ITAIS Newsletter

ITAIS News, Volume 15:1 (March 2010)

by User Not Found | 10/27/2011
In This Issue...
  • Leadership Updates
    • Letter From the Chair
    • Editor's Note
    • Call for Contributions
  • Articles and Information
    • A Report on the Levis Presentation: "Authentic Speech and Teaching Sentence Focus"
    • Speech Accent Archive: ITA Pronunciation Resource With Great Potential
    • Member Profile: Jody Gabler
  • About This Member Community
    • TESOL International Teaching Assistants Interest Section
    • ITAIS Community Leaders, 2009-2010

Leadership Updates Letter From the Chair

Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University,

Hello, ITA-ers!

The post-conference laundry list is now officially available!


The first item on the list is elections. We really appreciate the nominations and the nominees, so thank you, kiitos, danke, arigato (and any other language you can think of) to those of you willing to come on board!

Those newly elected are:

  • Chair-elect: Kathi Cennamo (OSU)
  • Secretary: Kim Kenyon (Cornell)
  • Members At Large: Jeff Lindgren (Minnesota) & Liz Witner (Virginia)
  • Editor-Elect: Rebecca Oreto (Carnegie Mellon)

If you have any questions about any of the positions for future elections, please ask. Maybe we will see you on the ballot one day! We have been incredibly fortunate to have so many dedicated professionals step forward to take the reins and move us forward.


The second item flapping in the wind is the number of TESOL sessions for ITA. As I mentioned in the newsletter last fall, our Interest Section received a very low number of submissions, which translated into being allocated a very small number of sessions.

Please be thinking of how we can expand our current pool of submitters and what we can do as an IS to solve this ongoing dilemma.


Also on the laundry line, like a crisp shirt , is the topic of governing rules. They have been updated and will be submitted to TESOL post haste. We updated names and titles, added job duties, altered the quorum for a vote slightly, and made other minor changes. Much of what needed to be cleaned up was formatting, parallelism, and readability, not really content. The governing rules will be posted to our website when TESOL approves them, or you can email me a request.


One fun garment is the segment in the newsletter that features one of our very own. We are always looking for folks to introduce, so if there is someone you would like to know more about, or if you know someone new to our field, please send their names to the editor elect, Anne Halbert, at It’s so nice to put a face to the names we see on the e-list but may not meet at the conference.


One last item, perhaps a pair of socks, is looking at our current topics and toward the future. The ITA e-list has been full of interesting topics, and by following along, one can see trends begin to emerge. Testing and placement is always a hot topic, as is oral language. It is always interesting to see how universities’ stances on international faculty, as opposed to teaching assistants, change. Naturally, funding continues to be an issue, but with such a strong group of innovators just an e-mail message away, we can find creative ways to prevail.


As always, the newsletter this month contains relevant and useful information. Enjoy reading!

Editor's Note

Kate Martin, University of Minnesota,

In this issue, University of Minnesota colleagues Barbara Beers, Colleen Meyers, and Douglas Margolis report on instructional ideas and resources taken from sessions they attended at the Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference in Ames, Iowa, in September 2009.

Our Member Profile piece features Cornell University’s Jody Gabler. In Boston, she and Cornell ITA Program Director Kim Kenyon presented a pilot project of a blended (i.e., online + in person) 3-week course for ITAs.

I hope you will consider contributing a piece to this newsletter next year. Voices of experience and new perspectives alike are encouraged!

[Articles that appear in the ITAIS e-newsletter with bylines are not copyrighted by TESOL or the interest section. Authors retain copyright of their own work. Although TESOL encourages readers to share the contents of the newsletter with interested colleagues and students, articles may not be reprinted or posted online without the express written permission of the author.]

Call for Contributions

The ITAIS newsletter encourages submission of articles and reviews on topics of significance to ITA professionals.

Articles, including program descriptions, course descriptions, best practices, teaching techniques, or editorials on any topic of interest to ITA practitioners, are all welcomed. Collaborative authorship among ITA professionals and/or ITAs themselves is encouraged.

Reviews that provide analysis relevant to the practice and theory of ITA education are sought. Writers may review books, articles, resources, technologies, Web sites, or conferences.

Please send your contributions for the 2010-2011 issues to Anne Halbert at Deadlines are August 15, 2010, and January 15, 2011.

Articles and Information A Report on the Levis Presentation: "Authentic Speech and Teaching Sentence Focus"

Barbara Beers, University of Minnesota,

One of the most useful presentations at the 2009 Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference in Ames, Iowa, was given by John Levis on behalf of Greta Muller Levis and himself. They looked at authentic examples of sentence focus (also known by various other names) and considered whether to use authentic language for creating practice materials for learning and using sentence focus. I am writing this article to share the useful information that was presented. The material that follows is taken directly from their PowerPoint slides. Thank you to John Levis for providing them to me so that I could pass the information on to you in as authentic a manner as possible.



  • Sentence focus is the use of pitch and length to draw the listener’s attention to certain words or syllables.
  • It usually falls on one word in a thought group; which word depends on the structure of the discourse context.


  • Sentence focus marks the relative importance of information and improves listener comprehension (L. Hahn, 2004).
  • Sentence focus is very learnable (Pennington & Ellis, 2000; M. K. Hahn, 2002).
  • Sentence focus is important for [both] ESL and EIL contexts (L. Hahn, 2004; Jenkins, 2004).

General Placement Rules

  • Focus usually falls on the last content word (n, v, adj, adv) of new information.
  • Discourse organization in English normally pushes old information to the beginning of a thought group, new information to the end.
  • Thus, focus usually falls on the last content word in a thought group. In a study of the prosody of natural speech, Crystal (1969) said: “Less than 10 percent of all nuclei have tails with stressed syllables on the following words. This is a remarkably low proportion, and the generalisation that tonicity falls on the last lexical item is therefore a most reliable one” (p. 224). (Translation: Over 90 percent of utterances have focus on the last content word. This makes the last content word principle an excellent rule.)



  • To come up with new practice materials that illustrated focus on new information followed by old information within one thought group
  • To create materials that used authentic language or at least reflected actual language use


  • Watched and transcribed a lot of online lectures from University of California (UC) Berkeley classes and from UC Television (both hosted by YouTube)
  • Watched and transcribed interactive, nonacademic language, ultimately using a Comedy Central interview between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer


Some transcriptions were presented from both genres. They compared the “expected” focus words and then the “actual” words that the speaker emphasized. Of course they were not completely the same. Expected results are underlined; actual focus words are in bold. Often they are one and the same, but not always.

1. There may be more than one focus in a thought group:

Academic lectures: “understanding the factors that shape its evolution . . . especially the environmental ones . . . and why the animal actuallylooks the way it does . . . and behaves the way it does . . . you can’t answer those questions without a long-term study”

 Nonacademic interview: “CNBC . . . could be . . . an incredibly . . . powerful tool of illumination . . . for people that believe that . . . there are twomarkets”

2. Nonfinal focus may occur with new information following (academic lectures)

“addressing certain behavioral questions . . . they’re absolutely essential . . . for understanding how an animal copes with life”

3. There may be multiple contrasts within a thought group (interview)

“it feels like . . . we are capitalizing . . . your adventure . . . by . . . our pension”

4. Idioms can have their own focal pattern, e.g., feels like (interview)

“So what it feels like to us . . . and I’m speaking purely as a layman . . . it feels like”

This is similar to compound nouns (uptick rule) and phrasal verbs

5. Shell nouns can act like pronouns (interview). NOTE: Shell nouns are nouns that look like content words but are categorical placeholders whose content is context-dependent.

But my second thing is . . .

. . . It’s a technical thing.

Final uses of thing, stuff, guys, these guys all are consistently de-stressed in the Daily Show text.


Yes, but in a limited way. Why?

1. Any given text may have only one or two examples of new information back from the end with old information following.

2. Most old information is in pro-forms or in shell nouns such as thing.

3. Multiple focus points are not unusual in authentic discourse.

4. Any given text that seems suitable at first listening often includes something weird, such as

  • pronunciation points not yet taught, such as compound nouns and stress idioms
  • obscure content or difficult vocabulary
  • exophoric referents (reference to things outside the text)
  • unusual focus that doesn’t seem to fit the rules


  • We need to put sufficient emphasis on the 90 percent, including plenty of opportunity for practicing de-stress of final pro-forms
  • New information and contrast should be taught separately after the 90 percent rule is in place

Barbara Beers has worked in the ITA program at the University of Minnesota for the past 10 years.

NOTE: Information about the Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching conference in September 2010 can be found at


Crystal, D. (1969). Prosodic systems and intonation in English. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 1.

Hahn, L. (2004). Primary stress and intelligibility: Research to motivate the teaching of suprasegmentals. TESOL Quarterly, 38, 201-223.

Hahn, M. K. (2002). The persistence of learned primary phrase stress patterns among learners of English. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jenkins, J. (2004). Research in teaching pronunciation and intonation. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 109–125.

Pennington, M., & Ellis, N. (2000). Cantonese speakers’ memory for English sentences with prosodic cues. The Modern Language Journal, 84, 372-389.

Speech Accent Archive: ITA Pronunciation Resource With Great Potential

Colleen Meyers,, and Douglas Margolis,, University of Minnesota

Dr. Steven Weinberger, George Mason University, discussed the Speech Accent Archive project at the Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference in Ames, Iowa, in September 2009. His presentation was entitled “The Speech Accent Archive: A Resource for Pronunciation Teachers.” This valuable resource is well suited to ITA segmental pronunciation and can be adapted to suprasegmental analysis.


According to the Web site (

The speech accent archive is established to uniformly exhibit a large set of speech accents from a variety of language backgrounds. Native and nonnative speakers of English all read the same English paragraph and are carefully recorded.1 The archive is constructed as a teaching tool and as a research tool. It is meant to be used by linguists as well as other people who simply wish to listen to and compare the accents of different English speakers.

The paragraph reads:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.


This resource may benefit ITA instructors in the following ways:

  • Assessment and diagnosis. Instructors can access recordings of speakers that share the same language background as their students for a quick analysis.
  • Awareness of phonetic speech patterns. The site has found 27 patterns common to the languages that have been studied so far, indicating such patterns are finite.
  • Justification of—or challenge to—textbook statements regarding a wide variety of languages; for example, do word final stops always become fricatives in the speech of Vietnamese learners of English? Findings here suggest that textbooks may not always be accurate in their generalizations.


This resource may benefit ITAs/prospective ITAs in the following ways:

  • Consciousness-raising
  • Self-diagnosis
  • Exposure to a variety of native speaker accents (Amsberry, 2008; Derwing, Rossiter, & Munro, 2002)
  • Source of native speaker variation

In terms of the first two areas, users could try to find the accent that most closely represents their own, which could be obvious by the labels but still be informative. Although suprasegmentals are not a feature of the site, students could still examine how the speakers compare in terms of stress, rhythm, and intonation.

Regarding the last two areas, students could listen to accents, label them, and then pinpoint the differences that they might be hearing in their environment. Doing so might make them more attentive to their own accent and specific issues that they might want to address.


This Web site has three main limitations:

  • Segmental focus. The transcriptions do not deal with stress or tone.
  • Read speech. The speech is read so it may not be typical of errors made by ITAs in their free speech.
  • Contrived speech. The paragraph was written with English segmentals, particularly clusters, in mind. One might expect this to be very contrived; however, the frequency of segments generally matches the overall frequency of most spoken English corpora.

The site does provide some information on syllable structure, which will be developed; however, there is nothing so far on suprasegmentals. As mentioned above, this could be addressed by asking students to analyze recordings based on suprasegmental features.


In spite of the limitations, the Speech Accent Archive offers both ITA instructors and students a valuable resource for assessing the most common segmental challenges of speakers of the world’s languages. Even though the recordings are not transcribed for stress or tone, instructors and students can use the examples to discuss elements of stress, rhythm, and intonation. Such a close examination of pronunciation without it being too personal could be very helpful to some students. The site also provides numerous examples of several varieties of English so that users can compare and contrast the phonetic speech patterns of the target language with their native language.

Colleen Meyers is an instructor at the Center for Teaching & Learning at the University of Minnesota where she teaches a practicum course for ITAs and prospective ITAs, consults with international graduate students/faculty, and facilitates workshops on language, teaching, and culture.

Douglas Margolis teaches for the Program in Second Language Studies at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on pronunciation, second language acquisition, assessment, CALL, and language teaching methodology.


Amsberry, D. (2008). Using effective listening skills with international students. Reference Services Review, 37, 10-19.

Derwing, T., Rossiter, M., & Munro, M. (2002). Teaching native speakers to listen to foreign-accented speech. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 23, 245-259.

George Mason University. (2010). Speech Accent Archive [Web site].

Member Profile: Jody Gabler

Kate Martin,

Kate Martin: Jody, I appreciate your agreeing to be featured in this issue. Can we start with just a brief bio?

Jody Gabler: Sure, it’s my pleasure.

I grew up in Minnesota and studied Latin American history and Spanish at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small Swedish Lutheran school. After college I spent a year in the AmeriCorps VISTA program in Minneapolis, working with governmental programs for immigrants and refugees. My work with AmeriCorps led to a position at a high school for immigrant students, where I was responsible for teaching English reading, writing, and grammar. I loved the job but quickly realized that training beyond being a native speaker was necessary in order to be an effective teacher, so I decided to return to school for an MA in TESOL.

While getting my MA at American University in Washington, DC, I worked at a language institute for 2 years and taught at Georgetown University for one summer. At Georgetown, I had the rare opportunity to create and pilot my own class. I decided to create a course centered on pronunciation through the use of readers’ theater drama scripts. The course was a very positive experience, and I decided that oral communication was an area that I’d like to focus on within TESOL.

Currently, as a lecturer with Cornell’s Center for Teaching Excellence ITA program, I teach courses for ITAs and work with the other Center staff to develop and facilitate programming for graduate students and faculty who are interested in exploring best practices and new ideas in teaching in higher education.

KM: One of the reasons Mary Jetter (immediate past chair) suggested you for this column was the value of your perspective as a relative newcomer to the field of ITA development, though you’ve been teaching secondary and university ESL since 2003. Have you had any “Aha!” moments working with international TAs that you think would be surprising to those of us who have been doing this work for a decade or more?

JG: I can’t think of a specific “Aha!” moment, but it has been very interesting to learn more about the educational cultures of my students’ home countries and how they compare to the typical U.S. classroom culture. Before working with an ITA program, I hadn’t considered all of the intricacies of classroom interaction, such as appropriate use of body language, tone of voice, and register, but I now realize how essential these aspects are for ITAs to portray a confident, approachable, and knowledgeable teaching persona.

KM: What courses do you teach at Cornell?

JG: At Cornell, we offer four semester-long courses for ITAs. Each course focuses on oral communication and specific aspects of pedagogy and cross-cultural classroom dynamics. Until now, I have taught the first- and second-semester courses, but it’s possible that I will work with the other courses in the future. I’ve also taught in Cornell’s summer program, which is a fun and intensive 2-week program for international students who have just arrived in the United States and plan to be a TA within their first year.

KM: What ideas, methods, or technologies have you been experimenting with lately in your own teaching?

JG: I’ve been particularly interested in blended learning lately and how to best utilize online course management systems to work with ITAs on oral communication. Last summer, I took the lead on a project to develop and pilot a 3-week institute for ITAs that included both face-to-face classes and online components using Blackboard. I will be presenting on the project at TESOL in Boston this spring along with Kim Kenyon, the director of Cornell’s ITA program, and we plan to pilot a second session of the institute this coming summer.

KM: Can you relate either an extremely challenging or rewarding experience you’ve had as a teacher?

JG: A couple of years ago, I returned to Minneapolis to coordinate a community-based ESL program. One day I got a call from a social worker who wanted to help some of his clients enroll in my program. After a few minutes, I realized that the social worker was one of my former high school students! He had completed college and was working with members of his local East African community. With so many challenges for young immigrant students, it was great to see that he had been successful and was helping others to do the same.

KM: Is there anything you’d like our colleagues to know about you that I haven’t asked yet?

JG: It was wonderful to meet many of you in Denver last year, and seeing the ITA group again in Boston! I feel very fortunate to be a part of such an enthusiastic and collaborative group of professionals.

About This Member Community TESOL International Teaching Assistants Interest Section

The International Teaching Assistants Interest Section (ITAIS) serves TESOL members who work with nonnative-English-speaking teaching assistants as researchers, teachers, and program administrators.

The ITAIS seeks to encourage the sharing of expertise and specialized knowledge among ITA practitioners, to promote research into the spoken discourse of ITAs and the nature of classroom communication, and to foster communication between researchers and practitioners.

ITAIS Community Leaders, 2009-2010

Past Chair: Mary Jetter, University of Minnesota,

Chair: Cheryl Ernst, Southern Illinois University,

Chair-Elect: Keith Otto, SUNY-Buffalo,

Secretary: Stew Markel, Cornell University,

Members at Large: Pamela Pollock, Cornell University,

Zeynep Altinsel, Michigan State University,

Historians: Theresa Pettit, Cornell University,

Susy Sarwak, Ohio State University,

Editor: Kate Martin, University of Minnesota,

Editor-Elect: Anne Halbert, University of Connecticut,

Webmaster: Diane Cotsonas, University of Utah,

E-List Manager: Jules Gliesche, University of Florida-Gainesville,

Discussion e-list: Visit to subscribe to ITAIS-L, the discussion list for the community, or visit if already subscribed.