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This year’s INTESOL Conference was another great opportunity to share ideas with our fellow English language instructors. There, I attended a colleague’s presentation on the various kinds of stress in English pronunciation. I was drawn to the topic since I regularly teach accent training and pronunciation to my own students. After all, learning a new language is not only about grammar and vocabulary. If you want to become fluent and intelligible to native speakers, you naturally have to spend some time improving your pronunciation.
There are three basic levels of stress — syllable, word, and sentence. In my lessons, I introduce each level in this order. This allows me to build on the student’s knowledge gradually and naturally. Typically, this process takes several weeks from beginning to end with continuous practice and reinforcement thereafter.
During the conference presentation, I enjoyed learning some new techniques to enrich this rule-heavy task of teaching stress patterns. One in particular involved creating a physical representation of sentence stress, the last level my students learn. To replicate this task yourself, you’ll need to cut apart printed sentences into their thought groups (the natural divisions in native speech). Then have students fold each focus word — the main stressed word(s) in a thought group — to illustrate how the voice will rise and fall as the sentences are said naturally. In the end, you will have strips of paper that contain peaks at the folded words and thus create a visualization of the speaker’s voice. I think it’s simple but effective and conveniently appropriate for any learner.
I’m looking forward to implementing this and other ideas from the conference in my upcoming lessons.
Today we learned about the first Thanksgiving and why the Pilgrims came to the New World. Before we began, I asked everyone what words came to mind when they heard the word, “Thanksgiving.” The words “turkey,” “family,” and “dinner” were called out by our students. I wrote these on the board.
As I told the story of the history of Thanksgiving, I drew pictures on the dry erase board to help illustrate key points I wanted our students to know and remember. In this case, I started with England on the right side of the dry erase board and moved westward, to the New World. New vocabulary was introduced and explained as we progressed through the story. We also paused for a three-minute video about Thanksgiving that included captions.
After sitting for a while, I asked everyone to stand up in a small group. Speaking doesn’t just happen when sitting in a classroom setting, after all. The students took turns sharing a sentence or two about the picture to tell the story in chronological order. I then challenged each student to tell the entire story independently.
Later, the students were given time to write their stories in their notebooks and have their teacher check them. Interestingly, the students repeated common errors when reading their stories aloud despite reading their own (corrected) writing; however, progress was still made. At first, when I asked what came to mind when they heard the word, “Thanksgiving,” only three words came to mind. Now they are able to talk about the history of Thanksgiving. One of the students commented that the story map was helpful for being able to talk about and write about this topic. Overall, I would consider this lesson to be a success!
I recommend taking an improv class for so many reasons, one of which is that some of the exercises can become great springboards for ideas to get students to speak in a group language class. Knowing how to read and write in a language is quite different from speaking it. This is especially true with some Japanese women I have taught. Although their spouses may have opportunities to use English in the workplace, many Japanese women I’ve met tend to befriend other Japanese whose husbands have been assigned to work in the United States. Making American or other English-speaking friends can be tough.
From what I have learned, the Japanese can read and write with a fair amount of clarity; however, forming spoken sentences doesn’t happen without a lot of thought first. Sometimes a series of imperfect sentences can communicate much more than a few perfectly constructed sentences. My goal is to create an environment in which students feel free to try to speak in front of their classmates and me with the understanding that they will be corrected afterwards so that they can ultimately improve and communicate more fluently. This has to be done carefully so the students are not discouraged from speaking at all.
One recent activity that I did with a group of four women was to role play buying a used car. First, I introduced some vocabulary. Next, we listened to a dialogue while reading the script silently, and then the students were paired off. Each person took turns with the role of salesperson and car buyer while reading the script aloud. Afterwards, I modeled how to act out the skit without the script and emphasized that the skit did not have to exactly match the original dialogue. (I chose the most advanced student who was the least shy to help model how to do this.) After we completed the demonstration, I asked the women to work their partner and take turns playing each role without a script. After some practice, it was showtime.
The grand finale was when I had the students speed up the performances from about five minutes to a time limit of three minutes. The result was that the students spoke more naturally, sounded more fluent, and were talking to an actual person while speaking. It wasn’t just reading from a script anymore. It was about interacting.
Improvisation is a part of daily life. We may have patterns that we use in different situations, but ultimately, we think of what we’re going to say depending on whom we are speaking with and what the situation is. Rehearsing is a good idea when stakes are high, but reading from cue cards is not nearly as effective as communicating with the person in front of you.
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