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I can’t speak English… &…. MFS! – Teach Pronunciation



Over the winter we have been team (tag) teaching two groups at UAB Idiomes in Barcelona. In our last post, Mark Teaches Connected Speech, we spoke about teaching B1 learners connected speech to help their listening skills. We also wanted to explore teaching pron with beginner/ elementary students based on a recurring comment from the needs analyses from an A1 group, which we can sum up as something along the lines of; “I can’t speak English – I know it, I’ve studied it, but I can’t speak it.”  We also wanted to address some issues teachers have aired to us during our workshops and talks, namely that they were not sure what to work on with beginner/ elementary students, beyond individual sounds. Students at this level can be often starved of certain aspects of phonology such as connected speech and sentence stress, which can really support them with speaking as well as listening. We felt that we needed to feed in all of the pron the language may present from the very beginning with the idea that language and pronunciation are inseparable. AND as if this were not enough, we have come up with a new acronym which encapsulates everything we want to talk about on this blog…. MFS! All will be explained below.

As well as having problems with understanding spoken English, our A1 group find it hard to pronounce new language correctly.  In the lesson our communicative objective was to ‘order a meal in a restaurant’, as support for this our linguistic aim was to practice a set of food lexis connected to ‘starters’, ‘main courses’, and ‘desserts’. We really wanted the students to know the menu well and be comfortable using it in the communicative activity, so we designed a cycle of activities to practice meaning, form, and sound using the same lexical set.
We used a standard lunch menu from an Italian restaurant with the ‘starters’, ‘main courses’, and ‘desserts’ titles taken out.

  1. Matching – the first activity the students had to do was match the dishes to the titles by writing ‘starters’, ‘main courses’, and ‘desserts’ above the appropriate group of dishes. We provided clarification of vocabulary as support. This activity dealt with meaning and showed us the learners had got it!

Watch this video of Mark setting up the next activity with the A1 group. What do you think the objective/s of this activity are?

Definitions – we selected six words from the menu we felt would be new lexis for the students and created English definitions for them like a mini food dictionary. The students had to match the word to the definition by writing the word in the space provided in the worksheet.  In the second part of the activity they worked in pairs. One student read the definitions of the new vocabulary while the other, with the worksheet turned over, tried to remember the words. So, the objective here was to practice both meaning and form.

‘Easy/ difficult to pronounce’ – we asked the students to say each dish aloud with a partner, decide which words were easy or difficult to pronounce for them, and categorise the words accordingly. We asked the students to tell us which words they found difficult; we boarded these and worked on their difficulties. This allowed us to give them good practice with sound, and also to hand over the responsibility for pron to them. Recycling the same language with a different task and focus gave the students extra time to work on sound while becoming more comfortable with the target language. A big takeaway for us here was how much they enjoyed working on this lexical set. The change of task seemed to boost their confidence with the target language.  

Listen and write – we chose six words from the menu that had little connection between the written form and the sound, for example, ‘sauce’. All of our students speak Spanish which is a phonetically written language. They tend to treat each letter as a phoneme, which could result in them saying /saʊseɪ/ and not /sɔːs/. We dictated the six words to them and they listened and wrote the word they heard. This stage worked really well as it provided good work on sound and form. Students were more confident with the sound by this time, but the spelling (form) was challenging for them now.  

Memorise, remember and choosefor the final activity we asked the students to memorise the menu for one minute, turn it over, and remember it together using  ‘starter’, ‘main course’, and ‘dessert’ categories as a guide. As an extension to this they each chose a dish for themselves from each course. This activity allowed the students to practice meaning, form, and sound. The activity also brought out problem words in terms of pron immediately and we could deal with these through feedback after the speaking activity finished. ‘Vegetables’,  ‘chicken versus kitchen’, ‘grilled’, and ‘sauce’ are the examples.

We could see the students growing in confidence as the content from the menu became more and more familiar, and the big takeaway for us here was that they were producing the sounds with more confidence during the final activity. We also feel that by providing this practice cycle we could integrate pron into the practice more naturally.  By keeping the focus on one lexical set but changing the task each time, we gave the students ample time to work on meaning, form and sound as well as building their confidence with the target language.
So, let’s end with MFS. As you may have guessed from this post, it stands for Meaning, form and, sound (all 3 are required to be able to understand and use the language).  So, where did this come from?During another speaking activity one of the students tried to say that she had had ‘vegetables’ and ‘noodles’ for lunch. However, she was unable to tell her partner this because she didn’t know how to pronounce these words. Her attempt to say ‘noodles’ was unintelligible even for us. She explained afterwards that she had learned the word by translating the meaning and practising the spelling, however, this wasn’t enough to be able to communicate. This shows that she knew the form and meaning, but had no knowledge of the sound, which was the reason she was unable to communicate. It didn’t occur to her that this was part of learning the word.

We feel that to really learn a new word or piece of language the student needs solid practice in meaning, form, and sound. If we fail to provide practice in one of these areas, the student will be unable to fully understand and use the new lexis or piece of language. This would mean that we provide a minimum of three tasks to practice the target language. A meaning-based task, a form-based task, and a sound-based task, although some task types may practice two or three of these at the same time.

So, looking back at posts so far on this site and our overall goal of helping you to integrate pronunciation into every lesson, with the pronunciation cycle in the Glynn talks Spain post and MFS as guiding principles for your planning and teaching  you can ensure effective 100% integration of pron!

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