Dec 5, 2008 Pronunciation/Phonics 5989 Views
A recent trend in teaching methods favours a learner-centered model, whereby the teacher gives authority to the student (Richardson, 1992). A variant of this trend, called the "discovery" method, aims at "making students the investigators of facts about language rather than just recipients of information" (Harmer, 1995, p. 337). The student also takes some responsibility for learning which helps to develop a certain "learner autonomy," an indispensable part of successful learning (Cotterall, 1995).
While the discovery method has been intensely discussed in its application to grammar teaching (see Fortune, 1992), it seems to have been insufficiently developed for the needs of teaching pronunciation and phonetics. Though it is easy to find literature on learner-centered pronunciation teaching games (Bowen & Marks, 1992; Hancock, 1995), or proposals for closer links between phonetic research and teaching (Morley, 1994; Scarcella & Oxford, 1994), the methodology of the discovery technique, understood as a selection of creative, research-based tasks helping students to develop their own analytical thinking, has not been fully established. This article offers a number of tasks that require students to think, and that can be used in a phonetics or pronunciation class at the university level.
A practical pronunciation and a more theoretical phonetics class require, in principal, different tasks. Nevertheless, pronunciation classes incorporate elements of phonetics and phonology, and vice versa. The activities suggested in this article are applicable to either a phonetics or a pronunciation class. The application of the discovery method enhances students' interest and performance in three ways. It involves students in serious research; introduces self-learning and research-oriented activities into the class; and utilizes the students' own materials.
Taking Part in Serious Research
Students majoring in languages are encouraged to take part in research related to aspects of foreign language pronunciation, cross-language phonetic interference, and cross-language comparison between the foreign and the native language. This research is done within the framework of a term or diploma (graduation) paper. We can outline a few stages in the process.
Building up students' awareness of the problems of modern phonetics - This can be done by including the latest information in lectures and pronunciation classes, as well as by inviting students to attend special Ph. D. seminars on various aspects of phonetics.
Choosing a Theme - The subject for a paper is chosen with the help of the supervising lecturer. The choice is determined both by the teacher's own academic interests and by the student's preferences. A few examples of recent student research topics at the Department of Phonetics of St. Petersburg University include:
- Intonation of grammatically unmarked utterances in German as compared with English (1992);
- Introducing changes into the vocabulary, grammar and intonation of intonation exercises by O'Connor and Arnold (1992);
- Perception of the diphthong / / in modern English (1994); and
- Variants of interrogative contour in Dutch as compared with English (1995).
Research and Student Benefit - The research work requires the supervision of a teacher who helps the students at all stages of the ongoing research. In the course of their research, students study literature on phonetics, work with pronunciation dictionaries, make recordings of native speakers, and conduct listening experiments. These activities largely contribute to the improvement of their own pronunciation and listening skills. Conducting research can also be very rewarding psychologically -- the students act like their teachers' junior colleagues and feel that they are respected and trusted.
Discussing the Research Results - It is beneficial to organize a special discussion seminar for students who are conducting research. Students can present their original schemes and make reports on the results obtained at various stages of their projects. In this way students learn to present their work and to lead an academic discussion.
Research Output - The best projects can be recommended for presentation at conferences or for publication. The results are also employed in daily pronunciation and phonetics classes. While serious research cannot, of course, be expected from all students, it remains an option for enhancing individual interest in phonetics.
Discoveries in Class
Presenting New Material Through the Discovery Method - Very often students enjoy being introduced to new material presented by the teacher, and also remember more of what they have learned if they actively conduct their own investigations of this material. Examples of "discover it yourself" phonetic tasks are given below.
1. Compare different tables of vowel classification (e.g., Jones (1975) and IPA). Japanese students may be interested, for instance, to find differences between Japanese and English vowel charts. (See, for example, Vance, 1987, p.11.)
2. Look at the print-outs of different vowel spectra. What are the acoustic differences between different vowels? (This task is offered after introducing the notions of speech waves and formants.) If no speech analyzing equipment is available, you can use copies of vowel spectra from books on phonetics, such as Olive, Greenwood, and Coleman (1993).
3. Look at a few selected intonation contours in different languages. Find the similarities and differences. I have used, for example, Figure 2 from Collier (1991), showing "hat pattern" contours in four languages.
4. Look at a few selected intonation curves of a certain contour in English and your native language. Listen to the accompanying recordings. Summarize the differences you hear and see in the contours in English and your own language. It is possible to find examples in any English or Japanese language coursebook. Intonation curves can be obtained instrumentally if speech processing equipment (such as VISI-PITCH) is available. If not, intonation curves can be crudely drawn by the teacher or more sophisticated illustrations can be obtained from the literature. For example, Huber (1995) provides good illustration material for discussing the length of intonation units in Japanese and English.
5. Listen to a recording of some local dialect or variant of English and note the differences from the variant you are taught.
The observations the students make are summarized with the help of the teacher and compared with data drawn from the literature. Normally the teacher provides the table of sounds of the dialect/variant in question, but this task can also be delegated to a student, who must then be provided with reference literature. Sometimes the students can participate in a "live" experiment when a speaker of a variant of English is invited to class. The task of listening to a variant and finding its peculiarities can also be assigned as homework after the students have completed this task a few times.
After the students have listened to a variant of English and discussed its characteristic features, it is useful to give them some listening comprehension tasks based on recordings by the same speaker or by another speaker of the same variant. The students are thus prepared to understand not only the variant they are taught but others as well.
It is also useful to acquaint students with accents of nonnative speakers of English, since English is becoming a language of intercultural exchange. In this context, recently available textbooks, and recordings from Milestones and Speaking Internationally can be of help as well as any other materials the teacher can find.
Short Reports in English on Various Aspects of Pronunciation - As a way of reviewing the acquired material and as a means of applying it, students are asked to prepare short reports in English on various aspects of English pronunciation such as the system of English vowels, English word stress, English rhythm, weak forms, and so forth. The teacher provides references for the students and offers consultation to them. Upon completion, the reports are presented in class orally.
The most capable students can be asked to report on new material. Such a report requires more effort and more consultation with the teacher who provides the reading material. Some examples of topics for reports on new material I offered in my phonetics class this year include: 1) the history of phonetic studies in England; 2) stylistic differences in pronunciation; 3) socio-linguistic differences in pronunciation; and 4) pronunciation standards.
Students as Teachers of Phonetics - A final-year student teaches the class for about 10-15 minutes. This activity is called "an intonation revision seminar." Consecutive parts of a highly entertaining recording consisting of short episodes, such as a detective story, are selected as material for the "seminar." By the time students take on this task they should have acquired knowledge of all aspects of English pronunciation on the curriculum.
Initially, the teacher conducts two or three seminars to provide the students with a model. The goal of the seminars is to review an aspect of English intonation, such as ways of intoning statements, general questions, or special questions.
The students are asked about different contours they hear in the recording: What are these contours? Why are they used in this situation? What is the usage of such contours in general? Is it possible to use other intonation contours in the same situation? Are the contours emotional or neutral, and so forth. After due preparation and discussions with the teacher, the students are ready to conduct their individual seminars and to replace the teacher in front of the class. For the duration of each seminar the teacher attempts to keep in the background, interrupting the "student-teacher" only in case of difficulties with the equipment or with the handling of questions or remarks from the audience. At the end of each seminar, the teacher makes a few comments about the performance and corrects major faults or misinterpretations, if necessary. About two "seminars" can be done per class.
"Home Discoveries" Brought into the Phonetics Class
One way to make students happier with their pronunciation classes is to allow them to work with their favourite English songs, films, radio programmes or any other enjoyable supplement to the necessary drills and exercises. This does not mean that students are free to choose material which is inappropriate for public demonstration and discussion, or of low aesthetic value. There are at least two ways to find appropriate material.
Prompting the Search for a "Home Discovery" - The teacher asks the students to find material illustrating a certain aspect of pronunciation. When studying emotive intonation, my students particularly liked using video clips from their favourite films. They searched for clips which illustrated the differences between emotional and unemotional speech. The materials are first assessed by the teacher who selects the most promising examples to be used in class, based on aesthetic value and the occurrence of phonetically interesting phenomena.
Another possibility is to ask students to find or create tongue twisters for practicing sounds, or limericks and funny poems for practicing rhythm. Each student can then read his or her creation. The best ones can be practiced by the entire class.
"SOS" Home Discovery - Sometimes students approach the teacher to ask for help with "deciphering" a recording they do not understand. If the question presents a typical listening comprehension problem which would be of interest to everybody, such as a contracted form or very rapid speech, such material can, with the student's permission, be presented to everyone in the class. All the students then try to solve the "enigma." This activity is called "SOS."
This article makes several suggestions for implementing the discovery method in a phonetics or pronunciation class. When students become contributors in class as opposed to passive recipients of information their knowledge of the subject deepens and their interest increases. Feeling partially responsible for what is happening in class they become more conscientious as learners, and performing in front of others builds self-confidence. Students benefit from actively using their English to make reports, to conduct seminars, and to discuss the results of their investigations. Finally, while getting involved with the discovery activities, the students learn to observe, to notice, and to analyze: they learn to think.
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