Students and Pronunciation Difficulties

All languages utilise a finite and limited set of sounds to convey meaning. Phonology is the ‘branch of linguistics that deals with the sound systems of a language’ (Cook, 2008, p.67). While adapting Communicative approaches in modern ESL teaching, producing the correct sounds of English takes a priority and especially in my teaching context. The students are 6-12 grade school teachers of Science, Math, ICT, and English in Al Ain region, in the United Arab Emirates. They are called in this government-sponsored programme in order to develop their English levels to cope with the changes in curricula they teach as they are now more English focused and based. The students are assessed by official IELTS (International English Language Testing System) results. All teachers are males, aged between 30-60, and have got Arabic as their native language (a small number have French as their second language – teachers from Tunisia.)

When it comes to sound systems, we can find many differences between English and Arabic. English ‘has 22 vowels and diphthongs to 24 consonants, Arabic has only eight vowels (three short, three long, and two diphthongs) to 32 consonants’ (Swan and Smith, 2001, p.196).

In tables 1 and 2, the shaded phonemes have equivalent or near equivalents in Arabic, and according to Swan and Smith, there should not be any difficulty in producing or perceiving these sounds:

vowels-1

The differences between Arabic and English reflect in the students’ pronunciation as they have difficulties and struggle in producing rather a good number of consonants and vowels. The most significant struggle in my classes is with the vowels (the short vowels /ə/ and /e/) and the consonants (/T/ and / ð/).

Many factors contribute to the problematic pronunciation of the above mentioned sounds. The predominant factor is the absence of the target-sound from learners’ first language. In this case, they are schwa / ə / and /e/ in Arabic Language. Thus, learners try to substitute it with a similar sound found in the first language.

As for the voiceless and voiced dental fricatives /T/ and / ð /, there is a tendency, especially in Egyptian students, to substitute the sounds with /s/ and /z/ respectively. Despite the presence of these sounds in Standard Arabic sound system, they do not exist anymore in the Egyptian Arabic accent. Therefore most utterances that include these sounds end up with errors like: this / ð Is/ and think / θ INk/. This is mainly due to Negative Input in which the students have already been exposed to in their schooldays.

“THE YOUNGER THE BETTER, THE OLDER THE BETTER” A research on the receptive skills’ acquisition in public school teachers as ESL students in Al Ain, UAE

STUDENTS, CONTEXT, AND TIME: The research includes the tests results of school teachers who are studying in an ESL training programme in the public (Government) schools in Al Ain region in the UAE. The programme is meant to last for 3 years. The students, the school teachers, are mostly from UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria . The course is part of the professional development and the educational reforms governed by Abu Dhabi Educational council.
RESEARCH AND ASSESSMENT: The research consists of the results of 6 listening and reading placement tests being taken by the students (school teachers) over 2 academic years.
TRENDS: The students fall into 3 main age groups: A (30-39 years), B (40-49 years), and C (50-59 years). The research concludes that the younger students (group A) and the older students (group C) showed a clear progress in acquiring receptive skills. On the contrary, the middle-aged group (group B) showed rather a decline in the results. REASONS: There are many reasons that can determine the development of such skills, yet the research will explore age-related factors without denying the possible presence of other factors.
CONSEQUENCES: This research will shed the light on the importance of the age factor and its role in acquiring the receptive skills, and how it can prove to be of a high importance especially for older adults. It will also underline the challenges and the suggestions for developing listening and reading skills for the middle group in the future.


group-agroup-b

group-c

 

 

Communicative Language Teaching

‘…everyday communication for the international workplace’ (Sydes and Cross 2003: back cover)

‘…language and skills that students need to communicate…’ (Bonamy 2008: back cover)

‘…uses a communicative methodology…’ (Morga and Regan 2008: back cover)

“…et des activités de communication…’ (Leroy-Miquel and Goliot-lété 2004: back cover)

 

When reading the back cover of most of the language teaching books and series, as the above quotes suggest, the most common target can easily be spotted: to help students and learners better “communicate.” On the threshold of the 21st century, the unanimous need to communicate in an ever-growing global village has influenced the forms and the delivery of English language teaching. Communicative language teaching, or CLT, is all about the transformation of language teaching from Arte into science, from focusing on the language and form to the focusing on learners and meaning.

 

The fade of Situational Language Teaching in Britain, and the rejection of Audiolingualism method in the United State, all but led to the quest of a method or an approach that would quench the ‘functional and communicative potential of language’ and be able ‘to focus in language teaching on communicative proficiency rather than on mere mastery of structures’ (Richards and Rodgers 2001:154), and there came the Communicative Language Teaching – CLT. In 1970s; and as the name suggests, there was a ‘shift towards teaching methods that emphasized communication’ (Cook 2008: 248). This search started in Europe – the Council of Europe in particular – with the rise of the need to learn European Common Market languages. This search took the form of conferences and investigations in this field (Richards and Rodgers 2001).

Richards and Rodgers (2001) suggest that D.A Wilkins was the first to introduce functional and communicative definition of language that became the backbone of devising communicative syllabus for language teaching. These syllabuses are based on the communicative behaviour of native speakers ‘that incorporated language functions, such as “persuading someone to do something” and notions, such as “expressing point of time”…’ (Cook 2008:248). Moreover, CLT questions the efficiency of the ready-made syllabuses, breaks the PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) pedagogic paradigm, and redefines the classroom role relationships as both parties (teachers and students) seen as co-participants (Samuda and Bygate 2008). The Council of Europe expanded the syllabuses to meet European students’ targets, needs and objectives in using foreign languages while travelling or doing business. The expansion was mainly built on the functions they needed, and the notions used in communication (Richards and Rodgers 2001). David Nunan (1989) goes further in this spectrum arguing that Syllabuses in CLT must take account for both goals and methods where both merge as communication forms the core of that syllabus; which is a view previously suggested in M. Breen writings. Linguists distinguish, however, two types of CLT: Weak, and strong. The difference is that in a weak CLT, learners get the chance to practice communication tasks and activities, while in the strong one, the actual language learning takes place by communication itself (Scrivener 2005; Richards and Rodgers 2001).

The Communicative Language Teaching gave a rise to the theoretical concept of Communicative Competence. Noam Chomsky in 1965 started to draw a line between learner’s implicit knowledge of language system (Linguistic Competence), and what they frequently really deliver (Linguistic Performance) even imperfectly or ungrammatically. This distinction was soon challenged by Dell Hymes in the early 1970s. Hymes argued that speakers had to know what is correct in a communicative context in addition to the grammatical knowledge (Lillis 2006) and the performance ‘is itself rules-governed, knowing when to speak, which variety of language to use, what is the socially appropriate turn of phrase to achieve the desired effect’ (Mercer, Swann, and Mayor 2007:48), and calling this kind of competence a Communicative one.

 

The emergence of the new approach was accompanied by implementing and devising various activities and techniques that help reinforcing learners’ communication (Cook 2008), and engaging them in meaning-focused communicative tasks (Harmer 2007). Because communication was the target, communication also was the process: product implies process (Hedge 2000). Hedge (2000) also indicates that a large number of CLT tasks and activities conform to 1984 Brumfit’s criteria for a successful “Fluency” (Brumfit’s own term) activity:

 

–          Focus on meaning not form (means to an end form)

–          Learner centered content

–          Bi-polar negotiation of unpredictable meaning

–          Reinforced strategic competence and development of the four skills

–          Reduced teacher intervention in “errors correction” to avoid distraction

Brumfit’s criteria are almost identical to Jeremy Harmer’s summary of “communication continuum” (2007). He even contrasts it to the non-communicative teaching and learning activities of the Grammar-translation, Direct method, and Audiolingualism in this figure:

 

To serve these criteria, different types of techniques and concepts have seen the light such as information gap, role play. The concept of information-gap activity revolves around creating the need and the necessity to communicate by inventing a “gap” in information which pushes learners (in pairs or small group) to actively communicate in order to fill in this void mainly by ‘improvising the dialogue themselves to solve their communicative task’ (Cook 2008:249). Hedge (2000) and Nunan (1989) point out that Prabhu N.S in Second Language Pedagogy added reasoning-gap activity (deducting and deriving) and opinion-gap activity (preferences, feelings and attitudes centred) to the typology of gap activities. Guided role plays are also based on learners’ creation of conversation and dialogues about the same created information gap, in real life situations.

 

As a distinguished and significant development and evolution of communicative Language Teaching (McDonough and Shaw  2003), comes the Task Based Learning (TBL): a ‘variant of CLT which bases work cycles around the preparation for, doing of, and reflective analysis of tasks that reflect real-life needs and skills’ (Scrivener 2005:39). Harmer (2007), on the other hand, sees it as the reinforced performance of tasks with meaning, to constitute the basis of the learning process. TBL is based on tasks used as the backbone on planning and instruction in language teaching. According to Cook (2008), tasks are three-dimensional learning process in which they:

–          Require learners to use language, their language (opposed to CLT’s function teaching)

–          Put emphasis on meaning and ignoring structures, functions, vocabulary…etc.

–          Require learners to attain and achieve a goal through the use of language

In addition to the TBL, and based on the assertion that language is based on vocabulary, grammar, and chunks of language, comes the Lexical Approach which was popularised by Michael Lewis (1993-1997) which argues that learners best learn from the chunks of language found in everyday context (Harmer 2007). Richards and Rodgers (2001) suggest that this approach was even reinforced by the findings of some computer databases which examined patterns of phrases and chunks of language appeared in samples of different kinds of texts. Despite the fact, as Krashen suggests, that it requires “massive” language input, Lewis in Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach, admits that such approach required a missing coherent language theory (Richards and Rodgers 2001).

Reflection of CLT in the Teaching Context

With the immense effect of communicative language teaching on all aspects of ESL field recently, accompanied by the constant change in language learning sector’s outcomes, objectives, and markets needs, one cannot but to comply and show extreme flexibility adapting and adopting the communicative approach in its varied shapes and forms. The teaching context I work in is highly demanding as it is government-sponsored. The students are 6-12 grade school teachers of Science, Math, ICT, and English in Al Ain region, in the United Arab Emirates. They are called to this programme in order to develop their English levels to cope with the changes in curricula they teach as they are now more English focused and based. The students are assessed by official IELTS (International English Language Testing System) results. All students are males, aged between 30-60, and have got Arabic as their native language; apart from a small number have French as their second language – teachers from Tunisia.

 

As it is designed to measure the competence of non-native speakers of English in the four skills, IELTS can cover but parts of the actual language skills the non-native speakers possess, and roughly transforms them into numbers and bands scores out of nine. The course – which extends over the Academic year (over 9 months) – targets learners’ improvement on that IELTS scale by 0.5 band in a year. Due to the specific course objectives, a number of CLT techniques take part throughout the course, while others step aside.

The nature of the course books and assessment method leave no place for teacher but to helplessly devote teaching techniques and materials to help learners developing the questioned and assessed skills and techniques. That is why there is a rare application of gap-information tasks, TBL, role-plays, conversations and dialogues, while we can find many real-life contexts and students’ autonomous learning. Moreover, there is an inevitable errors’ correction which might prove vital later at the test. Nevertheless, I managed to involve considerably a good number of CLT classroom techniques, such as group work, pairs check, interviews and many others.

The IELTS evaluates learners’ linguistic skills: each skill at a time. So much like the test, come the course books to reflect the test format:  Listening, Reading, Writing, and Speaking.

As for receptive skills, Listening and Reading, the design of the syllabus and the tasks in the course books are to serve the development of reading and listening skills for specific information and details. Lesser focus is put to improve gist and summarising techniques. CLT is considerably available and relevant in improving listening skills, as both test and the course book suggest some real-life listening situations; while it is almost absent in reading. Nevertheless, learners develop what is called self-regulation: the habits, procedures, observation, judgments, self-reaction and techniques they come across, experience, and use every time they are being exposed to listening or reading for details or specific information. For example, learners develop quick reading techniques such as determining the key words in the questions, then skim and scan to find the answer. Because it is a one-pole skill in this context, there is an absence of communication on the learner’s side.

The productive skills, writing and speaking, exhibit a different level of CLT relevancy in my teaching context. In writing, learners are asked to write two tasks in the IELTS test in which they respond to a data-analysis in one task, and essay writing in the other. Despite the “apparent” creative aspect of writing, the teaching is mainly concerned with developing “mechanical” writing skills, where the learners extend their abilities in analysing the data projected and provided in forms of graphs, charts, and diagrams. Students learn to compose an automated response to task one, and opt for the patterned academic essay writing, where forms and structures take the priority. In addition, the assessment criteria gives only 25% of the mark to the language and lexical resource used in the response; while the other 75% of mark goes to task achievement, coherence and cohesion, and grammatical range and accuracy. Speaking skill is not so different from all other skill in the way it is tested and assessed by the IETLS test. The learners need to develop speaking skills in answering two learner-centred questions, and one general topic question. Despite the “communicative” false impression proposed by the questions type, the assessment criteria, unfortunately, examine and evaluate learners’ grammatical forms, structures used, and fluency. There is no focus whatsoever on meaning, which totally contradicts and contrasts with CLT basic principles: content matters and not the form.

Despite the wide range of learning solutions, techniques, tasks, implications, activities, and applications that the Communicative Language Teaching offer, it is difficult to be applied (with all its aspects) in every and each ESL teaching context. Teaching contexts where the focus is totally instrumental and targeted towards single object and goal, like IELTS or TOEFL courses, do not fully help CLT to be fully implemented and take its proper and natural place in the learning context. Nevertheless, Communicative Language Teaching has been practiced and implemented in many teaching contexts, and positively left its fingerprints on almost every ESL teacher all around the world.

Question Tags, are they dispensable in ESL teaching?

Tag questions are considered to be a noticeable feature of modern spoken English. A tag questions is short question attached to a statement. The understanding of tag questions is vital in Second Language Learners effective communication. Despite the presence of tag questions variants in other languages (in German nicht wahr?, French n’est-ce pas?, or Spanish verdad,)  some Second Language Learners are still finding some difficulty in understanding the form , the use, and the meaning of tag questions. Factors like polarity, affirmative versus negative, and intonation add an extra challenge for non-native speakers. Therefore, and in the course of English as Lingua Franca, or English as an international language, many linguists consider tag questions to be a disposable element for Second Language Learners. R. Quirk (1982) proposes the concept of Nuclear English in which he introduces simplified forms of native Standard English. Those forms help easier learning of English, especially after stripping off features which can be “dispensable” and “disproportionately burdensome.”

One of the challenges that Second Language Learners usually face is the first language (L1) interference, or transfer, in their learning process. When it comes to tag questions, many languages lack this element, or they have a different way in expressing the meaning intended by tag questions. For example, Arabic uses totally new items in the tag question in order to express different meaning of the tag questions. Learners may cease to use structures learned before because they are not fully integrated into their interlanguage systems[i]. They may even rely on one highly frequent tag question (isn’t it? For example) and over use it in most cases to produce ungrammatical utterances[ii]:

* You are coming today, isn’t it?

The technique of making tag questions is not a simple one. It requires a full understanding of forming questions, understanding the operator function, awareness of the difference between affirmative and negative tag questions, marked and unmarked tag questions, polarity, and the placing of a new lexical item which may not exist in the original statement.

Probably the most important element regarding the use of tag questions is intonation. The meaning of tag questions differs as there are two possible intonations patterns. The rising-falling intonation pattern is the most common one as it is used to seek confirmation, making a point, agreement, or sure of the statement:

 

The rising intonation is used when seeking to elicit a no or yes answer, being unsure, or seeking further clarification[iii]

 

Second language learners have some difficulty controlling the intonation. Thus, the whole purpose of question tag, which is better communication, can be lost easily.

There is no shred of a doubt that when linguists consider question tags “dispensable” feature in teaching English as a Second Language, they take into consideration the complexity and the intricacy of their use, meaning, and the difficulty of forming them.  Nevertheless, using tag questions can enhance the communication between English speakers, and I think that this element should be taught at a certain stage where the English learner is able to fully command them and use them in the proper way.


[i] Lightbown, P.M , Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned Oxford University Press

[ii] Celce-Murcia, M. Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999) The Grammar Book Second Edition, Heinle and Heinle Publishers

[iii] Shepherd, J. Rossner, R. Taylor, J (1985) Ways to Grammar Macmillan Publishers LTD