1. Pronunciation and politics

Pronunciation, as I knew from my first moment trying to awkwardly mouth the RP-centric picto-phonemes in New English File Intermediate, is about identity. And politics. Cursing the Queen and her English (which was much easier for an American than actually saying “bull” in RP), I fudged a mocking, piss-taking English accent during the coursebook’s “pron section” for a couple of terms before just ditching it all together.

It was only discovering the wonders of connected speech on my Delta Module 1 course a few years ago that I learned there was more to pron than just individual vowel sounds, and I waded back into the teaching of pronunciation.

But the further I drift from those heady days of theory, the easier I find it is to avoid explicitly focusing on it. So I was happy to discover, in my first trip to IATEFL, a number of talks on pron, including the much-touted “first ever pron plenary” by Jane Setter.

And while Setter’s plenary was informed, inspiring, encouraging (just “focus on focus” ― tonicity ― she urged, and you’ll produce measureable gains in students’ perception and production), and super feel-goody, I’d like to focus on a different pron talk by someone I’ll nominate for the unsung hero of the pron crowd, Gemma Archer.

Her talk dealt as seriously and instructively with pronunciation but situated it, at times implicitly and at times very explicitly, in the very real of context of a global ELT industry, a looming Brexit, and an uncertain Scottish future.

The other 97%

In her talk, “The other 97%: pronunciation strategies for non-RP-speaking teachers” (according to a much-cited number by David Crystal, 97% is the percentage of native non-RP speakers) Archer, a speaker of SSE (Standard Scottish English) took aim at the published materials bias toward RP, particularly in EAP.

She highlighted differences between RP and SSE pronunciation: among other things, the latter has shorter vowels and the rhotic /r/ ― as she stated in perfect deadpan, and to laughter and applause, “In SSE we simply pronounce the R wherever it appears” (well, duh, says this American).

I found her talk particularly interesting as it came a few slots after listening legend John Field stated in his presentation that the use of regional accents in listening materials aimed at lower level learners was “worrying”.

While I don’t doubt his expertise, who, I wondered, is Field’s imagined pool of learner-listeners? And where do they study? Clearly not where Archer, or fellow Scot Steve Brown, hails from and works, or where any number of other teachers, from elsewhere in the UK, Ireland or abroad ― i.e. the 97% ― come from.

That Harry Potter talk

Citing a survey she had done as well as anecdotal evidence from her own experience teaching pre-sessional EAP courses in Scotland, what Archer seemed to demonstrate so clearly was that “regional” or non-RP accents are perceived as “difficult” or “strange” precisely and only to those who’ve had no exposure to them ― which includes an unfortunately large number of the IELTS 6.5 pre-sessional students landing in her neck of the UK every term.

What she has worked at, and advocated for, and what I would back wholeheartedly, is the local development of resources that allow teachers to highlight, analyze, and teach their own local accents. (Not, of course, to the exclusion of all others, which means including RP.)

Rather, she encouraged the teaching of something called, if I got this correctly, “high variance phonemic instruction”, which exposes students to lots of variations of individual phonemes (e.g. the word bull, mentioned above, spoken by people with a number of different accents) early on. It doesn’t mean doing whole volumes of Robert Burns in A1, but it does means getting them used to the idea that all non-RP accents are not simply deviations from some otherwise monolithic norm.

File under: “I’m Scottish!”

I’m sure someone might object: but my coursebook has lots of regional accents! In fact, I too clearly remember that red-bearded cartoon in English File Elemetary File 1 belting out, in response to a question about his origins, “I’m Scottish!” And I’m sure the ELT industry is more sensitive to it (and realistic about it) than it used to be.

2017-04-11 01_38_54-IATEFL Conference and Exhibition 2017 in Glasgow

But as Archer teaches EAP in her own country and is much more sensitive to the lack of resources in, in this case, her own accent, I’m going to take her word for it. I long ago learned to pick out that one hammy American voice actor every publisher seems to call on for their series. What passes for variety to the outsider might be extremely limited to the one with ears to truly hear.

So if that’s fine for SSE Gemma, teaching in her native country, where does that leave us EFLers, trying to teach pronunciation abroad? First, as Archer said, there should be more training and support of learning about a teacher’s own individual accent.

That should be balanced with an understanding and recognition of what’s best in English as a lingua franca (ELF) contexts. (According to Jennifer Jenkins’s findings, which were referenced by Archer and summarized helpfully here on ELF Pronunciation, my ― and Gemma’s ― rhotic /r/ makes the grade, but my American flapped /t/ ― I say bedder for better ― doesn’t)

Which leaves us with the final question. If local training and materials are needed, who’s going to invest in it? More on that next time.

 

 

 

How-to presentations for EFL classes. A lesson plan (part 1)

If there’s one thing that can be said about presentations it’s that few people like doing one, but everybody loves having done one. In the EFL classrrom they’re highly motivating moments for students to work on organizing their discourse, polish their language, face their fears and, with the help of self-recording, listen to and reflect on their own performance and opportunities for improvement.

All reasons why I regularly ask my students to do presentations in my class. While there are many kinds, How-to presentations are among the most structured and straightforward to plan and perform. In this post I’ll describe how to set up how-to presentations in your class.

This activity cycle runs for 2½ homework-classwork sessions:

  1. Homework: listening activity with model text
  2. Class: model text plus presentation scaffolding
  3. Homework: write and practice presentation
  4. Class: deliver presentation
  5. Homework: reflection on presentation

1. Homework: listening activity with model text (pre-task)

Before I even announce that we’re going to do presentations, I usually get students primed with an at-home listening activity based on a YouTube video called ― wait for it ― How to get a beautiful girl to approach you, from the Tripp Advice channel (and, in case it needs to be said, linking does not equal endorsement).

I first stumbled across the video when it came up in a YouTube search for How-to videos. I’ve used it (and continue to do so) because the presenter has made it:

  • Short
  • Clearly delivered ― intermediate students should have little problem with it
  • Perfectly structured
  • Freely available

It additionally generates classroom discussion on gender roles, stereotypes, societal rules/expectations, modern love, and whether women do really notice a guy’s shoes. Frankly, it ain’t the sort of thing you’ll get in your average coursebook. In short, it’s a model text.

Below is a shortened version of the activity ― the full activity (which I share with my students via Google Docs) includes some pre-teaching of key vocabulary and some work on verb patterns with get (this authentic text uses get a full 10 times in 3:38 seconds ― the kind of repetition course book writers labor to stuff into theirs. But I digress.) What follows, however, are the parts particularly relevant to presentations.

In part 2 of this article, I’ll talk about how I model a How-to presentation and help students construct theirs.

How to get a beautiful girl to approach you

Guys, why do all the hard work? With this video you can learn how to get girls to approach you. Girls, what do you think? Is this advice brilliant or total bull?

Before listening: How would you approach a person you find attractive? How could you make them approach you instead?

1. Listen once and take notes:

  • Tip 1:
  • Tip 2:
  • Tip 3:
  • What else he’s offering

2. Listen again for more details. Do you agree with his advice?

3. Do the language focus exercises

Language Focus:

Giving a presentation/sales pitch

Whatever you think of Mr. Tripp and his advice, it is a well-constructed presentation (and a sales pitch ― he wants you to check out his other products). Look at the excerpts from the presentations below and connect them with the function of each. The first has been done for you. (Answers are below)

  1. Wouldn’t it be great to have a girl finally approach you for once instead of doing all the work and having to muster up the courage to go over and talk to her?
  2. Well, today I’m going show you three steps to get a girl to come over and approach you whether you’re at a bar or out during the day.
  3. And wait for step number 3, where I’ll tell you the most effective way to get her to come over to you.
  4. Let me tell you a quick story
  5. Step number 1: Dress up sexy
  6. The more open that you look, the more open that she’ll feel to start a conversation with you.
  7. So remember: put on some stylish clothing, start with your shoes. Open up your body language and force eye contact with the girl. Then wave her over and give her your killer smile.
  8. So go ahead, click the link, get that series, get it immediately.
  9. Thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you on the next video.
  • A. tell a story to connect with audience and create interest 4
  • B. give a call to action (in other words, tell the audience what to do next)
  • C. ask a rhetorical question to get audience thinking
  • D. give a brief summary before going into detail so you know what to expect
  • E. use sequencing language (first, second, etc.) to give a clear structure to the talk
  • F. emphasize positive the results of following his advice
  • G. provide a “hook” to keep audience listening until the end
  • H. thank the audience
  • I. summarize the info that’s just been presented

Answers: 1C, 2D, 3G, 4A, 5E, 6F, 7I, 8B, 9H

EFL Listening lesson: what one class learned (and taught me) about learner autonomy

This is a story about listening. About about how, in an effort to encourage learner autonomy, I helped some students start to overcome their fears of tackling authentic listening texts. But it’s also about what I discovered from listening to my own students about the strategies they used for tackling authentic texts. And finally, it’s about listening to feedback ― the best kind of feedback a teacher can get.

The story starts in 2015, when I taught four different groups, back to back, at a single company. The first group, Level B2 on the register, made it clear to me from the outset that the one thing they didn’t want was to suffer through another year with a coursebook (business or otherwise) that missed the mark. So we plunged in without one.

Lessons were a combination of articles they found, topics that came up in class, grammar that reflected challenges I picked up on in conversation and writing. Not having a coursebook also freed up time for developing, practicing and doing presentations, which they loved.

Sounds like trouble

The thing that absolutely terrified them, however, was listening. Even with graded listening activities for homework from BBC Learning English, they’d come back agonizing over the accents and lamenting how much they’d missed. We duly worked on individual sounds and connected speech, did targeted dictations and more in-class listening exercises. And I also encouraged them to do individual homework tasks listening to things that interested them.

They soldiered on, but when I asked them to watch some PechaKucha presentations online to get a feel for the format (before doing it ourselves), this group practically went into crisis. It was two American college girls talking about a canoe trip that apparently pushed them over the edge. The students swore they didn’t understand anything. I flipped on the meeting room computer and tried vainly to firefight by revisiting the presentation. Between accent, lexis, speed and sound quality issues, it was a difficult presentation. But at that point it was foolish to even try. Panic had set in. In Krashen’s terms, their affective filters were solidly up.

After the next week’s class, the company’s training manager asked to meet with me so I could justify my methods. She was very polite and understanding while I explained my case, but I was still a bit taken aback by the fact that she’d been called on to intervene at all. It seemed that word was spreading around the company that I was torturing the groups with authentic ― and for that read: impossibly difficult ― sources.

Listening for signs of hope

I had given the same assignment to all four groups, from Pre-Int to Advanced, and I was happy to report to the training manager that not everyone had given in to despair. While there was some of the expected grumbling about not understanding everything from the lower levels, there were two particular students in the B1 group whose reactions interested me. Both had done the homework. But both had taken difficult speakers in stride. Because both had applied different strategies for choosing which presentation to listen to.

The first said she loved bees, and so she listened to a presentation on beekeeping something like 10 times to understand as much as possible. In other words, the topic had intrinsic interest. It was motivating.

The second said he tried one presentation and found it too difficult. He found another too difficult, and another, and kept trying until he found one he could understand. He listened to it a few times ― not as many as the woman ― but enough so that he could complete the task. In other words, he self-selected for difficulty, and found a presentation that was a right fit for his competence.

Both did something I as a teacher would have struggled to do with them individually ― in the first case, find a task that pinpointed a highly motivating interest I hadn’t known existed, and in the second, find a sort of Goldilocks just-right gradation of listening text. Both did something it would have been impossible to accomplish had I imposed a single listening text on them as a class.

Making strategies explicit

I took these revelations home with me and typed up a sort of guide with some tips for grappling with authentic listening texts. The next meeting with the first group was full crisis-management mode, and I shared the tips and we talked calmly through what makes authentic texts hard, but what can make them easier.

The biggest revelation for them, I think, was that they had the power to choose. Rather than torturing themselves with the first listening text they found, they could self-select. Select for interest or select for difficulty. But it was up to them.

After that, we tried a number of the usual authentic sources, including one of my favorites, The Week’s This Week I Learned podcast by Lauren Hansen. It’s 12 minutes or so of summaries of the sort of random, interesting things you expect to find around the internet on any given week. I like it because each piece averages about 3 minutes, the production quality is very good, it’s downloadable and there’s something for everybody. (To be fair, it serves up exactly the sort of the pub quiz trivia that gets shoehorned into the already overcrowded columns on your average coursebook layout, but the advantage of sending students individually to the podcast is that they can choose what actually interests them.)

Building confidence

I told them to each listen to what they wanted and then come back and share what they’d learned. When they wanted more community support, they agreed between them to all choose and listen to the same text each week ― a sort of listening club. To keep it fresher, however, I encouraged them to form two teams, write up some questions, and quiz each other. The game-aspect seemed to motivate them even more to understand and stump the opposing group with their questions. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean go it alone.

At the end of the course they not only delivered great final-day presentations, but gave me a wonderful and generous send-off, with a pizza party and a Christmas basket to boot. And then the classes stopped.

The company didn’t start lessons again. Had I done the right thing or scared them off English? I wondered. Until about a year later.

The sound of learner autonomy

While browsing through the toasters in a big electronics megastore one Sunday morning I bumped into one of the women from that B2 course. We chatted about our holidays. And when I asked if she saw the others much her response made me grin from ear to ear.

Every week, she reported. They contacted each other to pick a listening activity from This Week I Learned, listen together, and discuss. What I’d dubbed their listening club was continuing as before, alone, without the aid of a teacher.

It’s the best feedback a teacher, or rather an educator, can get: the knowledge that their time with you actually made a difference in their educational development. Not in the sense of she can use the present perfect a little better, but as in she’s left the class better equipped to pursue her own education and development in English.

Because that, I thought, the grin still plastered to my face, sounds like learner autonomy.

The moral of the story

The moral, I think, is that if we want to encourage learner autonomy we have to

  • get our students to practice it by giving them space on the calendar/syllabus and opportunity through individual or group choice of texts, topics, etc.
  • find out what strategies they’re using and help those not using good strategies to do so (my “listening plan”, mentioned above, is one such attempt). If this information and encouragement comes from your students and not you, even better.

 

How do you encourage students to deal with authentic listening texts outside – or inside – class?

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Are your students struggling with authentic listening activities?

Below is a brief guide I wrote to help my EFL students overcome both confidence issues and poor strategic choices when doing independent listening at home (the full story of which can be found here).

In addition to coaching them on how to choose what to listen to, the point was to make the structure of standard-issue listening activities visible to them so that they could make it part of a self-guided listening routine.

For the record, this is not a replacement for doing regular listening work in the classroom, whether it’s activities you’ve created, canned coursebook texts or ad-hoc micro-dictations. But this guide gives students one more tool for developing independence and autonomy in their learning.

Since I first created it, I’ve used it with a number of groups from lower intermediate to advanced level. Sometimes I’ve read through it in class, point by point. Other times I’ve just handed it out and had the students read through it (and apply it) at home. But in any case I regularly have students bring in the results of their independent listening to share and guide discussion in class.

Feel free to use it or adapt it as you like for your classrooms!

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Do you get nervous at the thought of listening online? You shouldn’t! When you listen to anything online, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be selective

First, be selective about what you listen to. You’re going to spend 10-20 minutes on this, so don’t just force yourself to listen to the first thing you find. Being selective means you should prioritize:

  • Brevity ― a 2-3 minute selection will probably be more doable than a 10 minute selection because you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to it.
  • Difficulty ― choose something that’s a good challenge, but not impossible.
  • Interest ― a topic you’re really interested in will usually motivate you to try to understand more. (Also, you might already know something about the topic, which will help.)

Don’t stress about catching every word

Next, don’t stress about not understanding every word. Remember, in real life, when you listen to the radio in the car or at home, you probably don’t pay attention to or hear every word. You hear some important points and then later reconstruct a memory of what you heard. Also, remember that a lot of things like pop music and talk radio can be difficult for even native speakers to understand, because it’s fast, the sound quality may not be good, people don’t always speak/sing clearly or the speaker’s accent might be unfamiliar.

Have a plan

Finally, have a plan for when you listen. It’s important to listen more than once and think about different things each time. My listening plan would look something like this:

 

Listening Plan

  1. Before you listen, look at the title and (possible) summary. Think about the following questions:
    • What do you know about the topic?
    • Have you heard anything about it in the news?
    • What do you think they’re going to talk about?
  1. Listen once:
    • Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?
    • Briefly summarize (out loud or in writing) what you heard/understood. Realizing what you understood/didn’t understand should help you focus on what to listen for next.
  1. Listen twice for more detail about the previous questions.
  2. Listen three times:

Write down some key vocabulary. I’d try to put key vocabulary in 2 categories:

  • Key topic-related vocabulary (if the topic is “Scientists discover water on Mars”, topic-related vocabulary like: spaceship, astronaut, space probe, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Other interesting/important/unknown words you hear. It can be words you know, or words you don’t know.

 

Mars/space vocabulary Other
spaceship

astronaut

space probe

atmosphere

find out

seek out

investigate

 

(If there’s a script, listen a fourth time with the script. Check your vocabulary list against the text and add to it.)

  1. After listening:

Say or write a brief summary of what you heard, using the key vocabulary you wrote down. Look up any unfamiliar words. Then, go and listen to something else on the same topic ― you might find a lot of similar vocabulary, and maybe even find you understand more!

Conclusion

At first, it may seem like a lot of steps, but the better and better you get, the fewer steps you’ll actually have to do. The goal in the end is to automatize the whole process so you listen consciously and effectively but without the stress. Follow these tips and you’ll be healthier, happier, more confident and have stronger listening skills.