Writing Pronunciation Materials - by Wayne Rimmer
Much is made of the lack of attention pronunciation receives in the classroom compared to grammar and vocabulary but this is not down to a lack of material as coursebooks all include pronunciation exercises, usually cramped into a corner somewhere, and there are actually a fair amount of published resources for teachers to supplement with. Also, there has been a surge in online tools and apps bringing pronunciation to digital natives, and the occasional digital dinosaur. Still, many teachers do find pronunciation resources lacking and the typical response is to ignore them, leaving the books to gather dust and the learners to find their own way through the phonology of English. What makes existing materials unattractive?
First, international publications cannot focus on individual first-language groups, the typical problems they have and, what is often disregarded in our fixation with error, areas where the overlap between the first and second language phonology is enough to make further treatment redundant. As an example of the latter, there is little point in labouring over the rhythm of English to speakers of other stress-timed languages like German and Russian. Publishers can’t be blamed for a scatter-gun approach because they are aiming at a global market. However the one size fits all solution means that teachers have to be very selective in picking material which meets their learners’ needs. Just going through the book is hardly an effective strategy in any teaching context but it is especially flawed in pronunciation teaching because it is incredibly wasteful.
Second, the methodology of pronunciation resources is almost exclusively limited to ‘listen and repeat’ work on individual sounds. This remains true whatever the fancy technology involved. Endless drilling is frankly boring and, more pertinently, it doesn’t work, or at least there is no research evidence to prove it in either a first or second language acquisition (Google the work of Piers Messum as confirmation). The research of John Field and Richard Cauldwell, especially the latter’s Phonology for Listening, has shown that traditional receptive-based pronunciation work has considerable pay-offs for the skill of listening, but this is not the same as coaching learners how to articulate. Listening to a sound gives no indication of how the sound is made and any initial success in mimicry would quickly wear off outside the classroom. The listen and repeat methodology has presumably fomented the preoccupation with sounds (prosodic features like intonation are at least as important to communication) simply because they are easier to drill.
To reiterate, faced with alternatives that are often irrelevant in content and uninspiring in approach, most teachers will give up on the pronunciation. Braver souls will consider designing their own material. The advantages are direct counterpoints to the criticisms levelled above: tasks that address real needs through an engaging methodology. The main disadvantage is the time factor as busy teachers have finite preparation time. But there is also a skills gap, as teachers may not feel confident enough about pronunciation teaching generally to be able to generate useful materials. As with any materials design, a lot of trial and error is involved – you only get good at doing something by doing it a lot – but the benefits for your learners and your own development are significant enough to invest the time. Key considerations in materials design are presented below.
1 Find the focus
Choose a pronunciation point which your learners struggle with. This is easier if you share the same L1 as your learners. In a multilingual classroom, a situation mainly limited to Anglophone countries, the typical UK summer school scenario, you have to go with something of near-universal relevance. The dental fricatives – the sounds beginning the and theatre – are classic examples because of their rarity in languages of the world. However, an additional consideration is that the pronunciation point should be worth learning, i.e. it makes a difference in communication. This is more difficult to judge. Supporters of English as a Lingua Franc (ELF), for example, would argue that dental fricatives are not worth teaching because they rarely cause communication breakdown and are substituted by other sounds in several varieties of English, for example /t/ in articles in Irish English. An ELF approach is not laissez-faire but it addresses priorities which have been empirically proven to affect the quality of communication, such as the length distinction in vowels (ship vs. sheep). Dental fricatives do not fall into this category. However, a further complication is that, whether regarded as essential or not, learners will have expectations about what to be taught. Personally, I doubt many learners would be persuaded by the rational argument that they can do without dental fricatives in the same way that it would be hard to tell them ‘Forget about articles’. A practical way of resolving such controversies is to negotiate with learners themselves (this will often need to be in L1) a suitable focus. Usually, your own intuition and experience will coincide with their requests.
2 Don’t reinvent the wheel
Existing pronunciation materials have their limitations but, at the risk of mixing metaphors, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Anything published has gone through a painstaking design and editing effort so it will have some qualities that can be emulated. Often, just a tweak is needed to reset the activity for your learners. For example, a favourite of mine is Mark Hancock’s ‘Pronunciation Journey’ in his Pronunciation Games (Cambridge). The activity involves learners choosing between minimal pairs to follow the road to the right city. In the original the cities are an international selection. You can remodel the activity simply by replacing those cities with other categories, for example, cities in your country, names of learners, vocabulary you have covered in class recently. To be fair, if your work draws heavily on others’, acknowledge this on the material (and for anything distributed or published, permission will be needed). Even if you go your own way with materials, look at as much published work as you can for inspiration.
Learners should be motivated to do the task. This is a real issue with ‘listen and repeat’, an exercise with zero intrinsic appeal. The pronunciation should be central to task completion but learners should want to do the activity for its own sake. A task type I used (shameless self-promotion coming up) in most levels of the pronunciation worksheets for the Cambridge Empower adult coursebook series was the adventure maze. You will be familiar with the maze idea from the books, and then computer games, where you go through a series of situations and have to take drastic decisions, your destiny depending on the route you take and either ending in success or failure. I used different adventure scenarios, for example castaway on a desert island in A2 (see illustration) and a time machine in B1, to provide practice in sounds and supra-segmentals as learners read aloud the situation cards and discuss their decisions. Pronunciation learning has a much higher chance of success if it happens in a memorable context where the affective filter is lowered.
The great thing about writing for your own learners is that you have complete freedom of choice over content and approach. There are many restrictions on published materials and consequently what gets through can seem emasculated. It won’t exactly be the case with you that anything goes – there are parents and other custodians of any educational process – but you are much freer and the price of failure, an activity not working, is low (compare the cost to publishers of a book that doesn’t sell). Blogs which might inspire that creative spark include Mark Hancock (see above) and Annie McDonald’s http://hancockmcdonald.com/ and Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko’s ELF-based https://elfpron.wordpress.com/
You naturally share your materials with your learners but think beyond that. Most teachers work as a team so give copies to colleagues or maybe run a workshop on your ideas. If several teachers pool materials, a school can quickly build up a bank. If you are lucky enough to work in a network like IH, sharing can go even further. Many IH teachers have published their materials and you may want to follow this path. Publishers are always interested in quality materials and while this is not exactly the road to fame and fortune, it is a very exciting career opportunity that is a perfect complement to teaching. At the end of this article I give some references to sources which can help you write professionally.
That’s enough of the theory, now for the practice: get out there and start writing!
Useful sources for pronunciation materials writers:
Two IATEFL SIGS organise relevant events and resources:
ELT Teacher2Writer: http://www.eltteacher2writer.co.uk/ connects writers with publishers and includes practical courses on materials design.
MATSDA (Materials Development Association): http://www.matsda.org/ has an annual event and journal.
Wayne Rimmer teaches at BKC-international House Moscow.