So I was at school today, cleaning the building with some students and having a great time. I got to change light bulbs. 100 light bulbs. I have to say that my ladder climbing skills improved considerably. And I got to hear about my students’ summer vacations. One of them cycled 200 kilometers around the Kansai area. Another went to Kyushu and helped on his grandfather’s farm. Now the students have headed home and I’m back at my desk about to read a few more articles and prep for classes.
Aside from vacation and prepping for classes, I read a lot of articles and books on English teaching. I’m pretty interested in improving how I teach speaking and listening, so most of what I read was around these issues. Here is what I learned:
– According to Cutler and Carter (1987) 90% of words in a 190,000 word corpus of spontaneous British English conversation begin with a strong syllable. So when it comes to teaching listening, building students skills around segmentation (separating words on-line/during listening) based on recognizing stress as the potential start of a word is going to have major benefits. Basically, tuning students in early to stress is a very good thing. Cutler (1997) did a further comparative study of languages and found that while other language do make more use of various aspects of prosody, this information isn’t necessary for lexical activation, or recognizing words in English. While it wasn’t clearly stated in the paper, this implies to me that students might be paying too much attention to non-determining factors when listening in English as a second language. So especially for beginning learners, sticking with basic activities such as listening activities which encourage students to circle stressed words, or even placing dots above each syllable of a text and having them circle the stressed syllables, is probably crucial in helping them develop the listening strategies they are going to need to segment English while listening.
– While other aspects of prosody aren’t crucial to segmentation, they are important to being understood. Derwing and Rossiter (2003) had a great paper showing that students who took lessons focusing on global speaking strategies such as stress, rhythm and intonation are rated much higher on comprehensibility and fluency than students who were trained in segmental aspects of speaking such as the production of individual phonemes, identification and discrimination of individual sounds, and minimal pairs exercises. In fact, students who were in the segmental group of learners actually showed a reduction in fluency. So when it comes to speaking, stress alone isn’t going to be enough. I do a lot of hand clapping during dialogue practice, both while listening and speaking to help students get used to the rhythm of English and I guess this is a good idea. I think I will spend a bit more time making sure my students are doing some intonation work as well during the next semester. During listening activities, I could just have students listen and draw a waveform of what they hear, an upward arcing wave for higher pitch, a downward one for lower pitch. It might also be useful to have them use their smart-phones to record themselves and then do a similar waveform exercise while listening to the recording.
– John Field (2003, p. 331) points out that assimilation, or the way in which the ends of words are altered in anticipation of the sound that follows, not only makes listening more difficult, but that the sounds most commonly affected by assimilation are /t/,/d/, and /s/, which are the sounds for most of the inflections in English. Basically, if our students are listening for cues as to tense or plurality, those auditory cues might very well just not be there. Which might explain why students end up leaving out the third-person ‘s’ and plurals during dictation exercises. They are just writing what they hear. Which makes me think that for many students, we need to include think time during dictation exercises to allow them to process meaning and insert inflections that might have been lost due to assimilation. It also makes me think that teaching grammar has an important role when it comes to listening. Grammar knowledge can serve as the schema which allows learners to hear what is not there. Just as topic knowledge allows learners to understand implied messages in a text, knowledge of grammatical forms might help our learners center an oral text in both temporal and psychological space.
(guilty admission: the John Field article is actually on the need to provide micro-training so our students can develop their bottom-up listening skills and get better at hearing what is actually said. The focus is definitely not on what I have written here in this blog post. This is much more of a riff on what I read. Anyway, just wanted to make sure I wasn’t coming off as the kind of guy who deliberately misrepresents articles to back up their own ideas.)
I also read a lot of other stuff as well. And when I write ‘stuff’, I pretty much mean ‘stuff’. As summer vacation has stretched on and on, my ability to translate theory into the language of the classroom has gotten weaker and weaker. It’s ironic that the summer months, when the classrooms are empty and I have time to catch up on my reading, is the time when that reading ends up being the least helpful to how I actually teach my classes. Probably the only reason I had enough energy to put together this blog post is because I spent the first half of the day hearing about my students’ summer vacations while changing light bulbs. But that’s OK. I’ll take my illumination where I can get it.
Cuttler, A. & Carter, D. (1987). “The predominance of strong initial syllables in the English vocabulary.” Computer Speech and Language 2: 133-142
Cuttler, A. (1997). “The comparative perspective on spoken-language processing.” Speech Communication 21: 3-15.
Derwing, T. & Rossiter, M. (2003). “The effects of pronunciation instruction on the accuracy, fluency, and complexity of L2 accented speech.” Applied Language Learning 13 (1): 1-17.
Field, J. (2003). “Promoting perception: lexical segmentation in L2 listening.” ELT Journal 57 (4): 325-333.