Ann Wennerstrom


My name is Ann Wennerstrom. I’m at the University of Washington where I’m a lecturer. I teach ESL and also an adviser for the MA TESOL Program.

Now um several years ago we did a project to investigate whether there was bias in student’s evaluations of their teachers and we found that there was. And I think it’s something that administrators should pay attention to because lots of programs use student evaluations to make decisions about pay and um promotion and that kind of thing for their teachers. Um, we found some bias by country, um and at that time, this was in the mid-80’s um in Seattle, Washington, we found that our Japanese students were rating on average more harshly then the other students. That means that if a teacher is in a class with a lot of Japanese students, they’re going to get a lower rating. You know, not because of something they did necessarily. (interruption) This is in an intensive English program, right.  Um, we found that Vietnamese speakers were rating higher than average. Um, but I don’t want to say that would always be the case. I think at that time with those politics of the 80’s um things, you know, could be different now depending on the group. But the point is that when um an administrator makes decisions based on um student evaluations, it’s important to think that there might be this kind of thing um and maybe we would recommend um making sure that that teacher—if—if those evaluations were being used that the teacher had a chance to present evals from several different classes um and not just one set be used.  

Um, maybe—maybe the overall result is fairly positive, but if there—within whatever that range is, if there’s some particular group or maybe some particular course that’s very unpopular that will always get lower ratings. Those are the kinds of things that can still have an effect.

Well, um starting in the mid-80’s um I was suddenly kind of out of the blue put in charge of teaching a course for um international graduate students who were going to be in teaching positions at the University of Washington.  And uh I ended up realizing that a lot of um the problems they were having in being comprehensible in a classroom situation had to do with the intonation. And so we worked on lots of aspects of communication, but I felt that intonation was really important. So I started to research it more. Um, and I found um one study I did, I—I had groups of speakers from different nationalities do some different speaking tasks. They had to read a passage and um speak impromptu describing a picture. And then I compared the intonation in these different groups to English speakers intonations, native speakers. Um, and found that uh there were some huge differences and so I—I really think that that’s important.

Yeah, yeah. It’s really important to look at intonation in discourse. Um, take for example contrast.  When you make a contrast—let’s say you’re giving a lecture, um you might say, “Well, my first point” and notice my pitch really went up on the word first um and then you might speak for five minutes on that first point and then you might say, “And my second point” and my pitch also went up. So you’re not necessarily looking at—at just within one word or one sentence what the intonation is doing. You might be looking over the whole stretch of the—some extended piece of discourse and find that some connection is being made because the intonation. Um, so—so it’s really important to look at the big context.

Yeah, I think that native speakers of English and let’s say good non-native, you know, high-proficiency non-native speakers of English learn to listen for certain high pitched key words in—in the speech stream. Um, in—in English um we assign the highest pitch to new information, contrasting information, um and just the really most important information. And so there are these peaks in the speech stream and for the listener, I—I believe that people are really listening for those peaks and that’s how they’re following the thread of what’s being said.  Um, and if a person’s learning English and they haven’t learned the intonation system, it’s not a universal system, um they might uh—maybe they’re trying to articulate clearly and so they emphasize every word so it would be very clear and then you have a problem it’s—it’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees. Every word is—is stressed and then where’s the most important word?  And it’s harder to sort out the thread of the—the discourse.

Well, there’s several things to do. Um, one activity I use um is I have any kind of native speech, some example of native speech. I mean, because there is working with people who are going to be teaching, I use some teaching speech, you know, an example of uh an American doing some teaching. Um, and I—and I use a transcript of that speech and a nice just sort of consciousness raising activity is to ask people to listen with the transcript of—of the words that are being said in front of them and then to underline those key words as they listen. “Oh, yeah that—that has a high pitch.”  And then you can play it several times and people can compare their answers and see if they got the same things. Um, and that’s one way to just increase awareness of what’s going on.

I—I think that that was a good starting point um and that’s—that’s a good strategy to get started. But, of course, the next step is to try and get people to do it. Um, I think um one thing I’ve done; I do this every time I teach. I—I also teach pronunciation to um other—other ESL students um who are not necessarily going to be teachers and I always have it—lots of activities where they are speaking. It could be a conversation, it could be a little speech, or something and then um I ask them to transcribe their own speech. And then they have this piece of paper with a written version of their own speech. Every—and I have them transcribe all the details even in the so-called errors. And things like um and anything they do. False starts.  Put the whole thing on paper. And then I ask them to um listen to it. Again, I have them underline what they think should be the key words that should have the most stress. Um, I might have them also mark the pitch—places where it should go up or down. Like let’s say they have a question in there and they—a yes/no question and maybe the—they want to use more of a rising pitch at the end of that question to make it clear intonationally that that’s a question. Um, so—so I have them mark up their transcripts with lots of little marks and make any changes that they want to and then I have them read it again um and have them focus on the intonation. Um, and so that’s—that’s, you know, one step to learn—that’s one kind of practice activity that uses their own speech and—and usually they can feel some improvement by doing that. 

Well, yeah I admit I have used rubber bands when I’ve taught English. The way it works is you say—OK the most—let’s call this the um the sentence focus. There’s something called uh—start me again. 

Well, Judy Gilbert, isn’t it who uses the rubber bands. OK, yeah. I have used rubber bands when I have taught intonation. And uh you can think of every sentence as having what I might call a sentence focus and that’s the most important key word in that sentence. Um, let’s give an example. Um, “Do you think it will rain?”  Well, in English that word rain has several characteristics. It’s higher pitched then anything else, it’s longer than anything else, and it probably is a little bit louder than anything else in that sentence. So what you do is you give all the students rubber bands and you put their thumbs in—you know they put their thumbs around the rubber bands, and when they get to that key word you ask them to stretch the rubber bands. And I guess there’s something kinetic about actually moving your fingers in that way that helps people to think about lengthening their vowels in that word. So, “Do you think it will rain?”

Yeah, I think it can help. Um, in a lot of languages um the—the structure of the phonology is based on giving every syllable an equal amount of time. However, that is not the case in English. In English, as I just mentioned, the—the um—the key words have a longer time and the smaller function words have a shorter time. So um when a beginning student is trying to pronounce clearly they—there are more likely to give every syllable and every word kind of an equal time. So um I think that the rubber band trick is a graphic way to illustrate that there’s really a big difference between the words, you know, the word ‘do’ in “Do you think?”  Um and ‘rain’ at the end of it.

Um, once in awhile um—once (interruption)  Um, once in a while I’ve used body language in teaching pronunciation. Uh, one thing I’ve done when I teach um in the intensive program is I’ve done some drama activities. And if you can come up with—maybe you can even have the students write a clever little skit or something that’s funny, kind of a short skit and then you can have people even memorize the lines if it’s short enough, and you can work on the script and show them, you know, where—where do you want the—the really—the high pitch and the key words to—to have the most emphasis. And then you can work some gesture in the dramatics of it, you know, that have the slap the guy on the back, you know. Um, like uh—I can’t think of an example. But um… (interruption)  You know, I haven’t seen his video, but I’ve heard—I’ve heard him talk about—I think he asked people to gesture with a pencil or—or uh, yeah.  I think it’s clever.  (interruption) Yeah, with my hand. Yeah, once—I think once you tune into it, you sort of can’t stop seeing how much body language goes into it. But people will nod their heads in a certain way, in time with the rhythm of the speech. Yeah, it’s true.

 Um, the—in—when I teach the class for international T.A.’s um we—the first measurement that—that happens to them is that they have to take a test called the “Speak Test.”  Um, and they get a score on that and based on that score they’re placed into our classes. And then at the end of our classes, they take a test um where they have to teach a class and it’s judged and—and it’s not exactly the same criteria as the speak test, but we try, at least to some extent, to use the same criteria as the speed test when we evaluate that final test. So um—and intonation and stress are among the categories of things that are being evaluated and so we certainly seem many students improving their—their speech during a course of a quarter and—and being able to pass that test and others don’t. 

Yeah.  Um, we evaluate to—to a large extent holistically but the raters are um trained quite a bit to be aware of certain categories that they should be taking into account.  Um, we have a—an area called “Production” and just speech production. And that includes both segmental and super segmental um aspects of speech. So they have a checklist that they’re looking at that includes intonation and stress.

Um, not as a study. No. (interruption) Yeah, sorry.  Um, I’ve used acoustic measurement simply to get a reading on where somebody is at and—and what problems they’re having at a particular time. I have never done before and after acoustic measurement.

Yeah, I—I think it’s all important as a matter of fact to um—I think that cultural understanding is important if a person’s going to be communicating with native speakers in any way, not only in a teaching situation. Um, I think that um pronunciation of segments if important and I think that prosodic matters are also important. I don’t think I’d rank it so high above anything else, but it certainly is one aspect of communication that—that really can matter in crucial ways.

Um, we—we use um the “Speak Test” to determine—we—we have at the University of Washington, I don’t know, I think hundreds of international T.A.’s and they’re initial screening is to take either the—the TSE, the test of spoken English or the “Speak Test” and based on that, some of them are ready—are cleared to teach right away. Um, but um others are not able to be—to um assume teaching responsibilities until they have taken this class, this 10-week class that we have. And even there they have to pass that class and it’s not an automatic pass by any means. Um, sometimes it’s half the class will not pass. So they have to be judged at the end of that class by three different raters and two out of three have to OK them for a teaching position.

I think there’s some key things that teachers should know. Uh, number one is that for English, new information, contrasting information, important information, will have a higher pitch then given information or old—old information. Um, and I—another thing that’s important to know is that what happens at the end of a phrase?  Now if I say uh, “I went to the store and then I stopped at the library, “ what my pitch did, that was two phrases. I went to the store was one and then I stopped at the library was the other. And at the end of the first one my pitch rose. I went to the store and then I stopped at the library. So that pitch, it’s just a small thing, but it tell the listener that those things go together under one umbrella. There were two things that I did. Um, and in some languages the—the common way to use pitch is to simply let your pitch drop at the end of every phrase. So, I went to the store. Then I stopped at the library. It’s less clear that—that those two things are related or perhaps in chronological order or—or um related, so—so that kind of um, final pitch at the end of phrases is something that’s fairly easy to understand. Um, another thing we do in English is when we start a new topic; we start that topic with an increased pitch range. Um, that could be important. In—in some languages it seems that every sentence starts with a high pitch and sometimes the listener might feel that, you know, are we—are we changing the subject here?   And uh—because that’s what would happen for English. 

Um, I think that um those—those from language backgrounds um which have um—I think that those from language backgrounds that have what’s usually known as syllable timing in their language, have more trouble with English prosodics then do say a language like German where it’s very similar to English and it has what’s known as stress timing. Um, syllable timing is where every syllable has equal time. Um, stress timing is where only the key stressed syllables of the words get a—uh, take up an increment of time. So for example, um well we—we said, “Do you think it will rain?”  Um, “Do you think it will” are not very important words in that phrase. And they’re very short. “Do you think it will rain?”  Rain is very long. Um, so a speaker from a language um like maybe Japanese um or even—even Spanish um might try to give an equal time to those little words. “Do you think it will rain?” And then it’s hard for the native listener to pull out the key word and—and—with that kind of delivery.

Well, you know, actually I just said yes but I have not taught pronunciation to Vietnamese speakers. I’ve taught writing. I’ve taught writing to Vietnamese speakers.

Content-based pronunciation instruction is the term I use um to—to express the notion that when you teach pronunciation, it’s a really good idea to use content um that—that the learner is interested in or—or somehow has as a part of their daily life. I think one problem in the field has been that pronunciation books tend to use sentences just because they contain a certain sound rather than because they’re interesting. I mean, “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plains.”  I mean, they chose that sentence in that play because the—the speaker who wanted to change her accent would have said rine instead of rain and so, you know, that sentence contains those sounds. And it’s a stupid sentence. I mean, it doesn’t mean anything to Eliza.  So um similarly it—I’ve seen some pronunciation in textbooks that are a little dry in their content. So I would prefer to have the learners go out and find some language that they like, you know, that they’re going to use and that’s going to be more motivating for them.

Yeah, they choose the content it’s—it’s ideal if the learner chooses the content.  Second to ideal is where the teacher chooses the content but makes a good guess, you know, about something that might be relevant for the learner. Um, when I teach um, international teaching assistance, I know that we’re going to be teaching classes so I might bring in some lecture material. Um, but—but better is if they—they can actually bring in some material that—that they’ve collected.

Well, I certainly think that it’s hard—I—I believe that there’s a critical period for the acquisition of—certainly of accent. Um, I think it’s very hard to have native-like prosody um if you come at a language when you’re post-puberty. Um, but that’s not to say that, you know, it’s a hopeless case and you can never, you know, make any improvement. I think that there’s some basic things that people can learn um to make their speech more comprehensible and more native-like. And I don’t think that perfectly native-like speech needs to be the goal unless you want to be an actor or a spy. 

Well, yeah, I think there are some ideas that can apply to both adults and—and um children. Um, for one thing, the idea of content-based pronunciation, that can really be true for—for any age. I mean if you like, for example, let’s say one of your students is um a high school student who wears, you know, baggy cargo pants and has tattoos and really likes hip-hop music, I would say that a very good place to start to find a text for that person would be uh to use some music lyrics. Um, in fact, um music is a good way to—to look at um the stress timing. You know, the idea that certain stress syllables are aligned in time and the little words are reduced in between. Um, so—so there’s certainly ways to find meaningful, relevant content no matter what age you’re working with. 

Jazz chants?  Jazz chants, I think that’s great. I—I haven’t used it myself um I—for no special reason. I don’t know. I—but I’m aware of it.  I think it’s probably a—a good idea and it sounds like fun. Maybe I’m not loose enough in the classroom. I think you have to have—be a little bit uh (interruption) out there, you know, to really use that. But…

Oh, my personal soapbox has been and continues to be to simply get people to pay attention to—to these aspects of porosity, intonation, and rhythm. Um, it—not to say that that’s the most important thing in the world, but it’s something that I think has been neglected often. Part of the problem is we don’t have it in our spelling system so it doesn’t show up and people aren’t always aware of it. Um, but I think it’s—it’s one aspect of communication that’s really important. 

Yeah, I’ve—I’ve seen uh—I know there’s some studies of how parents talk to their newborns and they really exaggerate their intonation. You know, the same speaker talking to adult versus talking to their own child, they’ll be a big exaggeration. And, I mean, I—I imagine that that contributes to the child acquiring porosity.  It seems like kids will—will have the proper intonation even, you know, in the first few words. You know, they’ll—they’ll—you know, you can say, “Cookie?”  That means you want one or you can say, “Cookie,” and it means this is one.  So I think it comes very early. 

Yeah, I have been very fortunate. Um, the room where I teach has a visipitch machine. It’s an old visipitch machine but it’s a very nice thing to have in a room. What it does is it has a microphone and a screen and uh you can speak into it and see the—see the wave of your pitch on the screen. Um, and so it—what I sometimes do—a lot of my students are kind of techies, you know, they’re—they’re engineers and stuff, so I teach them how to use the machine. And then I let them play around with it during, you know, if we take a break or before class or something um and just have fun with it. But you can put um—you can—you can put some speech on the screen—the teacher can put some speech on the screen and then the student can—you can change the colors. And then the student’s voice can try to superimpose itself on the teacher’s voice. Um, and another thing you can do um some—some students um have—tend to have a very flat pitch um and it—actually people—I worked with a lot of Indonesian students who seemed to have that. I’m not sure why but just a very flat intonation with not much variation and um I found that by using the machine, um even just to—even—one time I asked my students, “Sing. You really can vary your pitch so let’s sing.”  And I made them all sing, “Happy Birthday.”  And every language seems to have a happy birthday song and we had fund with this. But, you know, just to actually physically use that machine to show a person what it means to raise their pitch can—can be a starting point and later to look at specific patterns on a screen can also be helpful.

I think if—if I were teaching high school, the think I would do the most is use drama activities. Um, I figured it would be great fun to have the students write some skits and then to perform those skits. And since they’re—in performing you practice the thing again, again, and again, that’s a very good time to work into the script, “Hey, you know, here you really need to raise your pitch and make that more—stand out more intonationally or um that kind of thing. So—so I think that’s a—a fun way to—forget about—they can just have fun with it while they’re uh learning without realizing it maybe.

One thing I didn’t like was—I said um—it was the business on stress timing and syllable timing and can we do that again. (interruption) Yeah. Because I said something like Japanese speakers and even Spanish speakers are—and I was—what I meant was because Spanish and European is even closer but it didn’t—I don’t think it came through. I think it came out a little strange. You want to—can we do that one again.

Yeah, I—I think that um the people who have the most trouble with the prosody of English are those that come from language that—languages that are called syllable timed.  Um, what that means is that each syllable has an equal duration. Um, English on the other hand is what’s known as stress-times, which means that um the stress syllables are aligned and timed and the little unstressed syllables just fit in between. Um, um let me see if I can do this by tapping this arm with my hand. Um, uh—this is even worse.  I tried it. Um, yeah. (interruption)  Um, one exercise I’ve done with students is to um use a really simple sentence like dogs chase cats and it’s pretty obvious that those—those are equal in time, each syllable is equal. Dogs chase cats. And then I do—uh gradually I add extra syllables to that little phrase. So the dogs will chase the cats.  It doesn’t add any time to the phrase. Um, the dogs will be chasing the cats. So I’m adding more and more syllables but they’re little grammatical particles or, you know, little tense markers and that kind of thing and they don’t add any time.  And that is really hard for uh people from a language where every syllable is suppose to have its own durational beat. Um, that wasn’t very good either.