A Little Help From Friends

I didn’t realize it when I woke up this morning, but the internet has informed me that today is important. Today is the eleventh anniversary of the Friends series finale. I’ve had a draft of this blog post saved for a while, and this special day is the impetus I needed to finally finish and publish it.

Let’s start with a word about pronunciation. I promise we’ll get around to our favorite group of six in a little bit.

I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with pronunciation instruction. I love it because it’s so important, students see the importance of it, and it can be fun. I hate it because, frankly, it often seems awkward, out-of-place, and fruitless.

During my first year of teaching, I would open every speaking class with minimal pair (pat/bat, lip/rip, etc.) drills. It was quick–2 minutes at most–and allowed me to check pronunciation off my to-do list.

Since that time, I’ve had a few more years of teaching experience and earned a master’s degree in TESOL. I still think minimal pair drills are a great way to target segmental features of pronunciation. This exercise was not a problem. There was, however, another problem with my approach to teaching pronunciation: When I got to intonation in the textbook, I pretty much glossed over it. Rhythm? Forget about it. Word stress? No, thanks.

And that, my friends, is a problem. During graduate school, suprasegmentals–intonation, rhythm, stress–began to fascinate me, probably because I found them so difficult to teach. If suprasegmentals interest you, here’s my first academic foray into the subject, an annotated bibliography. I expect you to be on the edge of your seat by this point.

If you’d prefer to spend your time not reading a paper I wrote for grad school, here’s the short version: If our students don’t have command of suprasegmentals, they may have trouble being understood, at least by their American peers. We can teach suprasegmentals through modeling and imitation, adding in a healthy dose of student self-assessment.

Celce-Murcia, Brinton, Goodwin, and Griner (2010) outline a brilliant activity in Teaching Pronunciation. It’s brilliant because it raises students’ awareness of suprasegmental features, gives them a model to imitate, and encourages laughter and fun in the classroom. To me, laughter and fun are important.

The activity begins with a video, any video less than one minute long. Here’s what I used:

I tend to use Friends quite a bit in class because all of the scripts are available online, which makes it an ideal source for cloze activities and model imitation. You could use any video, though. I think it would be great to try this with a clip from a talk show interview, as scripted language will be different from unscripted speech.

Here are the steps, as outlined by Celce-Murcia et al.

1. Show the video without sound. Ask students to discuss what they think it happening in the video.
2. Let them watch the video with sound.
3. Give them the script of the video. With a partner, they predict and mark pauses, prominence (or word stress), and intonation. I have my students draw a vertical line for pauses, circle stressed words, and draw squiggly arrows over the lines of speech to show intonation.

Note the lines, circles, and squiggles.

Note the lines, circles, and squiggles.

4. Now, here’s the fun part. Play the video, phrase by phrase by phrase, pausing and rewinding. You can say some of the phrases yourself if you get sick of pausing and rewinding. Students mark pauses, prominence, and intonation as they listen, checking their predictions and making any corrections to reflect how the actors actually talk.
5. Students then practice the script, imitating the actors’ speech. You can play a phrase and have them repeat it; that’s a lot of fun. Turn Friends into a listen-and-repeat drill! This is where a ton of laughter will occur.
6. They can then perform their scenes for the class.
7. Students can view recordings of themselves as Friends. Unfortunately, I have not done this yet, but I want to.

It’s a fun activity, and it’s amazing how easily the students manage to imitate the suprasegmental features of the actors’ speech. Try it out!

Happy Friendsiversary. (Sorry, sorry. Please put down the rotten tomatoes.)

How do you teach pronunciation? How do you use videos in your class? Do you have other dramatic techniques for teaching speech? I’ve got a few more up my sleeve, so stay tuned for more.

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2 thoughts on “A Little Help From Friends

  1. Pingback: Engaging With (and Imitating?) Great Essayists | Kate Finegan

  2. Pingback: Activities to Develop Listening Skills | Kate Finegan

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