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Listening to Pronunciation – A Virtuous Circle (Part I)

2006/10/23作者/Quentin Brand & Joe Lavallee
Introduction

  The two most frequent questions we are asked as teachers are: "How can I improve my pronunciation?" and "How can I improve my listening?" The difficulty of decoding fluent, native-speaker connected speech is well known and well studied, and there are many practical books for teachers dealing with pronunciation (some examples are given at the end of the article in the suggested further reading list). However, in practice, most learners may often regard pronunciation as an extra aspect of learning a new language, not as an integral part of it. How often, for example, do we see students silently learning new vocabulary for their coming tests? How often do we, as educators, teach pronunciation as an extra if we have time, rather than making it an integral part of each lesson? Similarly with listening, pronunciation is usually presented and taught in coursebooks as a separate skill. The usual response that we give to our students to the above questions, is "Practice"; meaning practice your listening to develop your aural skills, and practice your pronunciation to develop clear speech. This article describes how listening and pronunciation are part of a virtuous circle, in which one skill can be developed by working on the other, or in other words, how listening skills can be developed by working on pronunciation tasks, and pronunciation skills can be developed by working on listening tasks.

Listening / Pronunciation: The Virtuous Circle

  Over the years, we have noticed from our learning of Chinese that new words and multi-word items (MWIs) we are learning emerge from the mass of the unfamiliar sounds that comprise spoken Chinese. It seems that, as we practice the pronunciation of the new language items, our ability to recognize them in the natural flow of speech also improves. Correspondingly, as our ability to recognize the new language items increases, so does the clarity and accuracy of our pronunciation of these new items. This observation led us to the idea that listening and pronunciation are a virtuous circle (see diagram), in which a focus on pronunciation may help improve listening and a focus on listening may help improve pronunciation.


  We decided to test this idea to see if there was any way we could prove that the idea was useful for students and teachers.

Testing Our Idea

  As professional teachers, we have all heard many different opinions about the best way to teach listening and pronunciation. However, we felt it was important to try to offer some evidence that would support our approach. To do this, we performed a simple experiment with two groups of freshmen English students at Ming Chuan University. We taught new vocabulary to both groups using two completely different methods. With one group, we used traditional paper-and-pencil exercises. With the second group, we did listening and speaking drills and activities of the kind recommended later in this article. Then, we gave both groups a listening quiz based on the vocabulary items. The results were very interesting. The group that learned new vocabulary with pronunciation drills and speaking activities was able to recognize 14% more of the vocabulary items than the group that learned through traditional paper-and-pencil items. We think this strongly supports the idea of a connection between speaking and listening. For more details of the experiment, including a breakdown of the statistics, please click here.

Theoretical guidelines

  While the experiment is small, we nonetheless feel that the insights it yields are worth building on. The question is how to build on them in a way that is pedagogically oriented and that can be incorporated as standard procedure into every lesson.

  We chose two guiding principles from the lexical approach to help us here. The first is that students learn faster and more effectively when they increase their awareness of how language operates in real life contexts. Teachers can help students become more aware of how language operates by doing "noticing" activities with them. The second is the principle that words never appear alone; that they always appear with other words. This happens on many levels, including, grammatically, lexically and phonologically. We applied these two principles to two main classroom practices: the teaching of new language and the recycling of previously learned language.

Putting the theory into practice: drilling

  Most teachers (and some students, perhaps) are familiar with the rules of phonology, with elision, intrusion, catenation[01]
Catenation is when a consonant sound at the end of one word joins with a vowel sound at the beginning of the next word: 'an apple' becomes 'anapple'.
, weak forms, intonation, syllabic and contrastive stress patterns, and so on. However, rather than burden students with yet another set of rules to be learnt and then applied, a more pedagogically oriented approach is to reduce the principles of phonology to three main practical procedures: vowel and consonant distinction, connected speech, and intonation.

  The vowel and consonant distinction is one that is easy for every learner to grasp. Depending on the level of the learner, you might want to draw attention to the voiced and unvoiced consonants, but take care not to overburden the learners with too much explanation.

  For connected speech and intonation, the best way to incorporate these two activities is by drilling: the modeling of new language by the teacher, repeated by the students. Drilling has been given some bad press in recent years by adherents of the Communicative Approach, on the grounds that drilling is behavioristic, repetitive, boring and does not play a communicative role. However, this point of view fails to recognize a very important stage in the language learning process. It is a mistake to assume that the learner can go from presentation of new language to immediate and communicative use, without an intermediate stage focusing on the mechanics of speech production. Language is a physical activity. The muscular movements which take place in the mouth and throat to produce speech are tiny and infinitely complex, as the variety of phonemes in all the world's languages attests. For languages as phonologically different as English and Chinese, quite different sets of muscular movements in the mouth and throat are used to produce sounds. These movements need to be learnt and practiced so that they can take place without too much conscious mental activity. It is our belief also, that the learning of these muscular movements also aids listening comprehension and the retention of new language in the memory.

  Because drilling is such an important way of helping learners master the new sounds of English, both for production and reception, let's have a look at some drilling tips which we have found useful with our classes.

Drilling tips:

You can make drilling more fun and memorable by getting the students to say the target language with different feelings: "Say it sadly. Say it happily. Say it angrily. Say it as if you're exhausted. Whisper it. Shout it out!" Show them how.

Choral drill every new language item four times.

Drill 1: Focus on individual phonemes which you know might cause your students difficulties. In our experience with Chinese speaking learners of English, these include consonant clusters /pl/ /kl/ /tr/ /kt/[02]
Helpless, please, including, climb, trick, attractive, conduct, reflect, expect
, especially when they occur at the beginning or end of words, final 's', and diphthongs and monophthongs which are similar to each other (/e/ and /ei/ ).

Drill 2: Focus on connected speech where the language item being drilled is a word partnership, set-phrase or sentence pattern.

Drill 3: Focus on intonation; syllable word stress and sentence intonation.

Drill 4: Focus on combining all these elements together. Start your drilling slowly and speed it up. Your aim should be to have the students producing native-speaker fluency of the target language by the end of the drill.

Once you've finished the choral drill, put some music on and ask the students to drill individually. Music is useful because it provides background noise. This relaxes the students so that they don't feel so exposed as they practice. Go round and monitor and help out individual students with problems they might be having. Then you can get the students in pairs (one be the listener and the other be the speaker) and get them to drill with each other. The listener gives the speaker feedback on their drilling, thus developing the listener's listening skill.

Words are never used alone. This principle applies to phonology as much as to lexis and grammar. Here is an example of how to model connected speech: “I'm interested in music. I'min, I'min, I'min I'm interested in tidin tidin tidin I'm interested in music. Go!”

If your students have difficulty with the connected speech drill, encourage them not to read the language items as they drill them. The cognitive processes of reading interfere with the cognitive processes behind speech production. Get them to focus on what's happening inside their mouths.

If students are having problems with long words, model the word backwards syllable by syllable, like this: "Tics. Tics. Tics. Tis. Tis. Tis. Tistics. Tistics. Tistics. Ste. Ste. Ste. Statistics. Statistics. Statistics." This removes the cognitive load of meaning associated with the word, and emphasizes the syllables as units of pure sound production, which the learners can copy and learn. Once they have mastered the muscular movements involved in the pure sound production, you can put the meaning back into the word.

If learners are having difficulty with a sound unit, get them to say it to each other. "Tistics. Tistics. Tistics. Tell your partner. Go!" Alternatively, you can get them to say it as fast as they can three times in a row.

When modeling intonation, exaggerate to an absurd degree the intonation pattern. Encourage your students to exaggerate it, too. One problem that Chinese speaking users of English have with their pronunciation is that their English often sounds very flat. This gives the impression that the speaker is bored or even unfriendly, as interest and friendliness in English are marked by an increased intonational range. Using a wide intonation is not something students will be used to, but is very important for how their English is received by their listeners.

Teaching notes:

Do drilling in every lesson so that the students come to expect it as an integral part of language learning.

Keep the drilling light and fun. Don't get too serious about it. Explain why it's useful to your students, but make sure they are having fun while being drilled. If they get bored, stop and try another activity. Come back to the drill later. In our experience, once students understand the importance of drilling, they usually enjoy it.

Avoid at all times the artificial separation of syllables and words in order to be clear. This is not helpful for your students' fluency or listening development, as words and syllables in real speech flow are not clearly separated.

If you're doing a communicative activity, it's a good idea to interrupt the activity occasionally to do some re-drilling of the target language. It helps the class get refocused on the target language and makes them feel there is a goal to the communicative activity.

Avoid as much as possible explanations of how sounds are produced. Instead, rely on having the students copy you, so that you emphasize doing.

Conclusion

  This part of the article has focused on the virtuous circle of listening and pronunciation, and how it can be used in the classroom by means of drilling. Our own experience as teachers (and learners of Chinese) suggests that the most effective way to help students become better listeners of natural English and to speak with clearer and more fluent pronunciation is to incorporate drilling into every lesson. The benefits of drilling are enormous and many. Not least, drilling also helps student to memorize new language. In the next part of the article we will show you how you can adapt some frequently used coursebooks to incorporate drilling and listening/pronunciation tasks into your lessons.

Further Reading

Clark, John & Yallop, Colin. (1990). An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Ladefoged, Peter. (1993). A Course in Phonetics. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company.

International Phonetic Association. (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP.

Introduction

  The two most frequent questions we are asked as teachers are: "How can I improve my pronunciation?" and "How can I improve my listening?" The difficulty of decoding fluent, native-speaker connected speech is well known and well studied, and there are many practical books for teachers dealing with pronunciation (some examples are given at the end of the article in the suggested further reading list). However, in practice, most learners may often regard pronunciation as an extra aspect of learning a new language, not as an integral part of it. How often, for example, do we see students silently learning new vocabulary for their coming tests? How often do we, as educators, teach pronunciation as an extra if we have time, rather than making it an integral part of each lesson? Similarly with listening, pronunciation is usually presented and taught in coursebooks as a separate skill. The usual response that we give to our students to the above questions, is "Practice"; meaning practice your listening to develop your aural skills, and practice your pronunciation to develop clear speech. This article describes how listening and pronunciation are part of a virtuous circle, in which one skill can be developed by working on the other, or in other words, how listening skills can be developed by working on pronunciation tasks, and pronunciation skills can be developed by working on listening tasks.

Listening / Pronunciation: The Virtuous Circle

  Over the years, we have noticed from our learning of Chinese that new words and multi-word items (MWIs) we are learning emerge from the mass of the unfamiliar sounds that comprise spoken Chinese. It seems that, as we practice the pronunciation of the new language items, our ability to recognize them in the natural flow of speech also improves. Correspondingly, as our ability to recognize the new language items increases, so does the clarity and accuracy of our pronunciation of these new items. This observation led us to the idea that listening and pronunciation are a virtuous circle (see diagram), in which a focus on pronunciation may help improve listening and a focus on listening may help improve pronunciation.


  We decided to test this idea to see if there was any way we could prove that the idea was useful for students and teachers.

Testing Our Idea

  As professional teachers, we have all heard many different opinions about the best way to teach listening and pronunciation. However, we felt it was important to try to offer some evidence that would support our approach. To do this, we performed a simple experiment with two groups of freshmen English students at Ming Chuan University. We taught new vocabulary to both groups using two completely different methods. With one group, we used traditional paper-and-pencil exercises. With the second group, we did listening and speaking drills and activities of the kind recommended later in this article. Then, we gave both groups a listening quiz based on the vocabulary items. The results were very interesting. The group that learned new vocabulary with pronunciation drills and speaking activities was able to recognize 14% more of the vocabulary items than the group that learned through traditional paper-and-pencil items. We think this strongly supports the idea of a connection between speaking and listening. For more details of the experiment, including a breakdown of the statistics, please click here.

Theoretical guidelines

  While the experiment is small, we nonetheless feel that the insights it yields are worth building on. The question is how to build on them in a way that is pedagogically oriented and that can be incorporated as standard procedure into every lesson.

  We chose two guiding principles from the lexical approach to help us here. The first is that students learn faster and more effectively when they increase their awareness of how language operates in real life contexts. Teachers can help students become more aware of how language operates by doing "noticing" activities with them. The second is the principle that words never appear alone; that they always appear with other words. This happens on many levels, including, grammatically, lexically and phonologically. We applied these two principles to two main classroom practices: the teaching of new language and the recycling of previously learned language.

Putting the theory into practice: drilling

  Most teachers (and some students, perhaps) are familiar with the rules of phonology, with elision, intrusion, catenation[01]
Catenation is when a consonant sound at the end of one word joins with a vowel sound at the beginning of the next word: 'an apple' becomes 'anapple'.
, weak forms, intonation, syllabic and contrastive stress patterns, and so on. However, rather than burden students with yet another set of rules to be learnt and then applied, a more pedagogically oriented approach is to reduce the principles of phonology to three main practical procedures: vowel and consonant distinction, connected speech, and intonation.

  The vowel and consonant distinction is one that is easy for every learner to grasp. Depending on the level of the learner, you might want to draw attention to the voiced and unvoiced consonants, but take care not to overburden the learners with too much explanation.

  For connected speech and intonation, the best way to incorporate these two activities is by drilling: the modeling of new language by the teacher, repeated by the students. Drilling has been given some bad press in recent years by adherents of the Communicative Approach, on the grounds that drilling is behavioristic, repetitive, boring and does not play a communicative role. However, this point of view fails to recognize a very important stage in the language learning process. It is a mistake to assume that the learner can go from presentation of new language to immediate and communicative use, without an intermediate stage focusing on the mechanics of speech production. Language is a physical activity. The muscular movements which take place in the mouth and throat to produce speech are tiny and infinitely complex, as the variety of phonemes in all the world's languages attests. For languages as phonologically different as English and Chinese, quite different sets of muscular movements in the mouth and throat are used to produce sounds. These movements need to be learnt and practiced so that they can take place without too much conscious mental activity. It is our belief also, that the learning of these muscular movements also aids listening comprehension and the retention of new language in the memory.

  Because drilling is such an important way of helping learners master the new sounds of English, both for production and reception, let's have a look at some drilling tips which we have found useful with our classes.

Drilling tips:

You can make drilling more fun and memorable by getting the students to say the target language with different feelings: "Say it sadly. Say it happily. Say it angrily. Say it as if you're exhausted. Whisper it. Shout it out!" Show them how.

Choral drill every new language item four times.

Drill 1: Focus on individual phonemes which you know might cause your students difficulties. In our experience with Chinese speaking learners of English, these include consonant clusters /pl/ /kl/ /tr/ /kt/[02]
Helpless, please, including, climb, trick, attractive, conduct, reflect, expect
, especially when they occur at the beginning or end of words, final 's', and diphthongs and monophthongs which are similar to each other (/e/ and /ei/ ).

Drill 2: Focus on connected speech where the language item being drilled is a word partnership, set-phrase or sentence pattern.

Drill 3: Focus on intonation; syllable word stress and sentence intonation.

Drill 4: Focus on combining all these elements together. Start your drilling slowly and speed it up. Your aim should be to have the students producing native-speaker fluency of the target language by the end of the drill.

Once you've finished the choral drill, put some music on and ask the students to drill individually. Music is useful because it provides background noise. This relaxes the students so that they don't feel so exposed as they practice. Go round and monitor and help out individual students with problems they might be having. Then you can get the students in pairs (one be the listener and the other be the speaker) and get them to drill with each other. The listener gives the speaker feedback on their drilling, thus developing the listener's listening skill.

Words are never used alone. This principle applies to phonology as much as to lexis and grammar. Here is an example of how to model connected speech: “I'm interested in music. I'min, I'min, I'min I'm interested in tidin tidin tidin I'm interested in music. Go!”

If your students have difficulty with the connected speech drill, encourage them not to read the language items as they drill them. The cognitive processes of reading interfere with the cognitive processes behind speech production. Get them to focus on what's happening inside their mouths.

If students are having problems with long words, model the word backwards syllable by syllable, like this: "Tics. Tics. Tics. Tis. Tis. Tis. Tistics. Tistics. Tistics. Ste. Ste. Ste. Statistics. Statistics. Statistics." This removes the cognitive load of meaning associated with the word, and emphasizes the syllables as units of pure sound production, which the learners can copy and learn. Once they have mastered the muscular movements involved in the pure sound production, you can put the meaning back into the word.

If learners are having difficulty with a sound unit, get them to say it to each other. "Tistics. Tistics. Tistics. Tell your partner. Go!" Alternatively, you can get them to say it as fast as they can three times in a row.

When modeling intonation, exaggerate to an absurd degree the intonation pattern. Encourage your students to exaggerate it, too. One problem that Chinese speaking users of English have with their pronunciation is that their English often sounds very flat. This gives the impression that the speaker is bored or even unfriendly, as interest and friendliness in English are marked by an increased intonational range. Using a wide intonation is not something students will be used to, but is very important for how their English is received by their listeners.

Teaching notes:

Do drilling in every lesson so that the students come to expect it as an integral part of language learning.

Keep the drilling light and fun. Don't get too serious about it. Explain why it's useful to your students, but make sure they are having fun while being drilled. If they get bored, stop and try another activity. Come back to the drill later. In our experience, once students understand the importance of drilling, they usually enjoy it.

Avoid at all times the artificial separation of syllables and words in order to be clear. This is not helpful for your students' fluency or listening development, as words and syllables in real speech flow are not clearly separated.

If you're doing a communicative activity, it's a good idea to interrupt the activity occasionally to do some re-drilling of the target language. It helps the class get refocused on the target language and makes them feel there is a goal to the communicative activity.

Avoid as much as possible explanations of how sounds are produced. Instead, rely on having the students copy you, so that you emphasize doing.

Conclusion

  This part of the article has focused on the virtuous circle of listening and pronunciation, and how it can be used in the classroom by means of drilling. Our own experience as teachers (and learners of Chinese) suggests that the most effective way to help students become better listeners of natural English and to speak with clearer and more fluent pronunciation is to incorporate drilling into every lesson. The benefits of drilling are enormous and many. Not least, drilling also helps student to memorize new language. In the next part of the article we will show you how you can adapt some frequently used coursebooks to incorporate drilling and listening/pronunciation tasks into your lessons.

Further Reading

Clark, John & Yallop, Colin. (1990). An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Ladefoged, Peter. (1993). A Course in Phonetics. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company.

International Phonetic Association. (1999). Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge: CUP.

注 釋

  • [01] Catenation is when a consonant sound at the end of one word joins with a vowel sound at the beginning of the next word: 'an apple' becomes 'anapple'.
  • [02] Helpless, please, including, climb, trick, attractive, conduct, reflect, expect

作者簡介

Quentin Brand & Joe Lavallee
  • Quentin Brand is a teacher, author and consultantof some 15 yearsexperience, with 6 years experience teaching business English in Taiwan.His current interests include the teaching of writing using a lexical approach and corpus linguistics. His e-mail: quentin.brand@msa.hinet.net

  • Joseph Lavallee has been teaching English in China and Taiwan for more than 7 years and is currently afaculty member at Ming Chuan University here in Taipei. His interests include reading in the EFL classroom, corpus linguistics and the lexical approach. His e-mail: lavallee@mcu.edu.tw
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