In our last post We Talk Pron: TLT we proposed that by making certain stages of our lessons more communicative and giving our students more opportunities to speak, we can give ourselves vital opportunities to hear their output and therefore respond to it accordingly (Teacher Listening Time). This means giving more space in our plan for student talking time and more space to do something with what we hear. This planning idea can be used in general terms in the context of any lesson, but it can also help us integrate more relevant pronunciation work into our lessons, which is often what teachers tell us they would like to do.
What is TNT?
In this post we would like to focus more on what to do during our feedback stages. We see the note-taking stage during the communicative activities as the time when a teacher should be able to notice what the students need and make a decision on how to respond to those needs. For instance, assessing their pron output, identifying what the students might need to work on and improve, or even recognising when positive feedback on their pronunciation could be beneficial to the group as a whole. We call this Teacher Noticing Time (TNT).
Using the lesson plan from our last post we saw that the warmer allowed the teacher to listen for examples of good pronunciation and also pron problems common to the group. Stage two focused specifically on target language therefore allowed the teacher to put an emphasis on the pronunciation of this language in delayed feedback – the ‘S’ stage from MFS. In stage three the students were interacting directly with the teacher so the teacher could react to problems on the spot and encourage self and peer correction with target language. Stage four was clearly a learning stage in which the teacher introduced a new feature of connected speech (C-V Catenation) and designed an activity to allow students to predict and discover, which is in theory more memorable. The final communicative activity allowed the teacher to stop midway through and coach the students – helping and encouraging them to apply what they had previously learned. What we saw in this lesson plan was that the teacher had a very clear focus on what the students needed at each stage, which was also different each time allowing for good variation in the practice.
Identifying what our students need
When we design an activity we always know what the aim of it is, so this can help us in advance to identify what we expect the students to produce in terms of language and consequently pronunciation. If it’s a warmer or an authentic communicative activity at the start of the lesson the students could produce pretty much anything in terms of language. In these cases, as we’ve discussed before, we could listen for pronunciation errors common to all of the group if it’s a monolingual group or errors common to a particular group or groups within a multilingual group. We could also use this opportunity to predict what specific language may come up and what sounds certain L1 groups could have problems with. To do this, of course, you need to have some working knowledge of the students’ L1. This type of activity also lends itself to bringing out the positive by giving them examples of good pronunciation you have heard. The whole class feedback stage is important here because although you have heard some of the students pronounce well, it’s vital that the rest of the group get to pick up on this. It’s also a good way of fostering a “we can learn from each other” atmosphere within the group, which is always positive.
While, we say above that anything could come up in freer speaking tasks, we can anticipate what our students will say by visualising them doing that task and “hearing” their voices as they work. As we said in the previous post on FFP, if we predict where our students will go with a task, we can plan more effectively for feedback. The feedback can address general pron issues but it should ideally focus on aspects which will be used again in that lesson. This idea can create some kind of criteria for TLT, and that will help us be selective about what we feedback on. We can notice relevant vocabulary the stronger learners use, which can shared with the lower level learners, or we can identify vocabulary gaps in the stronger learners which we can fill. Within this language we can focus on pronunciation as well as meaning and form in our feedback. We know what we are listening for and this makes our noticing time much more effective, easier for us and leads to better feedback for our learners.
If the activity is controlled in order to practise target language, our noticing time is more straightforward. When planning a lesson, ask yourself the following question: What problems would my learners have when listening to or attempting to say this language? We can then predict the types of problems they may have in advance and design possible feedback activities to deal with them.
Building our teacher toolkit: What type of feedback?
Example one: Working with target language
In this example B2 students were working with new body vocabulary (body verbs) and reacting to reading a text on the topic of gestures.
During a speaking activity in which students were testing each other on target language several problems came up. Some students knew what word their partner was referring to in L1 but not in English (a meaning problem), some were unsure of the spelling although they could say the word (a form problem), others had problems pronouncing the word although they claimed to know it (a sound problem). Later others were confused with some words from the text which were similarly spelt and brought this up at the end of the activity.
I clarified ‘frown’ in the way you can see in the above board example. I expressed the importance of knowing the meaning, form and sound of any word in order to truly know it – referring to our MFS model from a previous post. The students then formed small groups and worked on the examples in the right-hand column above; ‘quit, quite, quiet’, ‘stare, stair,’ and then the two pronunciations of the word ‘row’. They wrote a definition for each word, helped each other with the spelling and the correct pronunciation. This activity allowed them to write down the meaning, form and sound of each word in their notebooks. As a follow-up activity each group of students chose 5 words from the list of body verbs and wrote an MFS description for each of them as in the board example above. They then conducted a quiz with another group. Typical examples of questions were:
This word means to signal with your finger. What’s the word? (meaning/ sound)
How do you spell it? (form)
What does ‘shrug’ mean? (meaning).
How do you spell it? Etc.
To allow the students time to do this I really needed to plan time for the feedback stage. I had planned for 10 minutes but in the end I allowed them 17 minutes to complete the activity satisfactorily. I felt that within the context of the lesson this was vital work therefore deserved more time than I had originally planned. As the saying goes, ‘teach the learners, not the plan’.
Example two: Monitoring an authentic communicative activity
This was a free practice speaking activity in which a group of B2 students were trying to find others who shared the same opinion as them on the topic of the country’s media.
We had worked on media vocabulary and had also worked quite extensively on the topic, so I expected some strong output in terms of language, especially media lexis and its pronunciation. I was also expecting some problem areas although I wasn’t 100% sure which. However, I was prepared to deal with them. In the end the students had some pronunciation problems with lexis that was very similar to the corresponding words in their own L1. I listed examples of words some of them had pronounced very clearly and drew everyone’s attention to this. I decided to use phonemic script as it made the sounds much clearer to my Spanish/ Catalan speakers. I also decided to experiment with font size and bubbles to express word stress, which is very important for these learners – both Spanish and Catalan are syllable-timed languages whereas English is a stress-timed language. Not everyone was confident with the pronunciation of these words so this allowed everyone to get some more practice and improve. I asked those who were struggling to try to imitate those who could pronounce clearly. This also produced some moments of laughter, which they really enjoyed. I listed problem words on the right and organised small groups of four to decide what the correct pronunciation was. This meant the students had to say the words out loud to each other several times to finally come to a group consensus. They also had to choose a spokesperson to feedback to the whole class; this often made the groups hold mini contests on who was the best at pronouncing the words and inevitably allowed for even more repetition of the target sounds as well as adding a nice competitive element.
Again as in the examples of the good pronunciation I followed up by demonstrating the correct pronunciation, emphasising word stress and drilling chorally and individually.
Example 3: Challenging strong advanced students
Sometimes we have strong groups of advanced learners whose pronunciation is really quite good. Can they really improve on that? Have they in actual fact reached plateau? What challenge can we bring to the classroom in terms of pronunciation?
Another way of approaching this activity with the type of learner described above, is to present it as an ‘improve your accent’ type of task. These ‘problem’ words, although intelligible to the average ear, tend to have a little bit of L1 influence. In our case the words in the example above are either very similar or exactly the same in Spanish and Catalan, so they can still present a challenge for students as they try not to pronounce them as they would in L1. The students form small groups as in example 2, but this time the challenge is to improve their accent and try to eliminate any L1 influences on the words. The students form mini panels from within the small group to decide how well individual students can say certain words on a scale of 0-5 – this encourages peer correction and peer teaching. The feedback stage concludes with a ‘How good is my accent?’ type of presentation. You can make this competitive too depending on the group. In our experience it usually injects a little humour into the practice.
As we can see from the above examples our feedback stages go way beyond pointing out errors and correcting them. Feedback can also include praising good pronunciation and giving others an opportunity to acquire it from their peers. These are also very hands-on stages of the lesson which follow an inductive approach to feedback. This inductive approach is appropriate for pronunciation work as it involves the students working with each other to achieve a goal. The learners need time to work on the sounds, they need a task that allows them to work it out for themselves, test what they think they already know, and practice with their peers before feeding back to the teacher and the whole group. This is more memorable for them, is much more likely to stick, and creates conditions for pronunciation acquisition. A deductive approach would not be appropriate here as asking the students to listen to the correct pronunciation and repeat it after you would probably be very quickly forgotten.