Preparation for phonetic transcription: an exercise in student engagement by Professor Jane Setter

As a recipient of funding under the PLanT (Partnerships in Learning and Teaching) scheme (PLANT Projects Scheme), I am delighted to be able to report on the project – which is still a bit of a work in progress.  The PLANT awards are aimed at facilitating projects which get students involved with staff as partners in aspects of T&L at Reading, which is an excellent idea, as students have a unique perspective which can often take lecturing staff in directions they’d not thought about before.

This post looks at how students in the second year of their BA programme in English Language became involved in the support of first year students’ transition to the more demanding second year module in English Phonology (LS2EP).

As part of the assessment for the module, students undertake an in-class dictation test during Week 10 of the Autumn term in which they are expected to transcribe a spoken passage using broad phonetic transcription, which I train them to do during the module. This part of the assessment is worth 30% of the module mark. I deliver the assessment as a live dictation, which scares some of the students witless but is an important fieldwork skill.

In the post-exams period of the summer term, first year students on our programmes have preparatory sessions in English Grammar (mostly parsing technique) and do additional work on academic study skills (there are Academic Writing sessions throughout the first year of the programme). When our department offered programmes in Linguistics, it was usual for first year students to do post-exams sessions in articulatory and acoustic general phonetics. As students on the BA in English Language are no longer required to study general phonetics, this practice was phased out when the programmes in Linguistics were lost.

During the undergraduate Student Staff Liaison Committee meeting of the Autumn term 2013/12, student representatives in the second year cohort asked whether there could be preparatory sessions in English transcription similar to the parsing sessions held for grammar.  Not only this, they wanted to be involved in the development of these sessions.  Students proposed that main aims of the post-exams sessions would be 1) to help first year students understand what would be expected of them in the English Phonology module, and 2) to give students resources, or indicate where resources could be found, which they could access prior to starting the module in the Autumn term of the second year.  The students also asked if they could have input into the academic content of the sessions, help with materials development, the location of useful resources, and act as facilitators during the sessions. In addition, they asked to come into the first year exam revision lectures at the start of the summer term to encourage first year students to attend the post-exams sessions.

It is worth giving some statistics here which describe performance of the 2012/13 cohort in the dictation test, which is marked out of 100. The average grade was 52.06, with the lowest mark at 3 and the highest at 90. From the entire cohort of students who had taken English Phonology in the Autumn term, three students came forward for this project, with the following marks: 33, 68 and 69; I was surprised but encouraged to have the student with a mark of 33 in the group.  The 2011/12 cohort had performed better on average (66.53) which is one reason why the approach by the 2012/13 students was very welcome.

We first held a group brainstorming session, during which the students proposed some of their own learner strategies for the post-exams sessions, and also discussed what they had found most difficult and what had been more straightforward. For example, it was agreed that learning symbols for vowels had been a challenge. We then discussed what strategies the successful students had used when trying to learn the symbols for the 20 vowels of RP/ BBC English. Students proposed grouping symbols into logical sets and learning them in ‘bite sized’ chunks. This was followed by another discussion of consonant symbols, and so on.

We then covered what resources students had found to be most useful. The Sounds app from Macmillan Education (2011) received most approval; this is a free app for iPhone, iPad or Android which allows you to see the phoneme symbols for English and hear the sound associated with each one. It also has some quizzes for practice which are lots of fun.

We developed two 90-minute sessions and then reviewed the content. One student writes (names changed):

Regarding materials, I wondered if Tam, Heather and I should discuss the strategies that we used to help learn the symbols as then you could suggest a few of them in the first session? Also, I know I found the sheet you gave us that broke the symbols down into smaller groups very useful as it made it seem more manageable.

Another student had the following to say:

The ideas and plans look really useful and effective for the revision sessions! I’ll let you know in the meantime if I have any more ideas!

I am delighted that phonetics is so exciting. 🙂

When we ran the sessions, attendance was impressively high, and students engaged well with the activities. At the end of the sessions the first year students told the second years that they had found the sessions really helpful – especially having the second years there to discuss things with them and support them.  Particularly popular was the item on drawing symbols; I gave them lined paper of the kind given out in primary school when children are learning to write English orthographic script, and got them to practice drawing some of the more exotic symbols correctly. Several asked for more lined paper so they could practice at home.

One student raised a very good question in English phonology: is schwa real? I wrote a blog post about this which you might like to read.

I will be following this process up to see whether the students who attended the sessions do any better in the dictation test in the second year module in 2013/14, again involving the 2012/13 students currently engaging in this process to help me collect feedback from the class of 2013/14. However, as the 2011/12 year group’s average score was over 10 marks higher than this year’s, it will be difficult to attribute any improvement directly to this process.

I also intend to run these sessions at the end of 2013/14, although changes in the structure of the academic year from 2014/15 will make it difficult to find the right place for them.

Something else worth mentioning here is that the second year students commented that they felt they had been able to approach the Department because of the generally supportive atmosphere we have. It’s good to know that we’ve generated that kind of environment, and that students feel they are able to suggest improvements in teaching practice.  I for one am very pleased to have had their engagement, and look forward to working with them further.

References

2011. Sounds: the pronunciation app. London: Macmillan Education. (http://www.soundspronapp.com/).

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