Mouth-selfies Make Pronunciation Real

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Most EFL teachers savour a ‘teachable moment’ where, by plan or serendipity, some magic happens. Let me tell you a story about one of mine.

During the 7 years I taught in the Middle East, all teachers lamented the prevalence of mobile phones in the classroom. Sometimes, even, multiple phones during exams had to be removed from students under the protests of “We’re just sharing teacher….honest…..just sharing.”

Phones were a problem.  And as so often happens, problems are the source of an inspiration.  One day I got all 24 of my 17-19 year old male students around in a circle of desks and got them to explain to me, in English of course, all the features of their many varieties of mobiles or cells. All the new terms and features were writtenon the board for future reference. This was realia, in my face pragmatics, in the classroom. Mobiles were their life.

One area of teaching that had never gone over very well was pronunciation, due to embarrassment and saving face in front of their peers. Fine, but it was in the curriculum and had to be dealt with.  Handing out tissue paper for plosives demos turned into an airborne battle of flying wads of wet paper. I needed another way to get them to practice the finer points of their pronunciation.   IDEA.  Mobiles, even back in 2006, had cameras and sound recording features. Most would take snaps and vids.  So the ‘teachable moment’ of mouth-selfies was born.

This is how it works. Students find a quiet space somewhere in the class to stand, while they record their own mouth-selfie while trying to correctly pronounce the item of the day. Standing and facing away from others provided the privacy they needed to be willing to experiment.  The pronunciation point, of course, had already been explained with Samy heads etc. Their job was to record three versions of themselves saying the sound or sounds on their mobiles.

Next came the peer review. Back in our circle I passed around a battery powered mini speaker which they plugged in to the ear-bud jack of their mobile, and played back their three attempts at pronunciation.  As the mini-speaker went around the desks, all the class voted, for or against, each version of each student’s pronunciation.  The one voted ‘best’; most understandable; or least confusing was dubbed the winner and the student then erased the other two versions of their pronunciation.  They had shown me how to set up a storage location for each audio file they produced and that’s where their best work was stored.  They now had a permanent record of the sound and video of themselves speaking their winning mouth-selfie.

It wasn’t until last week when I was sitting in Mike Tiittanen’s Pronunciation PTC 200 class at Seneca that I realized that the other teachers hadn’t heard of this little trick. I ran them through the same exercise and they all felt it was a technique worth trying.  The value of the peer review reinforces for students the importance of their pronunciation being understandable, not just ‘right’. By the end of semester, each student had a pocket full of samples they could practice at any time.  Why not give it a try yourself!

Written by Craig Ivory. Back in TESL-land after 12 years away teaching, with a background in broadcasting, pronunciation, articulation and presentation skills, Craig just finished the Humber OSLT PTCT 611 course and the Seneca PTC 200 pronunciation course , and he looks forward to getting back into a classroom.


3 thoughts on “Mouth-selfies Make Pronunciation Real”

  1. Craig thanks for sharing your techniques of combining mobiles and pronunciation. I was just in a class last week and witnessed an innovative and fun way to have students practice pronunciation with an app on their personal devices. The instructor used Dubsmash, a smartphone app that allows users to lip-synch over songs, speeches, commercials or popular media quotes of their choice.

    Normally people share their final production over the Internet, but this teacher encouraged the students to work in pairs and judge how accurate the lip-syncing was to the audio.

    The Dubsmash app is free and takes a minute or so to download and install. For class purposes, the students did not have to join the Dubsmash community as they shared their work immediately.

    I witnessed a short but fun activity in one class. It might be a good stress reliever, Friday afternoon or a bridge-in activity.

  2. I should add that after reviewing feedback from the students, many of them felt that this activity was not appropriate for adults. So it might be attempted with some care in adult classes.

    1. Thanks JA, but that’s exactly the kind of adult opposition they have to overcome in order to be able to speak clearly, first to themselves and then in their respective public worlds. When presented with the choice between being embarrassed in their class or at work, they usually get down to doing the classroom mouth-selfie exercise.

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