most common vowel in English. Learn about schwa on the BBC Learning English archive from 2008 and also work on connected speech.

Another way of working on this is shadow reading. You need to find good audio with a transcript, then practice shadowing the speaker by reading along with the volume set low, so that you copy the way the speaker produces stressed and unstressed syllables. Read about this activity here.

Going further

You can read more about intonation in the form of nuclear stress or articulatory setting. Some students are uptalking – read about this here if you like.

But listening more will also help. You can listen to short extracts intensively, perhaps working with a transcript to identify particular sounds you have difficulty with, stressed and unstressed syllables, and other aspects of intonation. You can also listen extensively, to audiobooks, lectures and podcast with the goal of picking up speech patterns in a more subconscious manner.

 

References

Articulatory setting: an approach to pronunciation teaching

Buried treasure from the BBC (on ELF pronunciation): non-native accents of English.

H-deletion in connected speech

H-sound.

Interactive IPA chart.

Phonetics: the sounds of American English. How to use the site. (see also app)

Poetry Archive http://www.poetryarchive.org

Pronunciation of /h/ in English. ALERT Acquiring language efficiently: Research and teaching. Concordia University.

RP pronunciation. BBC English.

Shadowing and summarizing. YouTube lecture. Murphey, 2001.

Shadow reading. Habilitacioninglesmadrid.

Sounds of speech. University of Iowa app (Apple/Android)

Understanding nuclear stress. English as a lingua franca pronunciation.

Uptalk in the OED. Language Log.

 

Coloriage magique: on busywork and boxticking

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-11-18-25

Sometimes good ideas lead to disappointing applications. Bruner’s appeal for discovery learning as an alternative to “mere memorizing” (Whyte, 2011) brought “learning by doing” to teacher education programmes the world over. But it often feels as though our educational system is entirely geared towards doing rather than learning, and this is ultimately detrimental to learning.

Asked about her experience of ICT training in pre-service primary teacher education, a graduate some years ago reported feeling as though she had been given a stack of “magic colouring” pages (often distributed in French primary classes for arithmetic practice) at the start of the year, had worked steadily through them, and having completed everything successfully, nonetheless had no impression of having learned anything substantive whatsoever at the end of the year. I was reminded of this comment on reading a recent post by Hendrick on resisting fads and gimmicks in the classoom.

My impression is that the managerialisation of education has brought learners, teachers, and teacher educators alike to an almost exclusive focus on box-ticking. We all spend our time completing tasks designed more to show that work has been finished to standard, rather than on the content to be considered, assimilated, or reflected upon.

With respect to learner at the receiving end of classroom instruction, Hendrick (2016) argues against dumbing down by appealing to contemporary youth culture and passing fads:

By insisting that the only way kids can learn is by being distracted into learning, we are offering them a debased view of the process itself

The same writer also contests the conflation of motivation and learning in a 2015 post here, arguing

If [learners] are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.

It seems to me that the magic colouring activity corresponds exactly to those two points: the “learner” is simply repeating operations already known to them (in the above illustration, counting to 5), for the dubious reward of an unrelated outcome (Pokemon picture).

In further criticism of death-by-colouring, Hendrick cites a 2015 post by Quigley pointing to research which suggests that student use of highlighters as a revision tool is less effective than other, more reflective methods. Quigley anticipates resistance from teachers reluctant to abandon such ineffectual yet reassuring practices and responds thus:

I have been given feedback by teachers that use highlighters regularly that it is useful for effective organization in MFL; that they work best for lesser able students English; that it makes things stand out more than the humble pen.  My question would be: how do you know?  I can assure you that I am not certain that the answer will be what I expect, far from it. The research may be poppycock when translated to your setting, but if [sic] we won’t know that if we don’t reflect on the evidence and question our methods.

In the university contexts where I teach and train future teachers, many of the questions students ask during lectures are related less to how the course fits in their overall programme of study, or how particular points relate to more general learning objectives, than to specifics of how the course will be graded and what kind of questions can be expected on the exam. Robert Duke has an interesting take on teacher responsibility in this area in his 2009 lecture Why students don’t learn what we think we teach.

It’s interesting that one answer to Quigley’s call for teacher engagement with evidence is one I find appealing: action research (which I’ve written about in Talking the talk and Online support for classroom language teachers, and Masters in Teaching English research project topics). But of course as my trainee teacher noted earlier, without a change of tack, even these projects can be reduced to so much busywork, a coloriage magique, and just one more box to tick on the way out.

 

Duke, R. (2009). Why students don’t learn what we think we teach. Cornell University.

Hendrick, C. (2016). Why fads and gimmicks should be resisted in the classroom. Chronotope,18/09/2016

Hendrick, C. (2015). Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything. Chronotope, 22/03/2016

Quigley, A. (2015). Why I hate highlighters. The Confident Teacher. 17/01/2015

Whyte, S. (2011). Good questions. Learning and teaching foreign languages.