/ S aʊ n d z /
This week our “Featured App” is Macmillan’s critically-acclaimed Sounds: The Pronunciation App, which has a number of possibilities for targeting pronunciation in the EFL classroom. In the space below, we will briefly discuss background on the product, specific tips for teaching pronunciation, features included in this software which build on these, and how one might utilise the programme as an additional classroom resource.
The phonemic script above has substantial relevance for teachers and students alike, with perhaps the greatest opportunities available for autonomous study. While the prospect of learning an additional alphabet may sound daunting, since 1982, Adrian Underhill’s now ubiquitous Phonemic Chart has assisted teachers worldwide with this task. Nowadays, phonemic script is not relegated to dictionaries alone, as course books frequently make efforts to incorporate these symbols into their materials (New English File has a particularly easy-to-understand set of pictorial representations for each sound in their offerings), although teachers may still find themselves pondering how many students actually take the time to learn it; and due to limited time constraints within the term structure, it is difficult to justify an extensive focus on the chart itself, in place of other pressing demands.
/bɪnəfɪtz ɒv ti:ʧɪŋ prnʌnsi:eɪʃən/
However, there are a number of reasons why teachers should consider “making time” for this valuable task, as Underhill extensively covers in his book Sound Foundations. The author suggests that doing so provides learners with opportunities to:
- identify their own problematic sounds
- strengthen the aural perception and muscular sensation involved in making each sound
- recognise sound/spelling relationships within words
- improve written and spelling skills through greater pattern awareness
- increase dictionary usage while learning new words
- focus on the effects of connected speech
- become more fluent through ear training, awareness-raising and practice
Instructors may facilitate the above by highlighting individual sounds, words in isolation, connected speech or as a general part of the holistic language learning experience, as Underhill explores both within his book and through the additional electronic resources included in the app.
While there is potential for pronunciation-focused lessons to evolve into teacher-centred affairs, there are methods which empower students to be more proactive in their recognition and production of Standard English, albeit requiring some level of teacher-guidance beforehand. Generally, this involves encouraging students to develop a basic familiarity with phonemic script and the layout of the Phonemic Chart, facilitating self-access at a later date to reinforce classwork. Underhill’s suggested model involves a basic two-stage process of introducing, then integrating the chart, while moving from teacher-led instruction with modeling / drilling, to autonomous controlled practice via student-student interactions. In the following hypothetical examples one may observe the progression from teacher to learner-led instruction:
1.) Target: distinguishing between two sounds in isolation: /ɪ/ and /e/
Stage: introducing the chart
- Teacher models each sound several times, one at a time, pointing to it on the chart. Learners listen and repeat each time.
- Teacher points to each sound to prompt learners to speak.
- Teacher models each sound again and learners point to the sound on the chart.
- Learners point to each sound to prompt teacher to speak (to clarify their understanding and receive sufficient modeling).
- Learners pronounce each sound and teacher indicates what they said using a pointer (e.g. teacher points to the boundaries of the two sounds if they produce an utterance bordering on correct pronunciation, or a non-native English sound).
- Learners repeat this activity with each other in pairs / groups.
2.) Target: distinguishing between similar vowel and consonant sounds at word level: “chair, share, chore, shore, cheer, shear”
Stage: integrating the chart
- Teacher writes all words on board and asks learners how they think they’re pronounced.
- Teacher points out each individual sound in the first word, chair: /ʧ – e – ə/, showing formation of diphthong /eə/ from two vowel sounds.
- Teacher points again to each individual sound in succession, pausing to hear students’ pronunciation.
- Teacher repeats procedure for targeted sounds (consonant or vowel) until all the phonemes in each word have been elicited in this manner (e.g. share: /ʃ – e – ə /, chore: /ʧ – ɔ:/, shore: /ʃ – ɔ:/, etc.)
- In pairs, learners point out different sound sequences for the words on the board, using the chart and eliciting the correct word pronunciation from their partner.
- Teacher points to a word on the board, a learner pronounces it and teacher traces the sounds (correct or not) produced by that student on the chart. Learners correct themselves if needed.
- A learner selects a word on the board, another pronounces it and a third student traces the sounds on the chart with a pointer, in place of the teacher.
3.) Target: word level pronunciation for new target vocabulary: “thunder”
Stage: integrating the chart
- Learner selects an unknown word from a new text and writes it on the board. e.g. thunder
- Teacher asks each learner how they think it is pronounced, one at a time.
- Whole class listens to the different opinions and decides on correct pronunciation.
- Teacher confirms, improves or corrects pronunciation by pointing out correct sequence of sounds on the chart, pausing on each sound to elicit it.
- Learners repeat each sound slowly at first and then at normal pace.
- Teacher says whole word to confirm pronunciation and learners repeat.
- Learners work in pairs, pointing to each target word, while eliciting the correct word pronunciation from their partner or tracing the correct sound sequence on the chart.
/fi:ʧɜ:z ɒv ði: æp/
Now that we have some background on pronunciation-themed activities and their relevance, the next two sections will focus on how the new Macmillan app can be used to assist in building familiarity with phonemic script.
From the outset, Sounds has taken steps to ensure the app has a broad reach into TESOL classrooms. On the initial startup screen, users are given a choice between an American or British English Phonemic Chart and audio recording for each sound. Learners may choose to compare the pronunciation of each sound on their own to broaden their listening skills, although one should be aware that the vowel symbols differ for each dialect. So if one is already familiar with the British version, it may be better (unless based in the USA) to simply point out the different sounds on the British Chart, as words arise in class (e.g. hot: /hɒt/ (UK), /hɑ:t/ (US))
Sounds integrates the four main skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) into interactive practice and assessment tasks with an easily-understood interface. Users can test their reading, writing or listening skills through either practice or quiz mode, with the key difference being a time limit and set amount of “lives” in the latter, for added challenge. Both modes require a dual knowledge of Standard English spelling and the Phonemic Chart, but can make the task of learning both, much more stimulating for the learner. In listening mode, students must use the phonemic keyboard to type the phonemic spelling of the word they hear. Reading mode prompts students to do the same for a word written in phonemic script, whereas writing mode requires the reverse- transliterations of English spelling into phonemes. Each of these modes is easily understood at a passing glance, thereby reducing the amount of instructions required by the teacher for students to engage with the materials.
Macmillan’s Free version gives users a brief sample of ‘teaser’ games and quizzes (limited to a mere 5 sample questions), but there is far greater opportunity in the Premium version. In addition to a large word bank (both American and British spellings / voice recordings), the latter also includes the option of recording one’s own speech, which can then be compared to a model pronunciation. This feature obviously lends itself to work outside of class, in absence of a teacher’s close monitoring, and it is nice to see that Macmillan has provided a helpful online resource service for educators and pupils, with structural lesson plans or self-study ideas. Additional word banks from other Macmillan course books are also available for download, making the Premium version the only real worthwhile option here, unless one is in truly dire financial circumstances (total cost: $5.99, per download).
/saʊndz gʊd dʊrɪŋ klæs/
Sounds could be used similarly to any other resource which aids pronunciation-focused lessons, except that it has the potential to provide far greater amounts of feedback to students than they might normally receive in a single class. In the space below, two of the same activities discussed earlier are revisited with the inclusion of Sounds, along with several additional ideas designed to make pronunciation practice fun and engaging.
1.) Target: distinguishing between two sounds in isolation: /ɪ/ and /e/
Stage: introducing the chart
- Teacher models each sound several times, one at a time and directs students in pairs or groups to their tablet PCs.
- Learners open Sounds, select the “CHART” function and try to find the two sounds they heard from the teacher. During this time learners will be able to familiarise themselves with the chart as they reach an agreement on what they think they heard.
- Teacher models each sound again and each group taps the sounds on the chart they hear to play aloud for the whole class. Together, the class negotiates which two sounds were heard. If there is disagreement among them, the teacher continues this activity until they select the correct phonemes on their tablets. Teacher confirms the sounds, pointing to the symbols on the wall chart or writing them on the board.
- (OPTIONAL): If desired, teacher may choose to assist students with the physical actions required to produce the sounds (lip / mouth movement, jaw and tongue position, voiced or unvoiced, etc.). If the teacher prefers a guided discovery approach, he or she may also consider using mime or gesture to elicit the correct sounds from the students instead.
- Teacher distributes a deck of 10 cards face down to each pair or group, with either /ɪ/ or /e/ written on them. One student turns over a card (keeping it hidden from the other’s view) and pronounces the sound, while the other clicks the phoneme they hear on the tablet, before switching roles.
- Teacher combines pairs or groups so that there are 2 tablets between them, and redirects one group to the app QuickVoice (or similar voice recording software on a non-Apple product). Each student in this group makes a recording of themselves repeating the /ɪ/ and then /e/ sounds 5 times in succession. The other group then uses Sounds to play the model pronunciation of the same phonemes. Together the groups decide which student has the closest pronunciation to the model.
- Students with the most accurate pronunciation are invited to lead the class in drilling with the two sounds.
Rationale: The lesson becomes learner-centred as before, with the key difference being the additional model available from the app recordings. This allows the teacher to individually monitor groups without having to provide a constant model to help students confirm their responses. Another advantage of this software is the potential for students to continue checking their own pronunciation against the model recordings whilst at home (if they also have a tablet or smart phone).
2.) Target: distinguishing between similar vowel sounds at word level: “chair and cheer”
Stage: integrating the chart
- Teacher writes both words on board and asks learners how they are pronounced. Class listens to each student’s pronunciation together.
- In groups or pairs, learners open Sounds, click “WORDLIST” and select the two words on the board from the list, listening to the model pronunciation. Each student presses the record button and then playback to compare their own pronunciation to the model. They continue practicing this until they are confident their own pronunciation is equal to the model.
- The whole class listens as each group plays their own model pronunciation for each word. Teacher provides a model pronunciation or plays the one from Sounds again, and the class pick the group who pronounced the words closest to the model.
- Learners select “CHART” again and try to remember the order of the phonemes in each word, clicking on them individually, and orally repeating each sound (e.g. chair- /ʧ/ + /eə/. If students have noticed the diphthong, teacher may individually ask them which two individual monophthongs create it: /e/, /ə/).
- Teacher provides students with a new set of words on the board which share the same vowel sounds (e.g. share, chore, shore, shear, etc.) and asks them to determine the phonemic spelling of each, using the “CHART” function, which they transcribe onto paper (or using the “TYPE” function with the phonemic keyboard to do the same, then copying and pasting into another supported word processing programme).
- Teacher elicits answers from students and asks them to provide model pronunciation for each word. The class agree on the correct responses and decide who has the best pronunciation. Alternatively, the teacher or the best group pronounces a word while the rest of the class try to choose what they heard from the list on the board.
- Students repeat this procedure in their own groups with students from the best group and the teacher monitoring.
Rationale: The benefits are the same as those for the previous activity, with the additional advantage of effortless transcription available with the “TYPE” function.
3.) Target: controlled practice with minimal pairs /p/ and /f/
Stage: integrating the chart
- /p/ and /f/ are written on the board. The teacher demonstrates the physical actions required to make the two sounds (mouth, jaw, tongue position, etc.), then holds a piece of paper in front of his or her lips and makes a series of unvoiced /p/ sounds. The paper moves back and forth from the lips after each utterance. Teacher then models the /f/ sound with an extended breath, such that the paper moves forward and stays there until the air stops flowing.
- Learners repeat the same task, alternating between /p/ and /f/ sounds. Teacher directs the action by pointing to the /p/ and /f/ on the board in a random fashion.
- Learners remove the paper from their lips and repeat the task.
- Teacher elicits several words which begin with the /p/ and /f/ sounds, which learners write on the board. Teacher then repeats the task, eliciting other examples containing the /p/ and /f/ sounds in the middle or towards the end of words.
- Learners are asked to divide the words into syllables, then to slowly pronounce each word, syllable by syllable. Teacher elicits various responses from individuals, and then asks for the full word, acknowledging appropriate pronunciation by asking successful students to repeat it several times for everyone to hear. (or providing a personal model in the absence of any acceptable responses)
- Learners in pairs or groups open Sounds and select “PRACTICE”, then “READ”. They type the /p/ and /f/ sounds into the word bank generator and then attempt to type the English spelling of the words displayed in phonemic script. Learners are asked to transcribe each correct response onto a separate piece of paper (e.g. learners see: /ɒpəreɪt/, and type/write: operate).
- Learners turn their tablets off and pronounce each word on their written list, syllable by syllable and then as a whole word (e.g. learners say: /ɒ – pər – eɪt/, then: /ɒpəreɪt/).
- (OPTION A): Learners open Sounds again and select “CHART”. Working from the words on their list, they attempt to tap the phonemes in the sequence they occur within the word (e.g. learners see: operate, and type: /ɒ/, /p/, /ə/, /r/, /eɪ/, /t/).
- (OPTION B): Learners open Sounds again and select “QUIZ”, “READ” and “3 MINUTES” or “3 LIVES”. Trying to gain a high score as quickly and accurately as possible, they put /p/ and /f/ into the word bank generator and attempt to transcribe the phonemic spelling of each word into Standard English spelling.
Rationale: A definitive advantage of using Sounds in this case is the potential for controlled practice without the teacher providing direct feedback (by virtue of the model recordings). The game format of the quiz mode is stimulating and engaging, and the above sequence could be replicated for the other two skills modes (listening and writing) with essentially no procedural alterations.
As can be seen in the activities in the previous section, Sounds (Version 2) has a wealth of potential for the educator, but there are certainly some features which would make it far more dynamic.
One of the main issues with the app is a lack of flexibility in selecting the content learners will practice. While the ability to choose focal sound for the two activity modes is certainly convenient, it would be vastly improved if the wordlists included with the software could be sorted according to phoneme (e.g. words that start or end with /i:/, or which have the /i:/ sound in the middle). It would also be helpful if teachers or students could manually edit wordlists. These customised lists could be used to generate and design practice or quiz modes, which would have direct relevance to whichever course books or materials are used in each class.
Another unfortunate missing feature is the inability for spoken output to be saved within the programme for later usage. Of course, getting around this feature is possible with some foresight and creativity (i.e. the use of QuickVoice in /saʊndz gʊd dʊrɪŋ klæs/ Activity 1 to record and save student responses), however, an integrated option within the Sounds software would continue to assist with tailoring the word lists for each class or learner, according to the teacher’s preferences.
An example of the feature described above might be a lesson where students select several unknown words from a text (such as the procedure outlined in /ti:ʧɜ: sentɜ:d/?, Activity 3). They could then attempt to transcribe the phonemic spelling, while recording what they think it sounds like onto the app. After exploring these words in greater depth, with the teacher’s guidance, having the ability to compare their previous beliefs and then rerecord the word correctly (if needed) would assist them in “noticing” the difference, and consolidating their understanding of various sounds through conscious examination of any inherent spelling patterns.
Perhaps most lamentably, while there is a phonetic keyboard which produces text that can be copied and pasted into supported software, there is no current capability to hear a vocalisation of a random combination of sounds written together. This feature would assist someone struggling to hear the difference between an incorrect and correct pronunciation of a consonant cluster. As an example, learners who mistakenly write “twelth” for the word “twelfth, could be asked to type: /l/, /f/, /θ/ to hear the difference between that and /l/ and /θ/ alone. Another example might include typing the /ʧ/ and /t/ to hear the regular “-ed” ending of “watched”. These actions are currently possible in “CHART” mode, if one’s skilled hand/eye coordination enables them to quickly tap any desired combination of sounds, but most lack the required dexterity. This may in fact be the single most detrimental omission from the app, as learners have no aural feedback from their incorrect answers during the practice or quiz modes.
Finally, it should be noted that learners may become a bit confused by the fact that several of the consonants’ programmed recordings are followed with an extra “schwa” sound (/ə/). This is most notable on the /l/, /r/ and /w/ sounds, (they become /lə/, /rə/ and /wə/) which is slightly disappointing for accuracy’s sake.
Dedicated users might hope that these features (and needed corrections) will make their way into Version 3, if an update looms on the horizon. For now however, Version 2 offers plenty of opportunities for teachers looking to give pronunciation a more visible role in their teaching approach. The ease of tablets and their portability means that even if Sounds does not have a frequent place in the syllabus, it could certainly be a helpful extra resource for students outside of class.
Anyone who is serious about teaching pronunciation should definitely consider bringing phonemes into their students’ everyday experience. Thankfully, Macmillan’s well-crafted app has made something slightly intimidating a little more engaging; and while the prospect of learning another alphabet seems uninspiring, sounding more fluent and comprehensible seems to be a fair trade-off!