October 2014
Articles
LEARNERS CAN TEACH PRONUNCIATION, TOO: BUILDING AUTONOMY THROUGH PEER INSTRUCTION
Keli Yerian, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA

Visualize a recent pronunciation lesson you taught. Who is modeling the pronunciation point being taught or practiced? If you are like most of us English language teachers, the answer is “Well, me of course.”

Many TESL instructors believe in the value of learner-centered communicative tasks to promote language acquisition. And many also believe in the power of learner autonomy and choice to promote motivation and learning beyond the classroom.

But in pronunciation instruction, these same instructors also tend to believe in the effectiveness of explicit focus on form (i.e., the specific forms of English sounds and sound patterns), including clear modeling and feedback in pronunciation teaching. This modeling is often done by the instructors themselves and/or is provided through recordings of other English speakers to give students access to variation in accent, gender, and so on.

Are these beliefs incompatible? Do we need to revert to a largely teacher-centered classroom to effectively model and lead pronunciation instruction and practice? Can we imagine a pronunciation lesson in which students are modeling pronunciation points to each other? Or is it only effective to put learners in charge when activities are communicative and less controlled?

This article provides some ideas for how to put students in charge of guided pronunciation practice in various peer-teaching classroom activity formats. Many of the drills and activities that we use to introduce, intensively practice, or review pronunciation points can be adapted to a peer-teaching format with the help of the following steps and criteria. Examples that conform to these guidelines follow.

Steps for Pronunciation Peer-Teaching

When reflecting on how to make a pronunciation lesson more student-centered, consider if you can do the following:

1. Identify a set of pronunciation features that can be divided into different items (e.g., a set of different phonemes, a set of different stress patterns, a set of different patterns of question intonation). If students in your class have the same first language, focus on target features that tend to be somewhat or very difficult; if your class includes a mix of first languages, include features that tend to be difficult for each of the first language groups. In other words, don't include items that are already easy for everyone in the class.

2. Give, or have students choose, features from this set that they feel most confident modeling for others. Note that these features should be something that students (a) are already able to produce well or (b) are able to gain control over autonomously through their own resources (such as online resources or dictionaries), so that with practice they are able to perceive and produce well enough to model and give feedback to others.

3. Set up activities that allow individuals, pairs, or groups to teach each other what they know.

Criteria

While designing your activities, check them against these two criteria:

1. Do students have some control over what they choose to learn and what they choose to teach?

2. Is the lesson structured to support and encourage peer teaching?

Examples

Below are four examples of possible activities, two that focus on segmentals, one that focuses on word-level stress, and one that focuses on suprasegmentals. In each of these examples, the instructor can act as a classroom resource, listening to and verifying pronunciation, but does not lead the lesson beyond helping with classroom management.

Example 1: Segmentals (Vowels)

Adopt a Vowel: Jigsaw and Fluency Line Formats

Ask small groups of students to “adopt a vowel,” for example, using the color vowel chart as an anchor (e.g. Taylor & Thompson). Each group has one target vowel. Groups brainstorm a list of 5–10 words or phrases that contain that vowel and practice saying the words or phrases clearly, using online audio dictionaries to check their choices. Groups can then re-form to form jigsaw groups (each new group contains members from the other groups). Members of new jigsaw groups can lead practice with one another on their example words and phrases.

Jigsaw groups can then create sentences or a short role-play using at least two words that contain each sound. One or more groups can show sentences or perform the role-plays to the class while the class tries to identify which words contain the target sounds.

Reviews in later classes: Vowels can be practiced in a fluency line. In pairs, students select and hold a colored card with one or two example words with the target vowel on it, and their partner needs to repeat these words, then say and write two to three more words that have that sound before the fluency line shifts to the next person. These words can be checked at the end in groups or as a whole class.

Criteria check:

  • Autonomy/choice: Students can select vowels they have more confidence in or want to challenge themselves to master. Then they can check sounds with an online dictionary.
  •  Peer teaching: Students are responsible for partners' accuracy in identification or production of the vowel in example words.


Example 2: Segmentals (e.g., consonants)

1 or 2? Minimal pair listening drills

This activity is a twist on a common pair-practice drill and is for classes that contain two or more first language (L1) groups. Instead of a one-size-fits-all minimal pair practice in which all students do controlled practice on the same segmentals for the same amounts of time, identify which sounds are troublesome for the specific language groups in your class, and prepare materials that allow different L1 partners to listen for sounds they find easy, but produce sounds they find difficult.

Prepare minimal pair sheets (or have students prepare them) that contain minimal pair contrasts that are difficult for the various L1 groups in the class. Students choose which contrasts they want to practice, then find a partner from another L1 who has chosen another set of contrasts. Students take turns saying either the word from column 1 or the word from column 2, while their partner holds up one or two fingers to show which word he or she hears. Students can switch partners several times.

Example partial material:

Criteria check:

  •  Autonomy/choice: Learners can choose to practice sounds that are difficult for them.
  • Peer teaching: Students can model and correct these target sounds for their partner.


Example 3: Multisyllabic Word Stress

Show the Stress

Create cards (or have students create them) that have a few examples of a multisyllabic stress pattern on each card, with additional space underneath to write more. Individuals, pairs, or groups can confirm the stress pattern with a dictionary, then brainstorm several more examples of that pattern. Note: Students should not mark the stress on the words on their cards!

Students then form jigsaw groups, form a fluency line, or wander freely around the room to show each other their cards and try reading the words they see. If the reader puts the stress on the wrong syllable, the partner can ask for another try and/or provide hints by humming the words and using gestures to show stress. (Note that students can also teach each other what the words mean.)

Students can take a pretest on all the target patterns to help them notice and focus on difficult patterns during the activity, then can take a posttest to see their improvement.

Example cards:

Criteria check:

  •  Autonomy/choice: Students can randomly or purposefully choose a stress pattern they want to focus on.
  •  Peer teaching: Students are responsible for making sure their partners are perceiving and producing the patterns clearly.


Example 4: Suprasegmentals

Hearing It in Action: Finding Examples in Authentic Materials

After students have had some introduction to suprasegmental patterns such as question intonation, focus word prominence, linking, or reductions, their homework is to find a clear example of the pattern from the Internet, a video, a podcast, or a recording they make themselves (e.g., a recording with a conversation partner). Students present their examples to groups or to the class and lead classmates through practice of transcripts of the pattern.

Criteria check:

  • Autonomy/choice: Students can find their own examples.
  •  Peer teaching: Students present authentic material and lead peer-practice activities.


These examples are not intended as just recipes to follow strictly, but as starting points for further adaptation in the curriculum, as needed. As in any class involving peer teaching, it is very important to foster a trusting classroom community where students are responsible for and want to help each other. Embarrassment or competitiveness should be minimized, and all members of the class should be seen as valuable resources. The teacher can model how students can provide correction by doing a few examples with several students first and having students model together for the class. Another point to keep in mind is assessment. Activities should be designed to be easy to assess by the students themselves or easy to check later as a class in review. Students should have accountability to themselves and each other just as they would to a teacher.

As students become more comfortable leading pronunciation instruction and practice, they will see that they do not need to rely only on a teacher to improve, and in this way they will become the autonomous learners we hope to foster.

Perhaps if any of these ideas prove to be useful to you when you teach pronunciation, the answer to the question posed at the start of this article may become, “Well, it depends!”

References

Taylor, K., & Thompson, S. (2013, January 1). Retrieved October 9, 2014, from http://colorvowelchart.org/


Keli Yerian is senior lecturer and director of the Language Teaching Specialization Master of Arts degree in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Oregon. Her interests focus on gesture in professional communication and teacher education.