August 2013
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Steve Jones, Community College of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Since Christina and I began serving as co-chairs of our interest section, we have been interested in exploring the connection between our profession's best thinking about pedagogy and available published materials. We started talking about this connection with the Speech/Pronunciation Interest Section leaders Tamara Jones and Mike Burri in 2012 in Philadelphia. As a result of these conversations, several experienced speech and pronunciation practitioners and materials writers came together for an intersection session in Dallas, for which I served as moderator. Each of the panelists commented on two main topics. One was the “what to teach” aspect of English pronunciation: What are the elements of speaking and listening that are most important for comprehensibility and accuracy? The second main topic was the “how to teach it” question: What do we know about techniques that are effective in promoting those identified elements of speaking and listening, and what kind of materials can put those techniques to use? In addition to their prepared remarks, we asked panelists to be ready to respond to questions or comments from other panelists or from the moderator.

Judy Gilbert, author of the Clear Speech series, reviewed a framework that set priorities for pronunciation goals. The main emphasis for Gilbert in the “what to teach” area was prosody: She outlined a pyramid of prosody elements that form the core of what students need to be able to understand and produce for maximum comprehension. The top of the “prosody pyramid” is consideration of the peak vowel in an individual word, that is, the vowel sound that carries the greatest volume, highest pitch in a given word. Next in the pyramid is the awareness of the number of syllables in a word, followed by the focus, or most stress-bearing, word in a phrase, followed by identification of the primary stress in the focus word of each phrase.

The identification of these key pronunciation elements is well known to practitioners who are familiar with Gilbert's published materials or other materials that are informed by her work. In the “how to teach it” area, Gilbert continued by addressing a seeming contradiction in teaching key elements of prosody: The key elements are used simultaneously and interdependently in speech, but cannot be easily taught at the same time. Her suggested solution for this problem is the use of “template sentences,” that is, sentences that can be easily practiced and remembered, and that contain all the key prosody elements under study. Gilbert also advocated that these template sentences be repeated, citing a neurological theory of Donald Hebb, and also repeated chorally.

In response to a question, Gilbert argued for a place for choral repetition, which some teachers may see as not sufficiently communicative, and which is not often called for in teaching materials. The justification given for choral repetition is that it gives both guidance and support for the learner, who can practice in a comfortable and somewhat anonymous setting that still provides feedback.

In response to a question about how much phonetics or transcription to teach as part of a pronunciation program, Gilbert thought that the priority should be on vowel sounds. There is so much variation among dictionaries, and such a steep learning curve for complete transcriptions of real speech, that it does not seem worth the effort to ask students to learn a complete system for recording all English speech sounds.

Tamara Jones, an experienced teacher and author of listening/speaking materials in Oxford's Q series,identified (primary) word stress as a key feature, and also emphasized the role of speech groups, rhythm, and linking. She also argued for the teaching of focus words, especially as a means for making inferences in discourse. An example of this is the sentence “The teacher didn't grade the exam,” in which the listener should infer that the exam was in fact graded, in contrast to “The teacher didn't grade the exam.

In arguing for putting a priority on intonation, Jones suggested an assessment of the time normally spent on, for instance, verb tense endings compared to time spent on intonation. She questioned whether the benefits to communication that derive from hours spent on the pronunciation of verb tenses is really justified in comparison to the benefit of better knowledge of English intonation.

Jones emphasized the use of body motions to reinforce pronunciation concepts. These kinesthetic actions include underlining words in a text, making hand signals, clapping, etc. The argument for this type of learning is that a connection to a physical action reinforces learning through other means.

Marsha Chan, who is also an experienced teacher and materials writer (and a.k.a. “The Pronunciation Doctor”), emphasized the role of prosody in speaking, partly because of its strongly language-specific nature. First-language learners may start to learn intonation or tone systems in vitro, or shortly after, and these patterns can contrast mightily with the stress and intonation system of English. Chan gave as an example the basic distinction between languages in which tone is attached to individual words, as in Chinese, versus its association with a “thought group” as in English.

In the “how to teach it” area, Chan advocated a basic goal: “Don't be boring.” She agreed with assertions of other panelists that linking prosody to some other physical action was important. For Chan, these actions include breathing, body movements, and animated representations of stressed syllables or words in texts.

In response to questions from other panelists about whether key phonological elements should be taught in both listening and speaking modes, Chan advocated the teaching of linking in speaking as well as listening. (See Marsha Chan’s slides from the session.)

The members who attended the session enjoyed the back-and-forth among panelists, which added a spontaneous and more conversational tone to the presentation.

Steve Jones teaches in the ESL program at Community College of Philadelphia and has published texts on college ESL composition, reading, oral communication, and grammar.

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