Thursday, December 26, 2013

The "kitchen sink" of pronunciation teaching and research

Have a little quiz for you. Before you read the rest of this post below the "bottom line," look over the list of activities from the description of a pronunciation/accent improvement course in a 2012 study by Mirtoska of South East European University, Tetovo, Macedonia. It is reported to have included, (a) awareness raising activities, (b) pronunciation coaching by native speakers, and (c) authentic language exposure activities, including:

  • a semester-long course, "Phonetics and phonology," prior to the study
  • peer presentations
  • role plays
  • series quizzes (based on watching "Desperate Housewives" as homework)
  • segmental and suprasegmental teaching and activities using the book “Pronounce it perfectly in English,” among other books 
  • (oral) reading activities
  • Smith/Beckman (2005) Noticing-Reformulation task work

Question: Assuming that the activities were reasonably appropriate for the (college student) English BA student population in Albania, does that not sound like a great set of procedures?
Of course, it does. The problem in this case--as in almost all class-room based pronunciation teaching research--is that the report in the article gives us not a clue as to how much of any of those procedures were done or how effectively they were done. In fairness, the focus of the research was not specifically on what works but does anything work in that context to improve pronunciation.

The results of the study are fascinating. With all of that great looking, "theoretically state of the art" instruction, the control group did about as well as the experimental group. "Both groups were pre- and post recorded over a period of one semester which is approximately 4 months at this university. The participants were recorded before (and after) the semester . . . using a test consisting of three parts; spontaneous speech, for which they answered three questions, reading a paragraph out loud and reading tongue twisters." Both groups demonstrated about equal, yet statistically significant improvement in "accent" by those measures. 

Why? What may have helped improve pronunciation (or why the control group did so well) could not be factored out or even speculated on. That is actually not a bad picture of the "State of the art" today in the field. In controlled experiments, it is now well established that pronunciation teaching can make a difference. (What a relief, that "science" has at least confirmed that!)

Once pronunciation work goes into the classroom, however, the dynamic nature of that setting makes evaluating the effectiveness of any one or several procedures simultaneously exceedingly difficult. Fair enough.

So what is a practitioner to do? For the time being: Either throw in everything (that is theoretically or methodologically acceptable/correct at the problem) but the kitchen sink, as was apparently done here--or use a coherent system that embodies only essential, scaffolded, haptic-integrated procedures. I can even recommend one in fact . . . (AH-EPS, v2.0 will be available soon.)

Next post will look at how to evaluate a pronunciation teaching system--and how not to. Keep in touch.

No comments:

Post a Comment