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Improve pronunciation through shadow reading

pronunciationIn the world of online language learning, have you come across the field of « accent reduction » and « accent reduction trainers »?  When I see this I’m concerned about false advertising on the one  hand and false hopes on the other.  The notion of « accent » is extremely subjective.  Most of the English learners I spend time with have what many might consider a « French » accent, but although there are some common features in the sounds of their speech, there are as many « French » accents as there are students.  Which « French » accent are we referring to?  Furthermore, is it necessarily a « bad » thing to have French-sounding English (or German, Chinese, Hispanic…)?  A French accent may grate on the ears of another French English-speaker, but to native English speakers it can sound exotic and sophisticated.

Rather than talking about « accent » it is more helpful to distinguish between clear and unclear pronunciation.   Often it is not « accent reduction » that is required, but rather training in how to produce sounds that do not occur in the learner’s L1 (native language) and how to speak with English-sounding intonation.  The latter is certainly more difficult to achieve.

Taking the example of French learners (the example I know best), it is not usually mistakes in pronunciation that hinders communication, but rather unusual intonation.  French and English intonation are very different, and I find this one of the hardest areas in which to help learners.  French speech is timed by its syllables – every syllable has the same value (think machine gun).  English, rather, is timed by stress: the rhythm of words is determined by the stressed syllable, and the rhythm of a sentence by the words that are emphasised (think Morse code).  Native English speakers are good at adapting to non-standard pronunciation because of the huge variety in world English.  But we are not so good at adapting to differences in intonation.  Try saying an English sentence giving every syllable the same value and not stressing any particular words.  The result is likely to be unintelligible.

This is where shadow-reading comes in as a useful technique for intonation and pronunciation training.  Not every learner catches on to the value of this immediately as it seems counter-intuitive, but once you « get » it, it’s almost guaranteed to improve your speaking if it is done regularly.

Prerequisite: learners need to be good at sourcing audio material on the Internet on subjects that interest them, downloading podcasts, and need to have regular listening integrated into their language-learning programme.  This is a must for students anyway, and the possibilities are endless.  To get you started:

Listening and Reading Comprehension with Online Books

A fun way to Develop Listening Comprehension


ESL Cyber Listening Lab

Talk About English (BBC Learning English)


Audio material with transcripts works best, and monologues (talks, reports etc.) work better than dialogues (conversations, interviews etc.).  The speech should be somewhat slower than normal conversational speed, but not unnaturally slow.

The lower the level, the more assistance the learner will need to source appropriate materials.  It is not essential that the learner master all the vocabulary in the material, however, the more they understand, the more motivating the activity.

There are two ways of approaching shadow-reading.

With script.

1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.

2. Listen again and this time try to highlight or underline the stressed words in each sentence, and any pronunciation that is unexpected.

3. Play again and this time read along with the speaker, trying as much as possible to mimic their intonation.

4. Finally, practice reading the text aloud without the audio.  Ask a trainer for comments if you have one available.

5. (Optional)  Record your reading of the text using Audacity.  As a follow up activity you can then listen to your own voice, and then the original audio, and note any differences you hear.

Without script (for more advanced learners).

1. Listen to the material once or twice to understand the gist of the article.

2. Replay the audio and this time, speaking aloud, try to « shadow » the speech by repeating what is said immediately after you hear it, trying to mimic the speaker’s intonation.

3.  Repeat the activity until you can shadow the whole article without missing words (you may need to check the script for any unknown words).

4. (Optional).  You can easily turn this into a writing or speaking activity.  After you have listened a few times, rewrite the speech in your own words according to what you remember, OR practice giving the speech in your own words without any support from the text.  This can be recorded using Audacity, and played back to your teacher/trainer or a native speaker for comments.

These activities don’t have to be done with a trainer (doing myself out of a job here!)  However, one disadvantage of doing it alone is that we don’t always notice our own pronunciation or intonation errors, especially if they are bad habits that we have developed over time.  Live online language training gives you this opportunity, in your own time, and without having to leave your home.  Contact us for more details.

photo credit: waving at you via photopin cc

How to use automatic captions to improve your listening skills

If you have been a Facebook or Twitter user for any length of time, you have probably been sent links to hundreds of video clips stored on YouTube that your friends have found cute, funny, interesting, shocking, or worth sharing for some reason. But who has time to watch them all, right?  If you’re like me you probably ignore a lot of them.

But if you are a language learner, have you considered turning the otherwise time-wasting activity of viewing all your friends videos into a method for improving your listening comprehension skills?

There are many ways of using video clips to improve listening skills:

  • Watching without subtitles for « gist » or general comprehension.
  • Watching with subtitles in your own language for fun, or just generally tuning your ear to the sounds of the language.
  • Watching with subtitles in the original language (the language of the video) to work on both receptive skills simultaneously (listening and reading), which aids in retaining vocabulary.

The problem is that many YouTube clips do not come with their own subtitles.  Enter the YouTube « automatic captions » function, currently available in ten different languages (English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Russian and Dutch).  Automatic captions uses voice recognition algorithms to create subtitles, but as you might expect, the technology is not perfect, and this can lead to some quite hilarious errors. These imperfections give advanced learners a great opportunity for improving intensive listening skills, through correcting the captions.

For this exercise, short videos are best (two minutes or less).  To give an example, we’ll look at a short video from The Economist entitled Personal Technology, a short look at how mobile devices are overshadowing the personal computer.

1. Watch the whole video for general comprehension.

Focus questions:

  • What did Steve Jobs mean by the phrase « a post-PC era »?
  • The video predicts an explosion of mobile data by the end of the decade. What form will most of this data be in?

Focus vocabulary:

The clip contains several verbs to describe statistics and change.  Do you know and use these words?  How are they used in the video?  Copy any new words with their context sentences into your vocabulary notebook.

  • grow (strongly)
  • outstrip
  • outnumber
  • catch up
  • soar
  • account for
  • leap
  • rise

2. Access the captions in one of two ways:

Note that to access the captions function you will have to view the video on YouTube.com.

  1. Select « automatic captions available », and highlight the language in the menu.
  2. Select « transcript » for the full text.  Notice that this option allows you to jump to specific points in the video, by clicking on the sentence you want to focus on.

YouTube screenshot

3. Watch the video a second time while viewing the captions.

As you watch, write a corrected version of the transcript.  A great tool for doing this is Videonot.es.

At present there doesn’t appear to be a way of uploading a corrected transcript to benefit the YouTube community.  However, you might be able to persuade a friendly native speaker to review and comment on your work.

Note that it is possible to upload transcripts with videos that you upload yourself.  To do this, you need to create your own Google account if you don’t already have one, and upload your first video.  You then select from your personal menu (top right of your YouTube screen) the option « video manager », select « captions » from the « edit » menu beside the video you want to transcribe, and then « add captions », which opens a field where you can type your text.  Once you have uploaded the text, YouTube will automatically adjust the timings in order to synchronise the text with the dialogue.

How have you used YouTube as a language-learning tool? Let us know in the comments.