Tutor Tip: Diction: Does it matter?

February 18, 2014 at 12:28 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Tutor Tip: Diction: Does it matter?

When students’ mispronunciations impede communication, it probably does matter.

Best teaching practices encourage students to talk as much as possible in and out of the instructional setting without undue concern for the clarity of their speech. However, some students also need explicit lessons on pronunciation that are limited in scope and taught with sensitivity.

As I read through quarterly reports last week, the story of one tutor-student pair’s dedication to improving pronunciation captured my attention.  Employed as a cafeteria worker in a kitchen, the Korean student accepted an opportunity to move to cashier, a post requiring continuous interaction with students. But a problem quickly emerged; the children could not understand her and thus, she returned to her former position.  Matched with Darlene, a tutor savvy in teaching pronunciation, the student persevered and earned a second chance at the cashier job. Now that she can be understood, she gets to practice her conversation skills daily in her role as cashier.

What can we learn from Darlene?  “I concentrate on certain sounds they [students] have problems with,” she says. “I tell them to watch my mouth make a sound, then try to copy it. I show them where to put their tongues in relation to their teeth, how to move their mouths, use air flow, and position the thumb and index finger to feel the shape of the mouth. I also tell them to look in a mirror when they practice a sound at home.  Then when they come in I say, ‘Let me hear your Oh sound’ (or whatever sound they are working on).  It’s a very visual and tactile thing.”

Continuously correcting students on pronunciation (as opposed to actually teaching it) may have the adverse effect of limiting their willingness to engage in conversation. The Literacy Council’s ESOL tutor training features an excellent module on pronunciation that includes important guidelines in this regard. LCNV trainer Karen Singer recommends reserving five to 10 minutes of a 90 minute tutoring session to work on pronunciation.  “When you are doing dialogue, don’t correct at the time unless you can’t understand it,” she says. “Jot down the problems as you hear them to work on another time.”  

Karen Singer is the former Coordinator of Foreign Languages for Fairfax County Public Schools. She currently works at George Mason University as University Supervisor for foreign language Masters Degree candidates who are doing their internships at the elementary and secondary school levels.

Karen Singer is the former Coordinator of Foreign Languages for Fairfax County Public Schools. She currently works at George Mason University as University Supervisor for foreign language Masters Degree candidates who are doing their internships at the elementary and secondary school levels.

Additional tutor tips from the training team:

  • Work only on those sounds that make a student difficult to understand
  • Remember the goal: Understandable pronunciation, not perfection.

Practicing pronunciation outside of the tutoring session is important as well. Audio-tapes or websites can be helpful to students with access to technology. For audio practice with minimal pairs (i.e., pairs of words that differ by just one sound, such as ship versus sheep), check out this link

Tutors must keep in mind that rhythm, intonation, phrasing, and stress also affect how well someone is understood, and students differ in the ease with which they are able to correct mispronunciations and, more importantly, to generalize those corrections into everyday speech.

Judy Gilbert, in Clear Speech From the Start: Basic Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2012,) makes the point that “…rhythm affects the way people hear sounds. If the timing is wrong, it’s hard to identify the sound accurately” (p. viii).  For more information, you can borrow this book from the LCNV library.  

Motivation also plays an important role. According to a brief from the Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA), research reveals that students who have a personal or professional goal for learning English are more likely to work hard on their pronunciation. To read this excellent article, go to this link.

ESOL tutors seeking to refresh their skills may refer back to the handouts they received during the ESOL training. Other tutors can read more about pronunciation at the website listed above as well as at this site from Colorado State University and many other similar sites designed for teachers.

Is your student difficult to understand? Do you have a story where diction played a prominent role? Perhaps you have studied a foreign language and have an anecdote from your own experience. I would love to hear from you.  Please feel free to share with our community of tutors by commenting on this post.

Carole Vinograd Bausell

Carole Vinograd Bausell

Carole Vinograd Bausell, Ed.D. is an English language and literacy specialist and Director of Tutoring Programs with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia.

 

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