September 2012 Archives

Focus on Pronunciation and Fluency

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

When I studied phonetics and phonology for the first time in the early 1990s, the academic focus was almost entirely on the segmental aspects of the language's sound system. We reviewed the articulatory and acoustic traits of each consonant and vowel phoneme in the language in detail. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was taught to us with urgency, and hours of class time were devoted to detailed phonetic transcription. Of course, we also learned about suprasegmental features (which at the time were often referred to as "prosody"), mostly at the phrase and sentence levels, but only as a short course module following our detailed segmental studies. Suprasegmentals were more of an afterthought than anything else. However, now that the pedagogical focus in the field has shifted away from an almost exclusive emphasis on individual sounds to a broad recognition that suprasegmental features such as stress, intonation, rhythm and linking play a more important role than segmental features in the language comprehension and pronunciation of English language learners, it is critical for teachers to thoroughly address suprasegmentals when teaching English pronunciation.

Goodwin (2002) argues that we should set four important realistic goals for our students when teaching pronunciation. Citing Morley (1999), Goodwin elaborates that our pronunciation instruction should help students achieve functional intelligibility (the ability to pronounce English with an accent that, while non-native, does not distract the listener), functional communicability (the ability of the speaker to achieve successful communication in the specific settings and contexts in which she or he must interact in "real life"), increased self-confidence and the ability to monitor his or her speech for errors (that is, to attend to phonetic form while not neglecting meaning). A key underlying premise behind the goals Goodwin advocates is that "perfect" or "near-native" pronunciation is not achievable for the vast majority of learners. As a result, we should not set our students up for failure by setting such an unrealistic goal. Moreover, it is important for us to conceptualize and carry out pronunciation instruction in a way that is respectful of the learner's cultural identity. This requires us to help our students acquire a new (comprehensible and non-distracting yet noticeably non-native) accent to add to their linguistic repertoire without demanding the eradication of their natural accent as a precondition for doing so.

My personal teaching philosophy holds that second language instruction should focus primarily on the development of communicative competence and that fluency and lexical command are far more important than grammatical (especially morphological) accuracy in most real-life interactive contexts. Consequently, my main goal when teaching pronunciation is to help my students produce comprehensible if imperfect English. In my current teaching context, my greatest challenge is convincing students of the soundness of this approach. I have encountered a number of students who initially insist on being corrected after every single mistake and have even had students who complained that I was not correcting enough of their pronunciation errors. While I understand that students may become comfortable with this type of instruction based on the expectations they have developed over many years of (mostly unsuccessful) language instruction using the audio-lingual method and the intuitive-imitative approach to teaching pronunciation, I fully understand that perpetuating this type of mostly ineffective pedagogy just to placate my students is not in their best interests. Yet convincing my students that perpetual correction will not help them achieve their language learning goals while at the same time respecting their beliefs is an ongoing challenge that I will continue to struggle with in my teaching practice.

Turning to the instructional activities for developing fluency through listening and speaking provided by Nation and Newton (2009), I found many of the suggestions useful and appropriate to my instructional context, especially since the language school where I work has a teaching methodology that focuses on oral communication with only a minor emphasis on reading and writing. Two of the activities that would fit quite well into our curriculum are listening to questions and rehearsed talks. Despite the frequent use of questions as a presentation and modeling technique at our school, I have found that many students still struggle to consistently and correctly identify questions. I often find myself explicitating the interrogative nature of questions by either holding up a piece of paper with a large question mark or even stating directly, "that was a question." Turning question recognition into a game, as Nation and Newton recommend, can help remove the tedium from this important but often frustrating task. Given the importance of question recognition and formation to successful communication (just think about what percentage of our real-world interactions involve either asking or answering a question), no stone should be left unturned to help our students master this essential communicative skill. Rehearsed talks would be particularly helpful for our lower and intermediate level students. I believe that one of the most effective strategies for helping learners at this range of proficiency improve their fluency is to help them add short (single phrase) and medium-length (two or three short phrases) high frequency language chunks to their lexical repertoire, which they can then internalize and use to build more fluent speech. Although I am not in favor of rote memorization à la the old audio-lingual method, I do think that lower-level learners should acquire meaningful language chunks (and not just single terms), with lots of opportunities for repetition. The rehearsed talks using pyramiding as suggested in the article would be an appropriate way to achieve that pedagogical aim.

Learning to Teach

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

Richard McDorman in the early 1980s.jpg

Left: Richard preparing a "lesson" for great aunt Evelyn (October, 1980: Beckley, West Virginia)

Right: Richard and sister Crissy working on a "test" using Aunt Evelyn's manual typewriter (December, 1983: Beckley, West Virginia)

Below: Betty McDorman (image from 1978 Coal City Elementary School yearbook)

I think I always knew that I would eventually become a teacher. When I was in elementary school, I would "play professor" with my great aunt Evelyn, teaching her "lessons" about the alphabet and then preparing her tests, grading them and carefully explaining where she went wrong. She had a very old manual typewriter that I would use to carefully type her tests--I remember how excited I would get on the way to her house, just waiting to get my hands on that unique, ancient treasure.

Betty McDorman_September 1978.jpgMy grandmother Betty was an elementary school teacher in Coal City, West Virginia. She was one of the very first women in her town to earn a college degree, and some of my first memories of classrooms were of her second and third grade classes, with seasonally-themed collages neatly arranged on the walls. I have many diverse memories of school. Because my parents worked in the coal industry at time when it was in flux, we moved around a lot. Consequently, I was enrolled in three preschools, three elementary schools, two junior high schools (back when they still existed) and two senior high schools spread across three states and in very different areas, from a remote village of perhaps two hundred people (truly in the middle of nowhere) in central West Virginia with only a single seventy year-old school house in town, to the western suburbs of Pittsburgh and then to a small colonial Virginia town of about seven thousand people, where I went to high school from tenth grade on. As a result of having studied in such varied educational settings, my "apprenticeship of observation" was quite rich, as I was exposed to a great variety of ways of teaching.

I experienced similar variety in my own classroom language studies, which began when I was in grade school (a once-a-week enrichment program that included light instruction in Hebrew) and continued all the way through graduate school (the last formal language courses I took were Classical Aztec--one of the most boring classes I ever had to endure, due mainly to the instructor's dry and emotionless teaching method, which included nothing more than memorizing and translating texts--and Middle Egyptian, which I found somewhat overwhelming since I was taking the class for my non-Indo-European language requirement in the midst of aspiring Egyptologists). Sandwiched in between learning to write Hebrew letters when I was eight and studying the texts of ancient civilizations in my mid-twenties were abundant and diverse language studies that included many years of Spanish, French and Latin, along with two years of Chinese, a year of Arabic, and one semester each of Old English, German, Swahili, Old Provençal and Lakhota (the most widely spoken dialect of the Sioux). Although most of these language courses taught me what not to do when I would eventually become a language teacher myself, I was exposed to one or two excellent teachers whom I would later try to emulate (my Swahili teacher, one of most acclaimed Bantuists and in my humble opinion fantastic teachers in the United States, was particularly inspiring). I also experienced two naturalistic language learning settings when I was a teenager, first during a long summer in Mexico City and the next year at a Spanish language immersion camp for high school students. It was through these two experiences that I actually acquired the ability to use a foreign language for the first time. I made greater gains in Spanish proficiency in these two summers than during all of my years of formal Spanish classes combined. As a result of these experiences, I came to believe (and still do) that learning a language naturalistically, in situ, is a far more effective way to acquire fluency in a language than classroom-based learning. For despite our best efforts, I believe that it is impossible to recreate a truly naturalistic learning environment in the classroom. The best we can do is to simulate real-world conditions and scenarios, but I believe that there will always be an artificiality to the classroom that cannot be completely eliminated.

My first real teaching experience took place in the early 1990s, when I was teaching (or rather trying to teach) English as a second language to Mexican migrant workers and their children in Central Virginia. I remember those experiences vividly, as our small group of aspiring teachers would board a van, bubbling with enthusiasm and excitement, to travel about an hour away from the University of Virginia campus to the apple orchards south of Charlottesville. I recall being shocked upon seeing the deplorable living conditions of the workers and their children, who were huddled into what looked like (and very well might have been) dilapidated antebellum plantation workers' quarters and trying my best to present the weekly lesson to exhausted workers with perplexed looks on their faces. I remember that most of my lessons to these learners were in Spanish, not English, and that we talked about Mexico and Central America a lot. My second teaching experience took place when I was in graduate school in Chicago, where I taught two sections of first-year conversational Spanish. I received absolutely no training whatsoever for the job and was selected because I was the only graduate student in the linguistics department who was proficient in Spanish. Although I did the best I could (trying to emulate the few good language teachers I had learned from in the past while trying to avoid the habits of the bad ones), I barely managed to stumble my way through the year. What I remember most about the experience was being chastised by the program supervisor for misusing the word cuestión during a class and always struggling to hold the attention of my students, almost all of whom were in the class because they thought that taking first-year Spanish was the least painful way to satisfy their mandatory foreign language requirement.

These were the formative experiences that, at least as far as I am aware, have most powerfully shaped my ideas about teaching. By the time I started teaching English full-time at a private language school in Miami in 2003, I suppose that my ideas about what "good" language teaching should be like were already long settled. One of the common threads that runs through all of my language teaching experiences is that I had very little formal training in how to actually teach (as opposed to the subject matter itself, in which I was thoroughly well schooled), and pretty much had to figure it out own my own as I went along based on my prior observations and experiences.

Analyzing the Process of Course Development

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

Barbara Fujiwara went through a very contemplative, deliberate and introspective process to develop her advanced listening course for second-year EFL students in Japan. Her approach to developing the course began with an analysis of her students' needs (to become, as she put it, "independent listening learners") and the institutional limitations imposed by the Japanese educational system (limited contact hours). Next, she made the decision to use a content-based curriculum to provide as deep and meaningful a learning context as possible, including a substantial cultural component, while fashioning a course that would be structurally different from the students' first-year course in the same area. Her third major consideration was student retention, since the course was an elective and students would be free to drop the course without harming their academic status. In her attempt to prevent a high level of student attrition from the course, she decided to give students a choice of materials to be used, which she hoped would lead to higher levels of student involvement. Although she initially feared that this strategy might not work (she stated that she reached the idea in desperation), it turned out well as most students selected culturally-meaningful materials.

This teacher spent as much time researching appropriate teaching methodologies and course materials as possible, given the time constraints imposed on her (she had a relatively short amount of time to research and develop the course due to a last-minute change in faculty assignments). She determined and wrote the course content mainly drawing upon her prior teaching and educational experiences, especially the research she conducted for her master's degree thesis, which was directly relevant to the course content. She also sought input from colleagues, who stressed the need for a variety of curricular content for this type of course, which ultimately led her to select one of the main sets of materials (a British television series). During and at the end of the course, her students reported enjoying these authentic materials much more than the course textbook, and the teacher took these opinions into account when she revised the course (she decided to drop the textbook since most students thought it was too boring).

The teacher stated that her approach to course design emphasized process more than content; this reflection appears to be consistent with her description of the course, as it focused on group project-based learning and learner responsibility. Her beliefs and values, including the need for a "rich and deep context for learning" and an emphasis on "inference and discovery" over spoon-feeding information to her students, also played an important role in how she developed and structured the course.

The Dilemmas of Language Assessment

| 0 Comments | 0 TrackBacks

I would like to share my experiences with language assessment in my current instructional context--an intensive English program for international students at a large language school in Miami, Florida. We conduct formal assessments using a full-length simulated TOEIC (a norm-referenced standardized test consisting of two hundred selected-response items measuring listening and reading comprehension skills) at the beginning of each student's enrollment for initial placement purposes, and then a comprehensive assessment at the end of each academic quarter that involves a criterion-referenced achievement test (containing selected-response and constructed-response items to measure attainment of the course's learning objectives, which involve all four language skills), another full-length simulated TOEIC and an oral proficiency interview (OPI) scored on the ILR proficiency scale (a speaking performance assessment). We spend so much time, energy and resources conducting these three different types of assessments primarily because we are required to do so by the national accrediting agency to which we must answer (I am personally ambivalent about the value of spending so much time on formal, end-of-quarter testing; by the end of the year, most students are more than "tested out"). The accrediting agency's standards require language schools to conduct regular language assessments that are valid and reliable, and so we use the TOEIC because (at least according to ETS, the test maker), the test is among the most valid and reliable norm-referenced assessment instruments available. In the past, we tried using the TOEFL iBT, but that test is too complicated to administer en masse (it requires computers, whereas the TOEIC is an entirely paper-based test) and cannot be reliably scored due to the constructed-response sections (speaking and writing), which require professional, trained raters to score consistently and reliably. The same goes for the IELTS.

Although we employ three distinct assessment instruments for our quarterly testing, only the criterion-referenced achievement test is used to determine whether students pass or fail the course (we do not believe that it is fair to use norm-referenced tests to award final course grades, since such tests are designed to produce a normal distribution of scores; we believe that all students should have the opportunity to pass the course provided that they can demonstrate minimally-acceptable attainment of course objectives, which are defined and explained to students at the beginning of the course). All students are also assessed informally throughout their course based on their continuing in-class performance and completion of homework, assignments, language lab activities and exercises, which include a wide range of item types (selected-response, constructed-response and personal-response) and assessment tools (traditional and alternative), although none of these is formally graded.

Despite the apparent robustness of this assessment protocol, we have been disappointed with the results of these assessments, especially the TOEIC, which despite its supposed validity has proven almost useless for us. The TOEIC's test maker claims that TOEIC scores provide a valid and reliable measure of the examinees' ability to use English in the workplace (since our program is general and not academic in nature, this test is better aligned to our course's goals than the TOEFL or IELTS, which mainly assess the examinee's ability to use English in academic settings). However, it has been our experience that the TOEIC substantially overestimates the test taker's language proficiency (we have had cases of students achieving high TOEIC scores who could not communicate effectively in English, at all). In my opinion, part of this problem is that the TOEIC only measures receptive skills, yet our students must be able to use the language to communicate in authentic contexts, and that obviously requires production. Unfortunately, our school's achievement tests (which are provided to us by our international headquarters in Switzerland) are only marginally better than the TOEIC (for one thing, the minimum passing score is only fifty percent according to the published scoring guide, although our school unilaterally moved that up to sixty percent for several reasons, including methodological ones that are too complicated to go into here), but at least they have the virtue of being aligned with the course content and assessing all four language skills. We (and many other language schools in the United States accredited by the same agency) have been forced into this situation due to accreditation rules and the mandatory institutional accreditation required by a federal law that went into effect in 2010. So, like Pete from this week's article, I long to break free of this administrative assessment mess and instead use what I consider more meaningful and authentic forms of assessment (I personally favor performance assessments), but our hands are tied due to the legally-enforced accreditation rules, which require that we use "nationally accepted language assessment instruments."

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from September 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

August 2012 is the previous archive.

October 2012 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.