To kick start this post, I’d like to first start by inviting you all to reflect on the role of the Young Learner (YL) teacher and the current challenges we face every single day in the classroom. And I’d like to ask you all to answer this question….
Is it reasonable to expect Young Learner teachers to work on pronunciation
with their learners on top of all the responsibilities they already have?
Let’s take a minute to reflect on this. As a Young Learner teacher myself, I am very aware of how much time and energy is involved in teaching children. Teaching is not just about the hours you’re in the classroom. You all know that. There is so much more required of a Young Learner teacher.
As the author Lynn Cameron puts it… a YL teacher is required to have not only a knowledge of the language and of language teaching and learning, but in addition “all the skills of the good primary teacher in managing children and keeping them on task”. Beyond the role of teaching English is the added responsibility of instilling positive attitudes towards the language and learning itself, critical thinking skills, and preparing our students to become global citizens.
So where am I going with this and what does it have to do with pronunciation? Well, I believe that pronunciation has taken a backseat for long time. With everything else going on in our lessons and in our classrooms, it almost feels like it’s something we just don’t have time for or perhaps even see a need to work on in any explicit way.
It’s been that little section of the coursebook that if we’re honest, most of us skip over. And phonological knowledge of English and the teaching of pronunciation is rarely seen as an essential skill for the YL teacher.
Well, in this post I’d like to inspire and motivate you all to reconsider the role of pronunciation in your teaching. Keep reading because I’m going to be providing you with some practical examples of how you can work on developing your young learners’ pronunciation using the activities that you are ALREADY DOING! That is: through games, songs, rhymes and chants, stories and by maximizing the quality of our teacher talk.
Now, there has been some amazing results from teachers who have used an analytic-linguistic approach – one “which uses “information and tools such as a phonetic alphabet, descriptions, charts of the vocal apparatus, contrastive information, and other aids to supplement listening, imitation, and production”, In fact, I encourage all the pronunciation enthusiasts watching to check out the colour-coded phonemic chart created by Margaret Horigan. But the following ideas are all This is known as an intuitive-imitative approach to pronunciation. It “depends on the learner’s ability to listen to and imitate the rhythms and sounds of the target language without the intervention of any explicit information” (Celce-Murcia).
Pronunciation in Games
There are lots of traditional children’s games that use songs and chants. For example, the playground game “What’s the time Mr Wolf?” involves a group of children asking this question repeatedly to another child – ‘the wolf’- who answers back with different times – “It’s 5 o’clock”. The children take the corresponding number of steps forward in the direction of The Wolf, waiting to hear “Dinner time!!” upon which they must run all the way back to the beginning and not get caught. This game, and many other games like this one, provide a natural and fun context for the drill-like repetition of formulaic language. This makes them the perfect vehicle for teaching/learning of chunks of language and features of pronunciation liked connected speech and sentence stress.
Other classic children’s games like “Duck-duck-goose” can be adapted to be played in many different ways. Some of these can focus on specific problems – either in response to or in anticipation of pronunciation problems. You all know this game, I’m sure. The students sit in a circle and another child walks around the outside, gently tapping each of their peers as they chant ‘duck, duck, duck…’ when they say the word ‘goose’ that child who was tapped must jump up and chase the first child around the circle, trying to catch her before she sits down in the now empty space. By adapting this game, it could be used to work on any pair of words that contain challenging sounds for the learners. Think about minimal pairs or long and short vowel sounds or even singular and plural nouns! As you can imagine, this activity provides lots of opportunities for both production AND recognition. Presenting this in the format of a game makes it a whole new level of fun…more engaging and consequently more memorable.
Songs, Rhymes and Chants for Pronunciation
“Rhymes introduce children naturally and effectively to the complete sounds of English as well as to stress and intonation” (Dunn, 1983: 80).
Songs and chants are used with children even BEFORE they begin to speak! This type of pre-linguistic play (Cook) is said to be invaluable for babies to perceive phonemic contrasts.
There is no doubt that they are a wonderful way to develop L1 and have so much potential for the L2 classroom. In the book Language Play, Language Learning, Cook gives two wonderful examples of children’s rhymes that I have used time and time again with my Very Young Learners: ‘This Little Piggy” and “Round and Round the Garden”. Both of them are examples of rhymes that, although may not carry much semantic meaning for the language learner initially, they provide rich exposure to features of English pronunciation which the language teacher can exploit.
Even with older learners, who have a larger vocabulary and can perhaps understand parts of what they are chanting or singing, most of these rhymes are full of nonsensical language and yet they are still highly beneficial for language development. Without any need to grade language or translate anything to Portuguese, you can use these kinds of rhymes, finger-plays, skipping and clapping games confidently – knowing that your students will respond enthusiastically and reap the benefits. Other examples to use with older learners are Eeny Meeny Miney Mo (makes little sense but has a functional purpose) and Miss Mary Mack (a hand-clapping game that has lots of repetition and rhyme). The words and instructions to these are also in the free download at the bottom of this post.
But as you well know, songs and chants can also be used to work more explicitly on language which appears in your curriculum such as isolated vocabulary items and lexical chunks. You have probably already used songs with your young learners before so tonight I’d like to make a suggestion for a way to do it that you might not have tried…
Getting your YLs to create their own songs and chants!
When we allow students to use English creatively like this, we are giving them a sense of ownership of the language. They can experiment, take risks and personalise the language so it is meaningful and more memorable. They are also perfect for teaching features of pronunciation such as strong and weak forms, sentence stress, the pronunciation of challenging phonemes and rhythm and stress.
So to do this activity, you will need to bear in mind that this is a task for children who are already reading and writing in English but may not have had exposure to writing in this genre – even in their first language. They will need long of support and more than one opportunity to try it out over the course of a school year.
You can provide support for this activity by:
- making sure you are teaching lots of vocabulary IN CONTEXT, not just word lists.
- teaching them – explicitly – about syllables and rhyming words
- giving them access to tools for finding rhyming words (like this website: http://www.rhymezone.com)
- scaffolding the activity by modeling how to create a chant, then creating one together before getting them to try on their own or in pairs.
Here are the steps for creating your own jazz chant or song (adapted fromCarolyn Graham‘s great book)
- Write a list of key words you’d like to work on these might be words related to a theme you’re working on, useful classroom language you want to teach or even the Ss’ names (around 10 words)
- Make a list of rhyming words – you can send the Ss to rhymezone
- Write a list of individual words or phrases to describe or add info to your list of key words eg fresh, frozen, delicious
- Divide the words into groups according to the number of syllables
- Use the melody from a traditional or popular song
Pronunciation with Stories
Storytelling is one of my FAVOURITE things to do with youngsters and it is a skill I believe that every YL teacher should develop. When choosing a story and preparing to read it aloud to your Ss there are some very specific things that you can do that will make storytime useful for teaching pronunciation.
Here are my top tips:
- Look at the language of the book and make sure it hasn’t been graded so much that it has become unnatural (I see lots of these Big Books for language learners that don’t use contractions and then when the teacher reads them aloud, she sounds like a robot! terrible model for the YL)
- Look for stories with a lot of rhyme and/or repetition
- practice the story by reading it aloud to yourself first to make sure you find a certain flow as you read. You’ll want to be consistent with how your read it. It should feel like it flows.
- Modify the length or the language if you need to but take note of how you are going to do that. Once again, you must be consistent.
- Read the book many times! Young children especially LOVE this.
- Give children opportunities to read on their own (free reading time)
Now take a look at this little clip of Pedro, my 3 year old student at free reading time.
By observing him ‘reading’, what do you think I was able to learn about his pronunciation.
- problem with the pronunciation of ‘wrote’ – typical error for this age
- correct sentence stress and uses the weak forms ‘I wrote to the zoo’
- ‘a send me a pet’ instead of ‘to send me a pet’ but listen to the sound of the /t/ in pet. Very good considering the problems this sound causes Brazilian Portuguese speakers.
Maximizing the Quality of our Teacher Talk
“Grading language does not mean abandoning features of connected speech. If we teach speaking word for word, our students will never learn how to join them.” (Elcio Souza, 2018)
I saw a talk on pronunciation earlier this year by Elcio Souza. What a great speaker he is! In it he talked about the role of teacher talk in the development of the pronunciation of our learners. I think he makes and excellent point and it’s one that I have observed in my many visits to Young Learner classrooms. I said it before and I’ll say it again… your pronunciation matters. We have to acknowledge the importance of providing quality Teacher Talk the YL classroom. While we are constantly told to reduce TTT and increase STT in the classroom, we also know that children need lots natural, clear language that provides them with a model they can copy. Why do so many teachers feel like they have to modify their language to the point where it becomes unnatural?!!
I know that many of you feel like your beginner students are not going to understand you but I promise that it’s not speaking like a robot that is going to make it easier for them to understand the words. Let me teach you an easy way that you can transition your students from one activity in a way that they will understand you perfectly, retains all the beautiful features and doesn’t involve L1.
I always say that in the YL classroom I spend the first 6 months singing! that’s because in the beginning, I add music to my classroom instructions.
- starting the class – come and sit down on the floor
- circle time
- story time
- tidy up
- getting in line
- putting on/taking off shoes
Children can learn to recognize the songs much quicker than the words, teaming that up with the regular and predictable class routine and the gestures I use, they understand what is expected of them in just a few classes. This kind of classroom language is very deliberate and planned. After a while, I can remove the music and these become spoken requests. Next, I can start switching up or extending the language. Finally, you will see the children using this language too – naturally, fluently and appropriately.
Well, those were a few ideas for how YOU can integrate pronunciation work into into your lessons. By just raising your awareness you can make small changes to what you are already doing that will make a big impact.
In think that the very fact that you have read this far is a clear sign that this an area of language teaching that you value and recognize as being an important and integral part of language teaching and learning.
Now, I’d like to post the same question that I asked at the start of this session….
Is it reasonable to expect Young Learner teachers to work on pronunciation with their learners on top of all the responsibilities they already have?
What do you say? I hope in this post I’ve managed to convince you to give a few new things a try!