Category Archives: Differentiation

Supporting ELT or ESOL students with Aspergers

The video is designed to show us what it’s like to live with sensory over-sensitivity. Not everyone on the autistic spectrum will experience this to this degree, or even at all, but it does give a sobering insight into the difficulties that some people face.

It is estimated that about 1 in a 100 people are on the autistic spectrum so the chances are very good that some of your students are, whether you, or even they know it or not.  In fact, because it’s a spectrum we are actually ALL on the autistic spectrum, it’s just a question of how pronounced those features are.

If you work with people with more severe forms of autism you probably already know plenty about how to support them , but many, often highly intelligent, people have traits of ASD without ever realising it. What they do realise is that life, and by extension learning in a classroom setting, is just that bit harder for them.

I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but since my son was diagnosed a few years back, my awareness has grown significantly and I realise how under-prepared/informed I think many language teachers are (me included).  Looking back, I can remember quite a few students that I would now recognise as probably having been on the autistic spectrum, and I now know that there are a lot of things I could have handled differently and more successfully.

There are three main areas where people with Aspergers or high functioning autism (not the same thing, technically, but similar) have difficulty :

Social communication

  • Being very literal. They may have difficulty in understanding jokes, metaphor or sarcasm. Generally speaking, these are things that most foreign language learners have problems with in a second language, but if you have Aspergers, you may also feel like that in your first language.
  • It can be hard for them to tell if someone is affectionately teasing, or being nasty, partly because of the being literal, but also because they may find it hard to read facial expressions of tone of voice.
  • Turn-taking and spotting when someone has lost interest can also cause difficulties.

So, if you have a student who easily takes offence or gets upset, for example, it might be worth considering whether what was said might have been mis-interpreted in this way. You could also try being more careful in your use of metaphor etc.

Turn-taking skills can be taught and practised- and most students can benefit from this, so no need to single anyone out. You could try some of the ideas in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics, such as passing round a ball of wool so that you can see the pattern of interaction in wool at the end of a conversation, or allowing the person to simply listen and take notes before feedback to the whole class at the end.

Social interaction

  • Many people with Aspergers have difficulty in starting conversations or interactions with others, or in sustaining them by asking questions.
  • They may find others unpredictable and confusing, leading to withdrawing and preferring to work alone.

I think as a language teacher, we need to respect that some students, whether with ASD or not, may sometimes prefer to work alone.  People on the spectrum can often be very sensitive to noise as well, and this combined with the unpredictability of others’ behaviour can be absolutely exhausting. So, despite what you may have learned on your CELTA course ;) , don’t force people to work with others.

When you do ask them to work in pairs or groups, think about how you can structure the task to make it more predictable and less overwhelming. For example, getting the group to make a list of five points, or ranking things in order of preference etc makes the task more concrete and manageable. It’s also good for everyone else, and having a clear outcome tends to produce a better quality of interaction.

Make sure that your instructions are absolutely crystal clear, and only give one instruction at a time. Again, this is useful for everyone, but people with ASD can find it particularly difficult to hold more than one instruction in their head at a time.

Because the world can be confusing and overwhelming, people with ASD often like to stick to routines. Again, this is generally good practice with all classes, especially young learners, but you might like to remember that changing the routine radically might have a negative impact on someone on the spectrum.

Social imagination

  • This is sometimes characterised as lack of empathy, but I think that’s not a very useful way of putting it as, in my limited experience, people with Aspergers definitely do feel for others, they’re just not always very good at imagining how others might feel.

So role-play type activities might cause problems for some students, as this involves imagining yourself in another person’s position. This certainly isn’t true of everyone with Asperger’s, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for such difficulties, and having an alternative up your sleeve.

A couple of other points

People with Aspergers often have what are known as special interests- subjects they are fascinated by and love to talk about. While you need to set up a clear structure- as otherwise they may find it hard to judge when they have lost their classmate’s interest- allowing a bit of space for the to talk about these subjects can also be rewarding, and gives these students a chance to show off their knowledge on the area.

As mentioned before, people with Aspergers may find noise difficult, so a calm atmosphere really helps.  They may also have other sensory difficulties with things such as bright lights. Obviously you don’t want to make the whole class work in silence, but it’s worth being aware that a student might be finding the atmosphere stressful so that you can change it or give them options.

Obviously if any of this is ringing bells with you in regard to a particular student I am NOT suggesting that you should be rushing in to offer a diagnosis! But you could try some of the tips and see if they have a positive effect. If nothing else, it might help you to empathise more with the student.

As I said at the beginning, I am certainly not an expert, so if anyone would like to offer any further ideas or corrections in the comments, that would be very welcome.

Links

http://www.autism.org.uk/

http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/education/education-professionals-in-fe-and-he/guidelines-for-teaching-students-with-asperger-syndrome-in-further-education-colleges.aspx

 

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Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Monitoring class activities

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Photo Credit: madabandon via Compfight cc

 

Dictionary definitions of monitoring include:

To check the quality or content of something.

To keep track of systematically with a view to collecting information.

To keep close watch over; supervise.

Classroom monitoring can, I think, involve all of these aspects, and doing it well is a key teaching skill. We’ve all seen (or probably been) teachers who either breathe down students’ necks, making them desperately uncomfortable, or who wander off and start doing admin tasks at the back of the room (though the latter might just be monitoring very subtly!)

Monitoring to check the activity

As students start a task, it’s very important to check they know what they’re doing and that they are able to do it. So, although you might want to back off in order to make them feel less self-conscious, you probably need to at least subtly look around and see if people are on-task. Listen in unobtrusively, perhaps while doing those admin tasks, and make sure they’re ok. If one pair or group is uncertain about what to do, go and help them. If more than one pair or group is uncertain, I’d advise against going round and helping them all. It’ll take too long, and waste precious time for those waiting to see you. This is how I failed my O level maths (that, and too much gossiping).  Just stop the activity and set it up again. And this time, check your instructions.

This kind of monitoring is simply pragmatic, and about helping things to run smoothly. It’s most important at the beginning of a task, but you can also do this kind of monitoring while a task is in progress to see if a group have finished early, if they need more support or more challenge and so on. Especially if you’re teaching young learners, you can also assess if they are starting to tire of the activity, and if you need to swiftly bring it to a close before all hell breaks loose.

Monitoring to assess language and/or skills

The other main reason for monitoring is to assess the language the students are producing (or their skills). This is vital if you want to be able to use your skills to actually help students develop. If you aren’t listening or paying attention, how can you possibly have any idea what they can do, or what they still need help with? “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, of course, students are still able to listen to each other, and to themselves, but I hope you get my point.

How?

Perhaps you’ve heard about the secret handshakes that Masons are supposed to use to recognise each other? There’s a secret way that trainers who were trained up at International House (IH) can do this too….they crouch. Well, maybe not all of us, but I’ve recognised a few fellow ex-IHers this way. The idea is that by getting down on the students’ level, you’re less obtrusive and threatening. I think there’s something in this, but if students aren’t used to it, it can be a bit discombobulating for them (I knew I’d get to use that word in a blog post one day!)

It also isn’t great if you’re wearing a shortish skirt.

Being unobtrusive is important, however. You could try sitting at a short distance and looking elsewhere while your ears work overtime. If you really want to freak them out, look at one pair while listening to another, and then comment on what the second pair said. In a smallish class, it can also work quite well to sit on a chair in the middle of the room and lean forward. It signals that you’re listening, but isn’t too (literally) in your face. If students are writing, you’ll need to get closer. Try walking behind as these means they don’t have to stop what they’re doing and turn their book round to show you. It also helps to learn to read at strange angles.

Try not to get too involved with a group as this means you can’t tell what’s going on elsewhere. This can easily turn into small group teaching, while the rest of the class feel ignored, get bored, start throwing paper aeroplanes…. This (small group teaching, not throwing paper aeroplanes) might be OK in some circumstances, though. For example, with a longer project-like activity, once you are SURE everyone knows what they’re doing and can work independently.

What should you be listening for?

Obviously this depends on what the students are doing. Here are some suggestions.

Speaking tasks

Are they using the language you’ve been working on in class? Bear in mind that if they aren’t, it might be because you (or the coursebook writer) hasn’t designed the task very well.

Is the language you plan to focus on already being used naturally? If not, that will provide a ‘gap’ for you to feed language into later- as in task-based learning.

Can you identify a gap, or language they need to do the task more effectively? If so, make a note, teach it at the feedback stage, and then let them do the task again.

Grammar or vocab exercises

Monitoring should tell you which students are finding it easiest, and which are struggling. How many are struggling? (Do you need to deal with this whole class or on an individual basis?)

It’s also a great opportunity to think about who you are going to nominate at the feedback stage. You don’t want to put people on the spot [unless they really deserve it ;)] by asking for answers they don’t know. It can also be  a good idea to give a weaker student a boost by nominating them when you know, from monitoring, that they’ve got the answer right.

After monitoring

As well as carrying out feedback on a task, or conducting an ‘error correction slot’ (where you write mistakes you heard on the board, anonymised and ask students to try and correct them), you could write down examples you heard of language which was particularly successful or useful.

Alternatively, you could choose not to feedback at that point, but to note down what you’ve learnt about their needs and plan a future lesson around them.

If they haven’t used the target language they were ‘supposed to be’ practising, you could take some examples of what they did say (which was correct), give praise for it, and then try to elicit other ways of saying it which do use the target language.

Or you could ask students to feedback on other aspects of the task- such as how well they worked together- and give them your own feedback on what you noticed.

If, on the other hand, you’ve just been filling in the register while they did the task, you can’t do any of these things…

 

 

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The Icing on the Cake- free downloadable lesson

A free downloadable lesson based around another wonderful animated true story from http://www.storycorps.com. The conversation between a mother and daughter looks back on the family’s struggles as poor immigrants to the US, and how the daughter was inspired by her mother’s determination.

The lesson is  suitable from Pre-Intermediate +/A2+, particularly because the animation helps with comprehension. After watching and listening, there is a focus on impersonal pronouns/adverbs (something, anything, everyone.nowhere etc) and a discussion task which brings in more vocabulary to describe qualities we’d like to pass onto our children. Again, this could be adapted to lower and higher levels through the choice of vocabulary.

Download PDF here: ELT Resourceful – The Icing on the Cake

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Filed under Differentiation, Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Listening, Speaking, Vocabulary

How identifying the different roles we play can help groups work better together

Who are you?

This may seem an obvious question, but now try getting a pencil and writing down ten different responses to that question before you read on….

…If you look at your list, you might have listed your gender or ethnicity, and there may be some adjectives such as kind or artistic. You’re likely to see a set of roles that you play: teacher, manager, parent, son or daughter.

We all play different roles in different groups, and the classroom is no exception.

You are likely to take on different roles within your role of being a teacher: facilitator, critic, guide… But what about the roles your students take within the group?

Group theory (see, for example, Communicating in small groups: Beebe and Masterson) divides roles into three different types:

Task roles: roles that help a group carry out a task

Some examples

Initiator- contributor: proposes new or different ideas or approaches

Information seeker: asks for facts or clarification

Opinion seeker: Asks for values and opinions

Elaborator: provides examples

Orienter: attempts to summarise and keeps the group focused on the task

Maintenance roles: roles that help the group work smoothly together

Some examples

Encourager: Offers praise and acceptance

Harmoniser: mediates disagreements

Compromiser: attempts to resolve conflicts

Individual roles: these tend to be counter-productive to the group as a whole

Some examples

Aggressor: puts other people down

Blocker: negative, stubborn and difficult

Dominator: tries to take over the group

It is tempting to use these roles to start labelling your favourite (or least favourite students), but in fact, roles change all the time, and people can play many different roles. The point of exploring different roles is not to stereotype people or make them feel they should be carrying out a particular role, but to help the members of a group or class be aware of how they are all working together, and how that interaction could be improved.

Activities to raise awareness of group roles

The first two ideas are both ways for students to track interaction within a small group. This can be very useful for getting an overview of how the group is working.

  1. Put the students into groups of five or six. One person observes while the others carry out a speaking task. The observer draws circles on a piece of paper to represent each member of the group. They then listen and draw arrows each time someone speaks.  If one person speaks directly to another, draw an arrow between them. If someone speaks to the group as a whole draw an arrow away from the group. If someone is speaking for more than a few sentences at a time more than one arrow can be drawn.

At the end of the task, the observer should feedback to the group on what they observed, and the whole group can discuss the findings:

-          What do you notice about the lines of communication?

-          Were the lines of communication an effective way of carrying out the task? Why/why not?

-          Was everyone happy with the way they participated?

-          What things could the group change in the future?

This task is taken from Conversation: Nolasco and Arthur.

2 A similar, but perhaps more entertaining idea, comes from Classroom Dynamics: Jill Hadfield. Rather than having an observer, the group has a ball of wool or string. The person starting the speaking task holds the end, and then passes the ball to the next person to speak. This continues until the task has finished (I’d suggest quite a short task!). The pattern of interaction will be very clear at the end, demonstrated by the web of wool or string. Or possibly the students will actually start to change the pattern of interaction as they see that they are either taking over a bit too much, or not contributing very much.

After this kind of activity, you could go a step further and actually start to look at the different kind of roles students are taking. This needs to be done carefully though, to avoid singling people out for criticism.

Jill Hadfield suggests two activities which could both be handled sensitively:

1 Using a self-evaluation questionnaire. There is a photocopiable one in Classroom Dynamics, which includes questions such as:

-          Did you contribute any ideas?

-          Did you encourage anyone else to contribute any ideas?

-          Is there any way you could help the discussion to go better….by making a suggestion etc.

She suggests carrying out a speaking task, then asking students to complete the questionnaire individually and privately, then carrying out a second speaking task and finally discussing if and how the second speaking task was an improvement on the first one. (From personal experience I can tell you that this process can be completely transformational.)

2 Observing group roles. In this activity, students carry out a speaking task and are observed. The observer ticks how many times various things (such as contributing an idea, interrupting, evaluating someone else’s idea, not talking in English) happen- but does not note down who did these things.  The group then looks at the results and decides which things are happening too often, and which not often enough. There isn’t necessarily a value judgement to these things. Contributing ideas is something we want to see happen, but if that’s ALL that’s happening, the group will not be working very smoothly! They then choose three things they should do more often and three things they should do less often.

Incidentally, although the observer in these tasks is not taking part, this can be a useful role for certain students. Students who tend to be very dominant can benefit from having to sit back and listen, and students who struggle to get a word in can benefit from having a clear role and being asked to feedback on what they observed.

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A new class: building a learning environment together

Many of us are starting new terms and working with new groups. We probably already know what the learners are expected to achieve in their time with us, and the pressure is on.

It’s tempting to dive straight in, but any new group will need to work through interpersonal issues before they can function effectively as a group (and as individuals within the group). We can ignore these issues, but that won’t make them go away; we’re just more likely to get our feet tangled in them, like weeds under the surface of the water.

In a central work on group dynamics in the classroom, Schmuck and Schmuck [no, it isn’t just you that finds their names amusing  :)], observe:

‘ Our research has shown that classroom groups with supportive friendship patterns enhance academic learning, while more hostile classroom environments reduce learning…informal group processes in the classroom can, and do, make a difference in the accomplishment of the formal goals of the school.’

So, what can we do to encourage more supportive patterns?

Getting to know you activities

First of all, pay more than lip-service to the ‘getting to know you’ activities. Language learning is a high risk activity in terms of losing face and the student surrounded by unfamiliar faces is likely to either withdraw or ‘act-out’ as a way of controlling the environment.

Names

It seems obvious, but make sure that everyone knows everyone else’s names. Rather than putting pressure on them to learn them, try a discussion activity about names. Some possible questions:

-          How did you get your name? Were you named for someone else? Who/why?

-          Does your name have a meaning?

-          Do you have a nickname (you are willing to share)? How did you get it? Who uses it?

-          Do you or other people shorten your name in any way? How do you feel about either the shortened name or the full name? (Many people feel they are going to be told off when someone uses their full name)

-          Do you like your name? Why/why not?

-          What would you like to be called in class?

This can be done in small groups, which either swap around, or feedback to the main group.

It goes without saying that you need to learn your student’ names as quickly as possible. A few tips:

-          Write down the names in the same layout as the students are seated (i.e. in a horseshoe) and refer to it often in the first class or so.

-          Use their names as much as possible to begin with.

-          When students are working on something mentally go round and test yourself on the names. Ask anyone you can’t remember to remind you (better now than in a month’s time)

-          Make a note next to each name of a distinguishing feature (e.g. curly hair).But be careful with this one….don’t write anything you wouldn’t want the student to see!

Find someone who…

This is a very well-known activity in some circles, so apologies if it’s too obvious, but it does work brilliantly. This is a variation which doesn’t require you to know anything about the students prior to the class, and ensures that students are comfortable about what is revealed (which can sometimes be a problem when this activity is done on CELTA courses, based on application forms!)

Put students into small groups (3-4) and ask them to think of three things to tell the other group members about themselves, which they are pretty sure will be new information.  They should take it in turns to give a piece of information, and the others should comment on it. Model this if necessary. While they are carrying out the activity, monitor and note down one fact about each student that you overhear.

Then dictate the facts to the class. E.g. Find someone who…

…has just been to Sweden on holiday.

…used to live in another country

Students will already know some of these from their small group work, but they can then mingle and ask others in the class, ‘Have you just been to Sweden?’ etc.  (no pointing at the sheet allowed)

Guess who?

This works better with groups which have worked together a little before. Each group member writes 2-3 sentences about themselves (anything they want to share). These are collected in and read aloud (by you or the students) and everyone writes down who they think each one refers to before the answers are revealed at the end.

An alternative is for 1 of 3 pieces of information to be a lie. In this version, we don’t have to guess who, but guess which piece of information is untrue.

Creating a sense of group identity

As well as getting to know each other better, we can also focus on creating a positive group identity.

Class Yearbook or Photo Album

Over the course of the year, a scrapbook (or the digital equivalent) is gradually built up by members of the class. You could begin with photos and a short bio about each member, then add updates as often as you and the class wish. This could cover what has been learnt, any social activities or trips, creative writing or articles, whatever seems appropriate.

At the end of the year, contact details could be added for those that wish to keep in touch if the group is breaking up, and maybe include a letter from the teacher about the experience of teaching the group.

Class history

(this idea comes from the wonderful Classroom Dynamics- Jill Hadfield)

Exactly how you do this will depend on the age range of your students. The idea is for each student to research a different year or other short period of time in the past and find out what everyone in the class did or was doing at that time.

After a mingle activity where they interview each other, the information can be put together on a time–line.  This is a great activity for working together and getting to know each other (not to mention using past tenses)

In my next post I plan to look at some activities for developing the class’s awareness of how groups work together and how they, individually, are contributing to the group. Feel free to sign up to be sent this post by email- button on the right.

 

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Drilling-based activities: preparation light, student generated ways to build fluency. What’s not to like?

Drilling

Drilling has certainly fallen out of favour in recent years. Strongly associated with the behaviourist approach it is often seen as non-communicative, boring, patronising…. A recent ELTChat on the subject brought up all the negatives, but also provided a long list of positive reasons for drilling. For example:

  • Building confidence
  • Helping learners get their tongues round new words
  • Picking up pace and getting students’ attention
  • Developing ability to produce (and understand) connected speech

And perhaps the key reason, for me at any rate: drilling or repetition is an important step towards fluency. Especially at lower levels, it is quite natural to rehearse (at least mentally) before tackling a speaking situation.  Repeating something helps us to ‘notice’ what we are repeating and assimilate it into our store of language. The ELTChat I referred to concentrated mostly on drilling words or single chunks. There are plenty of benefits to this, but in this post I want to concentrate on some techniques which are probably even more out of favour: drilling and repeating dialogues and narratives.

Dialogue builds

I did my CELTA so long ago that it wasn’t even called that then (!). It was also at IH in Cairo, which I rather suspect was a little behind the times in terms of materials. The result was that my initial training centred around the coursebook series Streamlines and Strategies. Lots of drilling and repetition.

One of the first techniques I learnt was a dialogue build. For the uninitiated, it goes like this: Set up the situation, using a photo (or in pre-IWB days two stick figures on the board). Elicit where the characters are, who they are, what’s happening and so on. This is often a service encounter (e.g. in a café), but can be anything you like.

Then you elicit the dialogue from the students, line by line. As you accept each line, you help learners correct it if necessary and then model the final version, with appropriate connected speech and intonation, getting the students to repeat it. You DON’T write the dialogue on the board, but do indicate where each line starts and who is speaking. You might also add question marks or little visual clues. As you go through the dialogue you keep returning to the start, getting students to keep repeating the dialogue, and thus memorising it. You can do this whole class, or divide the class into the number of characters or ask individuals to do each line. It’s good to have a bit of variety here.

Once the class knows the dialogue by heart, they can practise a little more in pairs, changing roles. You can also have a bit of fun with it by getting one of the characters to change their answers, so that the first person has to react spontaneously. (Good idea to model what to do first with lower level learners) Finally, you can elicit the dialogue once more, writing it onto the board so that the students have a clear written version. Alternatively, you could get students to come up and write it on the board, giving scope for some work on correcting spellings, missing articles and so on.

A dialogue build is a great technique to have up your sleeve for a last minute cover lesson. It’s obviously most appropriate for lower level learners, but could be done with more advanced students if the chunks of language elicited were more demanding. At the end of it, the students have memorised a whole set of (hopefully useful) chunks of language and can produce them fluently at will. Fluent speakers are essentially those who have enough chunks of language that they can stick together to keep going, so teaching chunks in this way is a real help.

It’s also an excellent activity to do with learners with low levels of literacy. I can’t understand why it isn’t an ESOL staple. You don’t need any equipment except a board and pens (great for those community halls), it doesn’t rely at all on reading and writing, it can be adapted for specific situations that learners might have to deal with (ringing for a doctor’s appointment, for example) and once it’s elicited onto the board it provides a copying activity where the meaning is already very clear (and was indeed student generated).

Alternative versions

Instead of eliciting the whole dialogue, you could give them one half or the dialogue (i.e. all that one person says) and elicit the missing responses. Then proceed as above. A good alternative for learners who can read quite well, is to start by writing the elicited dialogue onto the board. Drill as a class, making sure you are giving a good model of natural pronunciation, then ask learners to practise it in pairs. As they are practising, gradually wipe off words and lines from the dialogue. As it disappears, they have to remember more and more. Finally you can re-elicit it onto the board or get them to write it down on the board, or in pairs on paper. This could work equally well with a narrative.

Another old, but great, idea comes from Mario Rinvolucri’s book, Dictation. In this activity, you do the repeating (at least to start with) and the students listen and mime the actions. It works really well with younger learners, but if you have a lively class, adults could enjoy it too. Here’s the text (slightly adapted)

You’re standing in front of the Coke machine. Put your hand in your back pocket. Take out three 50p coins. Put them in one by one. You hear the machine click. Choose your drink and press the button. You hear a terrible groan from the machine. Clunk! A can drops down. Pick it up. Open the can. It squirts Coke in your face. Take a tissue out of your pocket. Rub your eye. Lick your lips. Take a sip. Burp!

First read the text right through, just to orientate students. Then read again and elicit a movement for each line. Get all the students doing it. Then read a third time with all the students doing all the movements.  You can make this stage fast as possible if you want a bit of fun. Then give the students a version of the text with most of it missing. They have to work together to recreate the text.

This is a form of dictogloss, but the difference is that doing the actions should help them to remember what’s missing. If they get stuck, get them to do the actions and try and remember that way. This is the stage at which they should be drilling the language themselves, as they try to recall it. You can obviously differentiate this activity by giving less of the text to more able students and vice versa. Finally you get the whole class to carry out the actions while saying the text (from memory).

All of these ideas are extremely preparation-light and student generated. They provide a way to help learners appropriate new chunks of language to their store, and the challenge of memorisation also provides interest and stimulation. Maybe it’s time for a revival?

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How we can use minimal pairs to help L2 listeners to decode what they hear.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to catch Sam Shephard’s lively session on pronunciation at the NATECLA conference in Liverpool. His session focused mostly on productive pronunciation, but as I was presenting on the same day on decoding skills for listening, I found myself thinking more about the role of pronunciation work in decoding- and specifically about minimal pairs.

When I first saw this advert for Berlitz language schools on youtube, I was struck with how clever it is.

But, apart from in this rather specific context, how important is it really that learners can understand or pronounce the difference between //θ/  / and /s /?

Minimal pairs, minimal importance?

It seems that misunderstandings in natural speech are rarely caused by the mispronunciation of one sound. Usually context gives us enough of a clue to understand what the speaker is trying to say. Adam Brown gives a good example in his 1995 article, Minimal pairs, minimal importance?:

‘Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. However, it is a tiny island (the size of the Isle of Man) with a population of three million. Consequently, land is at a premium, and there are no animal farms. The nearest most Singaporeans come to sheep is mutton curry. In short, if Singaporeans don’t pronounce the distinction between ship and sheep clearly, the chances of misunderstanding are minimal: they are almost certain to mean ship.’

Similarly, Jenkins (2000) found that /θ/ rarely caused misunderstandings between NNSs, and she also points out that many native speaker varieties don’t use it anyway, often using /t/ or /f/.

So should we chuck out the minimal pairs work?

Can minimal pairs help L2 listeners decode more effectively?

Well, according to John Field (2008) there is evidence that L2 listeners process in words, but that ‘many of the matches they make are rough approximations that do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the listener heard.’ In other words an inability to recognise certain phonemes is leading to learners making inaccurate guesses about words, which in turn could lead them quite seriously off track as they apply top down skills to their guesses. For example, the listener who hears ‘screams’ instead of ‘screens’ is likely to go quite a way off track.

It is certainly true that context could help here- but that is making the assumption that learners are able to use their top down skills effectively when, Field and others argue, learners who are unable to decode effectively, usually can’t hold onto enough meaning to start stringing ideas together.

So, therefore, there is certainly an argument for using some minimal pair work, especially at lower levels- though we probably do need to be quite selective about which phonemes we choose to focus on.

Functional load

Sounds that carry a high functional load are used to distinguish between a significant number of words. The opposite is sounds which carry a low functional load. For example, Brown (1995 above) says that the only minimal pairs in English for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are:

Confusion/Confucian, azure/Asher, mesher/measure , allusion/Aleutian, glacier/glazier

I think we can probably all agree that the likelihood of students even using most of these words is pretty low, never mind getting them confused!

Minimal pairs with a high functional load would include:

/e/ and /ae/ , /p/ and /b/, /e/ and /I/

A full list is available in Brown 1988

Individual needs

With a monolingual group, it should be fairly straightforward to find out which pairs are causing the most problems. A book like Learner English can be helpful, or simple observation. Obviously with a mixed nationality group, tricky minimal pairs are likely to vary, but there are some which seem to be difficult for speakers of many different languages, and have a high functional load, such as /e/ and /ae/ and /ae/ and /ʌ/

Activity ideas

The first point to make is that ideally, learners should be able to see the link between the minimal pair work and what they are listening to. For example, if a number of learners have heard ‘scream’ instead of ‘screen’, that would be a perfect opportunity to do some minimal pair work on /m/ and /n/.

The second point is not to overload the learners. I wouldn’t suggest working on more than one pair of sounds at a time.

The third point (made by Field) is that ideally words used should be relatively frequent and of roughly equal frequency. So bin and pin would be OK, but perhaps not blade and played.

There are lots of ideas for working on minimal pairs (some of which came up in Sam’s session, mentioned above)

Some different ways for learners to show they can differentiate the two sounds:

  • Put the two words in each pair on different sides of the board and learners  put up their left hand/right hand according to which they think they hear.
  • Alternatively, learners can physically move to the right or left side of the classroom.
  • Put the words on cards and learners grab the right card, either in small groups with little cards, or with big (sturdy) cards, you can haver learners line up so one from each team is in front of the board and they race to grab the right word from there.
  • For a more sedate activity, learners write down what they think they hear.
  • Learners say if the words you say are the same or different.

Obviously all the activities above can be done with a learner providing a model, but then it becomes oral work, rather than listening, and they will need help to know how to make the sounds etc.

If learners have literacy issues, the above activities could potentially be done with pictures rather than words:

 

 

And if one of the words in the pair you want to use is not very frequent (e.g. played/blade), you could still do the activity but just write the frequent word on the board and ask ‘Same or Different?’

A more contextualised task, which would make the relationship to listening clearer, might be to select a phrase or short section from something they have listened to which contains a lot of the two sounds (not necessarily in minimal pairs) and ask them to mark the two phonemes.

E.g. ‘Looking after rabbits is really easy’ might work well for /r/ and /l/.

Individualised work

Clearly working on minimal pairs is much trickier with a multi-lingual class. As mentioned earlier, there are some vowel sounds which a lot of people find tricky. Alternatively,  learners could be given different sounds to work on, according to needs. There are now quite a few websites  (for example http://www.shiporsheep.com) where learners can listen to minimal pairs, so this kind of differentiated activity could be set as homework.

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Filed under Differentiation, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Pronunciation