Are we raising a breed of ‘dyslexic’ foreign language learners?

(Co-authored with Steve Smith and Dylan Vinales)

All teachers who have taught dyslexic children at some point in their career will know how challenging it can be to keep them engaged and motivated, how low their self-confidence as language learners usually is, how frustrated they often get as they struggle to make sense of what they read. But hang on, doesn’t this description also apply to quite a few of the language learners we teach?

Well, in fact, one may argue that many of our students do exhibit a form of deficit in their foreign language competences akin to a disorder called ‘Phonological dyslexia’, described by Ellis (1984) as the inability ‘to read unfamiliar words or non-words aloud, suggesting impairment of grapheme-phoneme conversion and/or phonemic assembly’. In other words, ‘Phonological dyslexics’ are individuals who are not able to sound unfamiliar words out. This inability to convert graphemes (letters) into phonemes (sounds) – unsurprisingly – seriously impairs these individuals’ reading comprehension skills.

Erler (2004) is highly indicative of this state of affairs. In her study of 359 year 7 students of French (from two middle-achieving English comprehensive schools) she found that after one year of instruction (with two contact hours a week) their knowledge of spelling-sound rules was poor, both schools obtaining the same mean score at the rhyming-word test she administered, i.e. 2.75 correct choices out of 14. She concluded:

The results seem to indicate that, with a few exceptions, pupils had little idea after one year of learning French about spelling-sound rules for principal vowel sounds in the language and for the general rule of silent final consonants. These are key rules for being able to decode from print to sound, and are essential for reading comprehension (p. 5)

What is equally interesting – and tragic – is that only 7.6% of Erler’s informants reported they felt ‘happy’ when reading French aloud in lesson; the vast majority of the students felt negatively about decoding and spelling written French.

Another interesting finding by Erler was that 75 % of the total sample Year 7s thought that it was indeed useful to know pronunciation and 63% stated that they were aware of subvocalizing to sounds when reading in French, confirming what we know about automatic phonological loop activation in working memory during reading (in simpler words: whether we are aware of it or not, the brain automatically converts letters into sounds as we read, even when we are not reading aloud).

These findings are dispiriting for several reasons. Firstly, because, as much L1 and L2 research clearly indicates (e.g. Stanovich, 1980; Bryant and Bradley, 1983; Sprenger and Casalis, 1995; Gathercole and Baddeley, 2001) decoding skills are crucial to comprehension of written texts and poor readers often exhibit serious deficits in their deployment. Heaps of research indicate that a child’s early knowledge of phonological awareness is a strong predictor of their fluency in later years (Stanovich, 1986). Muter and Diethelm (2001) found that students of French as a foreign language who were able to tell where syllables in a word begin and end were more proficient readers than those who didn’t.

Secondly, as I have argued in many of my posts and will write about more extensively in my forthcoming book ‘Breaking the sound barrier’ (Conti and Smith, 2017), phonological awareness is crucial in listening comprehension in that it helps the brain make sense of the speech flow by identifying word-boundaries, intonation patterns, etc.

Thirdly, and more tragically, as Erler’s concluded, the students she investigated exhibited decoding deficits (in French) comparable to those symptomatic of dyslexic reading impairment. Now, students who are de facto dyslexic are less likely to have high levels of can-do attitude and self-confidence in language learning, both strong predictors of success in language learning (Macaro, 2007). Could this be one of the reasons why many of our students don’t enjoy learning languages? Could addressing this major deficit enhance their motivation? I believe so.

Erler’s findings chime with my own experience as a veteran MFL teacher with over 20 years’ experience at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Decoding skills – also referred in the literature as GPC (grapheme-phoneme correspondences), spelling-sound rules or Phonological Awareness  – are not duly emphasized in British schools and, when they are indeed embedded in the curriculum, instruction is undermined – in my opinion – by the following shortcomings which serious limit its effectiveness:

1.Decoding skills instruction is not given sufficient prominence in the curriculum;

2.It is often an add-on; it is not fully integrated with the curriculum content and goals;

3.As per Dr Rachel Hawkes’ approach, phonics are often taught through gestures and tongue twisters, but the target phonemes are rarely consciously and systematically recycled in the lesson through listening, reading and speaking tasks which aim at their organic acquisition. This approach limits the acquisition of the target phonemes as it is divorced from fluency across all four skills and from real-life-like communication. In my approach the target phonemes are consciously recycled in every single task (both receptive and productive) I stage to teach the topic-at-hand (be it grammar, communicative function or vocabulary);

4. Instruction rarely ventures beyond word-level practice, which is not conducive to acquisition – the input we process and the output we produce usually contains more than one word…;

5.The target graphemes are usually sequenced randomly without considering (a) the level of challenge they pose to the learner; (b) how their teaching contributes to facilitate other aspects of L2 acquisition, such as grammar – for instance: (in French) a focus on letters that are silent earlier on in the instruction process will serve the purpose of assisting the acquisition of present tense forms. Instructional sequences ought to be based on a (possibly evidence-based) rationale;

6.Each target phoneme is not usually focused on for sufficiently long periods of time and recycled consistently and extensively across the curriculum;

7.Phonemic awareness skills (see picture below) are not focused on explicitly in the early years of L2 instruction, yet I have found that primary and year 7 students benefit greatly from practising them and research shows clearly that they prime the connection of sound to print.

Figure 1 : the Phonemic awareness development continuum (Courtesy of University of Oregon)

 pa_continuum

8.Students with poor phonemic sensitivity are not identified at the beginning of the course, yet I found it extremely useful to have a good idea from day one as to who was less gifted in this area of language aptitude (the natural predisposition to decode letters and repeat and manipulate sounds);

9.Students are rarely – if ever – tested on their decoding ability or phonological awareness (to assess progress in these areas). This is a serious shortcoming considering how pivotal this set of skills is for language learning effectiveness and success; I found that including opportunities for assessment (e.g. old school dictation or short transcription tasks) has increased my students’ focus on decoding skills and their motivation to learn them.

These and more common shortcomings of decoding skill instruction will be dealt with in greater depth in my next post.

Conclusion

Many foreign language students in England appear to have poor decoding skills. This hinders the development of their reading and listening fluency whilst seriously denting their confidence. As I have written in my forthcoming TES article ‘Enhancing MFL learner motivation – the road less travelled’, one of the most important reasons why our students lack confidence and motivation may relate to their inability to make sense of the target language, be its grammar or its decoding/pronunciation.

One of the group of students I have been trialling my decoding-skill training program with reported to me the other day that they were so much happier to be finally able to read out written French following a set of specific spelling-to-sound rules. They felt empowered by the decoding pinciples they had been taught, as the constant -often random – guessing frustrated them. I do believe that in languages like French and English, where spelling-sound correspondence can be challenging, a students’ sense of efficacy as a decoder can substantially enhance their motivation.

In conclusion, much more effort and thought should be put into effective decoding-skill instruction, which should go beyond the teaching of sounds through gestures, a few tongue twisters and listening or singing along to song; a principled framework should be arrived at, which integrates phonics instruction organically and systematically with the teaching of grammar and vocabulary and extensive practice across all four skills to ensure long-lasting retention and automatization.

To find out more about our ideas on decoding skills instruction get hold of our book, The Language Teacher Toolkit,  ww.amazon.co.uk/Language-Teacher-Toolkit-Steven-Smith/dp/1523214821

Spontaneous talk revisited – courtesy of Pearson…

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Introduction

I thought I was in for a quiet and blogless Saturday evening until I came across this very slick and glossy pdf  document by Pearson entitled ‘Approaches to spontaneous speakingwhich represents in my eyes all that is wrong about the way teachers in England are trained to teach spontaneous talk. Hence this post, that I really did not want to write – as it is based on the work of someone I respect (Dr Rachel Hawkes) – but I felt compelled to.

Whilst I do agree with some of the points made – especially the fact that speaking is under-emphasized in most MFL classrooms and that student-to-student talk is grossly neglected – and I did find the activities listed useful (if limited in scope and variety)  I was very disappointed with the advice given in this article, especially the absolute absence of a useful framework for classroom practitioners on how to get from imitation to speech spontaneity. A pity, since the rationale given for laying more emphasis on speaking is excellent; the rest, however, simply felt like a dry list of speaking activities (speaking instruction classics) and facts based on very feeble evidence described in an uninspiring OFSTED- or GCSE-specification-like style.

Hence, the impression one gets from reading this is the overly simplistic persuasion that by merely staging such activities lesson in, lesson out the students would develop spontaneity. I wish it was that easy !

I wasn’t surprised, though, as this is the kind of stuff teachers taking part in much Egland-based CPD on speaking get – a list of activities, some reference to what OFTSED would like to see in lessons and very little reference to neuroscience and the research that really matters.

These are the main problems I have with the Pearson article in question.

  1. Spontaneous talk equates with spontaneous grammar

As I often reiterate in my blogs, there cannot be spontaneous talk without spontaneous grammar. Whereas in immersive or naturalistic input-rich environments (e.g international school ; the L2 country) the L2 learner can acquire grammar subconsciously, in input-poor ones with little teacher-student contact time this is impossible without explicit grammar instruction and work on the automatization of the target structures/morphemes.

Hence, before being able to cope with unstructured communicative tasks (describing pictures, unplanned conversation tasks, simulations, etc.) language students need to be first trained to automatize grammar by applying it in speech in highly controlled tasks, what DeKeyser calls ‘Communicative drills’ such as the following (on negatives), that I produced for my year 11 French lesson last Monday :

drills___negatives-with-hobbies

This controlled, highly structured stage is paramount as, if we just give students open questions and unstructured tasks, as the article suggests, the students might simply come out in their answers with the same words and phrases all the time and teachers would not have any control on their output.

Moreover, unless we structure the kind of output we want the students to produce, they might produce language which does not contain the target structures we want them to practise and re-practise over and over again. Hence, recycling being the key to grammar automization, spontaneity will not be achieved. We all now that. Open tasks will not guarantee such recycling. Highly structured communicative drills, will.

Open questions and unstructured tasks, contrary to what the article suggests  should occur much later on in spontaneous-speech development than the authors suggest -in what I call the  Autonomous phase. This phase, if you have not read my posts on the topic, refers to the stage in which the students do not need scaffolding or any kind of support any longer and can stand on their own two feet. Only at this stage, once much consolidation and practice has occurred through structured and semi-structured tasks, should the students be asked open questions and involved in unstructured communicative tasks.

What it is often forgotten or ignored  is that spontaneity is the equivalent of automatization of grammar and vocabulary use across a very wide range of contexts. Hence, to scaffold spontaneity, one needs to get the students to produce the target language fast and accurately across a wide range of contexts through tasks which involve systematic recycling and repetition of core language patterns (e.g. the same sentence stems applied to different vocabulary such as: je ne vais jamais au restaurant du coin; Je ne vais plus au restaurant chinois du coin; je ne vais jamais au bar du coin; etc.)

For example, going back to the negatives example, in the first phase of speech spontaneity-development (structured production) a teacher would make sure that the students practise the structure through controlled tasks on the topic in hand many times over.

Subsequently, the teacher will ensure that the students practise the structure across past and future topics (Expansion phase). Whilst in the Structured and Production phases support materials could still be used, in the subsequent phase (Autonomous phase), such materials are phased out. In the final stage of automization, the teacher will ensure that the students routinize the target structure through tasks which aim at developing speed (Routinization stage). In this final phase, communicative drills like the above one can come in handy again and can be used alongside more unstructured tasks eliciting the use of the target structure in real time conditions.

Being able to sequence instructional activities effectively and knowing at which proficiency stage to use them and for what purpose is what enhances one’s teaching, not random lists of tasks with a brief explanation of what they consist in.

In a nutshell, it is not clear from the article how on earth language students would ever be able to develop the all-important spontaneous grammar, as there is absolutely no mention of it. This is why a lot of the spontaneous talk one witnesses in English MFL classrooms is so ungrammatical and often contains many fossilised (automized) mistakes.

  1. Total absence of reference to receptive processing

The article does not mention the importance of listening in bringing about spontaneous speech – a shocking omission. Yet, how can one hope to develop spontaneous speech without listening ? The often unintelligible pronunciation and intonation patterns that language students exhibit in their speech is due exactly to this widespread and deeply engrained bad habit of teaching students to speak without adequate modelling through listening. Such modelling is imperative for spontaneous speech to happen. As long as the listening-speaking connection is not made explicit and emphasized by CPD providers and teacher trainers,speaking and language instruction will stay inadequate.

Another dimension of receptive processing vis-à-vis spontaneous talk which is grossly neglected in the article refers to Listenership, i.e. the ability of being able to respond to an interlocutor in real time (someone talking to us) in order to stay in the conversation. This is a very important component of spontaneous speech – unless we talk to ourselves, that is. No student training in this important skill is mentioned, yet, it is fundamental. That is why we have in England entire cohorts of language learners who do not comprehend impromptu questions in the target  language .

In sum, students need to have speaking modelled to them through aural input day in day out and need to become expert ‘spontaneous comprehenders’ as well spontaneous speakers as one cannot produce an effective response without understanding the question or stimulus that would prompt it in the first place.

  1. No mention of pronunciation and decoding instruction

As most current models of speech production clearly posit, there is no way a language learner can produce fluent speech without developing fluent pronunciation and decoding skills. The reason for this being that for spontaneous speech to occur, cognitive control over the articulators (responsible for speech production) must occupy subsidiary awareness (i.e. must occur subconsiously). Without pronunciation practice how can students develop correct and fluent pronunciation? Emphasizing the importance of this dimension of speaking instruction is imperative as , sadly, nobody teaches pronunciation these days…

  1. No explicit framework provided

As mentioned above and discussed in section 1, the article provides no framework whatsoever on how to take the students from novice to expert speech production. Not only it advances the preposterous notion that we should start teaching spontaneous speech by asking open questions – which goes contrary to how children acquire languages, which is exclusively through masses of caregiver modelling through the aural modality (listening) and closed questions, at the initial stages ; but it does not even remotely show how a teacher should structure and map out the evolution of spontaneous speech. Hence, it is of no use to any classroom practitioner who may want to design a curriculum or even an instructional sequence aiming at developing spontaneous speech.

A random list of tasks without any recommendation as to how should be sequenced in the process of automatisation of speech production is of no use whatsoever.

  1. Spontaneous and accurate and intelligible talk ? Or simply spontaneous ?

Another gross omission is the reference to an important aspect of spontaneous speech – intelligibility. There is no use in forging spontaneous speakers if these cannot produce intelligible speech. Again, in reading this article the impression one gets is that all teachers have to concern themselves with is spontaneity. And how about accuracy, comprehensibility and appropriateness vs ungrammaticality, unintelligibility and inappropriateness ? For spontaneous talk to be fluent as well as accurate and comprehensible, there must be a skilful mix of speaking tasks focusing on accuracy and tasks focusing on fluency. No mention of this is made in the article and again one is left with a sense of ‘randomness ‘ and amateur nonchalance in the approach to spontaneous talk put forward in this article.

  1. Contain the conversation with students through implicit recasts

The article invites teachers to keep the conversation going through implicit recasts when students make mistakes (in teacher-student conversation), ignoring to consider the fact that implicit recasts usually go unnoticed and are of no use in terms of modelling and learning. There is plenty of research evidencing that (Macaro 2007).  No alternative means of providing effective feedback strategy which may scaffold spontaneity are offered – yet, spontaneity can and must be coached (e.g. through critical listening)

    7. Where do they get the answers from?

Another classic of English-based CPD: showing a task without telling the teacher where the students are going to learn the answers from and how – convenient, as this is the hardest bit of all. In the article there is a picture task with lots of questions in different tenses listed next to it. Do I need to read a document by Pearson to learn that I can get my students to ask questions about a picture? I was taught that on the second day of my PGCE and the GCSE photo-card task is basically that. What teachers need to know is: how do I get the students to comprehend and answer those questions fast and reasonably accurately? That is what a teacher needs to be told.

Concluding remarks

As it often happens with articles and CPD workshops attempting to enhance teacher competence in the development of spontaneous speech, this document by Pearson merely provides a random list of speaking activities without suggesting any approach rooted in sound cognitive or even mentalist theory as to how teachers can use those activities to take our students from A to Z. A teacher reading this article is left with the misleading impression that by simply staging the tasks listed in lessons day in day out they will magically develop spontaneous talk. A highly disappointing piece, coming as it does from a publishing giant.

How to teach pronunciation

 

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0.Introduction

In this article I will concern myself with the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills (i.e. the transformation of L2 graphemes into sounds) within a typical secondary school setting where teacher contact time is limited (e.g. 2-3 hours per week). The present post should be considered as a sequel to a previous blog (‘Nine research facts on the teaching of L2 phonology teaching and learning’) in which I discussed the theoretical background to what I will propose below. Hence, the reading of that post is recommended if you want to have a better grasp of some of the points made below.

  1. Approaches to pronunciation instruction

I could not locate much research on the teaching of pronunciation as integrated within a typical primary or secondary Modern Foreign Language curriculum. This is possibly due to the fact that the Communicative Language Teaching approach does not lay much emphasis on pronunciation and, consequently, many teachers see as the least useful of language skills (Elliott, 1995). In fact, the typical French, Spanish, German or Italian textbooks currently in use in the UK or US hardly deal with the teaching of the L2 phonology system; when they do concern themselves with pronunciation or decoding instruction, they do so superficially never going beyond the mere awareness-raising of key features and providing very limited practice -if any at all –  in the oral production of the target phonemes. Recycling of the target phonemes is also a very rare feature.

In deciding on how to integrate the teaching of pronunciation in the curriculum language instructors ought to consider which one of the following approaches best suits their learning context:

2.1 Accuracy vs Intelligibility – This is the most important decision to make at the very outset of a language course. Curriculum designers must decide what degree of pronunciation/decoding accuracy they aim at. Is it just for students to be understood by an empathetic native speaker? Is near-native accent the aspirational goal? Or are we aiming at a level of mastery somewhere in between? The answer to these questions will determine the emphasis L2 instruction will lay on pronunciation.

In most secondary schools, as far as I know, curriculum designers do not often ask themselves the above questions; yet, in view of the effects that bad pronunciation can have on effective oral communication, listening and reading comprehension and language acquisition in general (Walter, 2008), they really should.

2.2 Intensive vs Extensive instruction – teachers may decide to teach the pronunciation of a specific set of L2 phonemes intensively over a period of a few weeks or whether to do it extensively (a little bit every day) over a period of several months. Whereas I am inclined to opt for the latter approach based on what we know about L2-phonology acquisition, one may want to implement the former in the run-up to a high-stake examination as part of a remedial program (e.g. on realizing that the pronunciation of specific phonemes may seriously impair the students’ performance).

2.3 Deductive vs Inductive – Deductive teaching involves the traditional approach whereby the teacher presents and explains the phoneme(s) to the students – often in a PPP instructional sequence. Inductive approaches (e.g. guided discovery), on the other hand, are student-led; the students are in charge of describing and/or analyzing the target L2 phoneme(s) and/or discriminating between them and similar L1 sounds. The teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding the students with open questioning as they ‘work out’ how the pronunciation of the target sound(s) works . The latter approach has the merit of eliciting greater cognitive investment on the part of the learner, but it is also more time-consuming. I personally like to alternate both.

2.4 Spontaneous vs Planned – A planned approach implements pronunciation instruction in a systematic way, considering the way the target phonemes could be recycled across the various units of work. In this approach the teaching of the target phonemes is carefully embedded in the schemes of work, which is a more pain-staking process, but one that allows for more effective integration within each topic covered.

Spontaneous instruction, on the other hand, is less time-consuming and is based on a ‘if ain’t broke don’t fix it approach’; in other words, if a teacher notices that their students are making mistakes with a particular L2 phonemes in a given lesson, they will impart instruction on that phoneme ad-hoc, on the spot. This approach can work quite well with more advanced classes which generally display good pronunciation and may occasionally exhibit minor flaws here and there. In this approach, the teacher must have an in-depth knowledge of the target language phonology so as to be able to improvise. Ideally they would also have a readily available bank of resources to drawn upon impromptu.

I personally prefer a planned approach with a very prompt start from the very early days of instruction. But do not refrain from spontaneous instruction when the need arises.

2.5 Contextualised vs Discrete – Another decision to be made is as to whether the teaching will be carried out through (1) stand-alone pronunciation lessons; (2) lessons in which pronunciation instruction is embedded within the teaching of other linguistic content; (3) a mix of both. In view of the curricular and time constraints of typical secondary school courses, I suggest following the third approach using the framework I will outline below, as it allows for systematic recycling but also with some degree of flexibility.

2.6 Awareness-raising vs Automatisation – A lot of the pronunciation teaching I have seen in 25 years of career did not consciously aim at automatization, but rather at awareness-raising. Typically, the teacher shows presentations through which they model the pronunciation of the target phonemes first in isolation and then within words; the students repeat the sounds and words aloud. In the best-case scenario they practise the words through tongue-twisters or other drills, and that’s it!

The problem is that the acquisition of L2 pronunciation requires the automatization of at least three sets of skills: (1) being able to discriminate between the L2 target phoneme and the similar L1 sounds in the receptive phase; (2) being able to reproduce the target phonemes accurately in isolation and (3) in combination with other phonemes at word/phrase level in the context of spontaneous oral communication. With this in mind, it is clear that the approach I have just described will never result into acquisition.

In order to develop the three sets of skills just alluded to, pronunciation/decoding instruction should include the following phases:

  • A modelling phase in which the teacher models the target phoneme and/or how to transform the target graphemes into sound;
  • (when necessary) A description and analysis phase in which the differences between similar (but not identical) L1 and L2 phonemes and/or the L1 and L2 allophones of specific graphemes are clearly explained (or arrived at inductively). For instance, when teaching the differences between the Spanish and English pronunciation of ‘t’ the teacher will show how the Spanish ‘t’ is not a plosive sound and how the tongue hits the tooth in Spanish and the pre-alveolar area in English, etc.
  • A receptive awareness-raising and discrimination phase in which the learners receive practice in: (1) matching the target L2 phonemes with letters/combination of letters (i.e. that the sound /uah/ matches the letter cluster ‘oi’); (2) discriminating between the L2 target phonemes and the similar L1 sounds (for instance: students listen to the word ‘bonjour’ first uttered by a French native speaker and subsequently by a non-native speaker pronouncing ‘J’ the English way. The task: to identify the difference). The micro-listening-skills enhancing tasks I described in detail in two previous posts of mine can be used here. Transcription tasks, short dictations on MWBs and songs with transcript can be used, too.
  • A productive phase involving controlled practice in which the target phonemes (pronunciation) and/or related graphemes (decoding) are practised in the context of drills designed in such a way as to elicit a narrow focus on the target sounds (e.g. short and easy role plays and simple tongue twisters).
  • A productive communicative practice phase. This is crucial in bringing about automatization as it is all very well to know how to pronounce sound /decode letters in isolation; but, ultimately, it is the ability of doing that under Real Operating Conditions in the context of words, phrases and sentences that matters. Semi-structured communicative tasks such as surveys, interviews, role-plays, ‘find someone who’, ‘find out what’ , ‘fill in the information gaps’ or oral picture tasks are invaluable ways to train students in pronunciation and decoding. Before engaging the students in the communicative task, the teacher will focus her attention/feedback and her students’ on the target phonemes.

As I will point out below, for the acquisition of L2 pronunciation to occur, the teaching of pronunciation cannot stop at modelling sounds through a few minutes of choral repetition and some tongue-twister practice. Whatever the target phoneme is, it must be practised extensively in the context of oral production tasks which are at the highly-controlled end of the spectrum first and become incrementally more unstructured.

  1. Factors to consider

In implementing pronunciation instruction as embedded in a typical secondary curriculum, instructors must consider a number of important contextual factors (e.g. contact time; examination board assessment criteria; methodology espoused by the institution you work at) and individual and affective variables (e.g. age of learners; levels of motivation; relevance of pronunciation accuracy to their personal goals; ability).

  1. What we know about the acquisition of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills

4.1 The brain ‘hears’ sounds using the L1 phonological filter; hence, an L2 learner will match the L2 sound they hear to the closest approximation they find in their Long Term Memory. For instance, a French or German native speaker will hear the English word ‘thirsty as ‘sirsty’) whilst an Italian will hear ‘Tirsty’ (this phenomenon was discussed at length in my previous post on pronunciation).

4.2 L2 graphemes automatically activate the L1 phonological system in the L2-leaner’s Long-term Memory (also discussed in my previous post). So, words should be taught using visuals or gestures before they are presented in their written form.

4.3 It is better to start teaching pronunciation when the articulators are more ‘plastic’, before puberty. Some research would suggest starting learning pronunciation before the age of 7 (Lennenberg, 1967).

4.4 Pronunciation errors are difficult to correct when they are fossilized (Ellis, 1996) – L1 transfer in pronunciation is a major threat to the acquisition of accurate L2 pronunciation for the reasons alluded in 4.1 and 4.2 above. Hence, pronunciation instruction should be particularly intensive an extensive in the first two or three years of language learning. Students should receive feedback on their pronunciation from the very early stages of instruction in order to avoid fossilization.

4.5 As already discussed above, L2 phonemes require masses of distributed practice in order to be automatized. Learners’ acquisition of the target phonemes usually follows a U shaped developmental curve with a backsliding phase half-way through the process (Pech et al., 2011)

4.6 Working memory resources are limited both in terms of capacity and duration of storage. For instance, we know that words are phonologically stored in working memory for only a few seconds (Walter, 2008). Hence, unless we focus students on the importance of accurate pronunciation and place it firmly in their focal awareness, most of them will not be able to consciously invest their attentional resources long and deeply enough to notice and learn L2 phonemes.

4.7 Pronunciation and decoding skills must be automatized if we want our students to acquire effective speaking and reading skills. Moreover, better pronunciation and decoding skills result in better acquisition of grammar and syntax. As already discussed in my previous post, more effective pronunciation and decoding skills enhance reading and listening comprehension. Finally, as it is obvious, an L2 speaker who struggles to pronounce L2 words for lack of knowledge of the L2 phonology system and pronunciation/decoding practice is likely to experience serious processing inefficiency issues in L2 oral production.

4.8 Some L2 students are genetically more predisposed than others to notice and acquire foreign language sounds (Nardo et al, 2009).

4.9 A positive orientation towards the target language and the target language culture(s) seem to correlate positively with better pronunciation.Marinova-Todd et al. (2000) posit that motivation may play an even more important role than age in the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

  1. My tips for pronunciation teaching

The following tips are based on my review of the existing literature on the subject, Skill-theories of language acquisition and most importantly, on my classroom experience. Here they go.

5.1 Start pronunciation instruction very early – in Primary – not only because the learners are more developmentally receptive to it, but also so that you will not have to deal with it any longer later on, when you need to focus on higher order skills. It is also crucial to sensitize the students to the importance of accurate pronunciation at this stage so as to place it firmly into their focal awareness and forge sound learning habits. Students should be given examples of how inaccurate pronunciation can lead to communication breakdown, embarrassing misunderstandings and stigmatization.

5.3 In order to prevent cognitive overload adopt a narrow focus. Select only one phoneme or maximum two per lesson and dwell on it/them for several lessons, whilst recycling the ones you will have taught before in order to keep them in the students’ peripheral awareness at all times. Before any oral communicative activities do ask and frequently remind the students to pay selective attention to the pronunciation of the target phonemes both in production and peer- feedback.

5.4 Integrate pronunciation and decoding instruction in the topic-at-hand using the five-step framework outlined above (Paragraph 2.6). The adoption of a narrow-focus approach means that whilst the first lesson on a given phoneme will be a bit longer, the reinforcement of the same one/two target phonemes over a period of three or four weeks will be much shorter, five to ten minutes every day. The most important thing will be, as suggested in the previous point, to keep the students’ focus on the target phoneme(s) during any oral communicative activities staged in class during the entire reinforcement/recycling period.

5.5 Plan integration opportunistically but judiciously. By this I mean that whilst planning a unit of work, you may find that the vocabulary or grammar structure you intend to teach lends itself beautifully to the teaching of specific sounds. For instance, in teaching animals in French, a few weeks ago, the words ‘chat’, ‘chien’, ‘cochon d’Inde’ and ‘cheval’ prompted me to decide to teach that ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘sh’ in French. However, opportunism should not be the only criterion to be used in selecting the target phonemes: intelligibility impact (the extent to which the sound may affect understanding); learnability (how ready the students are to pick it up) and frequency (how often they are likely to come across that sound) should also be taken into consideration.

5.6. Prefer extensive distributed practice (a little every day over a longish period of time) over massed practice. Extensive practice which recycles the target sounds for a few minutes every day is crucial to the success of pronunciation instruction as L2 phoneme acquisition requires a lot of time and contextualized practice. I keep a chart, on a google doc, in which I tally all the phonemes I teach so as to have an overview of how many times I have recycled each sound.

5.7 Model through detailed description and analysis. In the modelling phase take the learners, possibly using audio-visuals, through every single step involved in the production of the target L2 phoneme. There are plenty of charts available online showing how the different sounds are produced in various languages. Remember: effective modelling and analysis require good knowledge of the target language phonology system. Heads of Depatment ought to provide staff with adequate specialised training.

5.8 Stage critical listening activities with narrow focus. These can be modelled in class and then flipped. They consist of getting students to listen to a peer reading aloud (if the focus is on decoding) or talking in the L2  whilst one or more peers focus their attention and provide feedback on two or three phonemes. Alternatively, you can get the students to record themselves and each other. Critical listening fosters collaborative learning, social strategies and metacognition whilst bringing about deep cognitive investment.

5.9 Alternate inductive and deductive approaches for the sake of variety, but also to foster healthy inquiry skills.

5.10. Prevent automatic activation of L1 sounds as much as possible. Keep pictures on the walls which refer to words containing the key L2 phonemes and most students know very well (e.g. numbers); it is important that they did not learn to pronounce these words through the written medium in the first place. These pictures will be a valuable aid each time you will want to correct phonetic mistakes made by your students without providing them with a written example (as this would automatically activate the student’s L1 decoding system possibly causing L1 transfer issues). So for instance, when reminding a student of the decoding of the consonant cluster ‘oi’ you will point to the number ‘3’ on the wall, ‘trois’, which contains those letters.

5.11 Teach and practise the target phonemes in accessible linguistic contexts. When teaching new phonemes it is vital that the students have enough cognitive space available to focus on them. If the ‘drills’ or communicative tasks are complex, contain masses of new vocabulary, challenging L2 structures or even other difficult sounds they have not yet mastered, this will impact very negatively on learning. Some teachers give fun but very phonetically complex tongue twisters to novice L2 learners who do enjoy the challenge and often have a  real blast in the process, but frequently end up making a complete mess of it. When selecting tongue twisters or any other material for the initial modelling and controlled practice phases, choose texts which pose very little cognitive and phonetic challenge.

5.12 Correct judiciously. Feedback is very important in the teaching of pronunciation and may need to be more frequent than the correction teachers provide on other aspects of performance. This is because pronunciation mistakes tend to fossilize more easily. Hence, teachers need to monitor oral communicative activities very closely and step in – even interrupting – when errors made with the target phoneme(s) (1) are made publically and consequently may affect several students’ perception of what is correct/incorrect; (2) impede intelligibility; (3) are made frequently. However, do not overdo correction as it may affect motivation.

Concluding remarks

In this post I have attempted to provide some tips on the pronunciation of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills. The most important point is that teachers should sensitize their students to the importance of accurate L2 pronunciation from the very early days of instruction. A principled approach to the planning and classroom delivery of L2 pronunciation instruction should be devised which provides extensive distributed practice through a mix of inductive and deductive learning and adopts a narrow focus, i.e. one or two phonemes are taught each time. Last but not least, this approach, which integrates pronunciation instruction within most lessons (a few minutes per session) cannot lead to acquisition of the target phonemes unless these are practised in the context of structured and unstructured communicative activities.

In this post I have also recommended the following framework that I have used successfully over the years and integrates the teaching of pronunciation with communicative language teaching and serve the goals of the curriculum I am charged with delivering. This framework includes five phases

(1) A modelling phase

(2) A description and analysis phase in which the differences between similar (but not identical) L1 and L2 phonemes and/or the L1 and L2 allophones of specific graphemes are clearly explained;

(3) A receptive awareness-raising and discrimination phase;

(4) A highly structured productive  phase;

(5) A productive semi-structured to unstructured communicative practice phase.

It should be reiterated that in the fifth phase, crucial in bringing about automatization, the role of the teacher in monitoring and providing feedback on the phonological level of student output is crucial. Also pivotal is the level of student focus on pronunciation that the teacher will have generated; unless the students are encouraged and motivated to keep the importance of pronunciation in their focal awareness no pronunciation instruction will ever succeed. Unfortunately, these days, pronunciation is but a peripheral concern in most Modern Language classrooms.

You can find more on this in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ that I have co-authored with Steve Smith, available here

Five pronunciation and decoding issues in French-as -a-foreign-language instruction that seriously affect grammar learning and should be targeted as early on as possible

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net

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As I explained in several previous blogs, our students’ ability to decode the target language sounds can seriously impact acquisition. And I am not simply talking of their ability to acquire vocabulary and pronunciation. I am also alluding to the learners potential to notice and internalize grammar. Why? Because receptive decoding, i.e. the way the human brain ‘deciphers’ the sounds we hear, can cue us to certain grammatical features of words (i.e. endings) we process aurally that lead us to noticing and making assumptions about their gender and/or number (for nouns and adjectives), person, conjugation and tenses (for verbs) and other ‘anomalies’ (e.g. ‘l’’ before nouns, the pronoun ‘y’ before a verb).

For instance, today, a student I help outside school, had still not grasped the phonetic difference between ‘ne’ (as it sounds in ‘ne’) and ‘n’ai’ (as in ‘je n’ai’). This has led her for many years to presume that ‘je n’ai pas vu’ was actually spelt ‘je ne pas vu’. This in turn affected her assumptions as to how the Perfect Tense is formed in French which resulted in the mental representation ‘Je + past participle’ (i.e. Je vu). I could not blame her as, evidently, her previous tutor must have not emphasized adequately the difference between ‘Je’ and ‘J’ai’.

In this post I will focus on five pronunciation/decoding issues in FLE (Français Langue Étrangère) instruction which do usually receive some emphasis but are not in my experience duly emphasized and practised in the typical L2-French classroom.

Issue 1: [ə] vs [e] in receptive decoding

This sound is one of the most important to learn in terms of receptive decoding, not only for the ‘Je’ versus ‘J’ai’ distinction alluded to above, but also because of the potential it has for cueing the students to the presence of a plural noun. Take for instance the sentences ‘ le fils de Marie étudie l’anglais’ et ‘les fils de Marie étudient l’anglais’. In this context the inaccurate perception of the sound [ə] as [e] (as in les) may easily cause confusion (is the subject ‘fils’ plural or singular?) – confusion that might exacerbated by the fact that the ‘s’ in ‘fils’ may lead the beginner French learner to believe that the noun is plural.

Another huge issue that novice teachers often overlook is the pronunciation of ‘é’ as [e] or [ə] in active decoding (when reading a word). This is particularly a problem when it comes to the Perfect tense. When a student pronounces ‘j’ai mangé’ same as ‘je mange’ unless there is a time marker (e.g. hier) the potential for confusion and communication breakdown is great.

The difference between the two sounds must be duly emphasized from the very early stages of instruction. Most often teachers do when it comes to the ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’ dichotomy. I have often witnessed the very good practice of modelling the two sounds by over-emphasizing lip movement in an attempt to create a muscle memory of the articulatory process and through minimal-pair work. What I have not often seen, however, is the teachers recycling those through many other familiar and unfamiliar contexts until the acquisition of those sounds has occurred. To presume that one or two minimum-pair demonstrations will lead to the automatization of the phonemes is over-optimistic; for most students, acquiring the ability to discern between the two sounds in receptive decoding will take several weeks or even months.

As recommended in previous posts, teachers may want to engage students in micro-listening-skill enhancers reinforcing the distinction between the two sounds for a few minutes (10?) per lessons over a period of 4 to 8 weeks in order to obtain very good results.  For the rationale for this approach read my previous post ‘How to teach pronunciation’.

Issue 2: pronunciation of ‘t’ /’d’/ ‘p’ / ‘s’ at the end of words vs same letters + ‘e’ or ‘es’

Learning the correct (active) decoding of  the above consonants with and without ‘e’ or ‘es’ at the end of words from the very early stages of French instruction is of paramount importance. Why? The reason is two-fold. Firstly, if the students are not aware of the distinction ‘t’ vs ‘te’ / ‘tes’, they will not be able to distinguish between masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives – a distinction that many L1 English learners of French find very challenging. Secondly, the pronunciation of ‘t’ / ‘p’ etc. at the end of many words or nouns can cause serious misunderstandings in terms of meaning. Think about the nouns ‘point’ and ‘pointe’; ‘vent’ and ‘vente’; ‘coup’ et ‘coupe’.

Issue 3 – [z] vs [s] in liaison

This is another issue that it is not always tackled effectively. This can cause quite a few problems, the most frequent and important of which pertains to the famous cross-association elles/ils ont vs elles/ils sont. Since this distinction is not often ‘drilled in’ adequately, many learners of French end up confusing the two all the way to year 11 (when they are 16 yrs old). Often, this leads to ‘elles ont treize ans’ being interpreted as ’elles sont treize ans’ and the assumption that the French, too, like the English, use ‘to be’ when telling somebody’s age.

Confusing [z] and [s] is very common and can cause misunderstanding in many contexts, for example: ‘elles avaient beaucoup de choses’ was interpreted by one of my student as ‘elle savait beaucoup de choses’.

Issue 4 – ‘un’ vs ‘une’

The effects of decoding issues with these words on the acquisition of the French grammar are possibly the most obvious. If a learner is not clear about the differences in pronunciation between these two words, they will make incorrect inference as which nouns are masculine and which are feminine. This issue will affect, if unresolved, other more complex structures such as ‘aucun’ vs ‘aucune’.

After modelling the lip-movements through over emphasis of the sound articulation and contrasting English words such as untouchable and unsolvable (in which the two first letters ‘un’ are highlighted in red) with words like Unesco, tune, (where the key letters ‘une’ are highlighted) one may want to reinforce the differences through micro-listening -skill enhancers such as ‘Broken words’ whereby the teacher utters words such lune, lundi, rune, aucun, aucune etc. and the students have to complete the gaps in l__di, r____, auc___, auc____, etc.

Issue 5 –  voicing ‘ent’ at the end of verbs

This is a very common issue that in my experience receives some attention but not as much as it actually requires and deserves. When not acquired effectively, the wrong decoding of ‘ent’ in the third person plural of  the Present Indicative and Subjunctive of verbs can cause quite a lot of problems. In a class I observed recently, for instance, the belief that ‘ent’ is voiced, led to the students often confusing (in a listening activity centred on modal verbs)  ‘veulent’ and ‘veut’, ‘peuvent’ and ‘peut’, and ‘doit’ and ‘doivent’. In the past I have also witnessed issues in the pronunciation of the third person of the imperfect indicative and of the conditional. Another related issue pertains to adverbs (e.g facilement, lentement) which are occasionally mistaken for verbs.

Concluding remarks

Whereas most published course-books usually converge in the way they sequence the teaching of grammar (especially tenses), when it comes to pronunciation they use quite a random approach which does not appear to be principled in any way. I suggest that, pronunciation/decoding skills instruction should first deal with the easiest-to-acquire phonemes and then gradually concern itself with the more challenging ones, another criterion ought to be considered, too; the extent to which, that is, the ineffective mastery of those sounds can affect the acquisition of the grammar of the target language. The five sets of pronunciation/decoding issues discussed above are only but a few examples of the way in which phonological awareness and the ability to transform graphemes into sound can affect the acquisition of the target language grammar. Teachers ought to pay attention to this very important facet of language acquisition and devote sufficient time and effort to it using the research-based framework I outlined in previous posts.

You will find more on this issue in the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ that I co-authored with Steve Smith and is available for purchase at www.amazon.com

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How to teach pronunciation

 

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchtecher.net and  Dylan Vinales of Garden International School (Kuala Lumpur)

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0.Introduction

In this article I will concern myself with the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills (i.e. the transformation of L2 graphemes into sounds) within a typical secondary school setting where teacher contact time is limited (e.g. 2-3 hours per week). The present post should be considered as a sequel to a previous blog (‘Nine research facts on the teaching of L2 phonology teaching and learning’) in which I discussed the theoretical background to what I will propose below. Hence, the reading of that post is recommended if you want to have a better grasp of some of the points made below.

  1. Approaches to pronunciation instruction

I could not locate much research on the teaching of pronunciation as integrated within a typical primary or secondary Modern Foreign Language curriculum. This is possibly due to the fact that the Communicative Language Teaching approach does not lay much emphasis on pronunciation and, consequently, many teachers see as the least useful of language skills (Elliott, 1995). In fact, the typical French, Spanish, German or Italian textbooks currently in use in the UK or US hardly deal with the teaching of the L2 phonology system; when they do concern themselves with pronunciation or decoding instruction, they do so superficially never going beyond the mere awareness-raising of key features and providing very limited practice -if any at all –  in the oral production of the target phonemes. Recycling of the target phonemes is also a very rare feature.

In deciding on how to integrate the teaching of pronunciation in the curriculum language instructors ought to consider which one of the following approaches best suits their learning context:

2.1 Accuracy vs Intelligibility – This is the most important decision to make at the very outset of a language course. Curriculum designers must decide what degree of pronunciation/decoding accuracy they aim at. Is it just for students to be understood by an empathetic native speaker? Is near-native accent the aspirational goal? Or are we aiming at a level of mastery somewhere in between? The answer to these questions will determine the emphasis L2 instruction will lay on pronunciation.

In most secondary schools, as far as I know, curriculum designers do not often ask themselves the above questions; yet, in view of the effects that bad pronunciation can have on effective oral communication, listening and reading comprehension and language acquisition in general (Walter, 2008), they really should.

2.2 Intensive vs Extensive instruction – teachers may decide to teach the pronunciation of a specific set of L2 phonemes intensively over a period of a few weeks or whether to do it extensively (a little bit every day) over a period of several months. Whereas I am inclined to opt for the latter approach based on what we know about L2-phonology acquisition, one may want to implement the former in the run-up to a high-stake examination as part of a remedial program (e.g. on realizing that the pronunciation of specific phonemes may seriously impair the students’ performance).

2.3 Deductive vs Inductive – Deductive teaching involves the traditional approach whereby the teacher presents and explains the phoneme(s) to the students – often in a PPP instructional sequence. Inductive approaches (e.g. guided discovery), on the other hand, are student-led; the students are in charge of describing and/or analyzing the target L2 phoneme(s) and/or discriminating between them and similar L1 sounds. The teacher acts as a facilitator, guiding the students with open questioning as they ‘work out’ how the pronunciation of the target sound(s) works . The latter approach has the merit of eliciting greater cognitive investment on the part of the learner, but it is also more time-consuming. I personally like to alternate both.

2.4 Spontaneous vs Planned – A planned approach implements pronunciation instruction in a systematic way, considering the way the target phonemes could be recycled across the various units of work. In this approach the teaching of the target phonemes is carefully embedded in the schemes of work, which is a more pain-staking process, but one that allows for more effective integration within each topic covered.

Spontaneous instruction, on the other hand, is less time-consuming and is based on a ‘if ain’t broke don’t fix it approach’; in other words, if a teacher notices that their students are making mistakes with a particular L2 phonemes in a given lesson, they will impart instruction on that phoneme ad-hoc, on the spot. This approach can work quite well with more advanced classes which generally display good pronunciation and may occasionally exhibit minor flaws here and there. In this approach, the teacher must have an in-depth knowledge of the target language phonology so as to be able to improvise. Ideally they would also have a readily available bank of resources to drawn upon impromptu.

I personally prefer a planned approach with a very prompt start from the very early days of instruction. But do not refrain from spontaneous instruction when the need arises.

2.5 Contextualised vs Discrete – Another decision to be made is as to whether the teaching will be carried out through (1) stand-alone pronunciation lessons; (2) lessons in which pronunciation instruction is embedded within the teaching of other linguistic content; (3) a mix of both. In view of the curricular and time constraints of typical secondary school courses, I suggest following the third approach using the framework I will outline below, as it allows for systematic recycling but also with some degree of flexibility.

2.6 Awareness-raising vs Automatisation – A lot of the pronunciation teaching I have seen in 25 years of career did not consciously aim at automatization, but rather at awareness-raising. Typically, the teacher shows presentations through which they model the pronunciation of the target phonemes first in isolation and then within words; the students repeat the sounds and words aloud. In the best-case scenario they practise the words through tongue-twisters or other drills, and that’s it!

The problem is that the acquisition of L2 pronunciation requires the automatization of at least three sets of skills: (1) being able to discriminate between the L2 target phoneme and the similar L1 sounds in the receptive phase; (2) being able to reproduce the target phonemes accurately in isolation and (3) in combination with other phonemes at word/phrase level in the context of spontaneous oral communication. With this in mind, it is clear that the approach I have just described will never result into acquisition.

In order to develop the three sets of skills just alluded to, pronunciation/decoding instruction should include the following phases:

  • A modelling phase in which the teacher models the target phoneme and/or how to transform the target graphemes into sound;
  • (when necessary) A description and analysis phase in which the differences between similar (but not identical) L1 and L2 phonemes and/or the L1 and L2 allophones of specific graphemes are clearly explained (or arrived at inductively). For instance, when teaching the differences between the Spanish and English pronunciation of ‘t’ the teacher will show how the Spanish ‘t’ is not a plosive sound and how the tongue hits the tooth in Spanish and the pre-alveolar area in English, etc.
  • A receptive awareness-raising and discrimination phase in which the learners receive practice in: (1) matching the target L2 phonemes with letters/combination of letters (i.e. that the sound /uah/ matches the letter cluster ‘oi’); (2) discriminating between the L2 target phonemes and the similar L1 sounds (for instance: students listen to the word ‘bonjour’ first uttered by a French native speaker and subsequently by a non-native speaker pronouncing ‘J’ the English way. The task: to identify the difference). The micro-listening-skills enhancing tasks I described in detail in two previous posts of mine can be used here. Transcription tasks, short dictations on MWBs and songs with transcript can be used, too.
  • A productive phase involving controlled practice in which the target phonemes (pronunciation) and/or related graphemes (decoding) are practised in the context of drills designed in such a way as to elicit a narrow focus on the target sounds (e.g. short and easy role plays and simple tongue twisters).
  • A productive communicative practice phase. This is crucial in bringing about automatization as it is all very well to know how to pronounce sound /decode letters in isolation; but, ultimately, it is the ability of doing that under Real Operating Conditions in the context of words, phrases and sentences that matters. Semi-structured communicative tasks such as surveys, interviews, role-plays, ‘find someone who’, ‘find out what’ , ‘fill in the information gaps’ or oral picture tasks are invaluable ways to train students in pronunciation and decoding. Before engaging the students in the communicative task, the teacher will focus her attention/feedback and her students’ on the target phonemes.

As I will point out below, for the acquisition of L2 pronunciation to occur, the teaching of pronunciation cannot stop at modelling sounds through a few minutes of choral repetition and some tongue-twister practice. Whatever the target phoneme is, it must be practised extensively in the context of oral production tasks which are at the highly-controlled end of the spectrum first and become incrementally more unstructured.

  1. Factors to consider

In implementing pronunciation instruction as embedded in a typical secondary curriculum, instructors must consider a number of important contextual factors (e.g. contact time; examination board assessment criteria; methodology espoused by the institution you work at) and individual and affective variables (e.g. age of learners; levels of motivation; relevance of pronunciation accuracy to their personal goals; ability).

  1. What we know about the acquisition of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills

4.1 The brain ‘hears’ sounds using the L1 phonological filter; hence, an L2 learner will match the L2 sound they hear to the closest approximation they find in their Long Term Memory. For instance, a French or German native speaker will hear the English word ‘thirsty as ‘sirsty’) whilst an Italian will hear ‘Tirsty’ (this phenomenon was discussed at length in my previous post on pronunciation).

4.2 L2 graphemes automatically activate the L1 phonological system in the L2-leaner’s Long-term Memory (also discussed in my previous post). So, words should be taught using visuals or gestures before they are presented in their written form.

4.3 It is better to start teaching pronunciation when the articulators are more ‘plastic’, before puberty. Some research would suggest starting learning pronunciation before the age of 7 (Lennenberg, 1967).

4.4 Pronunciation errors are difficult to correct when they are fossilized (Ellis, 1996) – L1 transfer in pronunciation is a major threat to the acquisition of accurate L2 pronunciation for the reasons alluded in 4.1 and 4.2 above. Hence, pronunciation instruction should be particularly intensive an extensive in the first two or three years of language learning. Students should receive feedback on their pronunciation from the very early stages of instruction in order to avoid fossilization.

4.5 As already discussed above, L2 phonemes require masses of distributed practice in order to be automatized. Learners’ acquisition of the target phonemes usually follows a U shaped developmental curve with a backsliding phase half-way through the process (Pech et al., 2011)

4.6 Working memory resources are limited both in terms of capacity and duration of storage. For instance, we know that words are phonologically stored in working memory for only a few seconds (Walter, 2008). Hence, unless we focus students on the importance of accurate pronunciation and place it firmly in their focal awareness, most of them will not be able to consciously invest their attentional resources long and deeply enough to notice and learn L2 phonemes.

4.7 Pronunciation and decoding skills must be automatized if we want our students to acquire effective speaking and reading skills. Moreover, better pronunciation and decoding skills result in better acquisition of grammar and syntax. As already discussed in my previous post, more effective pronunciation and decoding skills enhance reading and listening comprehension. Finally, as it is obvious, an L2 speaker who struggles to pronounce L2 words for lack of knowledge of the L2 phonology system and pronunciation/decoding practice is likely to experience serious processing inefficiency issues in L2 oral production.

4.8 Some L2 students are genetically more predisposed than others to notice and acquire foreign language sounds (Nardo et al, 2009).

4.9 A positive orientation towards the target language and the target language culture(s) seem to correlate positively with better pronunciation.Marinova-Todd et al. (2000) posit that motivation may play an even more important role than age in the acquisition of native-like pronunciation.

  1. My tips for pronunciation teaching

The following tips are based on my review of the existing literature on the subject, Skill-theories of language acquisition and most importantly, on my classroom experience. Here they go.

5.1 Start pronunciation instruction very early – in Primary – not only because the learners are more developmentally receptive to it, but also so that you will not have to deal with it any longer later on, when you need to focus on higher order skills. It is also crucial to sensitize the students to the importance of accurate pronunciation at this stage so as to place it firmly into their focal awareness and forge sound learning habits. Students should be given examples of how inaccurate pronunciation can lead to communication breakdown, embarrassing misunderstandings and stigmatization.

5.3 In order to prevent cognitive overload adopt a narrow focus. Select only one phoneme or maximum two per lesson and dwell on it/them for several lessons, whilst recycling the ones you will have taught before in order to keep them in the students’ peripheral awareness at all times. Before any oral communicative activities do ask and frequently remind the students to pay selective attention to the pronunciation of the target phonemes both in production and peer- feedback.

5.4 Integrate pronunciation and decoding instruction in the topic-at-hand using the five-step framework outlined above (Paragraph 2.6). The adoption of a narrow-focus approach means that whilst the first lesson on a given phoneme will be a bit longer, the reinforcement of the same one/two target phonemes over a period of three or four weeks will be much shorter, five to ten minutes every day. The most important thing will be, as suggested in the previous point, to keep the students’ focus on the target phoneme(s) during any oral communicative activities staged in class during the entire reinforcement/recycling period.

5.5 Plan integration opportunistically but judiciously. By this I mean that whilst planning a unit of work, you may find that the vocabulary or grammar structure you intend to teach lends itself beautifully to the teaching of specific sounds. For instance, in teaching animals in French, a few weeks ago, the words ‘chat’, ‘chien’, ‘cochon d’Inde’ and ‘cheval’ prompted me to decide to teach that ‘ch’ is pronounced ‘sh’ in French. However, opportunism should not be the only criterion to be used in selecting the target phonemes: intelligibility impact (the extent to which the sound may affect understanding); learnability (how ready the students are to pick it up) and frequency (how often they are likely to come across that sound) should also be taken into consideration.

5.6. Prefer extensive distributed practice (a little every day over a longish period of time) over massed practice. Extensive practice which recycles the target sounds for a few minutes every day is crucial to the success of pronunciation instruction as L2 phoneme acquisition requires a lot of time and contextualized practice. I keep a chart, on a google doc, in which I tally all the phonemes I teach so as to have an overview of how many times I have recycled each sound.

5.7 Model through detailed description and analysis. In the modelling phase take the learners, possibly using audio-visuals, through every single step involved in the production of the target L2 phoneme. There are plenty of charts available online showing how the different sounds are produced in various languages. Remember: effective modelling and analysis require good knowledge of the target language phonology system. Heads of Depatment ought to provide staff with adequate specialised training.

5.8 Stage critical listening activities with narrow focus. These can be modelled in class and then flipped. They consist of getting students to listen to a peer reading aloud (if the focus is on decoding) or talking in the L2  whilst one or more peers focus their attention and provide feedback on two or three phonemes. Alternatively, you can get the students to record themselves and each other. Critical listening fosters collaborative learning, social strategies and metacognition whilst bringing about deep cognitive investment.

5.9 Alternate inductive and deductive approaches for the sake of variety, but also to foster healthy inquiry skills.

5.10. Prevent automatic activation of L1 sounds as much as possible. Keep pictures on the walls which refer to words containing the key L2 phonemes and most students know very well (e.g. numbers); it is important that they did not learn to pronounce these words through the written medium in the first place. These pictures will be a valuable aid each time you will want to correct phonetic mistakes made by your students without providing them with a written example (as this would automatically activate the student’s L1 decoding system possibly causing L1 transfer issues). So for instance, when reminding a student of the decoding of the consonant cluster ‘oi’ you will point to the number ‘3’ on the wall, ‘trois’, which contains those letters.

5.11 Teach and practise the target phonemes in accessible linguistic contexts. When teaching new phonemes it is vital that the students have enough cognitive space available to focus on them. If the ‘drills’ or communicative tasks are complex, contain masses of new vocabulary, challenging L2 structures or even other difficult sounds they have not yet mastered, this will impact very negatively on learning. Some teachers give fun but very phonetically complex tongue twisters to novice L2 learners who do enjoy the challenge and often have a  real blast in the process, but frequently end up making a complete mess of it. When selecting tongue twisters or any other material for the initial modelling and controlled practice phases, choose texts which pose very little cognitive and phonetic challenge.

5.12 Correct judiciously. Feedback is very important in the teaching of pronunciation and may need to be more frequent than the correction teachers provide on other aspects of performance. This is because pronunciation mistakes tend to fossilize more easily. Hence, teachers need to monitor oral communicative activities very closely and step in – even interrupting – when errors made with the target phoneme(s) (1) are made publically and consequently may affect several students’ perception of what is correct/incorrect; (2) impede intelligibility; (3) are made frequently. However, do not overdo correction as it may affect motivation.

Concluding remarks

In this post I have attempted to provide some tips on the pronunciation of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills. The most important point is that teachers should sensitize their students to the importance of accurate L2 pronunciation from the very early days of instruction. A principled approach to the planning and classroom delivery of L2 pronunciation instruction should be devised which provides extensive distributed practice through a mix of inductive and deductive learning and adopts a narrow focus, i.e. one or two phonemes are taught each time. Last but not least, this approach, which integrates pronunciation instruction within most lessons (a few minutes per session) cannot lead to acquisition of the target phonemes unless these are practised in the context of structured and unstructured communicative activities.

In this post I have also recommended the following framework that I have used successfully over the years and integrates the teaching of pronunciation with communicative language teaching and serve the goals of the curriculum I am charged with delivering. This framework includes five phases

(1) A modelling phase

(2) A description and analysis phase in which the differences between similar (but not identical) L1 and L2 phonemes and/or the L1 and L2 allophones of specific graphemes are clearly explained;

(3) A receptive awareness-raising and discrimination phase;

(4) A highly structured productive  phase;

(5) A productive semi-structured to unstructured communicative practice phase.

It should be reiterated that in the fifth phase, crucial in bringing about automatization, the role of the teacher in monitoring and providing feedback on the phonological level of student output is crucial. Also pivotal is the level of student focus on pronunciation that the teacher will have generated; unless the students are encouraged and motivated to keep the importance of pronunciation in their focal awareness no pronunciation instruction will ever succeed. Unfortunately, these days, pronunciation is but a peripheral concern in most Modern Language classrooms.

You can find more on this topic in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com

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Nine research facts about L2 phonology teaching and learning that every teacher should know

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1. Introduction

In the last three weeks I have been researching L2 phonology acquisition as the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills is one of my performance management targets for this year. This post, written in collaboration with Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net and Dylan Viñales of Garden International School, is a ‘prequel’ to a longer and more exhaustive article I will publish in a few days in which I will lay out the approach to phonology instruction I undertake in my lessons. Here I will concern myself with nine research facts about the acquisition and teaching of L2 pronunciation and decoding skills that every modern language teacher should know and that should constitute the starting point for any teaching approach to L2-phonology instruction. Here they are:

2. Pronunciation and decoding are the most neglected skills in Modern Language classrooms

As Elliott (1995) points out, Foreign Language Instruction does not concern itself with pronunciation and decoding skills as much as it does with listening, speaking, reading, writing and grammar. Whereas there is some focus on the L2 sound system during the first stages of instruction, especially when the L2 alphabet is introduced, teachers rarely continue to duly emphasize pronunciation for the rest of the course. It has to be added that often teachers think they are teaching pronunciation whilst they are actually mostly focusing on teaching decoding skills. Not the same thing.

Decoding-skill instruction is about teaching students how to convert the written form of the L2 into sound, that is to say how letters, when combined together, should sound in the target language; Pronunciation, on the other hand, is about learning how to accurately master the L2 Phonological system in any oral production. Whereas teachers do occasionally provide some instruction and practice in decoding skills, they rarely give their students information about subtleties in L2 pronunciation, e.g. the differences between the plosive English /t:/ and the non-plosive Spanish /t/ allophones of the letter ‘t’ (i.e. two different phonemes associated with the same letter). When they do, it is usually on a sporadic, ad-hoc and a-systematic basis; recycling of that information is rare Elliott (1995).

As Forman (1993) pointed out, one of the reasons for this neglect is that teachers do not receive sufficient training in pronunciation teaching. We may add that most modern language teachers in the UK were not formally taught the L2 phonology system in their undergraduates years and, although they often do have near-native or even native pronunciation they do not have explicit knowledge of how different sounds are produced and of the relevant metalanguage (e.g. what kind of sounds the labels ‘affricate’, ‘fricative’, ‘occlusive’, ‘plosive’ refer to).

Implications for teaching – (1) If teachers do not emphasize pronunciation from the very early stages of instruction and sustain this emphasis throughout the course, students will not see it as important and consequently may not develop intentionality (the desire to learn) vis-à-vis this aspect of their L2 learning. This is important in view of findings by Suter (1976), Elliott (1995) and other studies that found that if students are more concerned about their pronunciation they tend to have better pronunciation of the target allophones. In particular, Elliott (1995) found that university students’ attitude towards acquiring near-native or near-native pronunciation was the principal variable in relation to target language pronunciation. (2) Pre-service UK teachers should be trained in the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills and should be provided with a good understanding of the differences between their L1 and L2/L3’s sound systems.

3. L2 learner levels of Integrative motivation can affect the acquisition of pronunciation

As a university lecturer at Reading University – many years ago – I was always surprised by the huge differences in terms of pronunciation between L2-Italian students who came back to England after spending a whole year abroad, in Italy. Some had near-native pronunciation whilst others still retained a strong British accent. After investigating this phenomenon, I found that those who had the best pronunciation had fully embraced the Italian culture and tried hard to integrate both psychologically and socially with the natives – they displayed, in other words, what Gardner and Lambert (1959) call integrative motivation. The less Italian-sounding students, on the other hand, had made much less effort; yes they had enjoyed Italy and liked the language but had been less open and proactive in terms of integration. My ‘findings’ echo those of many theorists and research studies (e.g. Schumann’s,1986, Sparks and Glachow,1991) who posit that a positive orientation towards the target language/culture is an important factor in developing native-like pronunciation

Implications for teaching – getting the students to develop a positive orientation towards the target language and culture is paramount. It is obvious that a student with a dislike for the French civilization will not want to sound French. This is a further reason to aim at heightening cultural empathy for and appreciation of the target language culture(s) in the L2 classroom. Moreover, ways must be found to get students to practise the language orally with target language native speakers outside the classroom. Considering that social media is our teenage students’ most common past time these days this should not be an impossible task.

4. Age as a catalyst or inhibitor of acquisition of pronunciation

It has been posited by some researchers that there is a critical age beyond which it is impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation. A study of Korean children aged between 5 and 10 adopted by French families (Pallier et al., 2003) indicates that at least until the age of ten humans can still acquire 100 % native pronunciation. However, studies by Bialystock (1997), Bongaert et al (1997) and others have demonstrated that this can be achieved with adult L2 learners, too.

It should be pointed out that the commonly held assumption that simply learning a language as a child will lead to the acquisition of perfect L2 pronunciation is only true of naturalistic acquisition, i.e. of acquisition in a second language context in which the child has masses of exposure to the target language (e.g. a child of immigrants/expatriates acquiring the host country’s language or a non-English native speaker in an English medium international school). However, a five-year-old attending two L2-Mandarin lessons a week will not necessarily develop native-like Mandarin pronunciation just because of their age – in fact, in my experience more than often they do not. Frequency of exposure and other factors (e.g. motivation and aptitude) will play an important role, too.

Implications for teaching – language teachers should not be put off by the misconception that beyond puberty L2 learners cannot acquire native-like pronunciation.

5. L2 sounds are interpreted by the brain using the L1 phonological system

For several decades, language instructors were told by theorists working in the Nativist paradigm (e.g. Stephen Krashen) that there was no need to explicitly teach the target language phonology as students would acquire it naturally by simply being exposed to aural input, very much as children learn the mother tongue by listening to caregivers. The proponents of Communicative Language Teaching have a slightly more positive attitude to the teaching of pronunciation. However, because CLT’s main aim is intelligibility of student oral output, not accurate L2 pronunciation, CLT instruction does not greatly emphasize the teaching of pronunciation either. This is why on your teacher training course you were probably not taught how to teach pronunciation and decoding skills.

The assumption that L2 students will ‘pick up’ accurate L2 pronunciation through frequent aural exposure to the language – like children do in the first language – is very intuitively appealing: if you listen to L2 speakers over and over again, day-in day-out you will eventually get a perfect or at least very good pronunciation.  Yet – as much research has shown – this assumption is flawed. Why?

The reason is that the average human brain, unlike what happens in first language acquisition, automatically uses the existing L1 phonological system to interpret any L2 input it hears. In other words, we match any foreign language sound we hear to the most similar L1 sound stored in our Long-term memory. So, for example, an Italian student of English will automatically hear [t] or [f] instead of [θ] whenever s/he hears the first two letters in the word ‘thirsty’; a French native speaker, on the other hand, will hear [s].

What is interesting is that this perceptual mismatch influenced by the native language occurs even though the sound the student hears does actually exist in their mother tongue but is marked by another more frequent similar sound. For instance, the way the ‘n’ in ‘canyon’ is pronounced in English is marked by the more frequent way ‘n’ is pronounced in the same language (e.g. in the word ‘name’). This means that when an English native is taught to pronounce the Italian ‘gn’ sound – very similar to the way the ‘n’ sounds in ‘canyon’ – they will inevitably pronounce it as ‘n’.

Implications for teaching – This automatic response of the brain to foreign language aural input has huge implications:

(1) if we do not raise students’ awareness of the perceptual mismatch which occurs in the Working Memory from the very early days of instruction, they might – as it often happens – end up automatizing a highly L1-influenced L2-pronunciation.

(2) Whether by using a deductive or an inductive approach, it is paramount to raise L2 learner awareness of the differences between the L1 and L2 phonemes the students perceive as identical. I found visual aids very useful in this regard. In teaching the difference between the way ‘T’s are pronounced in French and in English for instance showing through a diagram where the tongue hits the tooth has helped many cohorts of my students to greatly improve their pronunciation of those sounds.

(3) If teachers do know the sound system of their students’ native language, they will be able to anticipate the barriers to accurate L2 pronunciation that L1 transfer erects and plan their teaching accordingly. A perfectly bilingual teacher with native/near-native pronunciation in both their students’ L1 and the target language will have a greater advantage, in this respect, over a teacher with monolingual mastery.

(4) Frequency of exposure and practice in L2 pronunciation and decoding is pivotal. Better a few minutes every day than one or two pronunciation lessons a month.

6. Accurate acquisition of L2 phonology leads not only to more effective listening skills but also to better vocabulary and grammar acquisition

A number of studies have systematically evidenced the fact that L2 learners who have successfully acquired L2 phonology usually have a better mastery of L2 vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Why? Because they are more likely to pick up from aural comprehensible input grammatical features that L2 learners with a less developed grasp of the L2 phonology may not be able to notice. An example: imagine an L2 learner of French who knows that ‘ts’ at the end of French words is usually silent wherear ‘-tes’ is pronounced ‘t’. On hearing the sentence ‘les grenouilles sont marrantes’ (frogs are funny) this learner will understand from the pronunciation that frog is a feminine noun. On the other hand, a student who pronounces ‘marrants (masculine plural) and ‘marrantes’ (feminine plural) the same way, as many L1 English learners of L2 French do, will never pick up on that.

Implications for teaching – In teaching pronunciation and decoding skills teachers ought to prioritize those sounds that may enhance or hinder students’ noticing and understanding of key grammar features (e.g. ‘e’ versus ‘é’ or verb/noun/adjectival endings in French).

7.L2 graphemes automatically activate L1 phonemes in the L2-learner working memory

Whenever a beginner L2 learner who has not as yet mastered the L2 phonological system is asked to pronounce a new L2 word, they will tend to automatically decode it (i.e. transform the letters into sounds) using their native language decoding system – unless other mechanisms (e.g. overcompensation) set in. For instance, an Italian beginner learner of English is very likely to wrongly pronounce the consonant cluster ‘gn’ as an English native speaker would pronounce ‘n’ in the word ‘canyon’.

What is interesting is that many L1 learners, when reading silently, report often repeating the words in their phonemic form ‘in their heads’ (sub-vocalizing), especially when they struggle with the meaning of a text. This entails the risk of L1 learners learning the wrong pronunciation even as they read silently.

Implications for teaching

The above has important implications for teaching. Firstly, this is another important argument in favour of teaching pronunciation and decoding skills explicitly from day one. Secondly, exposure to L2 words in their written form ought to be avoided as much as possible with beginner learners. When new lexical items are indeed presented, they should first be presented through visual aids or gestures; their written form should be provided only after much exposure / practice with their phonemic form.

Another important implication of this phenomenon refers to the frequent use of word-lists and writing mats by many modern language teachers. Unless the students have mastered the L2 decoding system this practice is likely to be very detrimental to their learning as the chance of them mispronouncing the words on those lists/mats will be high. This is particularly the case when the target words have not been selected according to easy-decodability criteria – as it is often the case in textbooks. Hence, teachers should endeavour to use wordlists – with beginners – that are pitched to the right level in terms of ease of pronunciation. When selecting or creating word lists for use, they should model extensively the pronunciation of the words the mats contain through lots of aural activities aimed at raising learner awareness of the pronunciation of the more difficult items.

8. U-shaped developmental curve of phonology acquisition

As it is obvious, frequency of exposure is more likely to result in better acquisition. What several studies have shown, however, is that a U-shaped developmental curve can be observed when students are being taught pronunciation across a range of L2 phonemes. During the first four weeks of instruction there is usually a marked improvement. In the three or four weeks thereafter the L2 learner seems to make more pronunciation errors due to cognitive overload; after this phase, which lasts three or four weeks, accuracy in production appears to be on the rise again.

Implications for teaching – when imparting pronunciation instruction, teachers must be mindful of the transitional phase observed by research. It is a necessary step the human brain takes in which through trial and error the learner refines their grasp of the target language phonology. Hence, teachers should not feel discouraged and give up on pronunciation instruction; instead, they should double their cognitive and affective support to the students and provide masses of constructive feedback through critical listening (whether by themselves or peers) and remedial strategies (e.g. metacognitive listening) which help restructuring.

9. Effective decoding skills and pronunciation play an important role in L2 reading comprehension

A substantial body of research evidence (e.g. Walter, 2008) has demonstrated that poor L2 readers do not often comprehend L2 texts not simply due to lack of grammar or vocabulary knowledge but because of poor decoding skills and issues with the phonological representation of what they read in their Working Memory (in the Articulatory/Phonological Loop to be more precise). The reasons for this are too complicated and beyond the scope of this post. It will suffice to say that they refer to the obstacles to Working Memory processing efficiency that bad decoding skills pose and which, in turn, hinder comprehension. If you do want to know more about this, read Catherine Walter’s fascinating article ‘ Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra’ (at https://www.academia.edu/1125848/Phonology_in_second_language_reading_not_an_optional_extra ).

Implications for teaching – When confronted with poor L2-reader students teachers often provide them with extra reading practice or focus on widening their vocabulary repertoire. This may not be sufficient; they may want to also focus on enhancing their decoding skills and, in particular on their ability to discriminate between L2 sounds that they confuse – due most often to L1 transfer. For instance, Walter (2008) reports findings from Flege and Mckay (2004) that many Italian immigrants who had been residing in Canada for many years still had problems discriminating aurally between the English sounds /ɑ / and /ʌ/ and between /æ/ and /e / (a very common problems amongst L1 Italian learners of English). This hindered their reading comprehension.

10. The temporariness of phonological storage in Working Memory

A fairly recent acquisition of neuroscience is that Working Memory’s phonological storage does not last more than a few seconds (some say two!) unless, that is, we make a conscious effort through rehearsal (repetition) to keep items in there. This limited storage time has important implications given that memory is phonologically mediated (i.e. when we retrieve L2 words from Long-Term memory we do so through their sound); it means that when we hear the words ‘cats’ and ‘cuts’ and we are not clear as to the difference between /ɑ / and /ʌ/ we do not have much time to decide which one we are actually hearing, unless we have automatized the ability to discriminate between those two sounds. Imagine this kind of scenario happening to one of our students during a high stake listening examination… it would cause confusion, slow down the whole process and, should the ambiguous word be crucial to the understanding of the text, it may seriously undermine their performance.

Implications for teaching: Same as per point 9.

11. There is no link between musical ability and pronunciation ability – Researchers have often attempted to evidence a link between the two and have systematically failed to find one. In fact, they have identified a lot of people who have one of these ‘talents’ but not the other.

Implications for teaching – Do not presume that the musical prodigies in your language classes are being failed by you if they do not exhibit excellent pronunciation. In the past, teachers I have worked with were so baffled by the fact that musically-talented students in their classes were not pronouncing words correctly because of this commonly held misconception. No need to be baffled – the two skills are not necessarily related.

12. Concluding remarks

Pronunciation and decoding skills are the most neglected aspect of L2 instruction in secondary school settings nowadays. This is because the trending language teaching methodologies either posit that L2 phonology is acquired subconsciously exactly as happens in L1 acquisition or concern themselves with intelligible communication – hence, accent does not matter as far as a sympathetic native speaker would understand what the student is trying to convey. However, the level of mastery of L2 phonology can seriously impact the acquisition of L2 grammar, syntax and vocabulary and can affect L2 reading and listening comprehension. In particular, the inability to clearly discriminate between similar-sounding L2 phonemes can slow down the processing of aural and written L2 input with potentially disastrous consequences for L2 learning and performance. Hence, it is imperative that Modern Language curricula lay more emphasis on the teaching of pronunciation and decoding skills. At Garden International School, Dylan Vinales and myself are currently experimenting with pronunciation and decoding-skill instruction through various approaches and techniques which I will describe in the sequel to this post (to be published over the next few days).

You can find more on this topic in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com

Another oral-skills-enhancing instructional sequence for beginner to intermediate learners en route to spontaneous talk

image (1)

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net 

1.Introduction

A point that I have often made in my posts is that for foreign language teaching CPD to be effective it has to go beyond simply describing a recommended learning activity, app or website. It also has to provide instructors with a solid rationale for its adoption and how it can be deployed effectively within a teaching sequence. Unfortunately, in my experience, this rarely happens – especially on teacher training courses.  This is the third in a series of posts which Steve Smith and I have written in order to address this perceived deficit in the area of oral proficiency development.

This post proposes a low-effort/high-impact teaching sequence centred on the use of a very versatile learning activity, ‘Find someone who’ (with cards) which, whilst having the development of oral proficiency as its main focus, does also provide practice in listening, reading and writing skills.

Whilst ‘Find some who’ is a fairly straightforward activity to conduct, how to prepare the students effectively for it and to exploit its full learning potential is much less evident. In what follows I suggest ways in which this can be done without too much effort on the part of the teacher.

  1. The task

Each student is given a different card with a number of details in the L1 or in the L2. In my version of this activity the cards usually have five to eight bullet points which look something like this:

  • Name: Jean
  • Date of birthday: 3rd May
  • Siblings: one younger sister
  • Favourite hobby: reading novels and painting
  • Pet hates: cricket and Facebook
  • Favourite singer: Taylor swift

The students are also given a grid with a number of questions in the L1 or L2 (see image above). I personally prefer to put the questions into the L1 so as to avoid spoon-feeding the students. The questions read something like this:

“Find someone who…

  1. …hates Facebook”
  2. …has two siblings”
  3. …is born in September”, etc.

The students are required to find a person for each of the above prompts (e.g. ‘Jean’ for question 1, above) by asking questions to the other students (in the target language). The student who finds them all first, wins. I usually prepare two or three different sets of questions in order to play more rounds.

I uploaded many (free) samples of ‘Find someone who’ on www.tes.com (e.g. https://www.tes.com/teaching-resources/search/?q=conti%20find%20someone%20who)

3.Planning / Preparation

1. Decide on the grammar, vocabulary and other linguistic features you intend to focus on;

2.Prepare a set of cards with four of five bullet points;

3. Prepare one or more sets of questions making sure that each question refers only to one card so as to have more movement around the classroom;

4. Prepare a few very short texts in the target language for reading and listening comprehension purposes which you will use in the run-up to the activity implementation. The texts should contain the same sort of details the students will find on the cards. Example:

‘My name is Sean. I am 13 years old and my birthday is on June 20. I have two sisters. My favourite hobby is reading and playing the violin. I hate social networks such as Facebook. My favourite singer is Sia.’

5. (Optional) prepare vocabulary games, worksheets, quizzes recycling the language to be deployed during the to-be-staged activity to give as homework before the lesson

4. The sequence

  1. Drill in vocabulary (15 minutes) – as suggested above, one can ‘flip’  most of this. However, it is beneficial to do some recycling at the beginning of the lesson anyway in order to activate the target vocabulary in Long Term Memory.
  1. Reading and listening comprehension (based on cards) – 2a. Put the short texts containing the target linguistic features up on the screen. Ask reading comprehension questions on the texts of the sort you expect the students to ask each other later on as part of the ‘Find someone who’. Equipped with MWBs the students answer the questions (all in the target language, of course). 2b.Now read out the texts you will have prepared for listening comprehension purposes. Students still answer comprehension questions on MWBs. Since the purpose of this listening activity is not only to recycle the target linguistic features and assess comprehension but also, and more importantly, to model pronunciation, be mindful of the speed at which you utter each text and repeat as often as the students’ request you to.
  1. Questions and answers – Now it is time to further practise the questions that you expect them to produce during the ‘Find someone who’. The easiest option – the one requiring the least preparation – is to ask the students to carry out a survey using the target questions (partner A asks and partner B notes down answers). This should be conducted entirely in the target language. Teachers will go around facilitating and monitoring.
  2. Find someone who – Now carry out one or more rounds of ‘Find someone who’. Make sure that nobody ‘cheats’ by copying what they see on their peers’ grid – the most common offence.
  3. Fluent writing – Now students work in groups. Students take turns in reading out – in the L1 – the details on whichever card they hold and the rest of the group has a set amount of time to put them into French in the form of a paragraph, writing on MWBs – note: this must not necessarily be a word-for-word translation. The purpose of this activity is to prep the students for the next task.
  4. Fluent speaking – Now students go away in pairs with iPads or other recording devices. Each student is given three cards they have not worked with before. The task is to describe the details on the three cards in the target language talking in the third person whilst being recorded impromptu – without studying the cards prior to the recording (e.g. His name is Jean, he is 13 years old, he hates Facebook, etc.).

5. Conclusions

The instructional sequence just outlined is easy to prepare and manage; it allows for practice across all four skills and continuous recycling of the target linguistic features.’Find someone who’ can be implemented without creating cards with fictitious identities and details; however, this allows for less control over the language you want to drill in. I have been using the above sequence several times in my practice and the students usually enjoy and learn a lot from it.