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STRATEGIES AND RESOURCES FOR AUTONOMOUS PRONUNCIATION LEARNING
Kim Edmunds, Carolyn Saylor-Loof, Tristan Thorne, Baruch College-CUNY, New York, New York, USA


Kim Edmunds


  Carolyn Saylor-Loof


Tristan Thorne

A resurgence in theoretical and pedagogical approaches to second language (L2) English pronunciation instruction has reestablished the importance and efficacy of strategic, autonomous learning to improve intelligibility (Sardegna et al., 2018). Beliefs among many TESOL educators that there is too little time to focus on pronunciation instruction in the classroom (Darcy et al., 2012) and that pronunciation instruction does not align with communicative language teaching (Foote et al., 2016) further demonstrate the importance of teaching students how to learn pronunciation skills independently. Fortunately, a growing wealth of quality online educational resources and emerging research on established and innovative pronunciation techniques can empower educators to integrate student-directed pronunciation learning into their curricula.

In response to the aforementioned research, Tools for Clear Speech (TfCS)—an academic support program that improves the oral communication skills of nonnative English speakers at Baruch College, CUNY—prioritizes instruction in autonomous pronunciation learning strategies and the creation of freely available online resources. In this article, we outline these strategies and resources and end with a few considerations.

Strategies

1. Pronunciation Journals

Pronunciation journals give learners an opportunity to record notable interactions from their day-to-day lives and consider the role that pronunciation and intelligibility play in those interactions. For example, a learner might write about an encounter in a restaurant where they had to repeat themselves several times to be understood. Alternatively, a learner might describe a conversation in which all interlocutors successfully used specific strategies to navigate communication. In this way, pronunciation journals offer structured engagement with intelligibility as it plays out in the real world, as opposed to just how it is described in textbooks. They also encourage the noticing of patterns that can raise learners’ awareness of their particular strengths and areas for growth and inform their goals accordingly.

Table 1 is an example pronunciation journal, though the categories included may vary according to course objectives and/or student needs.

Table 1. Example pronunciation journal entry

Date

Context

What Happened

Reflection

4/2/20

In accounting class. The professor was asking questions about last night’s homework.

I tried to answer a question. I used the word “accounting” in my response, and my professor couldn’t understand me.

“Accounting” is a hard word for me to pronounce, but since it’s my major, I need to focus on it. The second vowel rhymes with “now.”


2. Pronunciation Logs

Pronunciation logs are student-driven lists of words, phrases, or sentences that share a target pronunciation feature. While pronunciation logs do provide opportunities for reflection, their primary purpose is to encourage focused repetition. Despite the emergence of Communicative Language Teaching, decontextualized repetition of sounds and words remains an important method for improving intelligibility. In the absence of opportunities for communicative practice—which is often the case once students step outside of the classroom—independent repetition is valuable for developing phonological awareness and automaticity.

Following are examples of pronunciation log entries that students might maintain and use for 5-10 minutes of daily repetition practice:

Rhyming

/ɔl/ - all, ball, call, doll, fall

/en/ - cane, drain, gain, main

Shared sound with variable spelling

/ər/ - her, heard, first, third, work, world, purple, reserve, alert, nervous

/ɑ/ - product, project, model, modern, policy, economics, honor

/ʃ/ - nation, social, pressure, admission, sugar

/ʌ/ - government, country, oven, money, color, love, because, month

Shared stress pattern

Compound nouns: post office, mail box, tryout, drug trial, rock climbing

3. Shadowing

Shadowing (sometimes referred to as tracking or echoing) is a versatile technique that has been shown to support transfer of many key pronunciation features to extemporaneous speech (Foote & McDonough, 2017). As opposed to listening, stopping, and repeating, a learner imitates an authentic speech sample as closely as possible.

We have found shadowing to be particularly helpful for students with lower intelligibility. To expose our learners to different varieties of English, we also recommend a range of English speakers to shadow, regardless of their first language. Some students also prefer to shadow speakers whose language background resembles their own. Luckily, there is no shortage of high-quality shadowing materials online that can appeal to learners of all proficiencies. TED Talks are fantastic for shadowing because of the variety of topics, the availability of highly intelligible speakers from diverse backgrounds, and the incorporation of transcripts that highlight thought groups while the speaker is talking. However, there are countless other options that may pique a learner’s interest and motivation including:

  1. VOA Learning English
  2. BBC Learning English: 6-Minute English
  3. This I Believe
  4. StoryCorps
  5. 3MT
  6. The Moth (some examples with transcripts can be found here)
  7. Podcasts with transcripts
  8. TV shows and movies


Even in one’s own first language, shadowing can be initially difficult, but with some training and patience, most students appreciate adding this skill to their repertoire. If a student is new to shadowing, it helps to start with thought groups or short sentences before moving on to longer discourse. Below are some additional ideas for scaffolding while shadowing:

  1. Practicing with different genres
  2. Using a transcript before or while shadowing
  3. Noticing suprasegmental features such as intonation through humming
  4. Focusing on a particular pronunciation feature, such as linking or word stress
  5. Self-monitoring by recording and listening to one’s shadowing attempt
  6. Incorporating paralinguistic cues for video-based shadowing
  7. Slowing down the speed of the video or audio (e.g., .75x)


Resources

The Tools for Clear Speech program has developed two innovative resources that are freely available online to teachers and learners of General American English pronunciation: Tools To-Go and the Just to Be Clear podcast.

Tools To-Go (TTG)is a comprehensive suite of practice materials that were developed by our professional staff to the highest pedagogical standards. TTG covers all features of intelligibility, from phonemes to suprasegmentals to pragmalinguistic norms. Designed for autonomous learning, the exercises guide users through both noticing and productive activities.

Segmental pages on TTG feature anatomical animations that model in detail how to produce each phoneme of General American English, with accompanying audio that can be slowed down for focused practice. Each page also offers many model recordings of key words, phrases, sentences, and tongue twisters that include the target phoneme. Users can listen to the models and use the built-in recorder to record their own voices for comparison. The /l/ phoneme practice page is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. An excerpt from Tools To-Go’s page on the phoneme /l/ (click to enlarge).

TTG’s extensive suprasegmentals sections cover word stress, rhythm, intonation, thought groups, and connected speech. The dynamic user interface allows users to interact with content and receive immediate feedback in a variety of activity types. Figures 2 and 3 illustrate example sections on suprasegmental features.


Figure 2. Tools To-Go’s page on introducing discourse-new information (click to enlarge).


Figure 3. Tools To-Go’s page on speaking rate (click to enlarge).

At the end of every exercise, TTG offers additional suggestions for how to extend their learning independently.

On Just to Be Clear (JTBC), the program’s original podcast, TfCS’s expert staff explore the learning and teaching of spoken English. Designed to appeal to a wide range of listeners, each episode of JTBC is a deep dive into questions like “What is the difference between accent and intelligibility?” and “What exactly is fluency, and how do you achieve it?” The episodes feature interviews with expert guests, including a professor in the Columbia University American Language Program, a CUNY Associate Provost for Innovation and Student Success, and TfCS’s own professional Speech onsultants. In addition, an essential goal of JTBC is to elevate the voices of Baruch’s diverse multilingual students and English language learners. To that end, each episode culminates in a conversation with a student guest, centered on the episode’s theme and the student’s personal beliefs and linguistic journey. JTBC listeners will discover connections between language and culture, dismantle myths about second language learning, and hear strategies for improving pronunciation and communication.

As part of our mission to make JTBC an accessible autonomous learning tool, each episode is accompanied by free online practice materials for learners to build fluency, vocabulary, and listening skills by engaging with podcast content. Teachers can incorporate these materials as part of students’ extensive practice, or learners can work through them at their own pace. For example, learners can practice the skill of self-monitoring with JTBC’s guided speaking exercises with a focus on critical pronunciation skills, as shown in Figure 4.


Figure 4. An excerpt from JTBC Episode 1 “Practice Speaking & Self-Monitoring” (click to enlarge).

As depicted in Figures 5 and 6, learners can also complete vocabulary tasks, learn about American English dialects, and learn to recognize features of spoken English such as connected speech when listening.


Figure 5. An excerpt from JTBC Episode 1 “Vocabulary and Idioms” (click to enlarge).


Figure 6. An excerpt from JTBC Episode 1 “Learn About American Accents” (click to enlarge).

JTBC is available on iTunes and on its website.

Beyond these resources, we highly recommend English Accent Coach (EAC), an evidence-based web tool that offers users gamified training in the perception of General American English phonemes (Thomson, 2017). Critically, the tool uses recordings of a variety of voices, which has been shown to be superior to training using a single voice (Logan et al., 1991). Learners can create a free account to practice differentiating tricky phonemes on a daily, consistent basis. While more accurate perception of phonemes does influence production, EAC does not provide feedback on articulation of sounds, so it is best used to complement otherwise interactive instruction.

Additionally, Rachel’s English offers a comprehensive collection of hundreds of free videos with transcripts that overview a variety of skills to improve intelligibility and speaking proficiency (Smith, 2020). Video topics range from pronunciation of notoriously tricky individual words to characteristics of informal and formal speech. While Rachel’s English lacks interactive features present in the other mentioned resources, many of our students enjoy this resource, and the website also serves as a great reference for TESOL professionals who want to expand their pronunciation instruction skill sets.


Considerations

In our experience, most nonnative English speakers seeking to improve their intelligibility have an incomplete or misguided understanding of what elements of English pronunciation they should focus on. For instance, some learners believe that their accent will impede intelligibility, which is not necessarily the case. Moreover, given the important connection between accent and identity, it is understandable that some learners initially perceive pronunciation instruction with no small amount of apprehension. In light of these considerations, it is our responsibility to avoid framing pronunciation instruction as “accent reduction,” and instead focus on a more cogent and encompassing approach to intelligibility. As our students will invariably move on from our learning spaces, this approach necessitates co-constructing realistic goals and modeling effective autonomous pronunciation practices that will support their future learning endeavors. We should also keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to independent learning and that success in improving intelligibility is often based on variables beyond our control as instructors (Gilbert, 2014). What we can and should encourage is consistent, frequent, and quality practice informed by current L2 English intelligibility research.

References

Darcy, I., Ewert, D., & Lidster, R. (2012). Bringing pronunciation instruction back into the classroom: An ESL teachers’ pronunciation “toolbox.” In J. Levis & K. Levelle. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 3rd pronunciation in second language learning and teaching conference. (pp. 93–108). Iowa State University.

Foote, J. A., McDonough, K. (2017). Using shadowing with mobile technology to improve L2 pronunciation. Journal of Second Language Pronunciation, 3(1), 34-56.

Foote, J. A., Trofimovich, P., Collins, L., and Urzua, F. S. (2016). Pronunciation teaching practices in communicative second language classes. The Language Learning Journal, 44(2), 181-196.

Gilbert, J. (2014). Myth 5: Students would make better progress if they practiced more. In L. Grant (Ed.), Pronunciation myths (pp. 137-159). The University of Michigan Press.

Logan, J. S., Lively, S. E., & Pisoni, D. B. (1991). Training Japanese listeners to identify English /r/ and /l/: A first report. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 89, 874 -866.

Sardegna, V. G., Lee, J., & Kusey, C. (2018). Self‐efficacy, attitudes, and choice of strategies for English pronunciation learning. Language Learning, 68(1), 83-114. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12263

Smith, R. (2020). Rachel’s English. https://www.rachelsenglish.com

Thomson, R. (2017). English Accent Coach. https://www.englishaccentcoach.com/index.aspx


Kim Edmunds is theTfCS curriculum specialist. She facilitates supplemental language support for specialized communication courses at Baruch College, oversees Tools To-Go development, and produces and hosts Just to Be Clear.


Carolyn Saylor-Loof is a TfCS speech consultant who works closely with students to improve their spoken intelligibility. She is also involved in materials development for TfCS’s workshops and the Tools To-Go website.

Tristan Thorneis the TfCS associate director, and he spearheads specialized cohort programming, assessment procedures, and staff professional development. He also serves as the New York City Region co-chair for NYS TESOL.

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