Entry Testing Agony Aunt
- Tips & Strategies
Having taught students to pronounce difficult sounds in English and how to read, many teachers feel that drilling at levels higher than pre-intermediate does not make any sense. Why should I waste time on drilling if all of them can read all the words themselves?
The answer is — actually, many things. At each level, students enlarge their vocabulary base, learn new grammar structures and find out other meanings and uses of the structures that are already familiar to them. They become better readers and listeners, and, of course, better speakers and writers. This progress involves improving pronunciation as well.
You will ask me — okay, but what exactly can be improved? And is drilling necessary to achieve that?
To understand what happens after mastering /w/, /θ/, /æ/, or any other difficult English sound, imagine what distinguishes native-like speech. How do we know we are listening to a native speaker (or a very profound and advanced learner)?
Let us look at these categories and decide together whether these features can and must be learnt, and whether they require drilling.
Profound speakers never pronounce words separately. They use connected speech — it means that speech sounds are produced in continuous sequence, rather than in isolation (A-Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury). It means that words are pronounced together in a stream of speech, and sometimes sound very different from their 'isolated' variants.
Say 'Would you like some juice?', and think what you actually hear.
It sounds like:
/wʊdʒə 'laɪk səm 'dʒuːs/
We almost never hear 'would' and 'you' and 'some' as isolated words in a stream of speech. In a sentence like this they come in weak forms, and must not be stressed or clearly pronounced.
Students will master how to understand, use, and pronounce these chunks much faster and easier if you specifically teach them — help notice how the usual words sound in weak forms, combine with the other words in chunks, and how they are pronounced. Drilling is necessary here — students need to train to be able to say it right.
Features of connected speech such as liaison, assimilation, elision, linking will also help students better understand natural speech, and sound better.
You might be wondering when you need to teach connected speech. It is not always stated explicitly in syllabi and coursebooks when it's time to teach pronunciation. The answer is — when you teach students chunks that include some delexicalised words like prepositions (phrasal verbs, prepositional phrases, etc.), modal and semi-modal verbs (for example, conditional sentences, grammar structures with auxiliary verbs), articles, quantifiers, determiners, etc.
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Students also need help with word and sentence stress. Typical mistakes students make include stressing the wrong word in complex words and noun phrases (coffee table, school teacher, cheesecake, hashtag) — these should be drilled as well, to help students automatise correct pronunciation. This is important since a lot of words have become international, especially social media, fashion, computing, food.
When such words start being used by speakers of other languages, their pronunciation might change. It means that there is a huge pull of international words many people would understand without translation in texts, but they are likely to pronounce them the way they are used to in their L1.
For example, Ukrainian learners would say touch screen instead of touch screen, screen saver instead of screen saver, etc. These words require drilling because the incorrect pronunciation is very often fossilized.
Another important feature we need to teach students is correct intonation. Intonation in English is very important, since it carries a lot of meaning in addition to the actual words and phrases interlocutors use to communicate. The same phrase used with different intonation might carry very different messages.
Instead of sounding enthusiastic, you may sound uninterested, ironic, or even sarcastic if you do not use proper intonation in a very simple conversation like this:
Intonation in the English language is almost always anything but flat. Unlike English, in many languages flat is normal, and if you use English-like intonation while speaking Ukrainian, you will sound really weird, since we never raise that high and drop that low. Which means that Ukrainian students need to notice and learn to use such intonation they never use in their L1. Drilling here is absolutely necessary. How will students learn otherwise?
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Knowing about the importance of intonation in general is not enough, though. In order to really sound right and carry the right messages, students need to learn correct intonation of the functional exponents that are used in different situations.
For example, if you teach students to apologize, and there are seven new phrases to add to their usual repertoire, teaching the phrases is half a mission if students fail to pronounce them with the correct 'apologetic' intonation.
Even with familiar phrases you can teach higher-level learners how to 'play' with intonation and change the message that way — this is something that will help them understand native speech and implicit messages better, and become better communicators.
Intonation is something that needs to be trained (i.e. drilled properly) — if students do not use it automatically, they will not be able to naturally and fluently use the correct intonation in speech.
If you really think what in your lesson will make a difference and make your learners 'heavier 'in terms of knowledge than they are before they have a new lesson, help students understand what you drill and why this is important, and they will never be resistant or reluctant to drilling. If they get the value of what you are teaching, they will be eager to learn, repeat after you, and learn to pronounce language chunks the right way.
Plan and perform your focus on pronunciation with clear understanding of what you want your learners to have learnt and practiced, and this stage will always be useful and appreciated.
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