Materials writing and ELF

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I’m currently taking the iTDi course on materials writing with Kath Bilsborough. We took a vote on whether authentic materials needed to come from a native speaker, and the result was that the group is overwhelmingly in favour of using materials from a range of sources, not just those written ‘by native speakers for native-speaker consumption’ (the definition of authentic materials being put forward for discussion). Since Kath pointed the group in my direction for more details about this topic, here is an attempt to clarify some of the issues and provide a bit of background…

The issue that we have been trying to address here at ELFpron for the past three years is the lack of listening texts featuring a range of accents beyond native speaker accents.

We focus on speaking and listening because…

  1. This is what our students seemed to have most difficulty with when it comes to variation.
  2. In speaking and listening, it is often more instantly identifiable where someone comes from based on their accent than in writing. Therefore, the native vs. non-native speaker issue becomes more relevant.
  3. When you codify language in a written form, it is easier to refer to a ‘standard’. As much as some people would like there to be a standard when it comes to spoken English, the reality is much messier.

So, why don’t coursebooks feature a wider range of accents?

  1. As mentioned in point 3 above, some people might feel that the messy nature of the scattered English language does not make it easy to package into a neat, tidy coursebook. (I believe otherwise, which is why I am currently designing my own website and online course with resources for learners interested in International English. It will be going live very shortly – so watch this space, and thanks in advance to fellow iTDi course participants for feedback on the materials!).
  2. Publishers are naturally conservative. They tend to follow trends and avoid taking too many risks (with good reason, given how long and expensive the publishing process is). The demand has to come from the consumers, i.e. schools, students and teachers, but the problem is…
  3. That creates a vicious circle; teachers and students cannot demand something if they do not know what that something is. Students say things like “Teacher, I want to sound British” because they believe that is how they should sound. Why? Because teachers and coursebooks suggest that is how they should sound, not necessarily explicitly, but that is the message that comes across by using such a limited range of accents, and also by teaching things like weak forms and linking in productive exercises, e.g. drilling these features and using words like ‘correct’, ‘mistake’, or ‘good pronunciation’ – as if these are a) how everyone speaks everywhere in the world, and b) as if things like weak forms and linking will help students in their speaking. It is exactly those types of pronunciation features that students complain they find difficult to understand when they listen to some native speaker accents. So why would they want to make themselves sound more difficult to understand? And why would teachers want to make their students sound more difficult to understand?

Here are some suggested answers…

  1. Maybe the student does not know any different – see point 3 above about the vicious circle. In my experience, those same students who have said they wanted to ‘sound British’ (whatever that means, given the huge amount of accent variation within the UK alone) did not feel the same way after their awareness had been raised about the variety of English in the world, and after we discussed accent and identity.
  2. Maybe the student worries that people will have a negative perception of their accent and discriminate against them. I understand this feeling, on a very personal level. But I would argue that the solution is not to perpetuate accent discrimination by maintaining the status quo as a materials writer. I was horribly bullied at primary school after moving from the south of England to further up north in England because my accent was different. ELFpron co-author, Laura Patsko, is also passionate about this subject on a personal level, having moved from the USA to the UK as a child. But do you think my teachers turned to me and said that my pronunciation was ‘not correct’ and that what I needed to do was to try to sound more like them, perhaps drilling the phrases the way I ‘should’ be saying them in front of the other children? Or do you think they tried to encourage the other children to be more tolerant, and took the opportunity to speak to them about diversity? Those teachers might not have succeeded in their attempts to bring the other children round (after two years of bullying, I was moved to another school where people seemed more accepting), but just because they ‘failed’, does it mean those teachers should have opted for the first solution? Accent is a sensitive topic, not only because people’s identity is wrapped up in it, but because accent discrimination is real. People are disadvantaged in the workplace if there is prejudice surrounding someone’s accent –  not just in the English language teaching industry. Do we want to ‘feed into’ that system as materials writers?
  3. Maybe the teacher feels that teaching pronunciation features like linking and weak forms productively can help students receptively, and there may be other carefully considered reasons for making such choices. In which case, great. We are all in favour of responding to students’ needs by making informed choices; it’s the lack of awareness surrounding those choices that we have been trying to work on for the past three years by speaking at conferences and writing about ELF. That said, if you are teaching things like weak forms to help students receptively, just be aware of the language you use, e.g. avoid terms like ‘good’, ‘correct’, and ‘mistake’.
  4. Maybe the teacher (native or non-native speaker) went through the same process of being made to feel their own accent was not acceptable or in some way deficient, and so their students, in turn, inherit this deference to native speakers in the case of non-native speakers, and deference to a perceived ‘standard’ like RP in the case of native speakers with a regional accent (who, if they become English teachers, will continue to perpetuate the myth with their own students, and so on).
  5. Maybe the teacher is a native speaker who confuses the fact that they do, personally, ‘own’ English, i.e. it is his or her own first language, with the fact that it is also the world’s lingua franca, i.e. English is spoken everywhere, which means everyone ‘owns’ it, which means it does not ‘belong’ to any one geographical place. Indeed, it might be for that very reason that the native speaker teacher in question has a job in English language teaching – not necessarily just because they are a native speaker (although there’s plenty of that discrimination going on, as we all know), but because the need for English language teachers would not be there on such a huge scale if English were not the world’s lingua franca. It’s remarkable that some materials writers even question the existence of the concept of English being used as a lingua franca (yes, ELF – English as a lingua franca – refers to the way English is used; it is not a variety of English, as some people mistakenly believe) when those people have a job that depends on there being such a demand for English, precisely because it is the world’s lingua franca.
  6. Maybe the teacher in question is under external pressures, e.g. to prepare students for an exam which requires students to speak in a certain way. There is definitely much work to be done in the field of assessment if we are to promote accent tolerance.
  7. Maybe the student wants to change their accent in order to integrate within a specific speech community, e.g. they are going to live, study, or work in the UK or with British people. Of course they should have the option of adapting their pronunciation to fit in, if that is what they want. But students are rarely given this choice. It is usually assumed that people want to sound like a native speaker, whether that is relevant or not. You only need to look through the endless videos on YouTube about ‘improving your accent’, ‘getting rid of your accent’, or ‘reducing your accent’. Those terms don’t even make sense – everyone has an accent; you can only swap your accent for another one, not get rid of it. It’s just a matter of who you are speaking with, e.g. a Canadian in their home city speaking to someone else from that city is not perceived to have an accent. But if they travel to a different city in Canada, they may be perceived to have an accent (an accent from their home city). If they travel to another country, they may be perceived to have an accent (probably a Canadian accent). They could only ‘reduce’ their accent in the sense that they could try and sound more like the people in the place where they currently are. But with English this makes little sense because English is mostly used as a lingua franca, e.g. between a Japanese person and a German person, perhaps at a conference in Poland. In this situation, what does it mean to ‘reduce’ their accent?
  8. What people can and, we would argue should, focus on is speaking intelligibly. But how can we know what makes English intelligible? See our post about the Lingua Franca Core for this. Ultimately, though, more research does need to be done to establish what makes English intelligible. The great thing about the iTDi course is we have a group of 40+ teachers who might be interested in getting involved in research in this area. We are already planning to collaborate by going through our coursebooks to collect information about the range of accents featured in the main coursebooks. If you would also like to help with this, please get in touch in the comments below.

So, if you are a teacher making  your own listening materials, e.g. using clips from YouTube, what questions can you ask yourself to choose your audio?

  1. What accents are my students most likely going to need to understand? For example, my students in Thailand will probably speak to people from other ASEAN countries, like Malaysia. Can you ask your students about who they usually speak English with (or expect to in the future)? If they are young learners, can you ask their parents or someone else?
  2. What accents are they most likely to have difficulty understanding? These are likely to be accents that are the most different from their own and the accents they are least familiar with.
  3. Which speakers could be useful role models for my students? While it is helpful to expose students to a range of accents they might not be familiar with, it can also be beneficial to use speakers they identify with and can aspire to sound like, e.g. a proficient, intelligible Thai speaker could be a role model for Thai students.
  4. If you cannot find relevant audio online, can you ask someone to record something for you? If so, don’t forget to share your audio as we would all love to benefit from it!

If you are a materials writer creating listening scripts for a publisher which will be read by actors, you might have less control. So what can you do?

  1. At least raise the issue of accent diversity with your editor; the more people who ask about it, the more likely they are to perceive a need, and hopefully respond to that need.
  2. At least ensure that the topics are generic enough that they do not perpetuate the myth that English ‘belongs’ to the UK / the USA etc.
  3. Contribute your skills elsewhere if you can find the time! If you are a skilled materials writer, can you help move the industry forwards by publishing some materials for free that do feature a wider range of accents? There are materials here on this site, I am also launching another site soon aimed directly at learners, and hopefully we might have some materials from the iTDi course to share with you too!

Any other suggestions? Share your ideas in the comments below.

katybannernew

ELFpron is 2 years old!

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It seems only yesterday that we wrote a post to celebrate our first birthday. And in fact, it WAS only yesterday that our blog had its second birthday!*

We didn’t make a cake this year, but we have been exceptionally busy with other things. If you’re just discovering this blog now, here’s a quick summary of what you missed in 2015.

Blogging!

Naturally, throughout the year, we’ve been blogging to share more practical ideas for ELF-aware classrooms. Click the links below to read about:

Events

February: ELFpron appears in the EnglishAgenda podcast

This podcast by the British Council featured ELFpron’s own Katy Simpson, talking about how to deal with pronunciation in class from an ELF perspective. You can listen to the podcast via this link, or by clicking the play button below:

April: IATEFL Annual Conference in Manchester, UK

Laura Patsko gave two practical workshops, one at the PronSIG’s Pre-Conference Event on ‘How to identify pronunciation priorities in the multilingual classroom’ and one in the main conference programme, about helping learners develop their understanding of different L2 accents of English. You can find slides and handouts from both of these workshops in this post-IATEFL blog post.

April (again!): BELTA Day in Brussels, Belgium

Laura gave a presentation on ‘Teaching pronunciation and listening for English as a lingua franca’. You can watch the pre-conference trailer for this presentation on YouTube or below (visible on some devices):

June: ETp Live! in Brighton, UK

Laura repeated her IATEFL PCE workshop on identifying priorities for pronunciation work in a multilngual classroom. You can find the slides and handouts in this blog post.

November: teacher training webinar on helping learners listen to different accents

Laura gave a webinar for Cambridge English Teacher, sharing the practical ideas which are described in this related blog post. You can watch a recording of this webinar on YouTube, or below (visible on some devices):

Wow! What a year it has been. See you in 2016!

*What a lovely opportunity to see the meaningful placement of nuclear stress in action…

ELFpron webinar next week!

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Just a quick post to let you know that Laura Patsko will be giving a webinar for Cambridge English Teacher this time next week – Wednesday 18 November from 15:00-16:00 GMT. (Click here to find out what time that is where you are.)

The webinar is free to attend and open to all – you just need to sign up for a Cambridge English Teacher account (also free!).

Here’s a link with more information: http://www.cambridgeenglishteacher.org/eventdetail/2083/the-beholder039-helping-learners-understand-different-accents

Hope to see you there!

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UPDATE: A recording of this webinar is now available here.

10 top tips for teaching pronunciation (Part 2)

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Just a quick cross-blog plug of something ELFpron has been working on elsewhere…

Last week, we shared co-blogger Laura Patsko’s first post in a short series for the Cambridge Conversations blog on ‘top tips for teaching pronunciation’.

The second half has just gone live – read it here!

(If you have any comments or question, please leave them on the original post, not here.)

10 top tips for teaching pronunciation (Part 1)

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You may have noticed that ELFpron has been rather quiet recently… but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been busy!

Here’s one thing that ELFpron co-blogger Laura has been working on, and which has just gone live: the first half of a short series for the Cambridge Conversations blog on ‘top tips for teaching pronunciation’.

Click here to read the post (or copy and paste this link into your browser: http://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2015/07/pronunciation-tips-1/)

And keep your eyes peeled for the second post, to appear in a week’s time…

laurabannernew

ELFpron events in 2015

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It’s almost the end of February and already the year has kicked off in fine style – at least as far as ELF and pronunciation are concerned!

In this post, we’ll summarise what’s already happened and what there is still to look forward to…

Recent events

1. Accentuate! Bringing pronunciation to the fore

This weekend, there was an excellent joint event in London all about teaching pronunciation, including several sessions focusing on the relevance of English as a lingua franca to pronunciation instruction. Places to attend in person sold out fast and over 1,000 people watched the live stream online. Very well done to the organisers from IATEFL PronSIG and NATECLA London who made it happen!

You can watch recordings of several of the sessions here.

In the lead-up to this event, the British Council also collated the details for several pronunciation- and ELF-related events, papers and podcasts. You can read their post here.

2. ELFpron EnglishAgenda podcast

The British Council’s latest podcast featured ELFpron’s own Katy Simpson, talking about how to deal with pronunciation in class from an ELF perspective.

You can listen to the podcast via this link, or by clicking the play button below:

Forthcoming events

Here is a quick line-up of upcoming presentations by Laura Patsko of ELFpron which you might like to attend if you’re in the area…

1. BELTA Day (25 April 2015, Brussels, Belgium)

‘Teaching pronunciation and listening for English as a lingua franca’

This talk will outline the needs of English users in an ELF context and make some practical suggestions for the classroom, focusing on pronunciation and listening skills. Teachers will come away with an appreciation of the need to understand and be understood among an ever-widening range of English speakers, and how to help learners achieve this.

Watch a trailer for this session here:

2. IATEFL PronSIG Pre-Conference Event (10 April 2015, Manchester, UK)

‘How to identify pronunciation priorities in the multilingual classroom’

For teachers of multilingual groups, it can be tricky to identify which pronunciation features to focus on in class. Where to begin when the students all have different needs?

3. IATEFL Annual Conference (13 April 2015, Manchester, UK)

‘The ear of the beholder: helping learners understand different accents’

The use of English as an international lingua franca means learners will be exposed to a wide variety of accents, both native and non-native. How can teachers prepare them to cope with such diversity? This workshop features practical tasks, informed by relevant theory, which participants could try out in their own classrooms.

4. ETp Live! (20 June 2015, Brighton, UK)

‘English as a Lingua Franca and the multilingual classroom’

In many UK cities, the typical English language classroom contains students from a number of first-language backgrounds. One class might comprise 12 students who don’t share any language other than English! In fact, this situation is representative of the majority of interactions in English in the world today. Even before it becomes the focus of instruction, English is already “the communicative medium of choice and often the only option” (Seidlhofer, 2011:7). So how can we best exploit the multilingual nature of such ELT classrooms, which reflect so well the communicative setting learners are likely to engage in outside class?

Do come and say hello if you manage to attend any of these. We’re always happy to hear from ELFpron blog visitors!

And one last thing… ELF8

The 8th annual conference of English as a Lingua Franca will be held in August 2015 in Beijing. Jennifer Jenkins, Li Wei, Anna Mauranen and Wen Qiufang have already been confirmed as keynote speakers. The theme of this year’s conference is “Conceptualization and Pedagogical Solutions”.

You can watch videos from last year’s (2014) ELF7 conference here, including a presentation by ELFpron’s own Laura Patsko; you can read our series of ‘soundbites’ from the ELF7 conference here; and you can watch Laura’s presentation of her MA research at ELF6 (2013) here.

ELF Pron is 1 year old!

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Happy birthday to us!

Happy birthday to us!

Hooray!

A year ago, we launched ELF Pron, an ever-growing collection of ideas, information and free resources for teachers and students interested in learning more about pronunciation and listening for the use of English as a lingua franca.

To celebrate, we’ve launched two new series of posts:

1. ELF priorities: what to focus on and how to do it

2. Teaching techniques: ‘borrowing’ sounds from students’ first languages

Thanks for being here to celebrate with us – the continued support we’ve enjoyed has made our first year very rewarding and memorable.  Here’s to many more!