Creating and Choosing the Best Materials for Speaking and Pronunciation. Before my own 12:00 presentation on Thursday, I was able to sit in on the first half of this wonderful intersection between the Materials Writers and the Listening-Speaking-Pronunciation Interest Groups. Steve Jones, the new MWIS co-chair, organized an amazing panel. I benefitted from two speakers’ insights before I had to make an early departure. First, Judy Gilbert, a respected authority in the field, shared her recommendations for teaching individual sounds and intonation. Key was her belief that the sounds S and D at the end of words are relatively more important than other sounds, like the infamous TH. Why? Because -s and -d endings are grammar signals, and their absence can cause miscommunication. She stated that in the early stages of learning English pronunciation, approximate sounds are fine, and it is not worth worrying too much over accuracy. For comprehension, “something like hissing” is good enough for a final -s, and “some kind of stop” is good enough for a final -d. Accurate voiced and unvoiced sounds can be attained later. Judy then explained the importance of intonation as the carrier of individual sounds. She went on to to present her Prosody Pyramid, which places a thought group at the foundation and the peak vowel (stressed vowel) of the focus word at the top of the pyramid. Peak vowels are the only critical vowel sounds. If students try to pronounce more than one focus word within a thought group, Judy explained, the system disintegrates and the speaker’s message or tone can be misunderstood. I appreciated Judy’s celebration of choral repetition, clarifying that students benefit from focused, quality repetition. Choral speaking at a natural rate helps learners overcome inhibitions and maintains rhythm. Judy demonstrated use of body movement to help students internalize contractions (open arms = full form > close arms = contracted form) and use of the a kazoo to comprehend the contrast of a focus word with the other words in a thought group.
Tamara Jones from the British School of Brussels followed and agreed with Judy’s emphasis on “listener friendly” pronunciation. Tamara presented her Prosody Package: word stress, speech groups, rhythm, focus, linking, and intonation. Her talk gave teachers ideas for integrating pronunciation practice of those six features into lessons based on our favorite go-to textbooks. For example, she recommends asking students to mark thought groups with slashes on texts written for reading practice. She has students read the given text along with her, and together they all use a large down-sweeping motion of one arm and a “shoook!” sound effect to mark each pause – – Tamara also believes in the value of body movement in the effort to internalize pronunciation. Among her numerous suggestions is the activity of mirroring actors in short dramatic pieces (TV, film). Tamara listed guidelines to ensure the activity would be effective: 1. Have students mirror actors of the same gender (i.e., male students mirror male actors). 2. Don’t allow use of cartoons or animated films. 3. Screen the clips students wish to use to ensure their choices are appropriate (e.g., don’t allow them to choose a film segment with a long fight scene). Tamara has filmed her students mirroring and asked them to watch their own performances. I appreciated other insights, among which was the idea that intonation errors are more dangerous than grammar errors because incorrect intonation can send the wrong message about tone. Tamara observed that we usually spend significantly more time correcting students’ grammar errors, and yet we want our students to have control over the message they’re sending through accurate intonation.
Language Teaching Insights from Other Fields. This session showcased an exciting and soon-to-be-released TESOL publication edited by Christopher Stillwell. The 14 (yes, fourteen!) presenters shared highlights from their respective chapters. What participants got was a buffet of insights and tips drawn from other professions.
- A former restaurant reviewer advised us to wield our power judiciously. For example, a harsh critique can shut down a writer in the classroom.
- A martial arts instructor suggested we disguise repetition (not unlike the teachings of Tamara Jones and Judy Gilbert, by the way). This black belt/ ESL teacher advised us to use a variety of tools and settings to encourage repetition in order to master a particular skill.
- A former manager observed that incentives must be valued by the student and must be achievable. The goal of the teacher should be to get students to perform their best.
- Next to speak was a former TV commercial producer, who shared ways to make a lesson memorable. The tip: Know your core message and find the story to tell it. Teachers need to identify elements of a story to capture students’ interest.
- A former business professional explained the usefulness of forcing judgment and disagreement through questions in order to promote production, particularly fast-paced conversation.
- A former bartender highlighted the need to build rapport and know students’ names and needs. He encouraged teachers to remain positive since our mood can affect our students.
- Speaking of moods was a nice transition to the tips presented by a positive psychologist, who places importance on being happy, healthy people. We learned the benefits of having students write a “Gratitude Journal.” As they recreate a happy state with words, they are producing language.
- We also heard from a project manager, who placed importance on making lesson objectives S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely).
- A gamer shared his insights from the RPG (role-playing games) world. The strategy of giving a good setup and encouraging students to assume a persona allows for richer production.
- An experienced public speaker and toastmaster gave the simple but important tip to tailor your message to your audience.
- A former learning disabilities specialist reminded us of the struggles learners face, and she suggested always doing review of the previous lesson, taking a multi-sensory approach, and practicing positive, non-judgmental teaching.
- A former document designer warned us of cultural differences in the materials we create. Documents can shape attitudes.
- A social activist suggested activities such as writing a letter of critique to the author of a fairy tale that has gender stereotypes. Alternatives were rewriting the tale and having a debate over the tale as-is.
- Finally, a once-upon-a-time hopeful actor taught us the role of improvisation: You can’t say no. In other words, teachers have to find ways to keep the flow going.
Day 2 highlights to come!