Friday, October 05, 2007

Friday's pronunciation class

I've been wanting to talk about my pronunciation class, which has been billed a "pronunciation clinic" on various Smoo posters and schedule charts.

The idea of clinics and workshops was something that my buddy Tom and I brought up during a faculty meeting a couple months ago, and the boss decided to give it a try, for which I'm glad. For English pronunciation, I had suggested short classes of around thirty minutes each, primarily because a class that focuses solely on pronunciation is not far removed from blacktop calisthenics in nature-- it's not about conversation; it's "Listen! Repeat! Next word!" dozens and dozens of times. Doing that for an entire hour is a bit much, I think, which is why I recommended short classes.

But what we ended up with is a Fridays-only class that meets for an hour. As things have turned out, this isn't such a bad setup, though it does wear a bit on my voice. My roll lists 21 students, but we had 16 the first Friday, 18 the second Friday, and 17 students today (plus one faculty observer; she was also in one of my classes yesterday). At least two students on the roll haven't shown up at all, which makes me think they must have dropped the class at the last minute. In any case, Room 303 is fairly crowded at 11AM.

The first Friday was fairly exciting. Sixteen nervous students showed up and I had my overly expensive MP3 voice recorder with me. The first day was to be devoted to obtaining speech samples from the students for the purposes of error analysis and curriculum planning. I had written up my calendar well in advance of the beginning of the semester, but knew I wouldn't be able to assign specific material (textbook chapters, etc.) until I had some idea what my students' pronunciation problems were.

I decided that the class needed to keep moving throughout the hour. With sixteen people that first day, it would have been silly to expect all the students to sit still for great lengths of time. I needed individual audio samples, however, so I set the recording process up as a sort of "round robin" composed of three 15-17-minute rounds.

The students were given a sheet of paper on which I had printed the text they would be sight-reading for the first two rounds. In the first round, the students approached me one by one and recited a small cluster of tongue twisters of the sort that might be especially tricky for a Korean speaker:

1. Red lorry, yellow lorry, red lorry, yellow lorry.
2. She sells seashells by the seashore.
3. One smart fellow, he felt smart.
Two smart fellows, they felt smart.
Three smart fellows, they all felt smart.
4. Three free throws.

Once all sixteen students finished Round One, we plunged right into Round Two: the recitation of a chunk of prose. Partly to amuse myself, I chose Admiral Kirk's eulogy of Captain Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The speech is free of confusing sci-fi jargon and contains a good range of easy and difficult phonetic patterns for Koreans to try their hand at:

We are gathered here today to pay final respects to our honored dead. But it should be noted that this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world, a world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his profound wisdom at these proceedings. Of my friend, I can only say this: of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.

I gave the students about three or four minutes to get familiar with the text, then we began the second round. Quite a few ladies mispronounced comrade as "kahm-raid," and some pronounced sacrifice as "sackrih-fiss."

During Round Three, students were to give unscripted responses to one of four possible questions:

1. Why are you taking this pronunciation class?
2. What's the best thing about Seoul?
3. What is the secret to being happy?
4. What dreams or ambitions do you have?

I told the ladies to provide quick answers of no more than a sentence or two, but some students desperately scribbled out elaborate responses before meeting me and my voice recorder. I shouldn't have allowed them to choose their questions in advance.

My purpose in doing three rounds was, as you might imagine, to garner different types of speech samples from my students on the assumption that different genres partially determine student mindset and, by extension, student output. Round One was rigid, formal, and almost poetic; Round Two was about the reading of prose; Round Three was (at least in principle) about free-form conversation-- or, more precisely, quick and spontaneous rejoinders.

All the students had to sign a sheet with their names, email addresses, and phone numbers. Next to each slot was a number which was to become a given student's permanent student number. Because Tom might be using these sound samples for a grad school project of his (the students gave me their permission), he and I had agreed that numbers would be better than names. Each student was asked her student number for each recording.

I uploaded the forty-eight student sound files to my office PC, organized them neatly in various folders, then spent a few hours listening to student output and noting, on individual sheets, the problems I heard. This took quite a while, but the result was something like a patient's chart at a hospital: each student now had a personal record of her own particular problems.* I photocopied these notes for the following Friday, and compiled the student errors to determine which ones were most common. This "common" list became the backbone for the curriculum. With that list as a guide, I was able to fill in the calendar with the appropriate textbook chapters and other exercises (NB: I'm using Basics in Pronunciation as the main text; it's a solid book that covers almost all the students' problems, but fails to address two or three particulars for which I'm providing supplemental materials).

After that, planning was all downhill. The second Friday, September 21, I was able to distribute the students' individual critiques and pass out a worksheet listing (1) the most prevalent pronunciation problems among the students and (2) the course content from that point to the end of the semester. We also managed to get through the first cluster of exercises in class; I emailed my students a recording of me doing two more exercise clusters (we were supposed to do all three clusters in class, but didn't have time). In the meantime, over the next two weeks, the students had to record themselves doing their homework, which was due via email by 8PM this past Wednesday. Most of the students ended up turning in their sound files, though only 11 of 19 were on time. The next three or four were late, which will be reflected in their grade.

Homework is where I deal with the students individually. This takes time. I have to listen to each student's output, take notes about the problems I hear, then email each lady (and one gentleman) a personalized voice file that offers corrections and further exercises. As of this week, students must respond to my voice files in addition to doing their already-assigned homework. I keep tabs on each student through individual dossiers in the hopes of noting improvements (or lack thereof) as time goes on. For a course that meets only one day a week, this is quite a workload, but I think it's worth it for the students.

If you've taught a pronunciation class, I'd love to hear from you and learn some techniques-- not only for dealing with a crowded classroom, but also for dealing with students on a one-on-one basis, whether via email or face-to-face.

*I admit I freely borrowed this concept from my previous job at EC, where our job was little more than speech therapy in most cases. EC was very good training for what I'm doing now.


1 comment:

daeguowl said...

What accent are you teaching for your pronunciation? When I'm at work, people have incredible difficulty understanding my english accent (and it's not as if I have any kind of regional accent either). They cannot understand me if I say 'water' with a 't' instead of a 'd', 'hot' with a 'o' instead of an 'a' and all kinds of similar words...perhaps you might like to spend a bit of time covering some of the key pronunciation differences in the major forms of english...(if you don't already)