EVO – Teaching Pronunciation Differently

Back in February, I began TESOL’s Electronic Village Online (EVO) course called Teaching Pronunciation Differently.

I want to be up front that I didn’t finish it (yet).

But every minute I spent on it was a revelation and a half – except for the videos of Audrey Hepburn singing as Eliza in My Fair Lady.

Their premise is that teaching pronunciation using a “watch and repeat” method is not particularly effective for most adult learners.

They purpose instead direct instruction on breathing, mouth position, and other physical aspects of articulation that students can learn step by step.

My most excited moment was when they taught something I had vaguely noticed when learning Russian – I thought of it as holding my mouth differently. There’s a word for that! It’s called articulatory setting! And people actually study this to better understand it! And apparently English has kind of a weird one.

They also offered many strategies for helping students sensitize themselves to different types of breathing, the interior of their mouths, etc.

Many thanks to EVO and to the TPD course instructors – even a fraction of this course was incredibly valuable and absolutely fascinating!

You’re reading EVO – Teaching Pronunciation Differently, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Thanks to “Impolite” Students

This is a post I drafted in the last few years. It’s just three examples of students taking the time to set me straight, and of me taking the time to listen. I didn’t post it right away because I was concerned that it might be taken out of context and misunderstood as an indictment of me as a terrible teacher, or of my students as aggressive jerks. Neither is the case. My concern has not gone away, but what I wrote still rings true to me. In the spirit of stepping up like my students did, here’s the post.

Working for years in Minnesota, followed by years in super-supportive ESOL departments in Maryland, all with mature and gracious adult ESOL students, I am blessed with a whole lot of positive feedback in my professional life.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m originally from near New York City or if it’s just a personality quirk, but at some point, a lot of positive feedback rings a bit hollow to me. I know I’m not perfect, so receiving criticism matches my world-view way better than praise does.

Too much positive feedback can actually make me uneasy. What aren’t they saying, and why? Is everyone just being polite? What are they hoping I’ll figure out? 

But here’s one thing: speaking a reasonable and relevant truth is not necessarily impolite.

And here’s another thing: it’s okay to be impolite sometimes. We don’t intentionally step on people’s toes in our day to day lives because that would be rude and cause pain. But if we’re walking along and a motorcycle is suddenly hurtling toward us, we leap out of the way even if we land on someone’s toes. That’s an extreme case, but the point is that some things are more important than manners.



I owe a lot to the few students who have stepped up and told me some of the “impolite” things that I suspect many other students were thinking. Their willingness to risk stepping on my toes has helped me see class from students’ point of view and adjust my teaching accordingly.

Circulating from Student to Student

Early in my assistant teaching days, in addition to gauging how pushy I should be in helping my students, I was also figuring out the balancing act of helping everybody in a limited amount of time.

One lesson, I wound up addressing quite a few of one student’s questions with her. It took a long time. When I finally moved on to the next person, she told me frankly that I shouldn’t have spent so much time with the first woman. She pointed out that many students were waiting for my help and that it wasn’t fair to give too much time to one individual. She said I should have addressed one or two of the first woman’s questions, then checked to see if anyone else needed me. Then if not, I could work more with the first woman. Talk about specific feedback! No arguments from me then or now.

Before this conversation, I had seen this circulation balancing act as my own internal struggle. But the student’s comments made it clear to me that my class is paying more attention to that kind of thing than I’d thought. And I wasn’t giving them enough credit for understanding our need to work with everyone even when they still have more questions.

Overwhelming Written Comments

Back when I was lead teaching an academic writing class, I spent what felt like an eternity writing comments on my students’ diagnostic essays. We had a relatively small class and I’d decided to use that as an opportunity to start everyone off with a generous amount of personalized guidance.

Unfortunately, to one student, my comments somehow came across as sarcastic. I’m not 100% sure how it happened, because I remember being genuinely impressed with the essay and saying so. I was surprised that I had caused offense, but I accepted that I had and made amends accordingly.

I think that the problem was in how I’d made my comments: they were intended to be plentiful, but instead they were long-winded, which made them arduous to read and left too much room for incorrect interpretation. My takeaway there was to make sure future comments were short, plain, and focused.

Another takeaway I gleaned from that situation was that students don’t see our comments as a gift, no matter how generously they’re intended or how valuable they are. They’re overwhelming, they hurt, and students often don’t know how to implement them. I needed to be more judicious and practical with my comments.

Confusing Speech

When assistant teaching, I was having a writing conference with a pretty fluent student. After asking for clarification of something I’d said a couple of times, she exclaimed in exasperation, “Why can’t you just talk normally?!”

As I’m sure you can guess, the problem was that I was talking normally. Conversationally, even: many words, lots of linking, natural speed, meandering point.

It’s questionable whether I should alter my normal talking speed or prosody in the very last level of EAP before direct enrollment in mainstream college courses. But I think the cognitive burden of listening to my natural speech would have been manageable if I had just made sure to be direct and terse rather than chatty.

How many other students were too polite or too overwhelmed to get me to rein it in?

Overall: Focus

I feel like all three of these “sidekick slaps” came down to my losing focus in the moment. I wasn’t meeting my students where they were. I wasn’t respecting that more is not necessarily better. I wasn’t as direct and organized as I needed to be.

This doesn’t mean I’m never focused; it means that when I’m not focused, it shows.

I know where to go from there, and that’s a good feeling.


Real feedback is not always positive. Criticism is not always sandwiched neatly between two positives. But insight is always valuable, and who better to give us insight into what our students need than our students themselves?

May I keep listening and keep learning.


I’m pretty sure none of the students I referred to in this post are aware of this blog, but just in case: guys, thank you for making me a better teacher.


Photo Credit: cmjolley on Flickr

You’re reading Thanks to “Impolite” Students, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Syllabus Activities

14193201770_0f44e45da7The course syllabus gives students powerful information about the upcoming semester: learning goals, assignment schedules, grading policies, academic resources, and so much more.

But it just looks like a stack of paper.

Unfortunately, in my experience the students who need this resource the most are the ones least likely to recognize and understand all it provides.

In my opinion, the single most effective way to get students to realize what is in the syllabus and see how it can help them, is to have them use it.

Here are several activity ideas:

On The First Day

Embed Write-Ins

When you write the syllabus, leave prompts for students to write in personalized information.

“A classmate’s name and contact info: ___________________________”

“Dates I know I’ll have to miss class: ___________________________”

Take it a step farther and go for some metacognition:

“Which of these technical skills do I need help with? ___________________________”

“Is it better to go to the writing center or fail the class? ___________________________”

“What will I do if I get less than 75% on a major assignment? ___________________________”

Info Gap

Turn the syllabus into an information gap activity. You can do this with the whole thing or just one or two sections.

Make three different versions of the syllabus:

  • one complete master document
  • Version A (see below)
  • Version B (see below)

Name the files abundantly clearly.

In Version A, blank out 5-10 key pieces of information. Leave space for the students to write in the information during class.

In Version B, blank out 5-10 different key pieces of information. Double check that the information missing from Version A is present in Version B and vice-versa. Again, leave space for students to write in the information.

When you print them, be sure to label the cover of each. Color code, call them “Complete,” “A,” and “B,” etc.

Have students circulate and ask each other for the information they’re missing.

Note: Specify that the purpose of this activity is to practice conversation AND to be familiar with the syllabus.

Good question:  “When is the midterm?”

Bad question: “What is the third word in the second paragraph of page 2?”

Jigsaw Activity

This is the most advanced suggestion on this list.

During class, use the syllabus as the basis for a jigsaw activity.

Have small groups become experts in one section of the syllabus. Suggested activities: within each group, take turns reading a paragraph out loud while the others follow along. Then each student take a few minutes to develop a comprehension question on each paragraph s/he read aloud. The students quiz each other, closed-book. They share their opinions about how important their section is, and when it’s most useful. Last, together they put together a one-minute summary of their section that they will share with the others.

Then, these small groups break apart and form new groups with at least one representative from each original group. Within the new groups, students each share their one-minute summary. Then they give their opinion about how important their section is, and when it’s most useful (e.g. the grading policies section is very important, especially useful if you’re worried about your grades; the school closing section is important, but only if it’s snowing out).

After The First Day

Make Sure It’s A Relevant, Living Document

When you talk about grading or policy issues come up, refer back to the syllabus. Open up the document online or in your hands. Or both.

When you “complete” a course objective or a major assignment is handed in, graded, corrected and thoroughly finished with, take a moment during class to check it off on your syllabus. Use a document camera if you have one. Encourage students to check off accomplishments on their copies as well.

If your syllabus includes a schedule, and that schedule changes (e.g. Unit 5 needs another week), update the master copy of the syllabus. Ask students to put an X through their latest version of the course schedule, and then hand out updated (and labeled) hard copies.

Assign It As Content

Sometime in the second week, have the students complete a basic take-home assignment using the syllabus as a reference. Depending on your style, some might call this an open-book “quiz,” but others would simply say “homework.”

Ask straightforward questions that highlight what you want students to be most aware of.

“What happens if homework is late?”

“How much of your grade is your midterm worth?”

Use It As A Text

Going over coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS)? Highlight them in the course objectives in the syllabus and discuss why each one was chosen.

Learning to paraphrase? Why not paraphrase some of the syllabus section on plagiarism?

Practicing intonation? Use the syllabus! There are certainly statements, lists, dependent clauses, and so on.


Wishing students and teachers everywhere a wonderful semester!


Photo Credit: Phillip Wong on Flickr

You’re reading Syllabus Strategies, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.


Examples of Pronunciation Fundamentals

17239167032_0810e4c0dcOn Monday, I wrote about how I’m viewing pronunciation these days. In this post, I’m going to give two examples of my view in practice with two wonderful students.

Example 1: Me and Russian

The first wonderful student is me!

I’ve been told that my Russian pronunciation is quite good. (Too bad my grammar is a nightmare and most of the vocabulary slides right out of my mind when I need it!)

In my studies in college, I kept coming across a word in context that I really had trouble saying: “Vzryv” – explosion.

It’s a very short word by Russian standards, but it has several features that made it challenging for me:

  • “Vz” doesn’t really happen at the beginning of English words
  • Russian “r” is different from English “r”
  • Russian “y” is a vowel that English doesn’t have

Highlighting exactly what was happening with this word helped me be patient with myself as I practiced it – it was a very uncomfortable word!

It also helped me to realize that a few English words end with “/vz/”, like saves. Applying what I could already pronounce to this word that was driving me bonkers helped.

With practice and patience, I can now pronounce explosion and its related verbs, which is nice even though I usually pick the wrong aspect and then conjugate it incorrectly.
N.B. the link describes what verbal aspect is and includes a section called, “Why Must I Endure This?” 

Example 2: Sierra Leonean Student and Thirty

A student of mine from Sierra Leone with very advanced English and pleasant accent asked me how to pronounce a word. I couldn’t understand which word she was asking about! We had to write it down, and it turned out to be “thirty.”

We had very little time to address this question, and it happened too recently for follow-up. She kindly said it several times for me, sometimes alone and sometimes in sentences, and I came away with this:

  • she learned British English (or at least not US pronunciation)
  • she is uncomfortable with /th/
  • she is uncomfortable with /ir/

This is my proposed plan for her, which I haven’t had the chance to communicate to her yet!

  1. Explain. Of people look confused after she says 30 as usual, she should add “the number, three zero, thirty.” This is not a long-term solution! Just a quick fix to get her 30-related communication on track ASAP.
  2. British. Next, she should aim for British pronunciation – /θəti/. This involves the uncomfortable /th/ sound but not the uncomfortable US /ir/ sound. It caters to her more British-sounding accent, making use of skills she already has. Americans often understand British pronunciation, so it will hopefully serve her well.
  3. US English. If she is planning to stay in the USA long-term and/or her British pronunciation is not getting the results she wants, she should work on her US /ir/ sound to get closer to how Americans are used to hearing it.


Photo Credit: Kelly Burkhart on Flickr

You’re reading Examples of Three Pronunciation Fundamentals, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com

Three Pronunciation Fundamentals

8446757338_b8077840b1Though my assistant teaching gig these past couple of semesters has been in an academic writing class, I’ve also had the privilege of working with some students one-on-one on their pronunciation.

Some thoughts on how I tackle both formal and informal pronunciation tutoring these days:

1. Being Understood

My students are living in the USA. The point of their pronunciation questions and practice is to be understood by typical people living in the USA.

It’s not about them getting it 100% “right” (whatever that means) or sounding like they were born in Cleveland.

This has a big impact on the type of feedback I give them. I don’t say “right” or “wrong,” because it’s not about any such thing. I couch most feedback in terms of if it’s easier to understand (or not).

It also influences my advice to them. If they’re just not ready to be differentiating /r/ from /l/ in conversation any time soon, and they have a job interview this week, I’m going to encourage them to say they “enjoy books” rather than they “like reading.” Not as a long-term solution, but as a way to address the needs of the day.

It’s about facilitating their communication.

2. Comfort

Some English sounds, blends, clusters, etc. are uncomfortable for some students. Not as in painful, but as in awkward.

Sometimes students are way off the mark on a certain type of utterance. And I’ve had students persistently revert to a very difficult-to-understand version of a US-English sound I know they can make. I assume that this reflects not their ability, but their discomfort with that sound.

And so I ask them if that sound is uncomfortable for them. I urge them to practice it at home alone in front of a mirror so they can get used to it. And if they are just not ready to consistently produce the sound as I pronounce it, I help them find an approximation that’s reasonably comfortable and reasonably easy to understand.

3. Knowns

With vanishingly few exceptions, our students come to us already able to pronounce a great many words in at least one language.

They may make the requisite sounds in different contexts but not recognize them in new contexts. When we can, we should help them make use of what they already know.

Sometimes that involves figuring out what they already know. We need to ask friendly, specific questions to get to know our pronunciation students. What languages are they familiar with, even if they’re not fluent? Are there any similar sounds in those languages to the problem sound they’re working on right now? (Ask them or Wikipedia or both!) Do they listen to a lot of pop music or sing a lot of gospel? What are their other interests and pastimes?

If we can help them relate what they already know to what they’re trying to accomplish, it’s huge. And the best way to do this is to get to know them.


Thursday I’ll be back with a couple examples!


Photo Credit: D Coetzee on Flickr

You’re reading Three Pronunciation Fundamentals, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.






Reflecting on Music in the Classroom

A few months ago Rob at the TESOL blog posted a nice article against music in the classroom.

One problem I have with blogging is commenting: I either have nothing to say or enough to say that it’s basically another post. I picked one thought and left it as a comment on the original post. Below I’ve turned my other thoughts into their own post.

8713899106_5227c3d7ceI have sparingly used music in the classroom to highlight some of the very features Rob says it distorts, especially stress (word- and sentence- level) and connected speech.

One lesson I remember fairly well was using “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin in an academic listening and speaking class, so I just listened to it again with those elements of spoken English in mind.

Now I’m of two minds. On one hand, in this song many function words are mumbled and many content words are given at least a beat if not more; it’s nice and high-contrast that way. The stressed syllables of the stressed words also tended to be on the stressed beats (or syncopated nearby). Yes it’s distorted, but it by and large emphasizes normal English prosody, and that can be very valuable to help students hear the music of spoken English.

On the other hand, for all the “natural” prosody in the song, there is some “unnatural” pronunciation and prosody as well. I think I glossed over it in picking the song. What I gloss over, the students might pick up on (and vice versa).

Also, even with the emphasized “natural” prosody, emphasis is still distortion. For example, my colleague Jody’s former students all called her Judy. She told us that when she changed jobs, she introduced herself very slowly and clearly so her new students would hear the “o” properly. “And that’s what they all call me here: Joooooohdy.”

I don’t think listening to this song every day for a year would cause my students to start talking the way Robert Plant sings. However, I think I didn’t have enough respect for the various points of confusion mentioned in the against article.

In the future I need to specify exactly what the students should be listening for, highlight examples from the song, and relate them immediately to spoken English.


Photo Credit: Clive Darra on Flickr

You’re reading Reflecting on Music in the Classroom, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Two Deep Pronunciation Resources

15186400768_446484e376The past year or so, I’ve been getting much more into pronunciation than I ever was before.

By personality, I’m very bookish and very drawn to the written word (if you couldn’t tell from this blog). I also enjoy analyzing how things work, so I get a kick out of grammar. Pronunciation kind of went under my radar.

But then two things happened thanks to really amazing colleagues:

  1. In conversation, one colleague name-dropped a few ESOL big-wigs she’d met at the big TESOL conference over the years. I only recognized one of the names. I unabashedly wrote down the other names (she kindly repeated them for me) and looked them up. One of those names was Judy Gilbert.
  2. Another colleague is running a special program focused on giving one-on-one pronunciation help to students. She told me all about why she started it and what it means to the students who attend, and then I couldn’t help but invite myself over to observe. It’s fascinating and has a huge impact.

Now I’m hooked on pronunciation.

So the following resources are for deep learning. They are not the ones that will be useful to you ten minutes before class starts. But I found them really eye-opening.

  • Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid by Judy B Gilbert. This is a 50-page book, and it’s worth every single page. It completely convinced me that pronunciation is more closely tied to the other skills than I had realized and gave me a ton of activity ideas. It is posted in the TESOL resource center with no pay wall, so I assume it’s legitimately online for free.
  • The Color Vowel Chart by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. This is a visual system of dealing with the 15 English vowel sounds. It’s a really powerful way to sort, communicate, and systematically teach and compare our vowel sounds. It is posted in the US State Department’s resource section, so I assume what I’m linking to is legitimately online for free.

Any similarly awesome resources to share with me? Please let me know in the comments, even if this post is already years old!

Photo Credit: Suzanne Nilsson on Flickr

You’re reading Two Deep Pronunciation Resources, originally posted at LearningToTeachEnglish.com.

Journal: AmTrak… right?

Just a quick anecdote from Monday:

We were studying different options of public transportation.  The students brainstormed everything from cars to planes to walking to taking the bus to riding a horse.

short train by Bright Meadow on Flickr.com
Train, photo by Bright Meadow on Flickr.com

We all live between Baltimore and DC, so we have an alarming number of train options: the light rail, the metro, the MARC train, and AmTrak. 

They’re all trains, but they’re all different.  The light rail serves Baltimore and its suburbs.  The metro serves DC and its suburbs.  The MARC train serves the corrodior between DC and Baltimore… but only on weekdays.  AmTrak serves major cities nationally, but it’s much more expensive than the other options.

They seemed really interested in AmTrak and asked a lot of questions. 

Where does it go?  Does it go to Canada?  Is it the terrorists?


After September 11th.  Terrorists.  AmTrak.  Envelope.

I was slow to catch on.  I was wondering if there was some sort of train attack I didn’t remember.  Can you tell what they meant, readers?

One of the students finally looked it up on his iPod.  No, is antracks.

Ah.  Anthrax.  Got it.  No, AmTrak is different.

Journal: Tangents

So, today we went on a pronunciation tangent.  I did not instigate it!

We’ve been focusing on the sound that “th” makes, which is usually written as /th/, and today we finally addressed the problem that if they don’t pronounce “third” properly, they are likely to say “turd.” 

This was aligned with our ongoing lessons on ordinal numbers and with today’s lesson on pronunciation and identification of numbers 20-100.

But then the other questions started.  “Teacher, what about keys and kiss?”  “Ice and eyes?”  “Hat and hot?”  “Wish and which/witch?”  It was kind of amazing how many different subtle differences they touched upon in the question fest. 

This is normally a very quiet class, so I let the questions continue maybe past the point of being more confusing than helpful.  I really wanted to encourage them to be active in class, and I had the sense that everyone was interested.  Although maybe today’s lesson didn’t quite give them the answers they were looking for, now I know a lot about what they’re interested in and what confuses them regarding listening and pronunciation, I can put it more methodically into other lessons.

Also, even though students tend to get obsessed with trying to each sound correctly, stress often has much more of an impact on understanding and being understood.  I love to tell the story about getting lost in Russia.  I actually had a pretty good accent in Russian, but when I told the driver the name of my stop, I put the stress on the fourth syllable instead of the third (out of six syllables, mind you.  You’d think that enough else would’ve been enough with the word, but the stress overshadowed it all).  Not one person in that marshrutka could understand where I needed to go.  Lesson: stress matters.

I was kind of thrilled that later in the lesson (during a chain drill, which I’ll post about soon), we ran into an issue where it sounded like one of our students said his mom was 14.  He did say the “teen” part, but his stress was backwards, making it sound like 40.  It really helped us focus on word-level stress, and it was kind of hilarious as well.