Tag Archives: listening skills

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 /wÉ”:tsjÉ™neɪm/. 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 /É™/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 /É™vju:w’evÉ™/ 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

46 Comments

Filed under Pronunciation, Speaking

Do something different with the coursebook listening

When teachers talk about ‘doing a listening’, what they usually mean is that they will set the scene, pre-teach as (and if ) necessary, then set some questions before pressing play.

This kind of teaching routine can work very well, and I’ve certainly written plenty of listening sections following that kind of format.

However, in the spirit of John Fanselow, I also believe that it is always a good idea to question such routines, and consider how we could do things differently.

Listening from the middle

In this article (thank you to Frances Eales for drawing it to my attention), John Madden explains how, rather than playing a recording from the beginning, students can benefit from starting in the middle. In real life we often start listening in the middle of a conversation, or when we turn on the radio or TV in the middle of a programme. Starting in the middle helps learners to develop the confidence and skills to deal with this.

Madden starts by discussing times when learners have ‘started in the middle’ in real life and then plays a section from the middle of the recording. Learners tune in as best they can, then discuss with a partner what they understood, and what they think might have been said before they started listening. They can then listen to the entire recording to check their predictions.

Pausing and predicting

Rather than always beginning by asking students to predict the content of a recording, another way of encouraging prediction might be to pause the recording while playing and ask for predictions.

There are several ways I can think of to do this:

1. If the recording is a dialogue, stop the recording after each utterance by person A, and ask students to either say, or write down what they think person B might say. They can then continue listening to check their ideas.

2. Stop the recording about halfway through, and ask students to either continue the conversation they have been listening to, or, if a monologue, to write down what they think the person will say in the rest of the talk.  This could work very well with a well-signposted monologue of the kind found in more academic English

Pausing and focusing on language

These activities would work better after using the comprehension activities in the coursebook, as a way of encouraging students to notice certain aspects of language. For more on this kind of bottom up activity, you might like to read John Field, and my article on Decoding Skills

1. Having previously picked out some useful expressions from the listening, pause the recording halfway through the expression, and ask students try and complete it from memory.

E.g. I had to learn the poem……by heart.

2. Using only a short part of the recording, pause at the end of each sentence or longer phrase, and ask students to write down what they hear. This can work really well for identifying students’ difficulties in decoding connected speech.

3. Pause the recording after referring expressions and ask students to identify what they refer to.

E.g. Albert Einstein is widely considered to be a genius. However, his education did not start off so well (pause-who does his refer to?). He didn’t learn to speak fluently until six or seven and one of his teacher wrote on his school report (pause-who does his refer to?) ‘He will never amount to anything.’, meaning he would never be successful. How wrong he was! (pause- who does he refer to?)

[extract taken from New Total English Intermediate]

Focusing on strategies

Rather than providing a follow-up related to the content of the text, you could carry out a protocol activity. After carrying out your comprehension activity, play the recording again and ask students to write down (in L1 if lower level students), as far as they can remember, what they were thinking at each point of the listening. What exactly did they understand or not understand, what strategies did they use, did they switch off (when and why?). This can then become the basis of a fruitful class discussion about how to listen.

To finish, you might like to watch this short (7 minute) TED talk by Julian Treasure, on How to listen better. It isn’t specifically about ELT listening, but it’s an inspiring reminder of how doing things differently can indeed lead to something exceptional.

16 Comments

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

11 Comments

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.

4 Comments

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