Archive for Tag: pronunciation

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What Modifications Would You Make for ELLs in Mainstream Classes? – Part 1

Tamara Jones is an ESL Instructor at Howard Community College, Columbia, Maryland

One of my best friends in the whole world recently sent me a message asking for some help with a job application she is putting together. She is a mainstream teacher; her work experience has always been with “regular” primary school classes in English-speaking countries. However, interestingly, one of the application questions she was asking about was a distinctly ESOLy question. I suspect that is because the make-up of public school classrooms in North America is changing and teachers, even mainstream content teachers, are increasingly expected to adjust their lessons to accommodate and include English Language Learners, or ELLs.

Her question was: What modifications and adaptations would you make for ELLs in your classroom?

This question really got me excited. Although my day job is as an administrator and teacher in an English language program for adult students at Howard Community College, for fun, I teach in the MA TESOL program at Notre Dame of Maryland University one night a week. My MA students are usually public school teachers who want to specialize in ESOL or who are seeing more and more international students in their classrooms and want to learn how to best support them. So, yeah, I had some ideas to share with my bestie on the topic of accommodating ELLs in mainstream classes.

Here is my first piece of advice:

Words! Words! Words!

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Mirroring Project

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

In a recent post, I wrote about The Mirroring Project I had my students do at the end of our high intermediate pronunciation class. Since that time, I received an email asking for more details about it, so I thought I would break it down a little and describe what we did, step by step.

The goal of the Mirroring Project is for students to apply all the pronunciation skills they had learned throughout the semester. In our upper level class, we focus on suprasegmentals, specifically word stress, focus, intonation, connected speech and speech rhythm, with a smattering of segmentals highlighted as necessary. So, when the students work on their Mirroring Projects, they try to bring together all those elements.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A, E, I, O, U, … Y Teach Vowel Sounds? – Part 1

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Why are Vowel Sounds so Hard to Teach and Learn?

I have a terrible confession to make. Even though I have taught pronunciation for more years than I care to count, I avoided teaching vowel sounds whenever I could. They were just so hard to teach; inevitably we would all wind up frustrated.

First, describing how we make vowel sounds is just hard. One of the first hurdles teachers encounter is that there is no contact of the articulators like there is when we make consonant sounds. In other words, we don’t touch our tongue, teeth, tooth ridge or lips when we articulate vowel sounds. So, when, for example, we teach the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds, we can tell students to stick their tongues between their teeth. But, when we teach vowel sounds, there is no such easy description of what students should be doing with their mouths.

Another problem is that all vowel sounds are voiced, so there is not that easy distinction the way there is with consonant sounds, like the differentiation between /v/ (voiced) and /f/ (voiceless) for instance. Similarly, when we are making all of the vowel sounds, we don’t block the airflow the way we do with some consonant sounds, such as /p/. In short, the way we differentiate between and describe vowel sounds is much less concrete and easily understood than the way we talk about consonant sounds.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Music has Meaning – Part II

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

The Functions of Focus

Recently, I shared the research of Reed (2015) in which she sheds light on the disconnect between what speakers mean and what students may actually hear. Specifically, when proficient English speakers shift the pitch change from the end of a thought group in order to communicate a specific meaning. For instance, when a speaker says, “My boss said he’d fix the problem” many English learners may assume that the problem had been or would be fixed. Conversely, proficient English speakers would understand that the pitch change on the word “said” implied that, in fact, the problem probably hadn’t been resolved at all.

Not hearing or failing to understand the meaning that is communicated by these pitch changes on focus or prominent words can put our students at a major disadvantage. They end up missing out on key information that their peers will have gotten and they are often incapable of making the predictions that help good listeners follow a conversation.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Learning to Listen

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

For years (and years and years), whenever I had to teach “listening”, I just popped the CD into the machine, pressed play and hoped for the best while the students scrambled to fill in the gaps, answer the questions or match the cards. I always had the sneaking suspicion that I could, and in fact, should, be doing a lot more to support my students’ listening development, but aside from listening practice and more listening practice, I was not sure what else to do. In spite of my many years of teaching and the confidence I feel helping students with speaking and pronunciation, I felt like a neophyte when it came to teaching listening. So, imagine my relief when, as the Speech, Listening and Pronunciation Chair elect, I was tasked with organizing an Academic Session at TESOL on teaching listening for the 2013 TESOL Conference in Dallas. It was actually Helen Solorzano who organized the session, and all I had to do was show up, take credit, and learn!

Top Down Strategies – Check!

So, here’s what I learned: it turns out that what I have been doing for all these years was, in fact, “testing” listening and not teaching it at all. I needed to back up a bit and think about listening as speech processing. Dr. Steve Brown spoke about how listening is a combination of top down and bottom up strategies. Stronger listeners make more use of top down strategies, which means they pull from their general knowledge about the context and the topic to make inferences about the listening. Happily, a lot of texts on the market encourage students to do this by including pictures and warm up questions designed to activate students’ prior knowledge about the topic. As a result, even in my very primitive approach to teaching listening, I did occasionally manage to expose my students to top down listening strategies.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 3)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Speaking from my own experience, I think a strong argument could be made that, wherever possible, it is better to study the pronunciation of a language before you study the actual language itself. This is because listening to a language when you have no idea of its vocabulary or grammar forces you to rely 100% on your ears, which results in you hearing the language the way it really sounds. If you learn a non-phonetic language like English or Chinese by reading and writing graphic representations of the words, your brain will automatically assign sounds to those characters according to how it thinks they would be pronounced in your first language. I had that experience when trying to read Chinese words written in “pinyin.” I was fortunate in my learning of Japanese that I was able to learn the sound system before doing any formal study of the language by listening to Japanese pop songs and learning the words by heart. One great way of helping your students to understand what it means to use only their ears is to play them videos or recordings of songs in a language that none of them is familiar with. Check out this video for a famous example of someone just using their ears to copy the sounds of a foreign language. Isn’t it amazing how much it sounds like English while being completely incomprehensible!

In my last post, I discussed the importance of developing pronunciation skills in order to improve your listening ability, but I did not say exactly what skills I was talking about. That will be the topic of today’s post. There will be nothing new here for experienced teachers, but I hope it will remind people of things that they might have forgotten over the years. For newer teachers, I hope some of the points will give you ideas about how the teaching of pronunciation can be broken down into manageable (i.e., teachable) components.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Thoughts on Teaching Listening (Part 2)

By David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

Pronunciation is one element of language courses that often gets overlooked. Part of the reason for this is that experienced teachers know how difficult it is to learn the sounds of a foreign language as an adult, especially if that language is nothing like your own. This basically means we accept that Japanese students will always have a Japanese accent, that Koreans will always have a Korean accent, and so on. Incidentally, I always used to think in terms of learners “gaining” the accent of a foreign language, but I remember hearing a friend talking about a Japanese person he knew who had managed to “lose” her Japanese accent. That is an interesting way of looking at it. I wonder which viewpoint is more common among teachers?

Anyway, as well as acknowledging the difficulty of the task of teaching pronunciation, most teachers also realize that even with a heavy accent, the majority of learners will be able to make themselves understood to proficient speakers of English. The combined effect of these two beliefs is that pronunciation often gets relegated to a once-in-a-while exercise with the sole purpose of providing a bit of variety in the course.

There are at least two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that teachers, particularly those of monolingual classes, are often very poor judges of how comprehensible their students actually are to regular speakers of the language. When I lived in New Zealand, I did the examiner training for IELTS (International English Language Testing System). As part of the workshop, we had to watch videos of candidates speaking and assign grades. What soon became clear was that teachers were giving far higher grades to students of nationalities they were familiar with. For example, two teachers who had worked in Korea gave a Korean student a high grade for her speaking, whereas the teachers who had mainly worked with European learners gave her a low one. Their reasoning was, “We can’t really understand what she is saying.”

The second reason why pronunciation deserves more attention in language courses is that a learner’s knowledge of the sounds of a language will directly affect their ability to perceive and recognize those sounds. In other words, having good pronunciation is just as important for listening as it is for speaking. My limited understanding of how recognition systems work is that they compare sensory input with stored representations of a variety of forms. For example, we learn how the word “boy” sounds, and we then create and store a template of it in our brains. When audio signals reach our ears, they are run through the database in order to find matches. The same principle applies to the recognition of words and letters. You recognize “x” as the letter that comes before “z” because the marks on this screen fit the representation of that letter that you already have stored in your brain. Of course, you would probably recognize it if I wrote it as “X” too, and even if I wrote it by hand. The human brain has an incredible tolerance for variation that allows it to recognize shapes in a way that computers cannot. That is the theory behind those weirdly shaped letters you have to input manually on some blogs in order to post a comment. The system works because humans can tolerate greater manipulation of basic forms than computers can.

Even so, there are limits to the tolerance (I am using the word here in its engineering sense) of even the human brain’s recognition systems, and these become stricter when representations of objects or phenomena resemble each other. For example, in many cases, it is impossible for us to distinguish between “1,” “l,” and “I” when written in isolation because they look so similar. When that happens, the knowledge of language and context that I described in my previous entry kicks in and allows us to make inferences that go beyond the information that is being provided by the senses.

When a language student learns a new word, they create a template for it and store that template in their database. It is quite possible that when they reproduce the word from its template, the audio signal that results will be within the limits of tolerance of proficient speakers of the language, so the learner will be able to make him or herself understood. A problem arises, however, when the focus switches to listening. Because the template the learner has created does not really match the signal produced by proficient speakers, and because the learner’s recognition system will naturally have a more limited tolerance owing to their lower mastery of the language, there is a very good chance that they will not recognize what they are hearing. It’s a bit like going to meet someone that you have never met at an airport armed only with a photograph that was taken twenty years ago. If the person doesn’t actually look like the photograph, there is a good chance that they will walk right past you without you recognizing them at all.

Like all language teachers, I constantly struggle to make myself understood to my students. I have often noticed that the reason my students cannot understand what I am saying is that they have learned an incorrect pronunciation of a particular word. The following is a typical example of a conversation in one of my classes:

Me: Can you close the curtain?

Student: ??


Student: Curtain??

Me: (gesturing) The curtain!!

Student: Ah, kah-ten!!

It is almost as if they are correcting my pronunciation to match their internal representation of the word. Every teacher in Japan knows that we can easily make ourselves understood by simply saying a word the way our students say it, and I suspect the same is true of any teacher with experience of teaching a particular language group.

My point is that learners need to learn words as accurately as possible so that the template they create reflects the audio signal that is produced when proficient speakers of the language pronounce that word. If a learner creates a template that is significantly different, it might be close enough for their recreation of it to be understood by proficient speakers, but it may not be close enough for them to recognize the word when they hear it.

As teachers, I think we need to start realizing that pronunciation is just as much a listening skill as it is a speaking one, and we need to start giving it greater prominence in our courses.



Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Singing the Way to Pronunciation Success!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Last week I talked about some ways I incorporate songs into my Conversation classes. I’ve also had great success with bringing music into my Pronunciation lessons. Singing and Pronunciation are just a perfect fit. At no time is my French /r/ sound more perfect than when I am singing along with my recording of Edith Pilaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wussup Wit’ Dat?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
There’s been a great deal of hoopla lately over a statement made by Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid in which he commented during the last presidential campaign that he thought Barack Obama had a good chance of winning the election because he “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Of course, people have reacted very negatively to such a statement, claiming it was basically racist. Others have added that hearing Senator Reid’s choice of words, Negro dialect, was like going through a time warp back to the mid-twentieth century. So what’s really going on, and how might this be of concern to ESOL teachers?
I don’t think that Senator Reid was saying anything that many – if not most of us – don’t think, but may not have the fortitude to openly verbalize. For quite a long time, we have struggled with the issue of how we judge people by their speech. The truth is that many of us don’t look favorably on people who speak in what are considered nonstandard dialects of English. Theoretically speaking, those people may have large portfolios and be living very “comfortably,” but if they open their mouths and speak with a Brooklyn or Cockney accent or Southern drawl, or if they use vocabulary and grammar associated with African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, sometimes referred to as Ebonics) or Chicano English, we don’t consider them polished and of high social status. That’s just the way it is. Unfortunately, we do judge books by their covers. And that was the point that Harry Reid was getting at. He wasn’t being racist; he was simply being realistic and honest.
In the 1980’s, while working as Associate Director of the English Language Institute at a university in South Florida, I was approached by many instructors who told me of their frustrations in dealing with students who wrote the way they spoke, that is, in nonstandard English. The instructors pleaded with me to create a course that would correct the problem. They felt it was a terrible disservice to the students that nobody was telling them they needed to speak and write in standard English in order to get ahead in the future. They knew their views might not be considered “pc” at that time, but their consciences wouldn’t allow them to say nothing about this problem.
I couldn’t have agreed with them more. Using nonstandard dialectal variations in the streets or with family and friends in relaxed, totally informal situations is just fine, but should we consider such language as proper for school or the workplace or government? The answer is decidedly no for many reasons, probably the most important being that we need to speak a standard form of our language in such settings so that chances for miscommunications or misunderstandings are minimized. Another important reason is to make sure that the listener is focusing on the meaning of our message rather than on any “oddities” in how we deliver the message.
I conscientiously worked on a proposal to offer a course at the university called “English as a Standard Dialect.” When the proposal was ready, I decided to test the waters by showing it to faculty members who were representative of the groups of students my colleagues had been complaining about. I figured that would be a smart move before showing the proposal to university officials for approval. The faculty members who saw what I had prepared gave me very positive feedback. Not one of them found the proposal offensive, which I found gratifying. I then presented my proposal to the dean – and that’s as far as things went. He considered the course too controversial, a political hot potato, even with the positive feedback I’d already gotten. No matter what I said, it made no difference, and he refused to let me develop the course any further. I feel that was a terrible mistake, and I’ve always felt bad that the students who needed the language skills my course could have offered them never got those skills.
The main thrust of my proposal was that there’s nothing wrong with students using their dialects in appropriate settings, but that they should learn how to code switch and use standard English in settings appropriate for that dialect as well. In other words, the course would not put down the dialects that the students used all the time, but it would offer them the skills to have an option they really needed to have at their disposal. I had been given that option when I was in elementary and junior high school back in Brooklyn, New York. All of my teachers, not just my English teachers, made it a point to teach us standard English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation and when it was not appropriate to use Brooklynese. The language skills that our teachers gave us in how and when to code switch have served me well my whole life. I’m sure that’s what Harry Reid meant when he said that Barack Obama “… has no Negro dialect unless he wants to have one.” Senator Reid must have recognized the fact that people with enough language skills can code switch at will – which is a good thing.
This subject about having at least two dialects in English, the standard one and the dialectal variation, is something that ESOL teachers working in English-speaking countries should keep in mind. But I’ve never lost sight of the fact that ESOL teachers must clearly explain the differences to their students and teach them very carefully when to use one or the other form if this is truly an issue where they are located and if their students are ready to deal with it. That’s for each teacher to determine.
Here are three very simple examples of the kinds of code switching that ESOL teachers might need to deal with at one time or another:
• In the New York City area, you get on line when waiting to do something, but in the rest of the United States, you get in line.
• In parts of New England, the word wicked means very, as in saying It’s wicked cold outside.
• In AAVE, you say He workin’, while in standard English you say He’s working. In AAVE you say He be workin’, while in standard English you say He works.
To sum up, let’s not overreact to what Senator Reid said about our current President’s language skills. True, he may have made his point somewhat crudely, but that doesn’t diminish the validity in what he said. Every English speaker or English language learner should have solid skills in using the standard dialect that is understood by everybody, but that doesn’t mean that those same people shouldn’t have the skills in one or another dialectal variation when appropriate. Da’s wussup wit’ dat.

So what’s your take on this subject? I’d love to hear your comments.

Friday, January 8, 2010

To Read or Not To Read

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Getting students to read aloud is something I had often done as a teacher without giving it much critical thought. After all, if the students are reading, it means that I am not. And that means a reduction in teacher talk time — something we all strive for, right? However, in the past year, I have had two personal experiences that have shaped the way I approach reading aloud in my own ESL classes.

I have no idea what I just read.

About a year ago, my former supervisor convened a study group with the goal of learning more about how students learn to read. The teachers who participated were given several academic articles to read, and we met after reading each one and discussed it. One article was particularly dense and difficult to understand, even for educated native speakers. The study group was focused on one specific paragraph. In order to get a clearer grasp of the information, the group leader asked me to read it aloud. As I did, I noticed something fascinating happening. I was concentrating so hard on correctly pronouncing the words and getting the phrase groups right, that I had no idea what I had read when I was done.

If this can happen to a person reading in her own language, what happens when students read in a language that is not their first? As a result of this experience, I tried to avoid having students read aloud at all. I read everything, from the course syllabus on the first day of class, to the instructions for each activity, to the reading passages that I didn’t have them read silently. I wanted to make sure that they never read something aloud with no idea of what they were reading. However, I was often left with a tired voice and the nagging feeling that I was cheating my students of valuable practice.

Read after me.

It wasn’t until I joined my French class that I experienced the joys (or at least the benefits) of reading aloud for myself. When she gives us a text to read, my teacher, Sandy, reads it aloud or plays a recording of it first. That gives us a chance to note the pronunciation of key words, mark down the liaisons, and figure out what the text was actually about. Then, she assigns pieces of the dialogue or text for each of us to read aloud. We each read our bit and then listen as the other students read theirs. We recycle the same text over and over until every student has had a chance to read. Sandy interrupts our reading to correct our pronunciation as necessary. As a student, I feel quite comfortable with this activity. I feel well prepared for the phonological aspect of the task, and I already understand what I am reading, so I don’t feel stressed out in the slightest when I am asked to read aloud.

The consequence of this experience has been a limited return to reading aloud in my own classes. When we come across a dialogue or text in our course materials, I read it first and then the students take turns reading one or two sentences each. Sometimes I call on students randomly, and sometimes we go around the room. It gives me a chance to hear students’ pronunciation and address any issues they have, and it appears to increase their confidence as well.

“Is Reading Aloud Allowed?”

However, this evolution of my teaching practice had all been more or less subconscious until I read an article in the latest edition of English Teaching Professional by Jeremy Harmer called, “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” In it, he debates the pros and cons of reading aloud and ultimately argues that there are many benefits to incorporating this activity into the ESL lesson plan. He makes the case for reading aloud as a diagnostic instrument (back to having students read bits of my syllabus on the first day, then) and as a tool for helping students to make connections between words and phrases and the sounds associated with them.

In addition, he also contends that reading is an actual real-life skill. As a PhD student, I use reading aloud when I have to read a dense academic text. I read it aloud to myself a couple of times and rely on the pausing to help me decipher the message of the text. In my experience, this is also a useful strategy for students who face the difficult academic texts from standardized tests. Being able to chunk the texts into manageable bits can help students to more quickly and easily understand what it is they are reading.

I am convinced that reading aloud has an important place in our classrooms. When done carefully, it can be a powerful tool and can help students hone reading and pronunciation skills they otherwise might not be able to. However, Harmer insists that the text that students read aloud has to be carefully chosen, they need to understand what it is they are reading, and they need time to listen and/or rehearse before being asked to do it in front of the class.

Harner, J. (2009) “Is Reading Aloud Allowed?” English Teaching Professional, 65.