From Pronunciation Games to PronPack

Pronunciation Games (CUP 1995) was my first book, and it still sells today over two decades later. It’s a resource book for teachers, consisting of 36 photocopiable game pages along with step by step teaching notes. It proved to be immediately popular and won an award – the Frank Bell prize – shortly after publication. Nowadays, when I am out at ELT events, people often tell me how much they have been influenced by the book.

In the years since writing Pronunciation Games, I went on to write a wide variety of ELT books about pronunciation and other topics, but throughout that time, I have been reflecting on that first book: What was good about it? What were its shortcomings? What would I do differently today? The answer to these questions are what lie at the heart of my new series PronPack 1-4.

What was good about Pronunciation Games? I would say that it makes something which teachers find intimidating into something which is digestible and fun. Teachers often feel insecure about phonology. There is something strange and esoteric about those phonemic symbols. The relationship of sound and spelling appears to be totally random, as do the rules of word stress placement. And how on earth can I teach the ups and downs of intonation if I can’t even hear them myself? Pronunciation Games provided bite-sized pronunciation points within the context of a game which students could enjoy.

What were its shortcomings? First of all, I would say there was a problem with the second word in the title, games. When I decided to write a book of pronunciation games, I had already made quite a lot of them, so I knew the idea had possibilities. However, the games I had made were for the pronunciation points which were most easily put into a game format. I had gone for the low hanging fruit. When I tried to extend the format to other areas of phonology, particularly connected speech and intonation, this became much more difficult. Thus, it turned out that the need to turn everything into a game became a tight constraint, perhaps too tight. In some cases, the games became over-complicated and difficult for the teacher to explain and set up in class.

Secondly, I fear that Pronunciation Games was too specific regarding the target accent. For instance, some of the games only work for a non-rhotic accent such as English, where the letter ‘r’ is not pronounced after a vowel in words like hair, car, fork or girl. These games could be problematic in class for teachers with a rhotic accent such as American, where the ‘r’ is pronounced in those words.

Finally, I think a lot of teachers would have appreciated an audio to go with the book.

What would I do differently today? Exactly what I have done with the PronPack series. First of all, I have abandoned the games constraint and branched out into different activity types. The book which most resembles Pronunciation Games is PronPack 2: Pronunciation Puzzles. The remaining three books have different activity types. PronPack 1: Pronunciation Workouts provides drills for learners to actively train their articulatory muscles. PronPack 3: Pronunciation Pairworks provides communicative activities to highlight the connection between pronunciation and meaning. And PronPack 4: Pronunciation Poems provides memorable texts to display pronunciation points in a form which is fun to recite. It turns out that different pronunciation points are best suited to different activity types, and having four for me to choose from enabled a much better fit than just games.

Secondly, I have tried to accent-proof the material as far as possible. For instance, I have tried to ensure that the activities will work whether or not you or your students pronounce the ‘r’ in words like hair, car, fork or girl.
And finally, I have added audio material for those teachers who feel that they need it.

I have tried to retain the features of Pronunciation Games which I feel were good. I hope it demystifies the phonology and presents it in bite-sized, fun-to-do activities for the classroom. Obviously, time has moved on since my first book. Few people had computers back then, and I wrote the book by hand. Since then there has been a digital revolution, and PronPack was not only written on a computer, it is designed to be read on one too. It is a digital product. Instead of photocopying the activity pages, teachers can print them out instead – or project them. It is Pronunciation Games for a new age.

 

Which PronPack – ebook or print?

PronPack is available in both ebook and print format. If you’re trying to decide which format to get, here are some points to consider.

The ebook is cheaper. It also benefits from having the convenience of audio files integrated, accessible at the click of a button. It’s also fast to navigate around the book directly from the contents page. It’s ideal if you want your own personal copy, and easy to carry around in your own device. You can’t print directly from your ebook, and for this reason, there are pdf files of all the student worksheets available on pronpack.com. These may be printed, or projected onto the board – it’s up to you!

The print book is more expensive, but it’s great if you like to have a book in your hands to browse through at your leisure. It’s also good for sharing – you can pass it around the staff room. If you’re looking for a version of PronPack to keep in the staffroom library, you’ll want the print edition. For the worksheets, you can photocopy in the good old-fashioned way, or else print from the pdf files on pronpack.com. If you need audio, the files for all the material can also be downloaded from pronpack.com.

Funny Misunderstandings

The /p/ and /b/ sounds cause problems for a lot of learners, who cannot hear or produce the difference between pairs of words like crap and crab.

1. Get students to read the dialogues and identify the cause of the misunderstandings.

2. Ask them to read it out in pairs. Get them to dramatize the situation as in a comedy sketches.

3. Pairs perform their sketch to the rest of the class. The rest of the class must produce the ‘canned laughter’ sound effect.

Students usually enjoy this activity, and it really forces them to make a difference between the pairs of words – because if there is no obvious difference, then the comedy sketch isn’t funny any more. As a side benefit of the activity, students get to see and practice repair strategies. Despite any amount of pronunciation work they do, there will always be misunderstandings, and it’s best to be ready to deal with these effectively.

The Sound of Silence

In my last class, a South Korean student told me about his weekend visit to Liverpool. He said it wasn’t easy to understand the local way of speaking, and gave the example of the question word What? He demonstrated how this word had been said, with the final ‘t’ replaced with a silence, or glottal stop, so it sounds like wha’?
The rest of the class agreed that this was indeed a familiar difficulty, though few could express it as clearly as the South Korean student. The problem is that there is a conspiracy of silence surrounding the glottal stop. Since it is not a phoneme of English, it doesn’t appear on phonemic charts, and since it is not on the charts, it is not on the syllabus. Since it is not on the syllabus, it remains under the radar for many teachers and their students. This makes it impossible to talk about. Students in a UK environment are subliminally aware of it, but often can’t put their finger on what it is – it just seems to make the speech of some of the locals sound jagged like broken glass. I don’t know why students should be left to cope with this common feature of English speech with no guidance from teachers. No doubt they can grow accustomed to it on their own, in time and with enough exposure, but the same could be said for many other features of English, such as the schwa, for example. A language class provides an opportunity for focused noticing and accelerated exposure. We should use it. (A glottal stop symbol is included in the PronPack sound chart for this reason)
Ps. The glottal stop is nothing new for many students. For instance, the number eight in Cantonese is transcribed to English as bat, where the ‘t’ represents a glottal stop. There was no better option to transcribe this Cantonese sound (or lack of sound) than the English letter which is so often pronounced that way. Think of Batman for example, and try saying that with a fully pronounced /t/. Pedantic or wha’?

(See also my comments on the glottal stop on hancockmcdonald.com)