Saturday, September 28, 2019

Teaching pronunciation in high school world language classes

One of the great things about teaching high school is how long I have all of my students. I'm now in my 3rd year with some of them, and it is so much fun to see how much they've learned in the last two years! One of the things that I've been doing in my classes is reinforcing basic concepts that students need to be able to function in the language. So for example, at the college level, I taught numbers and the alphabet in the first few weeks of first-semester Spanish, and then almost never worked on them. Partly this is a reality of teaching at the college level...the expectation is that a lot of material will be covered, so you don't really have time to spend building a solid foundation.

At the high school, and especially as the only Spanish teacher at my school, I can move at a pace that's conducive to deep learning. So we do go over the alphabet and practice sounds a lot at the beginning of Spanish 1, but I've been building on that by doing a weekly pronunciation lesson. My first year, I did the same lesson for Spanish 1, 2, 3, and 4, and then with each new year, I build a new set of lessons. So in year 1, I went through the alphabet letter by letter starting with vowels. In year 2, I did that again with Spanish 1, but for Spanish 2, 3, and 4, I went through vowel combinations and we practiced pronouncing vowel sequences (ae, ai, ao, au, etc.). In year 3, we're still working on vowel sequences in Spanish 3 and 4, but we're getting a little bit more detailed and comparing what vowel sequences sound like with and without accent marks on weak vowels. This will only take about half the year, and I'm still debating what we'll go over in the spring. In Spanish 1, I have students practice the vowels every week all year, so by the end of the year, they're doing relatively well with vowels for the most part.

So here's what it looks like so far:
Spanish 1: individual letters (a, e, i, o, u, and then all consonants starting with b and ending with z)
Spanish 2: 2-vowel sequences (ae, ai, ao, au, ea, ei, eo, eu, ia, ie, io, iu, oa, oe, oi, ou, ua, ue, ui, uo)
Spanish 3: 3-vowel sequences, diphthong vs. hiatus contrasts, still deciding between allophonic variations and accent patterns/rules for the spring semester
Spanish 4: TBD next year

The one thing that I realized this year that's missing is that I haven't been doing any perception practice with them. I want them to be able to hear words and have a basic idea of how they're spelled, but without doing listening practice, most students aren't going to make those connections. So I've started incorporating listening practice to help students make associations between the sounds and the letters that represent them. In the interest of not overloading myself with prep, I'm doing the same listening practice at all 4 levels with words from the bottom of the 10,000 most frequent word list of the RAE so that I'm using unknown words.

We have short days every Friday, so I take a lot of stress off myself by making Fridays my pronunciation and culture days (basically one lesson plan for all 4 levels of Spanish). I have a short reading and map activity about a different Spanish-speaking country that students work on while I'm circulating through room having them all pronounce the word list to me. I'm working on putting all of my lessons into one big presentation so that they're easy to access. I'm not done yet, but this is where you can find them if you're interested:

Spanish 1 pronunciation lessons
Spanish 2 pronunciation lessons
Spanish 3 pronunciation lessons

Why pronunciation? I know the trend has been to move away from teaching pronunciation since the audiolingual era, and some of that is a good thing...students don't need to sound like native speakers. But they do need to be intelligible in order to interact successfully in the target language, and the longer I teach, the more I realize that even in a "phonetic" language like Spanish, in the absence of direct instruction, most students aren't going to make the sound-letter correspondences. (And the results of my dissertation research suggested that even a small amount of time spent on training learners to perceive sound contrasts is enough to help them measurably improve their perception even over a relatively short period of time...not gonna lie, I really want to do a longitudinal study on this with my current learner population. Some habits die hard. :D)

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