TESOL 2015: Focus on Speaking


TESOL 2015 Convention Blog Post

On Friday and Saturday, I attended many wonderful presentations with a focus on speaking. Here are three of them that I found most useful, and what I learned; I hope it can help you in your teaching:

Replacing “Long” and “Short” With the Color Vowel Chart

Some of my students love IPA, and others view it as an additional language they have to acquire for my class. All of my students have difficulty remembering how to say the anchor words for each of the symbols. On Friday morning, I attended a session called “Replacing ‘Long’ and ‘Short’ with the Color Vowel Chart,” presented by Karen Taylor. The Color Vowel Chart is a new way to represent vowel sounds to students.

Most of the attendees at the session were K–12 teachers, and many of them agreed that the IPA system is too complex for young children to understand. Instead of representing vowel sounds with symbols, the Color Vowel chart represents vowel sounds with colors. Students are more likely to recognize the correct pronunciation of colors than they are to memorize the pronunciation of other anchor words. An especially useful attribute of the Color Vowel Chart is that teachers can model the positions of the tongue with their arms. I have always found it difficult to communicate with students about tongue position, but the Chart provides a model of how to move in and out of different vowel sounds.

Karen Taylor was a dynamic speaker, and the presentation was full of audience participation, including speaking, arm-flapping, and laughter. Later, I visited the Color Vowel Chart booth in the exhibit hall, received answers to my questions, and bought a binder insert of the chart. I plan to continue using IPA in conjunction with the chart, but I believe the addition of the chart will make pronunciation analysis more comprehensible for my students, and it is quite a useful tool for teachers of younger students.

Pedagogical Priorities for Improving Pronunciation, Listening, and Speaking Skills

Friday afternoon, I went to an informative session called “Pedagogical Priorities for Improving Pronunciation, Listening, and Speaking Skills.” Four well-known experts spoke about a variety of teaching methods, and I found the presentation by Marnie Reed especially helpful. Reed pointed out that the traditional method of teaching students to interpret intonation has an inappropriate focus. Instead of basing the interpretation on the speaker’s perceived attitude, teachers should emphasize the specific purposes of nonstandard intonation.

Reed pointed out that we need to help our students recognize that English has an extremely wide range of pitch; our language is more musical than other languages. Students may complain about feeling silly when they speak in such a melodic way, but noticing intonation patterns is essential to comprehension. Students may understand all of the words in a sentence they hear, but they might miss the actual meaning of the entire sentence if the intonation pattern is not standard. We need to help our students to understand that using nonstandard intonation can reinforce, mitigate, or undermine the meaning of a sentence.

To achieve this goal, we can ask students to answer questions that reveal their comprehension of the sentences they hear. For example, if the word “teacher” is stressed in the sentence “The teacher didn’t grade all of our papers,” many students may believe that the papers were not graded, when in fact the change in intonation on the word “teacher” implies that the papers were graded by someone else.

What a Character: Improving Pronunciation Using Suprasegmentals in Role-Plays

Two particularly talented presenters on Saturday morning were Laura Ramm and Laura Ballard, who led a presentation called “What a Character: Improving Pronunciation Using Suprasegmentals in Role-Plays.” The anticipation that built up in the audience as we learned more about this novel, engaging, skills-integrated technique was a testament to its potential for motivating our students to practice extemporaneous English.

These two instructors teach a college-level course with a curriculum centered around an end-of-semester performance evaluation. For 8 weeks, students prepare for a performance, such as a murder mystery, by studying question formation and prosody and sharpening their listening skills. At the end of the class, students can confidently participate in a fantasy role-play, all the while using their knowledge of English to accomplish goals, guard secrets, and logically determine the culprit. What a wonderful way to lower the affective filter of college students while they produce spontaneous, meaningful language! My only disappointment was not being able to simulate the role-play during the session!


Now that I’m back at work at the University of Missouri, I’m thankful that I was able to “recharge my teaching batteries” at the convention. Our Intensive English Program is abuzz with conversations about the most useful convention sessions and our travel experiences. I have already implemented an activity involving proverbs that I learned about at the convention, and I’m looking forward to introducing my students to the Color Vowel Chart in the coming weeks.

I hope you had an equally rewarding experience! If you have any speaking takeaways from convention that you’d like to share with us, please do, in the comments section, below!

About Farrah Littlepage

Farrah Littlepage
Farrah Littlepage holds a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She has taught English at the high school, adult education, and university levels. Her main interests are pronunciation, collaborative learning, technology use in the classroom, and working with ITAs. Currently, Farrah is a lecturer at the University of Missouri in the Intensive English Program and the English Language Support Program. She is enrolled in the TESOL Online Teaching Certificate Program.
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