Flappy Drills – ‘Class, say after me…’

In this latest guest post, CELTA Trainer Nicky Salmon offers some tips for drilling pronunciation.

I watch a lot of teachers doing drills to focus on pronunciation.

Picture yourself drilling the following-

Teacher: OK class, listen….vegetable, vegetable

Students: Vegetable

Teacher: Vegetable

Students : Vegetable

Many teachers manage the turn taking (model, repeat, model, repeat) quite successfully but sadly forget to make it clear WHAT feature they want students to hear/identify and so repeat.

For example, with VEGETABLE,

-how many syllables are pronounced and which is stressed?

-are all the vowels full or is there a schwa sound in there somewhere?

If the teacher forgets to make it clear in some way what the features are, then this is a FLAPPY DRILL.

There are many times when we need to focus our students on making the sounds of the new language we are teaching them.

  • Maybe a consonant cluster in a new piece of vocabulary, for example, /br/ or /rts/.
  • Maybe the  schwa /ə/ sound or an unexpected pronunciation that doesn’t seem to mirror the spelling, for example, the varieties for the written ‘ea’,
  • Maybe the word has two or more syllables and the stress need to be identified.
  • Maybe the stress in a sentence is linked to the meaning or the intonation pattern is clearly linked to the feeling or attitude of the speaker.

Whatever the angle, the item is worth attention and the teacher decides to model it and then conduct a drill to prompt students to produce it.
One way to prompt students to focus on pronunciation is to conduct a drill.They are a really useful tool to help students to get their mouths around, what are essentially a set of meaningless sounds that they are trying to attach to a meaning.

But before you drill, it’s worth thinking about a few essentials.

Essential 1. Meaning.

Don’t drill things without dealing with the meaning first.

Essential 2. The big three

First, sensitise SS to the fact that certain features of pronunciation exists. The student may not have this feature or sound in their first language. For example, we have two pronunciations of the written ‘th’ sound- one unvoiced as in ‘theatre’ and the second voiced, as in ‘this’. So the teacher needs to  make students aware of where this feature exists.

Second, the receptive phase. Make sure SS can identify it. You might model some features or play some audio. Students will need to list and underline what they hear. For example, ‘bit’ or ‘beat’ to focus on the long and short /iː/ and /ɪ/.

Third, the productive phase. Now prompt students to produce the pronunciation feature by repeating it as you drill.

Essential 3. Models

Make sure to provide clear, repeated models. Prompt your students to listen before they try for themselves. I always drill the whole class together a few times before I ask an individual.

Essential 4. Visual clues

Visual as well as oral clues help students to identify the features you are drilling.

Sounds– you can use your mouth shape and gestures to help students focus on single sounds. Have a look at Adrien Underhill’s ‘Introduction to teaching pronunciation’ on Youtube for some ideas.

Stress: Use your hands (your whole arm actually) to ‘beat’ the stress.

I have a few suggestions for methods to try so pick the one you feel most comfortable with.

  1. The ‘Counter top’. I try to imagine a counter top with a groove cut down into it. My hand and arm run along the top of the counter top and then down into the groove and up alone to counter top again. The groove (and the down movement of my arm) shows where the main stress lies in a word. I use the gesture at the same time as repeatedly saying the word or words, to give a visual as well as an oral model.
  2. Use your hand to make a quick open/closed fist (the flash) on the stressed syllable or the stressed word in a sentence.
  3. Clap or click. Using a clap or a click in the same way as the ‘Flash’.
  4. The dip- say the word or sentence and dip your knees on the stressed element.Sometimes the students like to use the gesture too which helps some people remember more fully.

Intonation- make use of clines with a sad or happy face stuck at different ends. This will help to identify mood of the speaker. The teacher models the target language and students identify how happy/sad or polite/rude the model is.

Suggestion: keep it simple. I don’t use more than 3 emojis.

Essential 5: Follow with practice.

Plan so that students get a chance to use what they have drilled as soon as possible.

Don’t drill, then provide a written gap fill and forget all about the pronunciation features.

Instead get students into some small dialogues or spoken practice to use the features.


A final word

Whatever your preferred method, students find it really helpful to see a visual clue as well as hearing a model (either from the teacher or a recording).

Choose the methods that you are comfortable with reproducing and AVOID THOSE FLAPPY DRILLS!


About the author:

Inicky salmon have been teaching and training for over 25 years. I have worked in secondary schools, further education colleges, private colleges and universities both in the UK and abroad.  My training experience is mainly with Cambridge CELTA but I have also worked on Trinity TESOL , Cambridge ICELT and delivered a range of in-service courses to practising teachers.
I have a special interest in supporting teacher reflection and more recently, an interest in writing for educational publications and blogs. I’m really looking forward to sharing ideas through this blog and learning more about what teachers are interested in.

Categories: CELTA tips, General

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  1. Useful links for CELTA | Sandy Millin

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