Language teacher education: top tips?

tipsTidying out my office ahead of the new academic year, I came across an A4 sheet I used to give to new teaching assistants in the English department at the University of Nice when I coordinated the oral English programmes (1995-2004).

MethodFeedback_SW

We had eight or nine lecteurs, or temporary native-speaking EFL instructors. They were generally untrained, with only their own experience as language learners to rely on, sometimes not even that, and usually spent a single year with us, sometimes two. So it was more survival training than continuing professional development.

We needed these teachers to run pronunciation practice in our old language labs (audio-cassettes), and teach listening comprehension and speaking. The programme had phonetics lectures supplemented by audio-lingual lab exercises, listening comprehension using lectures or news articles read aloud on tape, and conversation classes. I tried to update to a more communicative approach, using Headway Intermediate for pronunciation, and encouraging pair and group work in listening and speaking classes. The students were mostly undergraduates, in either English studies or applied languages with business.

I was a new PhD in linguistics (second language acquisition) with an MA in TESOL and applied linguistics, with no training or experience in teacher education. Looking back twenty years on, with a lot of both pre-service and in-service training of language teachers behind me, I find my old list surprising in a number of ways. First perhaps in terms of my own confidence in simply setting out such an explicit and unequivocal set of guidelines. No justification, no hedging, no references. I would probably still be prepared to defend each point, but I’d certainly go about it differently. The second thing that strikes me is perhaps related – the very teacher-centred perspective I have taken. There is very little on identifying learner needs, setting up and monitoring activities, or providing feedback. I suppose at least I am consistent:  I tell the teachers how to teach, and they tell the learners how to learn.

The next section of my handout does tackle feedback. I remember at the time feeling a little frustrated that my teachers didn’t know the phonetic alphabet, so we had to rely on native-speaker intuition. Nowadays I generally avoid IPA in my feedback to students, since it is often more of an additional burden than a help in improving speaking skills.

feedback 1

And for good measure I had some advice for the students on class participation and giving presentations.

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Again my contemporary teaching and training self would take issue more with the form than the content of these remarks. I’d be interested to hear from teacher educators trained in different times and working in different contexts on these brief guidelines. I’m going to be moving more towards English medium instruction (EMI) and ESP in higher education in the coming months, so starting thinking about what is essential for teachers in those contexts.

 

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Improving spoken English: intermediate/advanced

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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.