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Resource: Connected Speech with “Happy” by Pharrell Williams

One of the resources I developed for my course on English pronunciation in Iraq last summer was a cloze (fill-in-the-blank) worksheet based on the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. You can watch the music video from YouTube here:

The area of English pronunciation I was looking to target was connected speech–and specifically reductions. My goal was to aid students in their listening comprehension of reductions in natural speech. Especially for learners of English as a foreign language (or English as a lingua franca, ELF) setting, I believe this to be the more important goal, since ELF speakers typically won’t incorporate as many reductions into their speech as L1 English speakers, without any negative impact on comprehensibility. In any case, popular music is a great resource for training learners in understanding reductions, since songs tend to contain so many examples of these.

With this as a starting point, I could have chosen any number of songs as the basis for a listening task. The reason that I chose “Happy” in particular had to do with the broad appeal that the song has had in a variety of different countries, as evidenced by the proliferation of music video adaptations from across the globe. (See here for a version produced close to where I was teaching at the time, which my students pointed me to with great delight.) In part, I was simply looking for a music video that would be unobjectionable to a more conservative Middle Eastern student audience, and this fit the bill. It is also just a fun, foot-tapping song, which my current students here in Norway have responded to just as enthusiastically as my Iraqi students did. As for linguistic criteria, the song seemed like a good choice because the vocabulary it uses is relatively simple, allowing students to focus on the pronunciation features rather than on vocabulary learning.

To make the worksheet, I identified key words and phrases that evidence reduction. These became the gaps (blank lines) in my version of the song lyrics. I tried in particular to include phrases that might arise in natural conversation as well (e.g. I’m about to, want to, don’t). I also included one targets that, strictly speaking, is not an example of reduction but of connected speech more broadly (go to, with a flapped [D] in place of /t/), but the main focus is on reductions of words or phrases.

The activity has been well received by the students I have tried it with so far in Iraq and Norway. It has lent itself to discussion of the relative importance of understanding English reductions vs. using them in one’s own speech, characteristics of various spoken varieties of English (for example, dialect features evident in Pharrell’s pronunciation, such as “prolly” for probably), and sounds that arise as a result of reduction (e.g. glottal stop in can’t nothing), among other things.

You can download my worksheet here: Happy Cloze. I have not included a key, but you can find the full lyrics to the song on many websites, such as this one. Let me know how it goes if you try it with your students–or if you discover a mistake I should fix. Thanks!


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Video: Using music excerpts to illustrate connected speech

Introductory note: I am now back in the United States, but I am continuing to write a few blog posts reflecting on my experience teaching English pronunciation to Iraqi schoolteachers this summer. My thoughts are still with these strong and resilient teachers, as many of their hometowns continue to be featured on the news for turmoil and armed conflict.

Screen shot of video, http://videolog.tv/905819

Screen shot of video from http://www.luizotaviobarros.com

As I was preparing for a lesson on connected speech, I came across one of the best pronunciation teaching videos that I have found online. The video, by Luiz Otávio, consists of a series of five short clips from pop music videos, each one lasting for 30 seconds or less, with features of connected speech highlighted for each one. The video itself is hosted here, and you can also read the creator’s introduction to the video on his blog here.

There are several features that make this video excellent for classroom use:

  1. It is efficient. The clips focus in on features of connected speech present in various songs, without taking up time with extended song lyrics that do not relate directly to the teaching point.
  2. It is repetitive—in a good way. Because each song clip is played several times, students have several opportunities to notice phenomena, and they receive reinforcement. I especially like that the last repetition of each song clip is slowed down, which makes it easier to hear the linking.
  3. It is inductive. Students hear the song clips before being told what points they illustrate. Information is also added gradually as the clip is repeated.
  4. It adds value. Most pronunciation videos, at least on YouTube, feature and instructor telling viewers about a language point, followed by some examples. This may be interesting enough for an independent learner at home, but it adds little to a classroom environment. By contrast, Luiz Otávio’s video consists almost entirely of authentic listening samples, with or without commentary. This content cannot otherwise be replicated by the teacher, unlike a taped lecture.

One teaching tip I would add for using the video well is to pause it when each set of song lyrics first appear to highlight which segments they should focus on. In this way, students engage with a specific listening goal and have the opportunity to compare their predictions to authentic materials.

Screen shot of video from http://www.luizotaviobarros.com

Screen shot of video from http://www.luizotaviobarros.com

My one critique of the video content is a repeated instruction not to pronounce the terminal ‘e’ in most English words before linking to the next word, as in ‘come on’ [kəm´ɒ:n]. While technically correct, this comment about final ‘e’ is a digression into phonics instruction that I find unhelpful. Because most students are accustomed to describing words in terms of letters rather than sounds, they generally are unaware of the number of consonant and vowel sounds in English, which I have experienced as a significant hurdle in getting students to differentiate among the 15-20 vowel sounds present in any given variety of English (thus, the need for tools such as the Color Vowel Chart to help with awareness raising). To keep the focus on pronunciation–as opposed to phonics–throughout the video, I would suggest that the teaching point for phrases such as the one above is that a final consonant links to the start of a following vowel-initial word inside the same thought group, with a reminder that spelling does not always tell us the final sound (or initial sound, e.g. ‘herb’ [ʔɜrb] in American English).

In any case, it is a great resource. Ever since I found this video, I have been thinking about what other song clips I could use to illustrate different aspects of pronunciation. This idea of using only small selections from songs to illustrate a single feature greatly widens the number of potential candidates, since most songs accurately illustrate some aspect of English pronunciation at some point, even if they don’t do so throughout (e.g. ‘Umbrella’ by Rihanna: generally bad for sentence-level stress and intonation, but good in places, such as “If the hand is hard, together we’ll mend your heart”).

What are your favorite videos for teaching English pronunciation?

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Vowel and consonant sounds across proficiency levels

After giving an overview of suprasegmental features of English pronunciation in class on Wednesday, I dedicated yesterday’s classes to discovery of English vowel and consonant sounds. I emphasize discovery because, despite all having a fair bit of formal knowledge of English, my students proved to have minimal awareness of English phonemes, as I had suspected.

The consonant sound discovery activity was fairly simple. I drew and posted a large picture of the places of articulation in the mouth, color-coding each place of articulation (lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, etc.). After eliciting (mostly in the case of my two higher-level classes) or presenting (especially in the lower-level classes) the English consonant sounds, I asked the students to identify in pairs where in the mouth each of the sounds was produced. They were given mirrors to aid in the task, which was helpful for sounds such as /f/ and /v/, where students could see their lower lip and upper teeth come together. I should note that the choice of elicitation vs. presentation of sounds was a decision I made based on time constraints. I do not doubt that the lower-level students could also have come up with them, given enough time. (Forty-five minutes goes by so fast!)

Even though I didn’t expect students to know the places of articulation by heart, I was surprised at how challenging it was for them across all four levels. On the other hand, I was rewarded with smiles of realization and accomplishment as we reviewed all the sounds produced at each point in the mouth and students tried them out in succession.

The vowel discovery activity required more adaptation for the different levels. In my master’s program, I was fortunate to be introduced to the Color Vowel Chart, developed by former professor Karen Taylor and her colleague Shirley Thompson. The authors helpfully provide a vowel discovery activity with downloadable sorting cards at their website, which I was able to use pretty much ‘as is’ with my two most advanced groups. I then followed up by having them compare the number of vowels we identified together in the Color Vowel Chart (15) with the British Council’s chart of vowel phonemes, which includes 19. At this point time was up, so the comparison served primarily as an awareness-raising tool.

Having had difficulty using the vowel discovery activity referenced above with lower-level students in the past, I opted for a more direct approach with my level 1 and 2 classes, while still wanting to keep an element of discovery. The solution: Break out the tongue depressors! I first elicited the vowel letters from the students and had them compare this number with the 15 on my Color Vowel Chart. With the tongue depressor resting on my mouth, I then asked them to watch the movement as I said the vowels from [i] down through [a], and again as I went from [a] through [u]. The point of the U-shaped progression in tongue placement was clear. We then all said the three vowels representing the extreme tongue positions ([i], [a], [u]) with our tongue depressors in position before trying to say all of the different vowels together, with and without tongue depressors. (Thanks to Robin Barr for introducing me to this visualization technique, originally with flat lollipops, which I have yet to find in the Middle East–so, tongue depressors it was.)

With these lower-level classes, I then gave the students the sorting cards with the task of matching like vowel sounds. However, I did not tell them how many groups of like sounds there would be. The level 2 students still had some difficulty with the task, so with the level 1 students, I further simplified the task by lining up the cards containing the color words (i.e. providing a model of the 15 sounds) and instructing the students to find words that rhymed with each of these. With this extra support, even my lowest-level students were able to practice identifying and matching vowel sounds in an engaging manner. The matching task would likely still be too difficult for absolute beginners, but I now feel that I have a useful tool for meaningfully referencing English vowel sounds even with high beginners.

Photo from http://flickr.com/eltpics, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/”


Adapting pronunciation lessons across proficiency levels

This week, I have begun teaching a month-long pronunciation class as part of an intensive English program for teachers at an English-medium primary and secondary school in northern Iraq. My teaching schedule lends itself particularly well to examining how to adapt a lesson for different proficiency levels, since I have four groups at four different levels for a 45-minute lesson each day. Virtually none of the students have had previous in-depth pronunciation instruction, so I am covering the basics of (standard American) English pronunciation with all of them. I am hoping that this learning-rich environment for me as a teacher will lead to a few blog posts over the course of the program. Here is a first installment.

To give some context to my lessons, my four groups of students roughly correspond to levels A1 through B2 of the CEFR in my estimation. (Their placement test only allowed for internal comparisons within the group.) However, on a listening proficiency test that I gave on the first day of class, none of the students, even in the highest level group, scored more than 60% correct on features relevant to pronunciation. Thus, the need for this class.

I am primarily drawing on two sources of materials: Targeting Pronunciation by Sue Miller and a set of tools introduced in the wonderful Teaching Pronunciation class at American University (in my case, under the instruction of Dr. Robin Barr and Shari Pattillo). Incorporating a variety of teaching tools will be especially important, since a secondary goal of the class is to model how the course participants can in turn teach English pronunciation to their own students. I am excited to have an opportunity to try out my techniques in such a focused way for the first time since getting my MA in 2010. More later!

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Instructional materials on a shoestring


Students captivated by a movie of themselves, eltpics

Having spent the great majority of my teaching career working for resource-poor institutions, I have well-developed skills for finding instructional materials online. In fact, I have finally gotten around to bookmarking as many as I have a meaningful record of at my Diigo profile, though the tedious task of streamlining my tags remains. Using Diigo has already made it much easier to find materials I have used for courses in the past, but putting together a whole course’s worth of free materials is still extremely time-consuming.

That is why is was so excited when I came across the UK ESOL Core Curriculum while doing curriculum research for the adult English program I currently oversee (thanks to Beverley Timgren). What is so extraordinary about this resource, you might ask? In addition to a comprehensive curriculum outline for five levels of instruction (corresponding roughly to CEFR levels up to B2), all of this is available to download legally for absolutely free:

That’s basically everything that my program currently buys from a bookstore, plus tests and teacher training materials, which other teachers and I have been creating up until this point! The website is a bit clunky to navigate, though, so you can thank me for those nicely arranged links later.

Now, of course I need to look into the cost of printing student books before I conclude that these materials are going to save my program and my students a boatload of money. And there is some material that is less relevant to my students, since they are learning in an EFL rather than an ESL setting. But still! If I were back at the low-budget, high-ambition ESOL programs for adult immigrants in the United States where I used to work, I would be thanking my lucky stars and making plans for what to do with all that time saved on searching for free materials. As it is, I am working on downloading all of the materials to adapt where useful for my current students and to keep on file for the next time I have a group of eager students and no budget to speak of.

So, thanks to the UK government for investing in adult basic education and sharing the resources with us all.


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Lesson Video Apps



When I was updating some iPad apps the other day, I decided to browse the curated education apps to see if I might be able to use anything in my classroom. I did some similar browsing a while back for ESOL-specific apps, and the main challenge I came up against was the fact that my iPad is usually the only one in the classroom, whereas many apps are designed to direct student use. It makes sense that they would be. Individualized instruction is, after all, one of the great possibilities that instructional technology opens up. However, in the context where I teach, that kind of financial investment is unlikely to come any time soon.

To my delight, I discovered a range of free apps for creating lesson videos. I downloaded and briefly tried out four: Knowmia Teach, Doceri, ShowMe, and Educreations. All four have some basic functionalities that help you present compelling multimedia lessons: voice recording, image import, annotation, and the option to narrate while adding visual content or after the fact. There are also options for customizing colors and backgrounds to varying degrees in all four apps.

However, for my purposes, a couple of simple features set the first two apart from the second two apps. Oddly enough, Knowmia Teach seems to be the only app that allows for adding typed text. The other three all rely on handwritten text (which Knowmia also supports). This seems like a significant limitation, given the great difficulty of writing legibly by hand on the iPad. On the other hand, only Doceri allows for direct sharing of its videos on other platforms, such as YouTube, and download of its videos in commonly used formats. Knowmia Teach, for instance, saves videos in a proprietary format, which can only be viewed thought its app or website. It is unlikely that this will practically limit the accessibility of materials for my students, but, in principle, I don’t like only being able to access content that I have created on a company’s platform.

Despite this proprietary bias, Knowmia Teach will probably become my go-to app for creating lesson videos. In addition to supporting typed text, it offers other nice features, such as video narration, and an extensive collection of videos shared by existing users. Nonetheless, I plan to keep Doceri on hand for creating simpler lesson videos that I can then download and add to my own electronic library.


Online Tools for English Reference, Research, and Writing

passenger-stationI compiled these links for a college EFL class I am currently teaching. The students’ first language is Arabic, so an Arabic dictionary is included among the reference tools.

I will include a warning at the beginning that I left until the end on the handout I gave my students: I do not recommend using Google Translate for anything that you will turn in for a grade. Google Translate gives too little context for distinguishing different meanings and uses of a word, so stick with a traditional dictionary (even online) if you need to be sure that your translation is correct.

Dictionaries and Reference

Aljazem Arabic-English / English-Arabic Dictionary

British Council Quick Grammar Reference

Collins English Thesaurus

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online

Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online

Research and Writing

Purdue Online Writing Lab
Information on research, writing, and citation; includes a special section for English learners.

Writing Tips from American University’s Academic Support Center