Tag Archives: decoding

What are reading skills? –They’re not (only) what you think

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When we talk about reading skills, what usually comes to mind? Prediction, reading for gist, reading for specific information and skimming and scanning?

If you’ll forgive the clickbait style title of this post (I couldn’t resist), the fact is that there’s a lot more to the skill of reading than this.

Let’s start by looking at these commonly referred to skills, and then look at what else we could (and should) be teaching our students.

Prediction

Students are very often encouraged to use the title of the text, or any accompanying pictures to make predictions about the content. There are good reasons for teaching students to do this; the idea is to activate whatever students may already know about the topic and help them to start creating a context. Without context, comprehension is much harder. Think about those moments when you turn on the radio and have no idea for a few moments what is being discussed. It only starts to make sense once you realise what the basic topic is.

Reading for gist

This doesn’t mean telling the students , ‘read the text to get a general idea of what it’s about’. That is never a very helpful task because it doesn’t give the students any reason to read, or any orientation to the topic or context. A gist question should mean that the students have to read the whole text, though not necessarily very thoroughly, in order to answer the question. For example, students might choose which title or picture most closely matches the content of the text. The idea is for students to get an overview of the text, which can help them when they return to the text to find more detailed information.

Reading for specific information

In contrast, reading for specific information means setting questions or a task which require the students to read the text much more carefully. This isn’t really a skill so much as a way of testing comprehension.

Skimming and scanning

These two words sound nice together, and make a memorable pair, but most people are a little vague about what they actually mean. Skimming has some crossover with reading for gist, because they are both about getting an overview. However, I would suggest that skimming and scanning are more properly called strategies rather than skills. They were originally both methods of speed reading. Skimming strategies are often taught as part of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) because these students have to read a great deal of content in English. So students may be taught, for example, to read just the first line of every paragraph, as this is often the topic sentence, which contains the main idea of the paragraph.

Scanning is a way of reading text quickly by only looking for specific bits of information, and not reading everything. For example, looking at the index or contents page of a book to find a specific topic you’re interested in, or picking out the figures in a text to see what the results of a piece of research were.  Again, this strategy can be particularly useful in academic contexts.

Understanding that we read different texts in different ways, using different strategies, is very important for learners. The way we read a novel on the beach is very different from the way we read a legal contract. We probably read the novel much faster, with more of a skimming/gist approach, whereas we are likely to read the contract carefully and slowly, checking that we understand the details. Students reading in a second language often fail to transfer these different ways of reading across from their first language.

Teaching reading skills

However, while looking at different ways of reading, and different reasons for reading,  is important, to what extent are these traditional reading activities actually helping students to read more effectively or fluently? Aren’t we mostly just giving them practice and/or checking their comprehension?

A reading lesson usually goes something like this:

  1. Set the scene/pre-teach vocab/elicit predictions.
  2. Read for gist (hopefully by setting a suitable gist question)
  3. Read again to answer for detailed comprehension questions.
  4. Discuss the content/focus on language in the text.

By encouraging students to predict and to read for gist first, we are perhaps helping them to develop their top-down skills- using context and their previous knowledge to make sense of what they are reading. However, there is a lot more to the reading skill than this.

According to Grabe and Stoller (2011:23) in each and every two seconds of reading fluent readers:

‘1 focus on and access 8-10 word meanings

2 parse a clause for information and form a meaning unit

3 figure out how to connect a new meaning unit into the growing text model

4 check interpretation of the information according to their purposes, feelings, attitudes and background expectations as needed

5 monitor their comprehension, make appropriate inferences, shift strategies and repair misunderstanding, as needed.

6 resolve ambiguities, address difficulties and critique text information, as needed.’

Fluent reading means that readers must be able to carry out all of these reading comprehension processes simultaneously and very quickly.  Just like driving a car, some of the processes taking place simultaneously must be automatized. If the reader is struggling to decode the words, or understand how the words fit into the sentence, or how the sentence fits into the discourse as a whole, their working memory will become overloaded, and they won’t be able to hold onto the overall meaning of the text.

So helping students to develop their reading skills must, I believe, include specific and conscious work on bottom up or decoding skills as well as top down skills, such as predicting.

Decoding skills

Whereas top down skills start from the reader and what the reader already knows or understands, bottom up or decoding skills start from the text. At the lowest level, students need to recognise alphabetic letters and then the words formed from these letters. Clearly, recognising and understanding written words is a key part of reading, even though we would usually deal with it under the heading of vocabulary. According to Paul Nation, in order to understand a written text without any assistance, students need to comprehend 98% of the words. So, if we want to work on developing reading skills (rather than using the text as a way of introducing new language) it is important that students aren’t getting stuck on too many unknown words.

Assuming that students recognise and understand enough of the vocabulary, the next layer of difficulty comes in putting those words together, understanding sentences, how those sentences fit together, and how what we are reading links with what we’ve already read. This is an area where there is huge potential to help students, and yet, outside academic reading courses, it is rarely a focus.

This is why I was so excited to work on Oxford University Press’s new series, Navigate. In this series, there is a clear syllabus and focus on these kinds of decoding skills. At lower levels, this might be understanding conjunctions or pronoun reference. At higher levels, we also focus on understanding complex sentences, ellipsis, paraphrasing and so on.

If we don’t focus on these kinds of skills, we are only teaching students part of what they need to know in order to improve their reading skills, and most of our focus is on testing comprehension rather than teaching.

Other posts on reading:

Learning vocabulary through reading

A lesson from my great-grandfather’s ELT coursebook- extensive reading and vocabulary

Developing meaning-building skills in reading

Repeated reading- some activities to build reading fluency

Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

What kind of reading tasks might be worthwhile?

Creating effective reading tasks

Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading, and if so how?

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under classroom ideas, Materials development, Reading, Teaching methodology, Uncategorized

Decoding skills for listening: a collection of useful links

About two and a half years ago I wrote a blog post entitled, Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension? In the time since then it seems that many of us have stopped neglecting those poor decoding skills, and that an interest in how decoding can help develop both listening and reading skills is on the rise.

A recent question posed by Mike Harrison on the IATEFL Facebook page about developing (rather than testing) listening skills led to a flurry of useful links in the comments, which I list below:

A presentation by John Field on Rethinking the Comprehension Approach to Listening

A summary of Sandy Millin’s 2014 presentation at IATEFL on teaching rather than testing listening

Olga Sergeeva’s blog on using authentic video clips to focus on bottom up skills.

A series of Listening Skills books written by Sheila Thorn (which I have mentioned before but which have now been re-published by Collins)

Hancock and McDonald’s forthcoming Authentic Listening Resource pack, which looks great.

Richard Cauldwell’s innovative app Cool Speech

And last, but not least, I can now reveal (drum roll), that I have spent the last eighteen months working on a new adult coursebook series for OUP, Navigate, which has a spread in each unit focusing  on decoding activities to develop listening and reading skills. Here’s a short video of me talking about the theory behind a listening skills lesson I gave in Oxford over the summer.

You can also see a fuller version of the lesson and download the materials and lesson plan here.

It’s great to see so much happening in this area, and I’d be very happy to add any other links that people have- just comment below.

 

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Filed under Uncategorized

Am I missing something?: raising awareness of ellipsis and substitution

Photo Credit: Bob.Fornal via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Bob.Fornal via Compfight cc

When students fail to understand something they read or hear, this often isn’t because they don’t understand the words being used. In fact, it may be because of the words that aren’t being used.

In both speaking and writing there is a tendency to either leave out words we think are unnecessary (ellipsis) or to use another single word in place of a longer phrase (substitution). This can cause considerable confusion for learners, especially when listening, as there is no chance to go back and try and work out the meaning.

It’s also something that teachers, as proficient speakers of English, often overlook. Not least because we find it complicated to explain, even though we may easily understand what the speaker or writer is trying to say.

Ellipsis

There are generally considered to be two different kinds of ellipsis, situational and textual.

Situational ellipsis is, unsurprisingly, where the situation or context makes the missing element clear. It’s informal and mostly used in conversation.

For example, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ can easily become ‘Tea?’ if you are waving a mug at someone, or even just sitting in the kitchen.

Textual ellipsis has more grammatical ‘rules’, and can be found in both speech and writing. It could be defined as when we omit something that has already been mentioned (so doesn’t need to be repeated), or when what is missing is clearly recoverable from the text.

E.g. I went to the bakers to get some wholemeal rolls and (I went) to the butchers for lamb chops.

Textual ellipsis is probably most commonly found in the second clause after ‘and’ or ‘but’

Reduced relative clauses and reduced adverbial clauses are also often considered to be examples of ellipsis. With these, the missing words haven’t necessarily been mentioned, but they are clearly recoverable.

E.g. The dark-haired girl (who is) standing over there just smiled at you.

When (you are) teaching ellipsis, you need to find good examples.

Substitution

The easiest way to think about substitution is to consider it as a form of ellipsis. Something is missing, but instead of just leaving it out, we substitute it with another word, usually ‘so’, ‘one(s)’, ‘do(es)’, ‘did’. [Some people have a wider definition of substitution and include things I’d put under the heading of reference]

E.g. Replacing a noun (phrase):

What kind of cupcake would you like? A chocolate one, please.

E.g. Replacing a verb phrase:

I didn’t like the film, but everyone else did (liked the film)

Note that we use substitution for verbs in the simple present or simple past. For other tenses or modals, we use ellipsis.

I don’t want to go running but I really should (go running).

Have you ever been to Paris? Yes, I have (been to Paris)

How to teach ellipsis and substitution

As with a lot of things, the first step is to raise awareness of its existence. This is something which is often dealt with in ‘advanced’ level materials. This is fair enough in terms of getting students to produce natural sounding language but this shouldn’t be the first time students have ever thought about the concept. It needs to be something that students are aware of right from the beginning.

First of all, don’t routinely ask students to produce ‘full answers’.

‘Where do you live?’ ‘I live in Brixton.’

This may neatly practice present simple, but it sounds distinctly odd. Encourage ‘short answers’ and show students how much can be achieved with the right intonation. (See ‘Tea?’ above).

At low levels, it’s worth doing some activities to focus on short answers. (E.g. Yes, I do, No, I can’t.)

For example, you could use mini whiteboards and ask students questions which require short answers. They have to write the answer which is true for them and hold it up. The advantages of mini whiteboards include the fact that that they have more processing time, they have to think individually about the correct short answer, and you can see exactly who is producing an appropriate short answer.

Alternatively, you could do this in a circle with a beanbag- the person catching the bean bag has to answer, using a short answer.

A lot of fun can be had with really pared down dialogues. Perhaps the most famous example is ‘The train to Oxford.’ As you can probably tell by the reference to smoking and the slightly cheesy storyline, this is a golden oldie. Originally written by Scott Thornbury as a piece of teacher training material:

A: Um cigarette

B: Thanks

A: Oxford

B: Yes you

A: Um that’s right student

B: Nurse you

A: Unemployed

B: Long

A: A year er married

B: Divorced

A: Really me too

B: Kids

A: One you

B: Three

A: Erm dinner

B: When

A: Tonight

B: Ah busy tomorrow

A: Lunch

B: OK where

A: Um Browns

B: Browns

A: When

B: One

A: Fine Oh Oxford

B: Already

A: Tomorrow

B: Tomorrow

A: Oh

B: Yes

A: Name

B: Sarah

A: Andrew

This, and texts like this, are usually used to work on intonation, and they’re great for that. But ‘The Train to Oxford’ is also stuffed with examples of situational ellipsis and we can focus on this by getting students to first build up the dialogue into fuller expressions. This will, of course, also help with meaning, and thus intonation, when they go back to the pared down version.

Any authentic or even semi authentic recording is also likely to be a good source of examples of ellipsis. Take a look at this extract from my latest downloadable lesson plan, Q & A, (which also has a focus on ellipsis by the way)

J: Have you ever lied to me? 

S: I probably have [], but I try not to [] even if sometimes the questions you ask me make me uncomfortable.

In any listening based lesson, after some work on comprehension, you can pull out an extract like this and get students to complete what’s missing.  Slightly harder is to ask students to find places in a text where something has been ‘taken out’ or substituted.

Alternatively, why not reverse it, and ask students to try to cut down texts? You could add an element of competition by asking students to reduce the text to as few words as possible, while still retaining the same meaning.

Ellipsis and substitution also tend to come up as testable items in Use of English type exam papers. We often see multiple choice questions such as:

Susie doesn’t like coffee but I _____.

do
like
didn’t

I can’t play the piano but Jim _____.

does
is
can

Show students some examples of these (and give them some straightforward practice). Then ask them to write their own versions. These can be personalised, about themselves or classmates, or simply as silly as possible.

Once you start using some of these activities, you, and hopefully your students, will notice ellipsis and substitution everywhere!

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Discourse, Grammar, Listening

Helping students with connected speech

There is a huge difference between what our students see printed on a page and what we actually say in everyday speech.

In a recording of a TESOL Spain Presentation on Youtube (well worth watching), Mark Hancock makes the following joke:

Patient: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got two theik, a near rake, sore rise, bruise darms a stummer cake and I far tall the time.

Doctor: I see, perhaps you’d like to way tin the corridor?

(Try reading it aloud)

The joke [apologies for the vulgarity 😉 ] showcases a good number of examples of features of connected speech. Teacher can tend to shy away from highlighting these in the classroom, but research shows that teaching learners about connected speech can really make a difference in terms of how well they understand native speakers. See for example, Authentic Communication: whyzit important ta teach reduced forms (Brown 2006) . Equally, some ability to use these features in their own speech will also be likely to make students more confident and fluent speakers.

Features of connected speech

As a brief overview, there is a strong tendency in English to simplify and link words together in the stream of speech, in order to help the language flow rhythmically. Some of the most common features:

Assimilation

This is when the sound at the end of one word changes to make it easier to say the next word. For example:

‘ten boys’ sounds like ‘ tem boys’ (the /n/ sound changes to the bilabial /m/ to make it easier to transition to the also bilabial /b/)

Incidentally bilabial just means two lips together, which is a good example of the kind of jargon that puts people off!

Catenation

This is when the last consonant of the first word is joined to the first vowel of the next word. This is very very common in English, and can be very confusing for students. For example:

‘an apple’ sounds like ‘a napple’ (Teacher, what is a napple?)

Elision

Elision means that you lose a sound in the middle of a consonant cluster, sometimes from the middle of a word. E.g. ‘sandwich’ becomes ‘sanwich’.

Or from the end of a word. For example:

‘fish and chips’ ‘fishnchips’

Intrusion

This is when an extra sound ‘intrudes’. There are three sounds that often do this /r/ /j/ and /w/

E.g. ‘go on’ sounds like ‘gowon’

I agree sounds like ‘aiyagree’

Law and order sounds like ‘lawrunorder’

[I probably should have used a phonemic keyboard!]

If you want to discover more about features of connected speech- and I think it’s fascinating stuff, there’s a list of useful books at the end of the post, but now let’s look at some activities to help raise awareness and encourage more natural sounding speech.

Connected speech activities

I remember reading somewhere that there are three ways to deal with pronunciation in the classroom: integrating it into other activities, dealing with it discretely, and completely ignoring it. 😉 Let’s assume we aren’t going to do the latter, and look at the other two approaches.

Integrated activities

I strongly believe that students should be made aware of the basics of connected speech right from the start. I don’t mean that you should be teaching your beginners exactly what catenation is, but you can certainly show them how words link together and what happens to sounds in the stream of speech. You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t even need to know very much about the technical aspects; you just need to listen to yourself very carefully and notice what is happening in your mouth as you speak.

Drilling and using the board

At lower levels, we tend to teach quite a lot of functional chunks, such as ‘What’s your name?’ Phonetically that could be transcribed as /wɔ:tsjəneɪm/. However, this is likely to confuse (terrify) the students. Instead, using the board, you can just show the students how the words link by using arrows, and write the schwa /ə/over the top of ‘your’ . Alternatively, you can use your fingers to show how the three words (separate fingers) meld into one long sound (push fingers together). And model and drill the phrase as it is said naturally.

If students struggle with longer phrases, try the technique of back-chaining, starting from the last sound and working up to the whole sound bit by bit. For example with ‘Where do you come from?’ you drill ‘frum’ ‘kumfrum’ ‘dz-kumfrum’ ‘where-dz-kumfrum’ I have no idea why this works- but it does.

Using recording scripts

Where new language has been recorded (or by recording it yourself), ask students to first look at the chunk of language written down and try saying it a few times. Then play the recording several times and ask them to write down what they hear, however they want to spell it. Use the two written forms to elicit the differences (such as the use of the schwa) and then drill the more natural pronunciation. You could of course just say the phrase for them, but it can be hard to keep repeating something exactly the same way.

Make it part of presenting new language

Whenever you are dealing with new language, you need to be thinking about the meaning, the form AND the pronunciation. So if you’re teaching ‘Have you ever + past participle’, make sure you’re teaching it as something like /əvju:w’evə/ not ‘Have… you… ever…’ You don’t need to explain that the first /h/ is elided or that there’s an intrusive /w/- just provide a good model.

Incidentally, I say ‘something like’ because individual ways of connecting and simplifying speech do vary a bit.

Be aware of the difficulties connected speech may cause with listening

If students struggle to understand something in a recording, or that you say, be aware that they may actually know all the words, just not recognise them in the stream of speech. A great example of this is the student who asked me what ‘festival’ meant. I went into an explanation, giving examples of different festivals…but teacher, he said, why do you always say it at the beginning of the lesson? (I was saying First of all…).

If students don’t understand a phrase, see if they do understand it written down and then take the opportunity to highlight the differences between the written and spoken forms.

Discrete activities

As well as teaching connected speech as you go along, it is also worth doing some discrete activities for the purpose of awareness-raising.

  • A good activity to start learners thinking about connected speech and weak forms is to dictate just part of some phrases. For example: ‘uvbin’. After students have written these down as best they can (this should be a light-hearted activity), you dictate the full phrase, in this case ‘I’ve been to Paris.’.
  • After doing a listening activity, try doing a dictation where you handout the recording script, with chunks of 2-3 words missing. These should include some aspects of connected speech. Students have to complete the gaps, which will help to develop their decoding skills.
  • Mark Hancock has some great activities in Pronunciation Games and on the HancockMacDonald website. I particularly like The Word Blender, a game for A2/B1 students which starts to help students identify some of the features of connected speech.

This is necessarily a very brief and somewhat simplistic overview. For more information and ideas, you could try:

Reading

Sound Foundations- Adrian Underhill- Macmillan

Pronunciation- Dalton and Seidlhofer- OUP

Pronunciation Games- Mark Hancock-CUP

Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ DELTA Phonology_Assignment_and_Lesson_Plan

Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ powerpoint on features of connected speech

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover

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Filed under Pronunciation, Speaking

Adapting ELT resources for ESOL

With thanks to @senicko and #eltpics

I was really sorry to miss the recent Twitter chat under #ukesolchat , not least because it’s a pet topic of mine! It looks to have been an interesting discussion, and there were plenty of different views aired. However, I don’t think anyone really made much of a case for using coursebooks, and I think there is often a rather knee-jerk reaction against using them in ESOL contexts. I hasten to say that this wasn’t apparent in this chat, but it is a common perception.

As you may know, a large part of my ‘job’ these days involves writing coursebooks, so I admit to a bias. But my convictions don’t come from this, but from 10 years teaching ESOL in an FE College, and a further three years training ESOL teachers from a wide variety of contexts, at Warwick University.

I would never argue that an ELT coursebook should form the syllabus for an ESOL course. It’s obvious that some of the material will be unsuitable or inappropriate, and many good points on this were made in the twitter discussion I mentioned. A lot of coursebooks (and I’ve written some) are specifically designed to be ‘aspirational’, which means they refer to foreign holidays, the latest technology and so on. There may be culturally inappropriate topics, such as dating or divorce. There will probably be topics about family, childhood or home, which may bring up painful issues for refugees. There may be (who am I kidding, there will be) an assumption that the learners’ literacy skills are at the same level as their listening and speaking skills. There will probably be an emphasis on grammar rather than functions (which is one of the reasons I agree with @SamShep when he says that older coursebooks are often better for ESOL)

So, no, I wouldn’t suggest taking a coursebook and using it willy-nilly (and that goes for any context).

But, …there will also be a lot of activities that will work perfectly well just as they are, and/or that can be adapted. Coursebook writers generally have a lot of experience, and can write materials which work, and which have been through a long process of being written and rewritten after feedback from editors and often focus groups of teachers as well.

Writing all your own materials is very time-consuming, it can lead to a lack of variety, and it isn’t that easy. In my experience, a lot of ESOL teachers (present company probably excepted) have not had much training in either language awareness or materials development (a point also made in the discussion), and they may well struggle to produce materials which are pitched at the right level, deal with language accurately and clearly, and which flow well. I have observed a lot of teachers using a series of unconnected worksheets printed from websites, or authentic articles which are waded through slowly and painfully. Using a coursebook as a basis can be a good way of learning to produce your own materials, as you see how activities can be sequenced effectively. It’s certainly how I learnt.

Specific ideas for adapting ELT materials for ESOL

The first point being, if an activity is really unsuitable, obviously, do something else instead!

But if it has potential..

Reading/listening

  • If your students have low levels of literacy, but better listening skills, then why not read a text aloud to them instead of making them read it?  You should be able to significantly aid understanding through intonation, mime, quick comprehension checks and so on.
  • Differentiate texts by setting different questions (the more closed, the easier), or use them as a dictation and remove more words/chunks for more confident learners.
  • Replace unsuitable texts with something more appropriate, but which covers similar vocabulary/functions. For example a text about dangerous sports which highlights ‘Have you ever?’ could be replaced by you telling the students about something unusual you have done, that is still within their experience. This means you can probably still use the follow-up activities.
  • Use the recordings to work on decoding skills, rather than just comprehension questions.  This can be a stepping stone to work on more challenging authentic listenings and videos.
  • Let students look at the transcript while they’re listening. This can be really helpful in raising awareness of the sound-spelling relationships in English, and it’s something you usually can’t do with authentic material.

Language focus

  • Use the grammar exercises selectively, when students have demonstrated a need for a particular language point to provide practice, rather than feeling you need to work through the grammar syllabus.
  • Make good use of functional language, as this is often far more relevant for ESOL students than it is for the majority of the book’s target users, living in a non-English speaking community.

Speaking/writing

  • Use the communication activities/tasks as the basis for a Language Experience Approach activity, where students work together to create a text about the activity they have carried out. This text can then be used as the basis for future work.
  • ESOL students may be less likely to need academic style essays (though some will of course), but there are usually plenty of practical writing activities. For example, in any PET level  coursebooks, students will learn how to write emails to friends with a variety of functions- apologising, thanking, inviting. And why assume that ESOL students don’t want to write creatively?

So, while recognising all the drawbacks of the ELT coursebook in an ESOL context (or rather different ESOL contexts), can I make a plea not to chuck out the baby with the bath-water?

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Teaching methodology

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

Decoding skills: a neglected part of listening comprehension?

As with reading, a lack of decoding skills can make it very difficult for learners at lower levels to hold enough meaning in their short term memory to effectively use their meaning building skills. This week I’ve written a post on this, with a range of practical ideas, for the OUP ELT Global Blog. Link here.

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Listening