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

Langolab

ESL Cyber Listening Lab

Talk About English (BBC Learning English)

ELLLO

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

3 Commentaires

  1. Tim-Reply
    6 juillet 2009 à 13 h 14 min

    Hellow.
    I’m Tim and studying English now.
    I’m interested in shadow reading because I can try to do shaodw reading anytime.
    However, I have a question about reading materials and audio clip. I can choose a reading material which I can easily understand or I need a English dictionary understand. Which is better?
    I am looking forward to hearing from you.
    Thank you.

  2. Andres-Reply
    17 juin 2010 à 0 h 12 min

    I will say one step at the time Tim, The dictionaries are very useful at the beginning of your learning process.
    For the accent reduction you need more speed and would be ok if when you do shadow reading, you just want to flow with the reader.

  3. Roger Clément Tabougua-Reply
    20 avril 2012 à 10 h 49 min

    Thank you for addressing such a tough issue! It will help me take care of my learners even better.
    Cheers!!!

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