Thursday, 27 February 2014

When the child becomes the parent - why I'm taking an enforced break from ELT!

I never wanted children and, luckily, when I met the man who was to become my husband, he felt the same way.  In the years that we've been together, we've enjoyed our child-free lives.  Indeed, had we had children, we would not have been able to have the lifestyle, and its associated adventures, that we've had.  It's not that we don't like children.  We have a number of nieces and nephews (and now a couple of great-nieces!) who we love dearly.  We love spending time with them, teaching them things, enjoying their company, laughing and having fun, and, most of all, we love ... handing them back to their parents!  So, it has come as a bit of a shock, to say the least, to find myself becoming a parent in my very late forties - and, in the worst case scenario, a parent to my own Mum!

Not that Mum would see it that way.  You see, she has Alzheimer's disease.  One of the symptoms in many sufferers is that they don't recognise that there's anything wrong.  In Mum's mind, she's fine.  She acknowledges that she forgets things from time to time, but that's about it.  In reality, though, despite being physically very fit, her dementia means that she's no longer able to take care of herself in her own home.  We suspected that this was the case, but our planned trip back at Christmas time, confirmed it.  We felt we had no choice but to return to the UK to care for her.

So, since the beginning of January, we've been living back in the UK for the first time in ten years - and it's been very hard!!  I was very naïve.  Following discussions with Mum's care manager before coming back, I accepted what she said about me being the daughter, not the carer.  I was happy to take on the role of chauffeur, cook, cleaner, and companion, convincing myself it would be nice to spend time with Mum whilst she still has capacity.  I was sure I would be able to continue my studies and my CPD, whilst keeping my hand in with some online teaching.  The reality, though, is so different.  Mum's disease is such that caring for her is 24/7.  I really don't have any time to do anything for myself.  I've managed to attend two webinars in the past two months and, on each occasion, had to try to follow proceedings whilst Mum was constantly talking to me and asking me the same questions over and over again.  Finding time to write has been impossible up to now.

This, then, is the reason why I've been absent from social media and teaching forums for a while.  I've missed being part of my virtual world and I've really missed being at work!!  I'm not taking to the caring role very easily - I'm not good at it.  I need to find coping strategies and, more than anything, I need to find joy in my life again!

With these things in mind, I'm forcing myself to set aside some 'me-time', as well as joining groups and seeking out information on how to live with dementia.  I need to know how best to help Mum.  It's such a terrible disease.  I had no idea just how awful it was until it affected me personally.  It's a very steep learning curve, but I'm beginning to feel that my experiences might help others.  So, after much soul-searching, I've decided to write about it.  I'm starting a new blog - When the child becomes the parent - to record some thoughts about what's happening. 

I intend to maintain this blog, too.  As I get better at this caring malarkey, I hope to be able to attend some webinars which I will write up here - and I also have lots of notes from past events which I could tidy up and publish.  I also hope it's not too long before we're able to hit the road again and resume our travels!  In the meantime, it's my fervent wish that I can maintain contact with all of my wonderful PLN!!


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Shrinking and linking (shrinkin_n_linkin) - practical techniques for teaching stress and reduced speech

Jason R Levine
This was the title of a webinar presented by Jason R Levine (@FluencyMC) as part of the recent ELT Techniques MOOC on Listening and Pronunciation.  What follows is a summary of what Jason had to say.

English is a stress-timed language.  This isn't common - most languages are syllable-timed.  We want our students to feel the stress (rhythm) of the language, and can draw their attention to it by using a bold font to show stress, for example.  However,

There's a fine line between raising awareness of pronunciation issues and raising stress (the other meaning!).

We need to raise awareness sufficiently to motivate students and follow up with loads of practice.  We shouldn't fill their heads with loads of rules.  It's usually best to follow the three Rs:

The rhythm of English is best described as 3/4, as in a waltz:
This is the beat of the language.  For example:
Students feel stressed.   (4 syllables)
     S         V       O/C
     1         2         3
The students feel stressed.   (5 syllables)
Th' students feel stressed.
The students are feeling stressed.   (7 syllables)
Th' students_r feelin' stressed.
The students have been feeling stressed.   (8 syllables)
Th' students've bin feelin' stressed.

The word order of subject, verb, object is common in English.  There are times when the word order is different, but these are exceptions - questions, passive structures, for emphasis, negative adverbials, etc.  There is a connection between the almost fixed word order in English and the rhythm of the language.  Because English gravitates to this word order, the rhythm has become 1,2,3.  This doesn't mean that every sentence is 1, 2, 3, but it does mean that this rhythm is always there.  It's in the background.

In English, unlike most other languages, each word which has more than one syllable, has a syllable which is stressed.  It's important to get learners very familiar with where the stress is - from dictionary use, from listening, and from your instruction.  Don't worry about trying to teach the more complex issues of secondary and tertiary stress.  Once students know where the stress is, the other syllables automatically become unstressed - hence the schwa everywhere!  Syllables reduce to the /ǝ/ and /ı/ sounds all the time.  It's important not to panic students about how they're going to remember all this - just make them familiar with it so that they know what sounds right and what sounds wrong.

Going back to our 'students feel stressed' example, we add in syllables to every sentence and yet the rhythm stays the same.  Just like in music, speed doesn't affect the rhythm.  You can play/say something fast or slowly, but if the time signature is 3/4, then the rhythm stays the same.
In English, when the grammar structures get more complex, they're harder to hear because the grammatical words aren't stressed.  We need to give students much more practice at listening to these kinds of sentences.  We can slow them down, but we must make sure the rhythm is maintained.  To be a fluent listener, we often tell our students they don't need to understand every word - they should focus on the content (stressed) words because they carry the meaning.  This is true, but, in order to be able to speak and write well, they also need to know the grammar words.
When teaching pronunciation, we shouldn't really highlight the shrinking and linking.  We should concentrate on the stressed words and, with familiarity with the rhythm of English, the reduced forms automatically become reduced.
Some learners think that stress changes according to how formal a situation is.  This is not true!  Stress and intonation are not the same thing. 
How many people are there in your family?
How many people_r there_in yr family?
What are you going to do on Friday?
What're ya gonna do_on Friday?
In these sentences, the stress or rhythm is the same, but the intonation isn't.  Intonation in informal speech (with friends) is very flat and we speak with a lower tone.  In formal situations, we usually speak with a higher tone and more intonation.  The key determiner as to whether someone sounds formal or informal, rude or polite, is INTONATION.
Techniques to use in the classroom
1.  Highlight word and sentence stress.
2.  Have students mark the stress after a listening task.  They already know the vocabulary and have understood the text.  Then they can listen again and mark the stress.
3.  Have students mark the stress before a listening task.  They try to predict where it's going to be.  Then they listen to check.
4.  Focus on stress in dictations:
  • Dictate five sentences of authentic English - read them yourself or use a recording.
  • Repeat each sentence at least three times, giving students time to write.  Do not change the speed or stress patterns.
  • Ask students to write down the stressed words first.
  • Pair students to compare their work and reconstruct the sentences as best they can.
  • Elicit the sentences from the students or have them write them on the board.
  • Ask students to highlight the word or sentence stress.
  • As an extension activity, have students write responses and create dialogues or stories.
Sample dictation
  1. What's the weather supposed to be like today?
  2. Where do you feel like going for lunch?
  3. Tell her we'll meet her around two.
  4. Actually, I think I'll stay at home tonight and watch TV.
  5. Do you want to meet at the library tomorrow?
Number 3 is particularly difficult - the shrinking and linking is blatant!
5.  Use meaningful shadowing and repetition.  Try scenes from movies and TV shows, music videos, commercials, roleplays created by students, scenes from plays and musicals, famous speeches, karaoke, poetry, limericks, jokes, tongue twisters, songs, etc.  When teaching pronunciation, we need to use repetition more as actors would when learning their lines.  Practice makes perfect!!

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The 38th ELT Blog Carnival - Resolutions

Welcome to the 38th ELT Blog Carnival and the first of 2014.  As is wholly appropriate as we begin the new year, our theme is 'Resolutions'.

I'd like to thank all the participants in this carnival and all the terrific members of my PLN who spread the news about it on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Please enjoy all the great posts!

1.  Lizzie Pinard

Lizzie is such an inspirational member of my PLN and I wasn't at all surprised when she was the first to send me an entry for this carnival.  She had an amazing year and I'm sure 2014 will be equally exciting.  Read her post here.

2.  Vicky Loras

This post from the amazingly supportive Vicky Loras has some timely advice for new teachers as we enter the new year.

3.  Eva Buyuksimkesyan

We have two contributions from Eva.  The first is a post first published in January 2012, entitled 'New Year, New Beginnings', which outlines a great lesson plan to use with students in one of your first lessons of 2014.  The second is a description of five tech tools that Eva intends to use with her classes in the new year.  Read it here.

4.  Ellen Pham

Ellen gives us a link to a New Year resolutions generator which we can use with our students.  Find it here.

5.  David Deubelbeiss

Here, David urges us all to make teaching resolutions as part of our own professional development.  For 2014, his pledge is to 'make it real'.  We also have this post from David, via EFL Teaching Recipes, describing a lesson plan on New Year's Resolutions.

6.  Sharon Hartle

Sharon shares a great lesson plan based on New Year resolutions.  Read all about it here.

7.  Jennifer Nichols

Jennifer gives us 'Five resolutions to modernize your teaching in 2014'.  There are some really good ideas here which should give us all pause for thought.

8.  Larry Ferlazzo

In this post, Larry tells us about the best ways to help make your new year’s resolutions succeed.

So, that's it!  I hope you enjoy reading the posts and please make sure you check out the next carnival which is being hosted by Anita Jankovic on her blog.


Some readers may wonder how I can host a carnival and have no contributions of my own.  I assure you my intention was always to have a couple of posts, but, unfortunately, since flying to the UK on New Year's Eve, I have had some serious family issues to deal with and have had no time to write.  I wanted to publish the carnival on time and hope to be able to add my posts later.