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Teaching Pronunciation Online (by Tara Benwell)

Until a few months ago, I always considered myself an English teacher who specialized in writing. I love writing, and I love helping others realize that their stories and ideas are worth sharing in more than one language. Recently, however, I’ve been drawn to another area of the English language. I have a whole new outlook on teaching pronunciation, and it’s all thanks to the Internet. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that teaching pronunciation online is far more interesting and possibly even more effective than teaching pronunciation in a classroom.

Audio Speaking Group It all started with a Polish English learner named Rafal who invited MyEC members to turn on their microphones. A bunch of English Club members had been playing with the recording tool Vocaroo, and Rafal wanted to get the word out to newcomers that the Internet had some great FREE tools for practising speaking online. To get his message across, Rafal started The Audio Speaking Group (any English teacher or learner on MyEC can start a special interest group) and members quickly began to join. “Just tell us something” was his first request, and dozens of learners worldwide took up the challenge.

In a MyEC group, members can create their own subgroups for discussions. Within the Audio Speaking Group, one of the members started a poetry reading group. Another started a Karaoke group. One started an Idiom of the Day discussion as well as a discussion for sharing quotes. Vocaroo became the most popular recorder, likely because it requires no registration and is easily embeddable. Some of our tech savvy members veered off and tried other recorders such as Audioboo (better sound quality but not always reliable) and Cinch. A few members with recorders on their own computers chose to upload their MP3s to their embeddable MyEC Music Players (every member gets a free one) instead of using online recorders.

I could tell pretty quickly that the members were longing for feedback on their recordings, so I started a subgroup of my own. I called it “Be a Newscaster” and my goal was to test out how useful MyEC would be as a platform for teaching (and practising) pronunciation. The group has been going strong since January 2011, and I’m enjoying it as much as my monthly writing group.

Once a week, English learners from around the world visit the Be a Newscaster group to practise the latest report from EnglishClub.com’s Weekly News (a listening resource since 2006). Teachers and peers offer feedback (through typed comments or audio). I learned early on that I would need a phonemic chart on site. Josef Essberger (EC’s founder) got busy building both a printable and an interactive IPA chart. In combination with a Phonemic Character Keyboard the interactive chart is an excellent way to explain a sound when you are teaching online. Of course, we don’t just work on individual phonemes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few months, it’s that rhythm is one of the most important things to practise while focusing on pronunciation. The weekly news has been a good resource, because it is relevant, short, and updated regularly. The learners are very happy to have a model to refer to, and because they are online, they can listen over and over until they are confident enough to try the report themselves. I remind them weekly of the importance of listening to English as often as possible, be it podcasts, the news, TV, or music.  Besides encouraging them to try a word or phrase again, I leave notes about syllables, word stress, and pacing.

Here are some of the things we do in our online pronunciation group:

  • encourage one another to come back each week
  • isolate problematic phonemes
  • identify intonation problems
  • work on pacing
  • practise linking
  • listen to many different accents
  • respond to a discussion question (NEW-for the more advanced members)

Here are a few reasons why our group is ideal in comparison to a traditional classroom:

  • Learners can listen to their own voices over and over (unnerving at first, but they get used to it).
  • Learners can compare their voices to other learners and teachers with various accents.
  • Teachers can take the time to identify sounds that are difficult for individual learners as well as sounds or words that are problematic for many.
  • Learners don’t have to wait for teachers to approach the subject of pronunciation. (Some teachers truly neglect this skill. Time, lack of confidence, and lack of materials can lead to this problem.)
  • Learners begin to understand the importance of being able to understand each other without lip reading.
  • Online materials (authentic or for ESL) for practice are endless. (In one of the schools I worked at we used to fight over Pronunciation Pairs and Jazz Chants and often made mass photocopies of resources from these books.)
  • Learners can go back and listen to their previous recordings and take note of how they’ve improved.
  • Pronunciation dictionaries like howjsay are a second away.

In his IATEFL session, Pronunciation Matters, Robin Walker discussed different motivations for improving pronunciation. He stressed the importance of intelligibility over accent reduction. (Unless the student’s goal is to develop a specific accent.) It was at this session where I learned that only a very small percentage (about 2%) of people in the UK speak with an RP accent. Now, when English learners ask me whether or not they should study American or British accents, I remind them that the most important thing is to be understood. MyEC learners are beginning to worry less about having the perfect accent and are embracing the fact that they can understand other English users (Ceri Jones’ word) from around the world.

Since developing the printable and interactive phonemic chart, Josef Essberger has vowed  to make the Pronunciation section a priority on English Club for 2011. With the help of Alex Case we have since added a pronunciation glossary, a section on minimal pairs, a resource on contractions and a section on homophones. The learners on MyEC continue to inspire new resources based on their needs and interests.

If you’re looking for somewhere to practise teaching this skill, please join MyEC’s Audio Speaking Group (over 500 members). We need volunteers to help offer feedback, and perhaps you have an idea that will help our members with their intelligibility. It’s free and only takes a few minutes to sign up.

Finally, I would like to mention that there was an excellent #ELTChat on pronunciation last February that inspired me to devote more time and energy to this project. I’m extremely thankful to my PLN for all of their ideas about teaching this largely neglected skill. I find myself going back to the summary often as I continue to make pronunciation a priority with my online learners.

What students are saying in our pronunciation group:

Very helpful exactly what we need to improve our pronunciation. Especially the stress I have great difficulties with word stress. Thanks Tara I will try to face my fear and participate. (A new member to me.)

As Tara said before, your word stress is excellent. I learned how it’s important from your recording. Thanks :) (A member’s message to another member)

i am proud of u selma you are so persistant :) keep it up (A member to another member who rerecords her report at least once each time.)

I’m really sorry if every time I use a different audio recorder, I want to know which one we all can use and listen to. Please let me know if it works for you..(A tech savvy member experimenting as she always does.)


Tara BenwellTara Benwell is an ELT materials writer and the administrator of My English Club (MyEC), the social network of EnglishClub.com. You can learn more about Tara’s work and her writing life Beyond ELT on her personal website and blog. www.tarabenwell.com. You can also follow Tara on Twitter: @tarabenwell

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11 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    Wow! The more I learn about MyEC, the more impressed I become!

    I love that this is learner-driven, that learners are empowering each other, and that the focus is on intelligibility.

    What an amazing community you all have.

    Thanks for sharing it with us :-)

  2. Hey TARA !!!

    So nice to find one of my favorite folks on one of my favorite blogs !!!

    I echo Barb’s thoughts of being impressed with MyEC. When I had the pleasure of listening to you talk about what you do there at the Blog Symposium at IATEFL, I was simply blown away.

    NOW, I have to finally spend more time there, and upload those videos I promised you !!! I’m such a bad virtual buddy.

    Cheers, Brad

  3. seburnt says:

    Very cool! I love that you’ve found renewed interest in a system you don’t typically consider your ‘specialty’ and are discovering new ways to facilitate learning within it. I can’t say I’m that familiar (if at all) with MyEC, since I rarely join groups like this, but will definitely give it a second thought.

    Cheers, Tara.

  4. TEFLTara says:

    Thanks for reading Barb, Brad, and Tyson! Yes, it’s quite amazing how motivated these learners are. As I said in my IATEFL presentation, I think this is because they have so much freedom and because they can write, chat, and talk about things that they are interested in. I’ll share that quote by Jeremy Harmer again: “It is only when you use the language to say things which are true about you do you start to own the new language.” This is why the addition of a discussion question after the news report is so important. Many are comfortable writing their opinions, but hopefully members of the Audio Speaking Group will soon be comfortable enough to start sharing their views about current events in a recording as well.

    1. I like that phrase “own” the language, and use it again and again. Awesome, Tara ! Glad you can be involved in such an open/free project.

  5. Martin says:

    Hi Tara! Great article! Thanks! I think that it is a great marketing of MyEC and it can persuade new learners and teachers to join our community:)

    1. TEFLTara says:

      Thanks for coming by Martin. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Thank you for everything you do to keep our community alive. You are a very inspiring member!

  6. David says:

    Tara,

    This is really powerful stuff, empowering students to take control of their own learning. That truly is the end game.

    I get excited about students getting immediate CF (corrective feedback) and the power of “speaking” online while still controlling form. It is important for student development and acquisition.

    I do hope your community has tried EnglishCentral. I’d gladly support you with a class there and premium seats for some feedback in return. You can reach me at david@englishcentral.com (you know how to reach me! my blog!). We don’t have captured recording yet but that should be available end of July. Still, it is an engaging tool that I think the English Club would use for their benefit.

    Cheers,

    David

  7. Tara Benwell says:

    Thanks David,

    Yes, it’s very exciting. What I really need to do is to improve the balance on MyEC. We have so many English learners and they long for more feedback from the teachers. Most of our active core don’t have an actual classroom to go to. It would be ideal if we could get some more pre-service teachers who want to practise teaching online.

    Thanks so much for the EnglishCentral invite. I’ll mention your idea to Josef.

    Cheers,
    Tara

  8. Tara Benwell says:

    Check this out: http://my.englishclub.com/group/audiospeakinggroup/forum/topics/teaching-pronunciation-online

    I shared a link to this post in our group, but I did not put them up to this! I just stumbled across it today.

  9. [...] behind this community that empowers its members to teach themselves and each other. In her post Teaching Pronunciation Online, Tara explains how the Internet enables members of MyEC to  learn pronunciation more effectively [...]

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