Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Could early music training help babies learn language?


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Christina Zhao, University of Washington

Growing up in China, I started playing piano when I was nine years old and learning English when I was 12. Later, when I was a college student, it struck me how similar language and music are to each other.

Language and music both require rhythm; otherwise they don’t make any sense. They’re also both built from smaller units – syllables and musical beats. And the process of mastering them is remarkably similar, including precise movements, repetitive practice and focused attention. I also noticed that my musician peers were particularly good at learning new languages.

All of this made me wonder if music shapes how the brain perceives sounds other than musical notes. And if so, could learning music help us learn languages?

Music experience and speech

Music training early in life (before the age of seven) can have a wide range of benefits beyond musical ability.

For instance, school-age children (six to eight years old) who participated in two years of musical classes four hours each week showed better brain responses to consonants compared with their peers who started one year later. This suggests that music experience helped children hear speech sounds.

Music may have a range of benefits.
Breezy Baldwin, CC BY

But what about babies who aren’t talking yet? Can music training this early give babies a boost in the steps it takes to learn language?

The first year of life is the best time in the lifespan to learn speech sounds; yet no studies have looked at whether musical experience during infancy can improve speech learning.

I sought to answer this question with Patricia K. Kuhl, an expert in early childhood learning. We set out to study whether musical experience at nine months of age can help infants learn speech.

Nine months is within the peak period for infants’ speech sound learning. During this time, they’re learning to pay attention to the differences among the different speech sounds that they hear in their environment. Being able to differentiate these sounds is key for learning to speak later. A better ability to tell speech sounds apart at this age is associated with producing more words at 30 months of age.

Here is how we did our study

In our study, we randomly put 47 nine-month-old infants in either a musical group or a control group and completed 12 15-minute-long sessions of activities designed for that group.

Babies in the music group sat with their parents, who guided them through the sessions by tapping out beats in time with the music with the goal of helping them learn a difficult musical rhythm.

Here is a short video demonstration of what a music session looked like.

Infants in the control group played with toy cars, blocks and other objects that required coordinated movements in social play, but without music.

After the sessions, we measured the babies’ brains responses to musical and speech rhythms using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging technique.

New music and speech sounds were presented in rhythmic sequences, but the rhythms were occasionally disrupted by skipping a beat.

These rhythmic disruptions help us measure how well the babies’ brains were honed to rhythms. The brain gives a specific response pattern when detecting an unexpected change. A bigger response indicates that the baby was following rhythms better.

Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to both music and speech sounds compared with babies in the control group. This shows that musical experience, as early as nine month of age, improved infants’ ability to process both musical and speech rhythms.

These skills are important building blocks for learning to speak.

Other benefits from music experience

Language is just one example of a skill that can be improved through music training. Music can help with social-emotional development, too. An earlier study by researchers Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Ariel Knafo-Noam showed that pairs of eight-year-olds who didn’t know each other reported feeling more close and connected with one another after a short exercise of tapping out beats in sync with each other.

Music helps children bond better.
Boy image via www.shutterstock.com

Another researcher, Laura Cirelli, showed that 14-month-old babies were more likely to show helping behaviors toward an adult after the babies had been bounced in sync with the adult who was also moving rhythmically.

There are many more exciting questions that remain to be answered as researchers continue to study the effects of music experience on early development.

For instance, does the music experience need to be in a social setting? Could babies get the benefits of music from simply listening to music? And, how much experience do babies need over time to sustain this language-boosting benefit?

Music is an essential part of being human. It has existed in human cultures for thousands of years, and it is one of the most fun and powerful ways for people to connect with each other. Through scientific research, I hope we can continue to reveal how music experience influences brain development and language learning of babies.

The Conversation

Christina Zhao, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Speaking in tongues: the many benefits of bilingualism


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Teresa Parodi, University of Cambridge

We live in a world of great linguistic diversity. More than half of the world’s population grows up with more than one language. There are, on the other hand, language communities that are monolingual, typically some parts of the English-speaking world.

In this case, bilingualism or multilingualism can be seen as an extraordinary situation – a source of admiration and worry at the same time. But there are communities where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm – for example in regions of Africa. A Cameroonian, for example, could speak Limbum and Sari, both indigenous languages, plus Ewondo, a lingua franca, plus English or French, the official languages, plus Camfranglais, a further lingua franca used between anglophone and francophone Cameroonians.

On a smaller scale, we all know families where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm, because the parents speak different languages or because the family uses a language different from that of the community around them.

How difficult is it for a child to grow up in such an environment? And what are bilingual children capable of? Well, they are capable of quite a lot, even at a very young age. They can understand and produce expressions in more than one language, they know who to address in which language, they are able to switch very fast from one language to the other.

Noses for grammar

Clearly we are talking here of a range of different skills: social, linguistic and cognitive. Social skills are the most known: bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures.

But they also have linguistic skills, some very obvious, such as understanding and using words and expressions in different languages. A less obvious aspect is that bilingual children have a raised awareness for how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.

Less known are the cognitive skills developed by bilinguals, an issue of great interest for research at the moment, as seen, for example, in work by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.

Is it worth it?

What if one of the languages is not a “useful” one because, for example, it does not have many speakers (for example, Cornish)? Is it worth exposing the child to it? The linguistic, social and cognitive advantages mentioned above hold, independently of the specific languages. Any combination of languages has the same effect.

A common worry is that trying to speak two (or more) languages could be too strenuous for the child. But there is no need for concern: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to learning a school subject. Learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as research and experience shows.

Telling you where to get off in two languages.
Rob Crandall/Shutterstock.com

There could be a practical problem, though, in providing enough exposure to the languages. The stress is then on the parents to ensure the opportunity to interact with speakers of the languages in question. Bilingualism is not genetic: having parents who speak different language does not guarantee a bilingual child.

Code-switching is cool

Another frequent worry is that of the child learning two half languages, short of the “proper” version of either of them. One may, for example, hear bilinguals – children and adults – using words or expressions from two or more of the languages in their linguistic repertoire in a single sentence or text, a phenomenon known as code-switching.

Often people assume that the main reason for doing this is a lack of sufficient proficiency in one of the languages, such that the speaker cannot continue in the language they started in. They also often assume that the choice of the words from one language or the other is random. Far from it. Code-switching is common among bilinguals and, contrary to popular belief, it follows grammatical rules.

Research has shown regular patterns in code-switching, influenced by the languages concerned, by community norms and by which language(s) people learn first or use more frequently. Very often, code-switchers are very highly proficient in the languages concerned. Code-switching also follows social rules: bilingual children only use it if they know the interlocutor knows the “other” language.

Additionally, if asked for clarification, they know if they have spoken too quietly or used the wrong language, and only switch in the latter case. Both bilingual children and adults have a range of reasons, including sociolinguistic reasons to code-switch. Code-switching can be cool!

All typically developing children will learn one language. To learn more than one they need the opportunity and the motivation. Growing up with more than one language is an asset well worth the investment.

The Conversation

Teresa Parodi, Lecturer of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ten sure ways countries can turn away international students


How not to make them feel welcome.

How not to make them feel welcome.

Simon Marginson, UCL Institute of Education

The Conversation’s international teams are collaborating on a series of articles about the Globalisation of Higher Education, examining how universities are changing in an increasingly globalised world. This is the second article in the series. Read more here.

The pursuit of global mobility in a world divided up into nations invokes a fundamental dilemma. Free passage without harassment is a right we routinely expect to exercise whenever we travel abroad. Yet the right of people within a country to determine who enters their nation is enshrined in law. This unresolvable tension between sovereignty and mobility catches international students in its grip.

More than 4.5m students cross borders every year for educational purposes, mostly entering English-speaking countries, Western Europe, China, Japan and Russia. The great majority of these students return home when their education ends, though some become skilled migrants to the country of education, or other countries. Nations compete for international students – every country wants high-quality research students and some make a profit from international undergraduate and masters-level students. In the UK, for example, Universities UK reported that international students spent £4.4 billion on fees and accommodation in 2011-12.

However, education policy is all too often in tension with migration policy. The United States (after September 11, 2001), Australia (in 2010-2011) and the United Kingdom (now) have all slowed down their student intake because of security concerns, or local opposition to migration. In each case numbers fell sharply and stayed down.

Change in number of foreign students.
UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration

What not to do

The past two decades of experience in international student policy suggests a checklist of ten things that a nation can do to ensure that it becomes as uncompetitive as possible in international education, and drives down foreign student numbers:

  1. Make your visas more expensive than the competition. Currently, UK visas are at the top end of costs among the principal education exporting countries. It costs £322 to apply for a Tier 4 (General) student visa from outside the UK.
  2. Slow down the time for visa processing, so education agents push families to choose competitor countries. This happened in Australia in 2011 in relation to Chinese students – families went to the US. The visa rules were relaxed and the numbers picked up again.
  3. Ensure that universities and colleges not only charge high tuition fees, but require families to bank a full year of living cost support for several months before enrolment begins, as the UK does at present.
  4. Use a discriminatory policy against students from major countries such as India or China, or better still, whole regions such as the Middle East. Subject those students, and not others, to extra checks at entry and extra reporting requirements. Ask their universities to spy on them and regularly report to immigration authorities – as with the Patriot Act under George W Bush in the US, and as the UK does in relation to non-EU students at present.
  5. Allow the local media to mount sustained attacks on international students as a group for destroying the national way of life, or triggering an urban crime wave, or consuming fast foods with strange smells in city precincts, or being dangerous drivers. This happened in New Zealand 12 years ago and the Chinese government advised families not to send their student children to New Zealand. Numbers dropped like a stone.
  6. Restrict work rights during study and, better still, impose a blanket ban on international students working during vacations, so students cannot earn the money they need to cover their fees and living costs. Both the UK and Australia limit working time. The UK is planning to introduce this for international students from outside the EU.
  7. Send lightning raids into workplaces in case international students are working more than their maximum weekly hours – and deport them on the spot if they do. Australia used to do this.
  8. Make it hard for international students to open a bank account without a place of residence and impossible to rent an apartment without a bank account – which happens in the UK. Do the same with mobile phone contracts.
  9. Make it expensive to be covered by medical insurance (as it is in Australia), visit a doctor or access hospitals and other emergency services.
  10. Restrict the rights of students to stay and work once they have graduated. This is crucial, as students who want to migrate need work rights to build the bridge to migration, and others need work to pay back their loans. The UK used to encourage students to work for two years after graduation, but in 2012 the policy changed so that a graduate had just four months to get a job worth £24,000 or more a year in their field of training. The number of visas given to former students in the UK declined from a peak of 43,319 in 2011, to 557 in 2013.

The worst possible timing

The UK is now planning to force graduates to leave the UK before applying for graduate jobs, which will make it even harder for them to stay. Highly skilled graduates will go elsewhere.

International students are the collateral damage of migration politics. Cutting temporary migration by students is the easiest way to reduce the number of people coming in to a country, even though most students never become permanent migrants.

In the UK it will probably get worse before it gets better. The home secretary, Theresa May, says that high migration is a threat to national cohesion and higher education institutions must be prepared for a drop in international student numbers. But if the UK government follows May down the migration-bashing route and bears down harder on international student entry and graduate work rights, that is not a recipe for a wobble in the market, but the ongoing loss of a chunk of market share.

Evidence from the US in the wake of the 2001 Patriot Act, and Australia after its slowing of visas and noncompetitive work rights in 2010-2011 suggest that when student numbers fall, the downturn lasts for years, and lingers even after policies reverse again.

But the major problem for the UK is the timing. Different countries have to face popular resistance to migration, but those moments do not always coincide. While the UK government is talking about massive cuts to migration, it so happens that the US, Canada, Australia, China, Japan and Germany are stepping up efforts to attract international students. Growth is surging in the US and Australia. Both countries have learned from past mistakes and are being careful to avoid the ten “dont’s” on this list.

UPDATE: Point seven in this article incorrectly said students were raided for working more than their minimum working hours. It was updated to read their maximum working hours.

The Conversation

Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education, UCL Institute of Education

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ignore the fads: teachers should teach and students should listen


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Greg Ashman, UNSW Australia

When imagining a teacher at work there’s a good chance you picture someone standing at the front of a classroom, explaining concepts and asking questions. Add to this students independently applying the concepts with some corrective feedback from the teacher and you have a form of teaching known as “explicit instruction”.

What is explicit instruction?

It’s as old as the hills and pretty effective; so much so that the New South Wales government’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) recently published a report that stresses explicit teaching as one of its seven evidence-based themes.

You may have heard of the Direct Instruction initiative in Cape York that is being promoted by Noel Pearson. This is a specific form of explicit teaching where lessons are scripted and a clear progression through concepts is mapped out in accordance with the ideas of the American educationalist Siegfried Engelmann. Although it is too early to say how the program is going in Cape York, Engelmann’s ideas have demonstrated great potential in the US, notably through the huge “Follow Through” project of the 1960s and 1970s.

There is a large body of evidence for explicit teaching more generally. Different types of research examining a range of learning goals support the basic principles. But not all explicit instruction is equally effective.

You might therefore imagine that researchers would be working on ways to fine-tune it. What makes a good explanation? How should concepts be sequenced? How can we ensure students are thinking about the key ideas? What’s the right balance between abstract concepts and concrete examples?

Unfortunately, explicit instruction is unfashionable. While accepting that it has a role to play, educationalists often seem ambivalent towards it, sometimes describing explicit approaches using pejorative terms such as “drilling”.

The key principle behind explicit instruction is that the teacher fully explains ideas and concepts. In this sense, its opposite is something that is often called “inquiry learning” where students are asked to pose questions and find out things for themselves. In such programs, teachers are seen as co-learners rather than subject-matter authorities.

There is little evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of inquiry learning for learning new concepts (although it can be effective for those who are more expert in a subject).

When tested in controlled experiments, features characteristic of inquiry learning such as problem-solving are shown to be less effective than features characteristic of explicit instruction such as the use of worked examples. And a number of attempts to introduce programs similar to inquiry learning have met with very little success over the past 50 years.

Why is explicit instruction daggy?

Despite this, inquiry learning is very much in vogue. Teacher education courses run units on it even though you would struggle to find equivalent units on explicit instruction. A recent report from the OECD on “Schools for 21st-Century Learners” has a whole section on inquiry learning while mentioning explicit instruction only in passing.

New science VCE courses in Victoria have focused on incorporating inquiry learning and will require evidence that it has taken place. The physics VCE study design explains that:

In VCE Physics students develop a range of inquiry skills involving practical experimentation and research, analytical skills including critical and creative thinking, and communication skills.

As the OECD report also suggests, the evidence in favour of inquiry learning may be lacking but it is assumed to be superior in preparing students for the 21st century by developing ill-defined skills such as critical thinking or creativity.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that such skills are highly dependent upon knowing a lot about the subject: if you want to think critically about physics, then first learn a lot of physics.

There may also be philosophical reasons that educationalists choose to privilege inquiry methods over explicit instruction. There is a tradition of questioning teacher-led approaches to education that is at least 200 years old.

Philosophers of education such as John Dewey and Paolo Freire have criticised the notion that a teacher’s role is to impart knowledge. Freire called it the “banking model” and found that it did not fit his revolutionary principles. Others believe it to be inimical to the spirit of democracy. How can students grow up to ask questions if we expect them to defer to a teacher’s authority in the classroom?

This argument fails on two counts. Firstly, teachers really should know more than their students, so why pretend otherwise? Secondly, it fails to recognise the compassionate and empathetic ways in which contemporary teachers structure explicit instruction in the classroom, providing plenty of time for students to be heard.

Clearly, there are instances where we might choose to use varied approaches to learning for a wide variety of reasons. I am all in favour of balance. Sometimes, we may be seeking to build motivation. At other times, we may simply wish to mix things up a bit.

However, an unbalanced focus on inquiry learning that sidelines the proven practice of explicit instruction should be a matter of serious concern.

The Conversation

Greg Ashman, Experienced teacher and PhD candidate in instructional design, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

An Interview with Tony Penston


by Emma Pratt (Information and Web Management, StudyCELTA)

Tony Penston, founder of TP Publications and author of “Essential Phonetics for English Language Teachers”, and “A Concise Grammar for English Language Teachers”, on our reading list for CELTA, has taken time to give us his views on embedding pronunciation correction successfully in a lesson.

But first let’s find out about the man behind these well-known ELT publications.

When did you get into teaching?

Tony: I started in 1978 in Iran. I didn’t have a degree but had had a job as a copywriter so I had an interest in English. I soon got the teaching bug and back in Ireland I got a B.A. in Linguistics, later an M. Phil in Applied Linguistics and the Trinity College London DipTESOL.

Where have you taught?

Tony: In Iran as I said, also Mexico, Spain, China, Oman, and back home in Ireland.

What has kept you motivated?

Tony: The conviction that a caring profession like teaching is a great place to be. Also, that TEFL is so dynamic, setting the pace for so many other subjects in other educational fields.

[Editor: I really like that answer.]

What inspired you to develop your own publishing business and write the books you’ve published?

Tony: While teacher training I perceived a need for a grammar which could actually be covered on a TEFL course. A Grammar Course for TEFL Certificate (1998), 80 pages in length, was my attempt at this. I submitted the manuscript to a few ELT publishers but they rejected it, some because they already had authors working on something similar, others because as I had specified its readership as native speaker TEFL trainees they assessed the market as too small. I enjoyed publishing it myself, being able to organise the layout as I wanted, being able to include some ‘quirky’ examples, etc. This aspect of complete control prompted the publication of further books, in particular A Concise Grammar for EL Teachers and the latest Essential Phonetics for EL Teachers.

Where are you based?

Tony: In Greystones, a seaside town south of Dublin, Ireland. I do some occasional teaching and consultancy work nearby but I prefer to write when I can.

Getting down to business: pronunciation in the classroom

image by ELTcampus

We had a lively discussion about teaching pronunciation with fellow English language professionals from many different countries and contexts in an online community discussion recently. We decided to put some of the issues raised to Tony to get his perspective given the recent release of his book Essential Phonetics for English Language Teachers.

 “American elementary teachers do not use the IPA. It’s too daunting for kids, and frankly even for adults. Instead, for US English, Truespel phonetics links to phonics to show sounds in their most frequent spellings in text where possible. Truespel is free on the internet. US English is respelled in Truespel phonetics.”

Tony’s thoughts: Teaching IPA phonemes for their own sake, to children or adults, would be a daunting enough prospect for the teacher too. A phonic spelling convention may be of assistance to children especially, but it has its drawbacks, one being that many pronunciation difficulties are caused by incorrect articulation, often approximants of the L1 sounds, and not solely by graphemic-phonemic misinterpretations.

Essential Phonetics for English Language Teachers does not prescribe the use of phonemes beyond their exploitation in the correction of pronunciation errors.

We agree that the teaching of IPA (phonemes) is not essential, but that the use of some phonemes, of which the schwa is essential, can assist in correcting certain errors. Phonics is mainly concerned with spelling-to-sound difficulties. ESL learner difficulties are of a much broader range.

For this to be implemented successfully the teacher should have a sound knowledge of phonemics and phonology. This of course would include familiarization with:

• place and manner of articulation,

• stress placement in words,

• sentence rhythm,

• aspects of connected speech,

• And intonation.

“There is an argument that a visual phonetics chart is outdated – you can hear words online, why the need of learning phonetics?”

Tony’s thoughts: If students can perfect their pronunciation by using online programmes then this allows the teacher to work on other areas of language teaching and there’s no need for phonetic training. However, in my experience when students come to class they expect the teacher to know how to fix any serious mispronunciations, and to do this the teacher must be competent in English phonology and its exploitation in the correction of errors. Finally, hearing words online will not help regarding difficulties with connected speech, sentence rhythm and intonation. Regarding phoneme charts, I rarely find myself using any, though I like to have one in the classroom.

 “I teach upper-level content-based courses, so we do not have much time to teach IPA.”

‘Teaching IPA’ is not an objective of language teaching. Teaching pronunciation is. However, teaching pronunciation, like the teaching of grammar, should not entail the teaching of rules or phonemes for their sake alone. The Communicative Approach would recommend that rules be exploited for their benefits when and only when required. Essential Phonetics for English Language Teachers focuses on giving teachers the skills to hear and correct mispronunciations, not to ‘teach IPA’.

 “Sadly, improving speaking and sight reading is NOT a focus here in the Middle East. I agree that it’s very helpful, however, stakeholders don’t like to take it seriously. For them as long as the meaning is comprehensible, never mind of the correct enunciation…”

Language schools are entitled to concentrate on whatever area of language their students demand. If indeed their graduates’ speech is of a quality that renders it readily interpretable in an international context, and the other skills, reading, writing, listening, are also of an acceptable grade, then it’s ‘job done’. A reputable international language examination with a substantial speaking part would provide confirmation of this.

That being said, in my experience there have been no adult learning environments where students have not registered doubts about their L2 pronunciation accuracy. Indeed, there are cases where students expressed dissatisfaction with ‘listen and repeat’ as the sole means of pronunciation teaching.

“How do you implement/teach phonics to ESL students (3-8yrs)? And how can one lighten phonics classes with fun games?”

Children know how to learn languages and their methodology consists mainly of games, songs and role play. There is much published material available for such application. Teachers on the lookout for materials should join teachers’ associations, online groups, etc. LinkedIn, for example, has many teacher groups who share such information. A browse through the larger online EFL catalogues, such as that of Bournemouth English Book Centre, will also yield rewards.

So, who really needs to know their phonics? Do we train learners in phonics or the teachers?

Tony: I have had students come to my class at upper intermediate level having had little or no error correction, and it shows. They are glad to have things like vowel length, stress pattern and consonant articulation explained, with the assistance of the whiteboard, and with or without phonemic transcription as required (except for the schwa of course).

‘Training learners in phonetics’ is not an objective of Essential Phonetics for English Language Teachers; training teachers is, whereupon they will have the skill to fix pronunciation errors at the appropriate time in everyday classes.

Tony, thank you.

Classic Picture Stories for Language Teaching (free sample materials)


ELT Author Peter Viney has provided us with free sample materials (PDFs) which you can print off for classroom use. This is something he would like feedback on and you can let him know your thoughts by commenting below or via his blog here. Some teachers may recognise the material as did BEBC Managing Director, John Walsh, who used them himself back in 1964! Enjoy.

Flight 13

Flight 13 is a sample from the classic ELT series of picture compositions based on the work of the artist Fougasse. These were multi-purpose and used for practice while teaching any language. The virtue of the Fougasse series was that it could be used at any level (depending on the ingenuity and imagination of the teacher), and that the stories were clear, simple and timeless.

The picture stories were available as large wallcharts and also in a book, with very complex sentences where students added words, but this wasn’t a free choice as the initial letter of the word, and the number of characters, was given. This doesn’t tie-in with current methodology, and also removes the flexibility that attracted teachers to the picture stories in the first place.

Three Vee and BEBC have discussed making these picture stories available again. To this end, we have prepared new Teacher’s Notes and new Student Worksheets for one story, Flight 13. We are offering it to ELT (and other language) teachers as a trial. It’s preferable to present the stories one frame at a time rather than as a whole. Please try it class. These are wonderful time-fillers, and wonderful ‘lessons up the sleeve’ for unforeseen circumstances.

The materials available as A4 PDFs are:

The master picture (with all four frames of the story at A4 size) PDF. Check your printer. On our HP printer we had to scale it at 150% to fill an A4 sheet.

Picture 1 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Picture 2 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Picture 3 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Picture 4 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Teachers’ Notes (5 pages A4)

Student worksheets (4 pages A4)

We would like teachers to try these in class and to give us feedback by commenting on this page.

These are some questions we would like to answer:

1)    Would you like Teachers Notes for Hiigher Levels?

2)    Would you like large (A2) wallcharts?

3)    Would you like the pictures available for Whiteboard?

4)    Would you buy the pictures on their own?

5)    Would you buy a set of Photocopiable Masters with Worksheets?

6)    Would you buy small books for classroom use, containing twenty-four of the picture stories with worksheets?

7)    Do you like the activities given? Would you omit any? Would you add any?

A NOTE ON COPYRIGHT: We have endeavoured to find the original copyright holders on these pictures, but our enquiries at previous publishers, and on illustrator and author websites have drawn a complete blank. If the copyright holder would like to contact us, we can discuss further moves.

Activities and notes: Three Vee / BEBC © 2014