Vol. 5. No. 1 R-6 April 2001
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Targeting Pronunciation: The Intonation, Sounds, and Rhythm of American English

Sue F. Miller (2000)
Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company
ISBN: 0-395-90331-9 (paper)
Pp. 270
Price: $18.87

Teacher's Manual
ISBN 0-395-90332-7 (paper)
Pp. 86
Price: $8.97

Cassettes (4)
ISBN 0-395-90333-5
Price: $49.77

As most experienced ESL teachers are aware, pronunciation is the area of language learning most resistant to change or improvement. By the time international students arrive in programs in the United States, they have probably already developed over a number of years speech habits which have fossilized and become progressively harder to unlearn or change without serious and concerted effort. This problem is often compounded by the students' own lack of awareness of their communication and pronunciation problems. They may well acknowledge in a general way that they have trouble being understood, but they do not know what their specific problems are and have no idea how to improve their comprehensibility. While they may focus on their inability to differentiate /l/ from /r/ or /p/ from/b/, it is in fact much more likely that their overall patterns of intonation, rhythm, and stress are the real culprits in their communication difficulties. These suprasegmental problems affect not only their own speaking skills, but also affect their comprehension of native speakers.

Targeting Pronunciation is a new text created to deal with these types of problems through a progression from controlled exercises to communicative and confidence-building activities which stress self-monitoring and recycling of previously learned material. Aimed at intermediate and advanced learners of English, the text is suitable for students in both general and academic English programs in the United States and could also be used for international teaching assistant (ITA) fluency courses with some supplementary materials to meet specific course goals. The level of vocabulary is appropriate to intermediate students who would not be distracted from the pronunciation focus by trying to figure out word meanings. In addition, the communicative exercises and activities are general enough to cover the experiences of most students, whether in the university or in the workplace. [-1-]

There are four specific goals listed for the textbook:

  1. "to promote clear effective communication, with the understanding that native-like speech is neither essential nor realistic for most people learning a new language" (p. vii). The introduction for the student stresses that accents are normal for both native speakers and non-native speakers and that it is probably not realistic, nor is it necessary, to expect to sound like a native speaker. A reasonable and attainable goal, however, is to be able to communicate as clearly and as effectively as possible for the learner's own purposes.
  2. "to reach beyond the classroom by addressing what students can do outside of class on their own to make lasting changes in their pronunciation" (p. vii). This text clearly promotes the transition from in-class learning to out-of-class real practice. Each chapter contains a section entitled "On Your Own," which lists five choices for out-of-class activities. These may range from very general "small talk" sessions to specific role plays in the community. Reflections on these activities are recorded on a Talk Times Plan in the appendix, in which students record their goal, a description of the speech situation, notes about what happened during the interaction, and a self-assessment of their own comfort level.
  3. "to encourage students to take responsibility for their pronunciation changes by discovering their own errors, identifying their most important targets, practicing on their own, and slowly incorporating the newly learned pronunciation into everyday life" (p. vii). From the beginning of the textbook, students are urged repeatedly to monitor their own pronunciation and practice their speaking skills as much as possible outside the classroom if they are going to effect any significant change in their communicative ability. The text stresses that changing pronunciation habits is hard work and requires time and effort from the student. The many and varied activities in the book that require students to discover and correct their own errors ensure that students are given plenty of practice in class and many ideas for real communication outside class. However, the motivation, time, and energy for maximizing these opportunities are clearly the responsibilities of the student.
  4. "to promote self-confidence and increase the student's comfort when speaking English" (p. vii). The types of activities included in the textbook give many opportunities for students to experience success and thereby improve their self-confidence in daily encounters with native speakers by gradually building skills in listening and speaking in both formal and informal situations.

The Targeting Pronunciation textbook is divided into 12 sections which deal primarily with suprasegmentals, such as word and sentence stress, speech rhythm, intonation, linking, and thought groups. The first chapter provides the basis for the entire textbook by surveying the students' goals, testing students' listening skills, recording a speech sample for teacher feedback, and introducing briefly the content and goals of the textbook. Chapters 2 to 12 build pronunciation awareness and practice through teaching and listening sections; guided individual and pair exercises; communicative pair and group activities such as discussions, short presentations, role plays, and information gaps; a chapter review; and follow-up practice activities. Each chapter contains enough material for a teacher or student to be able to pick and choose what seems most appropriate. It is also easy for a teacher to supplement the chapters with additional materials, although the textbook is thorough enough to be used alone. What differentiates this text from others is the inclusion of poems, songs, and chants in almost every chapter and the multisensory approach espoused by the author. This approach leads students to trace stress and rhythm patterns, tap their hands and feet, and use rhythmic gestures and speech to get a real feel for the melody of the English language. Another important component of each chapter is the focus placed on students' making audiotaped recordings to evaluate their own progress on the targeted skills. [-2-]

At the end of the textbook are several appendices to supplement the main text. Appendix A gives a glossary of all terms used in the textbook that may need clarification for the student, with examples. Appendix B contains user-friendly photocopiable checklists, charts, and forms for students to complete. Appendices C and D give 20 pages of optional practice in consonants and vowels, respectively.

The textbook is used in conjunction with a set of 4 audiotapes or a CD, and a teacher's manual that provides directions and suggestions (geared generally to the inexperienced teacher) for the textbook activities. In addition, the manual contains an answer key, which is also downloadable from the textbook website at http://college.hmco.com/esl/miller/index.htm. Unfortunately, the website is the weakest part of the Targeting Pronunciation package, giving the impression that it was thrown together as an afterthought to follow the trend of including a website with new ESL textbooks. Apart from the answer key, which is useful to students working individually with the textbook, the only other materials are a series of readings that correlate poorly with the text. It is to be hoped, however, that the website will continue to be developed and will provide useful supplementary material in the future.

It is difficult to find a pronunciation textbook that engages students' attention for a semester-long course. Targeting Pronunciation, however, did just that with my group of Asian graduate students whose pronunciation and listening skills were quite low. All of them improved their listening scores substantially on the pre- and post-listening test and about half of them were able to score 50 on the Institutional SPEAK test. They reported that the activities in the textbook made them aware of their problems and offered them ways to go about improving them. They enjoyed the out-of-class activities which forced them to interact with native speakers, rather than avoiding them out of embarassment, which had been their previous strategy. They described in their reflection journals increasingly successful encounters with plumbers, landlords, and shop assistants, and by the end of the semester, they showed marked improvement in their level of self-confidence when speaking English. Many of them also reported that they could understand informal speech much more easily, having learned about reductions, flaps, syllabic /n/, and other speech realities not learned in textbooks overseas.

For both the experienced and inexperienced teacher, Targeting Pronunciation offers new and interesting material arranged in a different (though somewhat confusing) format from its competitors. The material is adaptable, flexible, and enjoyable to teach. For the student, the text appears to be relatively successful in promoting effective and clear communication through an emphasis on self-monitoring and personal responsibility for pronunciation improvement.

Helen Huntley
West Virginia University
<hhuntley@mail.wvu.edu >

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