Sunday, October 17, 2010

How to Teach Pronunciation and Listening in Vietnam

After 2 years of teaching pronunciation and listening (P & L), both in Texas and here in Vietnam, I'm headed back into international school teaching where the kids are basically immersed in English from a young age and this particular skill isn't as key as it is in ESL (though I'll certainly use it).  So, as sort of a professional reflective practice as I move on, I offer my insights into teaching pronunciation and listening with some special attention to Vietnamese learners.

First, it's a valuable skill.  Students may study grammar for a year or two in high school or university, and they may go out to the park to try and get some practice, but a good pronunciation course is pure gold to them.  What separates casual "conversation practice" buddies from skilled pronunciation and listening teachers is a series of concepts, techniques, and psychological habits.  If you learn this skill, you'll be known as a good teacher and will be able to earn your bread anywhere on the planet confident that you offer a truly effective service.  However, there are certain peculiarities to every first language (L1).  What I offer you here is a basic introduction into becoming a good pronunciation and listening teacher with particular focus on a Vietnamese audience.  Perhaps by reading this, you'll arrive better prepared.  If you're already here, you'll get ramped up to speed faster on the peculiarities of teaching this highly sought-after skill here.  Cha ching!

Second, it's not entertainment (though good instruction should be entertaining). I've heard enough people complaining that "all ESL teaching is is being a clown blah blah."  I want to take this moment to say emphatically that this is patently false.  If you catch yourself saying this, you need to dig deeper and take informed, authoritative control of your practice.  That said, some of the most valuable teaching classes I ever took were actually improvisation and acting classes.  If you can take an improv class before coming here, before doing your CELTA, before your next kegger, take the improv class.  The ability to be creative on your feet , to stimulate and orchestrate creativity around you, will make you a better teacher.  In fact, I'd hope that basic improv technique would become part of teaching curricula, be that at the university level or the certificate level.  Good improv techniques + good pedagogy = awesome. While I can't offer such training here, my point is that you can learn some basic concepts and techniques that your students will enjoy and benefit from.  And you won't feel like an idiot; you'll feel like, and be, a bona fide teacher.

Lip position for a proper schwa.
1. The psychological aspect is paramount.  There are many textbooks and programs out there to follow, but you cannot escape yourself.  You create an emotional climate in your class that can either create or destroy students' confidence.  Vietnamese people know how crucial pronunciation is to their success and they typically put a lot of pressure on themselves.  Conversely, they are very happy when they get it right.

2. Pacing.  Your students want more repetition than you may be comfortable with.  Go slow and steady.  You will think, in the back of your mind, that "this is easy."  Actually, English is an extremely difficult language and the rudimentary basics of its pronunciation are paramount.  Introduce them in very simple terms and build on them.  To you, you may feel like you're teaching kindergarten, but to them, you'll be doing rocket science.  Avoid complexity.  Seek profound simplicity.

3. You are not teaching English.  You are teaching people how to communicate using English as a medium.  This principal will guide you while you select and execute activities.  Pair practice is the most important element of the course.  Here is what I mean:

First, demonstrate the difference between b and p.  
  • Write 2 words on the board: 1. bot  2. pot.
  • Student a says one of the words and student b holds up either 1 or 2 fingers, depending on what he or she hears.
Now write 1. top and 2. tob on the board.  Demonstrate.  Repeat the pair work.
Now write 1. pop and 2. bob on the board.  Demonstrate and repeat the pair work.
Now write 1. bop and 2. pob on the board. Demonstrate and repeat the pair work.

This example activity illustrates that pair work forces people to communicate sounds clearly and to listen intently.  Any good pronunciation and listening book will include a lot of these activities, so this is not about instructional design; it's about you, the teacher, understanding how important this pair work really is.  You'll see the excitement and frustration on their faces. Walk around and troubleshoot.  Avail yourself to the students rather than forcefully correct them.  Give them a lot of time and keep it simple.  This pair work is a core activity -- THE core activity -- in your classroom and forms the basis of both simple and complex lessons (and by complex I mean activities that combine the fruits of past simple activities).

4. Communicate that this course is a music course and math course.  Each activity builds on prior activities into ever-increasing skill building.  Recognize this and confirm it often.

5. This course is valuable.  They know, you know it, but you need to recognize this and confirm it often.

6. Tell them on the first days and remind that "You will not understand everything I say.  Do the activities and listen to how I talk." 

7.  It's not what you say, it's how you say it. Pronunciation is necessary but not sufficient.  English is a musical language.  It is an emotional language.  How you say things matters.  They know it, you know it, but they don't know how to do it.  It's a massive obstacle to good communication and relationship building.

Point to a student and ask him "What are you doing?!", as if you know what he's doing but that you are surprised that he is doing it.  Now ask "What are you doing" as if pleasantly curious.  In the first case, your students should be kind of shocked; in the second, feeling the warmth of the question.  "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."  By the 8th hour of instruction, your class should be able to finish this mantra when prompted by you as you say "It's not what you say...(pause for them to finish it)."

In fact, the course is literally a music course in many ways.   You'll understand this once you begin teaching it, but I want to drive home the point itself here.  Approach it like a music course, teach it like a music course, and it will bear fruit, imho.

8. The Vietnamese language is for all intents and purposes here, a mono-syllabic language.  Point this out in vivid detail. Take syllable work seriously. The word "banana" is rich in syllables, schwas, and stress.  I offer this word as the most important word in my course.  You can use it, too. 

9. Like syllables, the concept of stopped and continuing final consonants is foreign to your students.  I mean, even though they've watched movies and sing English karoke, they're not cognizant of producing these nor registering them in their minds while listening.  A level 1 student will say this sentence

"I like to read books because they make me smart"

like this

"I lie to ree boo(k) becaw day may me smar."

I put the k in () because they will use a stop sound which is a cross between a k and b.

Your job at the beginner level (maybe a year or two of study in high school or whatever, but no actual pronunciation and listening training, is to bring them to be able to say this sentence, and similarly complex sentences, clearly.  At an intermediate level, your job will be to have them stressing and intoning short, simple dialogues in a way that emphasizes meaning.  In fact, at the conclusion of the class, they, at both levels, should be prepared to be able to teach aspects of the class. 

At about 18 hours into the class, be it beginner or intermediate (if the intermediate group never took P & L before [you may be surprised at how much some people can learn on their own]) I like to introduce the following lesson and pair-work activity:

1. lie 2. lied 3. lies 4. lice 5. like 6. liked 7. likes 8. light 9. lights

This really drives home how important final sounds are in English.  Every word begins "lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie lie" (I say pointing to each word in rapid succession) but the end sound completely changes it's meaning.

Believe me when I say pronunciation and listening is highly valued here.
10. Though some people thing teaching pronunciation is a highly technical, difficult, and laborious task, I'm here to tell you that it is a simple, creative, and fun class to teach.  Your students will thank you dearly for this class and will always remember you for being their teacher.  Again, if you've emphasized the concepts and have a done a lot of good pair-work activities, they should be able to share this skill with their cousin, friend, or sibling relatively effectively, thus reinforcing they're learning even further.

Further reading and resources:

There are a couple of schools of thought regarding teaching English pronunciation and listening.  Some favor phonics, which is awesome; others a technical International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) approach, which is necessary only if you're training a class of linguists (which you are probably not).  This modified musical, communicative approach I introduced here works.  I've had the privilege of using it to teach engineers who MUST show gains in their work, unlike at some language schools where leveling up is sometimes a matter of time and money more than actual learning.  Using this method I've helped many people gain a verbal level in as little as 10 hours of instruction (though 20 + is better) and feel like, yes, they can actually be fluent in this crazy language and, more importantly, be able to communicate using it. You can do this too.


Here is a link to the theory and a good explanation of it.  I strongly encourage anyone teaching or planning to teach pronunciation and listening to read this booklet (free download from Cambridge).

Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid - Judy B. Gilbert Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid
by Judy B. Gilbert
Download PDF (2.1 MB)

And here are the textbooks and teacher guides and resources at amazon.   The American accent is highly prized here.  It is the most sought after accent.  These books are geared toward teaching it. You can get the student books here in Vietnam (though they're more expensive) but you can't get the teacher resources (though you can order them; it takes weeks for them to get here).  I suggest putting them in your personal arsenal now; you can travel the world with these and teach anywhere confidently.  Rock and roll, compadres.



1 comment:

  1. this post is highly useful for me. thank you very much