To Read: Toward Better Teaching of Pronunciation

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconMan it can be hard to find the time to blog in the summer! My goal in the next few weeks is to find a few more moments of quality time with WordPress, and also to read up on the state of pronunciation teaching. I’ll most likely be teaching a speaking and pronunciation course for graduate students in the fall, and want to have it focus more heavily on the latter than the former. So I thought it could be a good moment to see if we’ve progressed past the days of “popsicle-stick in the mouth to feel the difference between /l/ and /ɹ/”. (Maybe we haven’t! And I’m ok with that.)

I’m going to start by checking out the following:

Towards Better Teaching of Pronunciation: Review of Literature in the Area


The present paper aims at establishing the need to focus on the importance of teaching pronunciation to language learners. The study is descriptive in nature. It traces out the body of research concerning the weightiness of pronunciation within linguistic, psychological, and sociocultural domains as well as through the eyes of the language learners. The findings highlighted the knock-on effects of pronunciation on the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). In addition, pronunciation instruction was found to be the learners’ priority and a field in which they need more coaching. As an illuminating study, the paper is useful to teachers, researchers, and material writers to consider the language learners’ needs in the English language teaching and learning context.

Seyedabadi, S., Fatemi, A. H., & Pishghadam, R. (2015). Towards Better Teaching of Pronunciation: Review of Literature in the Area. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 6(4 S1), 76.

I will let you know how I fare! And then the search will begin for good pronunciation teaching resources…though I’m sure there’s no shortage of those.

Having…the talk

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconOne of my colleagues told me this morning that she’s going to be forced to have the talk with a few of her students. No, not the birds and the bees or anything like that; the  your chosen English name sounds ridiculous talk.

We’ve all had students who choose to go by an “English” name in English class that is not their given name. There are the arguments in favour–it helps the student take on an alternate identity that can speed their learning of English, they think (rightly or wrongly) that their teacher won’t be able to pronounce or remember their given name, they have fond memories attached to this particular name because they’ve been using it since elementary school. And it’s a free country, right? Anyone can go by whatever they want.

But then there are the rants and raves (and laughs) at the expense of those who adopt this practice. We teachers love to swap stories of students choosing a particularly dated, or bizarre name, or a name that’s not even one in the first place. My colleague now has a Deft, a Gecko, a Pawn and a Creed*  in her current class! We’ve had numerous Echos, a Beyond, a Chamber, a Purple, a Snowy and a few Floyds, Bobs and Bills  whose names were more fitting of retirees than undergrads. And the list goes on.

So, do you say anything? Do you have the talk  with your students? My colleagues and I have debated this topic. While some are firmly in the “Live and let live; do whatever you want!” camp, I fall on the other side. In an EFL or private language school environment, going by an alternate name for the few hours a week you’re in English class may not be the biggest deal. But we teach EAP at a university in an ESL/EAL context. If students choose an alternate name, this is the name that will follow them throughout their academic career, with professors, fellow students, and into the workplace. We, as EAP instructors, are often the first English-speaking people they come into contact with when they move here. I think it’s our duty to at least inform our students if they’ve chosen a completely ridiculous name that people might have a hard time taking them seriously. A student can then knowingly choose to accept these consequences if they continue to go by their chosen name. If we don’t say anything, there is a danger they will interpret our saying nothing as tacit approval of their choice of names. And next thing you know, someone is requesting that a letter of reference from a prof be addressed to Gecko.

Have you ever had  the talk with your students?

[*This is only slightly preferable to being called Nickleback.]

Poetry in the ESL Classroom: Imagism

I like literature and poetry, but honestly don’t have a lot of experience using it with English language learners. (My colleague Ayesha Mushtaq, on the other hand, has a great method for using fairy tales to teach critical reading in EAP. Cool stuff! I wish some of her talks were online…)

In doing some house-cleaning of some old teaching materials, however, I recently came across an activity I had made a while ago focused around imagist poetry. The lesson includes a definition of what imagism is, a few of my favourite imagist poems, and then finished with students writing their own. Imagist poems are so clear and straightforward that I think this lesson could work with students B1 and up.

I’ve only ever used this activity once, with a group of B2+ EAP students, and the poems they produced were fantastic, ranging from the mundane to intensely romantic. Those students whose cultural background includes a strong poetic tradition  of long, epic ballads freaked out a bit initially at the simplicity of the poems on this worksheet. I assured them that we do have other types of poetry in English (and encouraged them to check them out…)


Imagism_ESL (.docx file)

Getting into Academic Corpora

CaptureI really want to use corpora more often in class, I really do. I love the idea so much. But it all comes down to interface. The interfaces of some corpora are so dated and cumbersome to navigate that you’d have to devote hours of class time just to get students to use them in a basic way. (Though I do like Just-the-Word and SkELL, and I just came across this list of corpora resources on Twitter today and am hoping there maybe be a few gems on there.) Corpora are a teaching tool I need to spend some more time with and that I’d like to expand my knowledge of.

With corpora of academic English, things are even more restricted, simply because there are so few of them. In terms of student academic writing, the British Academic Written English (BAWE) corpus is a great resources, but I can only find the British Council’s Writing with a Purpose collection, and the BAWE collections in Flax  as avenues through which to interact with it not just on the word and phrase level, but on the paper level.  You can access both the BAWE and the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) corpus through Sketch Engine.

The two academic corpora out of Michigan are my favourites. The Michigan Corpus of Upper-Year Student Papers (MICUSP) and the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE) have interfaces that are so easy to use! And you can explore not just words and phrases, but genre, through access to papers and texts in their entirety.

If you use any other corpus-based resources for teaching academic English please share!

BALEAP 2015: Getting discipline-specific in the EGAP Classroom

baleap_logoI’m presenting a talk entitled  Getting Discipline-specific in the EGAP Classroom  at the BALEAP conference on April 18. If only I could be at the University of Leicester with everyone else! But alas, I will be presenting remotely from my office here in Halifax.

Here are the slides. I’ve tweaked this talk a bit since I gave it last year at IATEFL, incorporating some of the materials on genre I developed for this year’s IATEFL conference as well as other ideas I’ve come up with since then.



Metaphors for genre

I’m always trying to perfect the way I present the concept of genre to to my EAP writing classes. Some students seem to get it right away. But others have a hard time letting go of the idea that there’s one type of writing in English that you use in all contexts, (and for many, that writing is synonymous with the writing done on the IELTS exam).

Some groups you can just hit with Swales’ definition of genre. We can dive right into the idea that exemplars of a genre show similarities in terms of purpose, style, structure, content and audience. But with others you have to take a step back and figure out some type of everyday metaphor to liken it to.

The one I’ve been playing with lately is the idea of footwear. We can think of various types of footwear: high heels, soccer cleats, winter snow boots, sandals. Each one has its own particular purpose (to make it wearer look good, to provide traction and allow for speed, to keep feet warm and dry, to keep the feet cool) and also  there are certain contexts where each is expected. If you don’t wear the expected footwear in that context, it can seem inappropriate. It’s not the end of the world if you wear snowboots on the beach, but it is weird to those around you. Each type of footwear shares certain and structural and style characteristics (a pronounced heel, laces and spikes, rubber and lugged sole, open-toed construction), without each pair necessarily being exactly the same.

I think it’s a pretty apt metaphor for genre. How do you explain the concept of genre to your classes?

Upcoming webinar: Why is English So Weird?


I’m doing a webinar on March 7 with English Online called “Why is English so weird?” Looking to History to Answer Tough Learner Questions.

Here’s the description:

The particularities of English orthography, vocabulary and pronunciation are stumbling blocks for many learners. However, what may appear to be random makes sense if one looks at the history of the English language, and knowledge of this history can therefore shed light on how we handle common student questions. This presentation is aimed at new teachers or experienced educators wanting to refresh their approach to questions perennially present in our day-to-day teaching. Classroom activities aimed at developing learners’ language awareness, with a focus on the influence of the history of English on its present-day form, will be discussed.

Here are the handouts and slide for the presentation.

It’s only 30 minutes, so I don’t intend it to be a comprehensive survey of the history of English, but rather a look at some of the things that have influenced the English language over the years that have resulted in features  present in modern day English that are perplexing to learners. I”m really into bringing linguistic awareness into the classroom, so I’ll share some activities to get learners thinking about language as a system, as opposed to a series of random, disconnected phenomena.

I’m really excited about this. We offer a free ESL/EAP workshop series here for students enrolled at the university, and I developed one looking at this very topic. I then went ahead and named it something super boring and dry sounding (The History of English!), so the turnout was small, but the attendees were very keen to finally have explanations for aspects of English that had always just been explained to them as random exceptions or inexplicable. I’m looking forward to sharing  a lot of the material I developed for that workshop to teachers via this webinar. (We’re also planning to re-name the student workshop and offer it again in an upcoming semester!)

“See” you on March 7!

A neat resource for EAP reading

CaptureIf I were teaching an EAP reading class at the B1+ level right now, I would be running to the photocopier with an article I just came across.

Explainer: What’s the difference between and outbreak and an epidemic? appeared on The Conversation a few weeks ago (more on this website in a moment). It’s clearly structured, and would tie in well to instruction on writing definitions, classifications or compare-and-contrast writing. There are also lots of examples of signposting using questions in this text. The article is a vocabulary lesson in and of itself, focusing on terms frequently used incorrectly in public discourse. The topic is related to current events, so could be engaging for almost any class, but could be of particular interest to those students planning on studying a health profession, community health or international development.

I have only recently discovered The Conversation (which has US, UK and Australian versions), which bills itself as “is a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary that’s free to read and republish.” Their sub-heading is “Academic rigour, journalistic flair”, which sums the site up very nicely.

It can be sometimes hard to find authentic texts of an academic nature for EAP students at lower levels of proficiency–university-level textbooks and journal articles are simply out of their reach. And  a few accessible specialty publications aside (such as Scientific American and Popular Mechanics, for example), much coverage of science, health, engineering and technology related topics in the more linguistically-accessible mainstream press can be simplistic or sensational. Many of my students are graduate students, and desire the challenging content and ideas of authentic texts, but just can’t handle the language yet.

It seems that after some hunting and picking, The Conversation could be a great resource for interesting and intellectually challenging articles for the EAP classroom in a relatively accessible level of language. Has anyone tried it out?

Ice Breaker: The Proust Questionnaire

vanityfair_proustquestionnaireA new term is starting up, and so ice-breakers are on my mind. If I were teaching an intermediate-advanced class, I’d adapt the Proust Questionnaire, a personality questionnaire that became popularized via French author Marcel Proust, into a first-day activity for my students and I to get to know each other.

Lots of media outlets use versions of the Proust Questionnaire to structure interviews–Inside the Actor’s StudioVanity Fair magazine and CBC’s The Next Chapter among them. Below are the questions Vanity Fair tends to use, with my ESL-related comments on them.

A fun follow-up could be to have students take this interactive version of the questionnaire online and compare their answers to those given by famous people.

The Proust Questionnaire

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
    This questionnaire could be a perfect opportunity to review subject/object question formation.
  2. Which living person do you most admire?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
    New vocab: deplore
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  5. What is your greatest extravagance?
  6. What is your favorite journey?
  7. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  8. On what occasion do you lie?
    Nice opportunity to review present simple vs. simple past/present perfect; in answering this question you’re not talking about when you have lied, but on what occasions you routinely lie.
  9. What do you dislike most about your appearance?
  10. Which living person do you most despise?
    New vocab: despise. This questionnaire brings up lots of new synonyms for hate. 🙂
  11. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
    I’d add “in English” to this phrase, as it could open up some interesting discussions on frequency of vocabulary in use and real-life language vs. language as its portrayed in many textbooks.
  12. What is your greatest regret?
  13. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  14. When and where were you happiest?
  15. Which talent would you most like to have?
  16. What is your current state of mind?
    Review present simple vs. present continous
  17. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  18. If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
    Potential review of the 2nd conditional here
  19. Where would you like to live?
  20. What is your favorite occupation?
  21. What is your most marked characteristic?
    Vocab: marked (adj.)
  22. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  23. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
    I personally would not touch these questions in class with a ten-foot pole; perhaps you’re more bold.
  24. What do you most value in your friends?
  25. Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
    I’d probably open this up to include film and TV as well as literature.
  26. Who are your heroes in real life?
  27. What are your favorite names?
  28. What is it that you most dislike?
  29. How would you like to die?
    This could be a bit morbid for Class #1, but, hey…

History of English for ELLs

Summer means lots of things around my workplace–loads of pre-sessional students, scheduling in instructors’ vacation time, and getting programming ready for the fall semester, amongst other things. We’re in a period of innovation and growth right now, one aspect of which is an in-sessional workshop series that runs twice a week throughout the semester. It’s been growing for about a year now, and so we’ve been constantly adding to the roster of workshops topics, which means lots of fun for those of us that like to experiment with course design.

One of the most popular workshops last semester was one on Canadian Culture and Language, which I happened to give. In a two-hour workshop I tried to give students not a comprehensive description of everything that makes Canadian English unique, but rather to focus on those aspects which they’d be most likely to encounter in their day-to-day life and studies, and which they’d be most likely to be confounded or intrigued by. I focused on place names, Canadian spelling, common Canadian vocab, and the “eh” tag question, and a short discussion of the mythical “I am Canadian” beer ad. (Here are Canadian Culture and Lang Handouts and Canadian_Culture&Lang slides.)

So, now I have a few more workshops to create that I’m very excited about. One is a History of English workshop. Like with the topic of Canadian culture, the goal is not to give a comprehensive survey of the history of the language. I want to focus on a few factors in the history of English whose effects are still apparent in modern English, and which cause annoyance or confusion for those who are learning English. I’d like to include lots of short exercises and activities in the workshop–it’s not a lecture.

I’d like to talk about:

  • spelling and some of the reasons it is as all over the place as it is: the great vowel shift, influence of borrowed words and real/false etymologies, different movements to standardize (Webster, etc.) and their lack of success, etc. Some spelling-based activities could be fun, along with “guess the origin” and a “how do you think this used to be pronounced” game. we could also look at a list of Webster’s proposed changes and use it to “correct” a text.
  • the Norman conquest and its influence on English in terms of register (Germanic-origin phrasal verbs vs their Latinate equivalents). “Translating” a text from higher to lower register could be a fun exercise.
  • I’d also like to cover the evolution of the pronoun system (thou/you, who/whom, etc.) and also look at some earlier examples of  English to look at some syntactic differences (amongst all the other differences).
  • If there’s time I’d want to cover how English is currently evolving (singular they, etc.), to show how language change doesn’t stop. An activity using corpora could be interesting here, but I might have to do something simpler.

So, teacher and linguist friends: what would you include if you were teaching a two-hour workshop on the History of English for English-language learners? I’d love your ideas.