Teaching the IPA EDUC 328X: Final Paper

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1 Teaching the IPA EDUC 328X: Final Paper Alicja enczykowska March 2012 Introduction Since I have spent a lot of time this quarter working with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), I decided to see if I could make use of some of the core mechanics covered in EDUC 328X to teach the IPA to others. To be able to watch my students properly, I decided to give the test students a self-contained worksheet, with the assumption that help from me as the teacher would hopefully not be required. The Instruction Overview I chose to primarily focus the students efforts on contrasting cases. This is because contrast is already naturally built into phonology in the form of minimal pairs pairs of words in a given language which differ only in one phonological element, yet have disparate meanings (eg. sit vs set ). While minimal pairs are often used to teach and correct pronunciation, they are seldom used for teaching the IPA itself. The worksheet begins with a very short introduction to the IPA as a way of writing down how words are pronounced often found in dictionaries, followed by an example dictionary entry - 1 -

2 showing the IPA in action, and an explanation that while some IPA characters are read just as you would expect others are not. The reader is then told that the current worksheets will teach him 8 IPA characters: (altogether 4 vowels and 4 consonants). This is the only explicit instruction in the whole mini-lesson. Three tasks follow: a learning task with contrasting cases, a translating task that provided additional practice, and a word-forming task with manipulatives. The worksheet was originally planned to take ~15 minutes to allow time for practice, but ended up taking an average of 30 minutes. The last page of the worksheet included a short survey about the student (gender, age, level of English fluency, etc.) and the student s thoughts on the mini-lesson. Task 1 Learning: Contrasting Cases (and Deliberate Practice) The contrasting cases part of the worksheet consists of 6 subsections, each of which introduces one specific contrast, and builds on previously introduced information. First, students are shown the words teen ten, lease and less and based on these are asked to fill in the missing and sounds in the IPA transcriptions of 6 further words (eg. neat ). The next two sections similarly distinguish between the vowel sounds of mean-menmain, and sin-seen-sane, with 5 fill-in transcriptions accompanying each section. The following three sections introduce consonants: cell-shell, ship-sip-chip, scene-sheen-gene; each section has 9 fill-in transcriptions, all of which are missing both the relevant consonants and the previously introduced vowels

3 Task 2 Translating: Deliberate Practice To give students more exposure and practice, and to give them a chance to translate in the other direction, students are then presented with 20 words and phrases in IPA format (e.g. and / - feet and chess piece, respectively), which they are to translate into plain English. Task 3 Word-Forming: Hands-on (and Deliberate Practice) The final task tests whether a hands-on approach would help students: subjects are given a set of tiles ( vowels were on black tiles, consonants on white tiles) and have 5 minutes to list (in plain English) as many words as possible made up of those sounds. Since they cannot look at any of their notes from previous tasks, they are completely dependent on what they remember and the tiles in front of them, which they can, but don t have to use. The sounds were specifically chosen for their ease of building words around them, so that the subjects do not get stuck. The Test Setup and Overview Three subjects between 25 and 31 years of age were given the test. Two of these were Stanford grad students: K, a male native speaker specializing in engineering and C, a female nonnative (but fluent) speaker specializing in biochemistry. The third test subject, M, is a native speaker with a degree in physics and computer science, currently a software engineer. K, C and - 3 -

4 M all know at least two languages other than English, but only C uses dictionaries at least sometimes (though she does so for other languages she is learning, and not for English). Near the beginning of the test, K stated that he had never seen or paid attention to the symbols before, while C said she had seen them when she was learning English, but found they didn t help her. M had tried to learn the IPA years past, but had failed. All subjects did very well in the tasks, were thoroughly engrossed in them, needed barely any help from the instructor (though K made comments every once in a while, e.g. Ooh, tricky: two things in one word; that s crazy ), and marked the lesson later on as fun, interesting and informative. One possible reason for the deep concentration and enjoyment of all three tasks was the puzzle-like character of the learning and translation tasks, and the game-like feel of the wordforming task. Task 1 Learning: Contrasting Cases (and Deliberate Practice) In the learning task, K didn t seem to notice that every section introduced a new character or two What? You can t be serious. You don t even provide the end letters anymore? Like for finish I have to put in the sh sound? / That s what you re learning right now: sh - s. / Oh, oh, right, I didn t- Yeah, that makes sense. It is uncertain whether K would have written the correct sh character without my explanation. Meanwhile, C found distinguishing between ch and sh difficult on account of her German mother tongue, but nevertheless got all the answers correct; the contrasting seems to have helped her decide on correct transcriptions

5 M, on the other hand, did not work through the learning task in order, but rather looked for words throughout the page that sounded similar to the word he was supposed to transcribe. As such, he was the only one to not make any use of the contrasting cases provided; this strategy failed him later on, and he resorted to figuring things out as planned. Likely because of this alternative approach, M was then far more likely to refer back to previous tasks than K and C, who seemed to remember all the characters and referred back to previous sections only once or twice for confirmation. Task 2 Translating: Deliberate Practice The subjects got progressively faster in the learning task, likely due to practice. This was also the case in the translating task, though the two-word-long phrases at the bottom of the list were a source of confusion ( I don t, uhm, recognize this word. / It s 2 words. / Oooh! ). Task 3 Word-Forming: Hands-on (and Deliberate Practice) In the word-forming task, K moved the tiles around for the first few minutes ( it helped to have a visualization, to like move around ), but then focussed entirely on writing words, and used the tiles only as a reminder of what sounds he could use and to focus on a specific sound or two ( my strategy was to pick a vowel and then just build around it ). This may have been due to a sense of limited time, as after the lesson was over, K went back to physically moving the tiles around, continuing to make words. C did not move her tiles at all, though she did make a move for them at least once before changing her mind. Further analysis should be done to see if tilemoving would have been more prevalent had the tiles been chosen so that words were more - 5 -

6 difficult to come up with. Quite unexpectedly, both K and C (who each came up with ~30 words) noted that the vowel and consonant tiles black and white colours respectively helped them out significantly. Also, K spontaneously referred to this task several times as the letter game, perhaps because the physical tiles involved were reminiscent of those in many games. M was not given the word-forming task at all, due to lack of time on his part. Survey Results All three subjects found the worksheets to be just right both in terms of length and difficulty. K noted that he felt he actually learned something despite being very tired, and referred to things being revisited multiple times for memorization, while C also noticed she learned something, and saw the weakness of her pronunciation due to the worksheets. Interestingly, K listed his major as (there was a moment for just-in-time instruction when he got to the ng sound) and the other languages he knows as and. He also asked quite early on whether some day all languages will be written phonetically? Cos it kinda makes more sense that way, right?, and later on enquired about the number of types of d sounds after reading as d3". It is hard to judge whether K is naturally inquisitive, or if the tasks themselves built K s interest in the IPA

7 Conclusion Benefits of Contrasting Cases Including the contrasting cases gave students the opportunity to figure things out by themselves: both K and C generated their own ideas of what sounds individual characters stood for. Were this taught in a large group, the teacher could thus focus on students having problems or having additional questions, instead of conducting the whole lesson ex cathedra. It also meant the students had a puzzle to solve, which made the experience more enjoyable. For C, the contrasts helped her perceive the difference between sounds that, for her, were very similar a result that might have been expected, based on the popularity of minimal pairs in the teaching of pronunciation. M s sidestepping of the contrasting cases tells us two things: on the one hand, it was perhaps too easy to avoid making use of the contrasts (although it must be said that M is notorious for highly unconventional problem-solving); on the other hand, the contrasts seem to have helped K and C internalize the different IPA characters much better than M, which speaks towards using contrasting cases for teaching IPA. Benefits of Deliberate Practice The multiple examples provided in the learning and translating tasks gave subjects a chance to verify their knowledge, and practice applying it. It is more than likely that, had the subjects gotten less examples to work with in these first two tasks, they would have found the word-forming task more difficult

8 Hands-On The hands-on core mechanic seemed to be the least useful of the three. Based on K s and C s work in the word-forming task, several things can be deduced. The tiles certainly helped guide attention, and seem to have encouraged persistence (as seen in K s continued playing with the tiles after he had finished the worksheet). It is important to point out here that the hands-on task was the last one in the mini-lesson, whereas manipulatives may be more useful in the beginning, introductory phase of a topic. The tiles physical manipulation would likely help more had there been fewer possibilities for creating valid words, or if K and C had been less certain of what the IPA characters stood for (ie., had they had less deliberate practice beforehand); in other words, physically restructuring may be potentially more useful the harder mental restructuring is. The words generated by K and C show that a reader of some sort for verifying whether words have been transcribed correctly might help students identify mistakes (eg. cat found its way onto the list, despite that vowel sound being impossible to create with the tiles provided). Of note is that the reader itself would not necessitate tiles, since the characters can simply be typed in to a computer that would read them out loud. Final remarks Three core mechanics were targeted by the IPA mini-lesson: contrasting cases, deliberate practice and hands-on learning. Both contrasting cases and deliberate practice resulted in significant positive learning outcomes. The lack of the former, as shown in M s approach to the learning task, resulted in - 8 -

9 weaker internalization of the IPA characters and more referring back to previous sections than in the case of K and C. A smaller amount of practice would likely result in either subjects simply having a harder time with subsequent tasks, or them developing a faulty, incomplete idea of what the IPA characters stand for. However, the assumptions about both of these core mechanics would have to be verified by giving the subjects a post-test several days later. The hands-on approach, while lending a fun, game-like feel to the final task of the minilesson, at first glance did not seem to contribute much in the task s present form (although it might be hypothesised that K s initial moving of tiles helped him even when he was no longer moving them as much later on). From a purely results-oriented point of view, the hands-on core mechanic would best be reserved for situations where the mental model of the IPA characters is less developed. However, there is something to be said for students feeling like they are playing a game, as it increases interest and persistence, and so providing the tiles as an additional way students can practice the IPA might, in fact, be a good idea after all, should you have the time to devote to that

10 Appendix: The Worksheets

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