Sound Collaboration: The Design and Implementation of an Online Phonetics Course

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

A phonetics course is necessary for every language teacher-training program. We argue that phonetic training where students engage in real-life problems solving through peer-to-peer interaction is a valuable learning experience. We report on how such a course is successfully designed and implemented entirely online using a unique collaborative approach.

Sponsored By


Steven H. Weinberger is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at George Mason University. He earned his Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1988 from the University of Washington in Seattle, and has taught at George Mason since 1989. He teaches graduate and undergraduate level courses in phonetics, phonology, second language acquisition, and exceptional phonologies. His principle research deals with language sound systems, exceptional phonologies, adult second language learning, and foreign accents. He is co-editor of Interlanguage Phonology (1987). He is also the principal investigator and administrator of the Speech Accent Archive.
Hussain Almalki earned his PhD in Linguistics from George Mason University. He completed his masters degree in Linguistics from Florida International University in 2014. He has more than 4 years of teaching experience, where he taught several online and face to face classes. Hussain's research and teaching interests include phonetics and phonology and language acquisition. He also has special interests in digital scholarship and distance learning education.
Larisa A. Olesova, Ph.D., is Senior Instructional Designer and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University. Her research focuses on distance education, specifically asynchronous online learning environments.

Extended Abstract

According to the 2017 New Media Consortium Horizon Report, more leaders across the globe emphasize student active learning to advance cultures of innovation. Interaction, as an essential part of student active learning, has become an important component to promote meaningful learning in online courses (Becker et al., 2017). To support student active learning, studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of peer-to-peer collaboration (Lim, Jeong, Hall, & Freed, 2017; Salter & Conneely, 2015; Xie, Yu, & Bradshaw, 2014). The use of asynchronous collaborative online tools, such as wikis and discussion boards has also demonstrated that students who are usually quiet in traditional classrooms become more active and frequently interact with others online (Cheng, Paré, Collimore, & Joordens, 2011).

Phonetics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the study of speech sounds. College-level students who aim to become language teachers need to understand how speech sounds are made, and how to best convey this knowledge to their own language-learning students. Language teachers also need to be able to diagnose various pronunciation problems. In this presentation we report on a unique online phonetics class that trains students in close listening, analysis, and diagnostics.  We discuss three characteristics to be included in an online phonetics course: the description and learning of the sounds of the world’s languages, the peer-to-peer technology-based collaborative procedures to narrowly transcribe a wide variety of English speech, and the course design to engage online students. We pay particular attention to non-native English-speaking international students whose goal is to teach ESL in their home countries.

This course is part of our fully-online TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) Certificate program at George Mason University. It utilizes a constellation of publicly available software programs that enhance learning and analysis. We use smartphone technology for quality sound recording, speech analysis tools such as PRAAT (Boersma & Weenink, 2015) to help students argue for their sound choices, and unicode font sets for phonetic transcription sharing. We also use our newly designed online phonetic transcriber ( as a self-paced tutorial in the phonetic transcription of second language speech. We demonstrate and discuss the use of all of these tools used by students when they worked together in this online course.

The outcomes are described, with justifications and specific methods for measuring them. Particular attention is devoted to a discussion of a unique collaborative online project through wiki and discussion boards that at once trains students in the phonetic analysis of non-native speech which includes the following skills:  1) speech elicitation and digital recording, 2) collaborative online phonetic transcription, 3) instrumental acoustic analysis of the digitized speech, 4) collaborative formulation of a set of phonological generalizations that characterize the speech pattern of the speaker, 5) attribution of  generalizations to a given set of principles, such as language transfer and language universals, 6) selection of a subset of these generalizations for teaching intervention, and 7) presentation of a short lesson plan in instruction via synchronous mode of delivery. The results of these analyses are then contributed to the online database the speech accent archive (, thereby giving students ownership of a publicly available online archive.

This presentation emphasizes the online pathway to the learning of narrow transcription, and this leads to enhanced listening and analysis (Ball et. al. 2009).  We show that peer-to-peer collaboration is vital for any asynchronous online class. This transcription enterprise is a perfect vehicle for this collaboration (Shriberg et. al., 1987). The presentation concludes with residual issues and future directions of the online phonetics class.

Even though our current work deals with a college-level phonetics class, there are clear extrapolations to other online courses. Participants, including faculty, design thinkers and instructional designers from any knowledge level, will be introduced to several strategies for designing and implementing a meaningful collaborative learning environment for asynchronous online courses. Further, participants will be presented with various ways for promoting and maintaining online student engagement.

We plan to involve the audience in a small activity where they will listen to various native and non-native English accents. In order to understand the speech characteristics of these accents, we will direct the audience members to closely determine what makes each accent different. In this way, we will allow the audience to engage with the sounds and begin to analyze the sound differences. This is precisely what is involved in phonetic transcription. The final 10 minutes will be dedicated for Q&A, where the presenters will encourage attendees to ask questions or provide comments that they considered during their 5-minute quiet reflection time. Should there be few questions, the presenters will engage attendees by asking them to think about an online class they are teaching and share their experiences (successes and/or challenges) in creating an engaging collaborative environment for their online students.



Ball, M., Muller, N., Klopfenstein, M., and Rutter, B., (2009). The importance of narrow phonetic transcription for highly unintelligible speech: Some examples. Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, 34(2), 1-7.

Becker, S. A., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall, C. G., & Ananthanarayanan, V.  (2017). NMC horizon report: 2017 higher education edition (pp. 1-60). The New Media Consortium. Retrieved from

Boersma, P., & Weenink, D. (2015) Praat: doing phonetics by computer, (Version 5.4.22)

Cheng, C. K., Paré, D. E., Collimore, L. M., & Joordens, S. (2011). Assessing the effectiveness of a voluntary online discussion forum on improving students’ course performance. Computers & Education, 56(1), 253–261.

Lim, J., Jeong, A. C., Hall, B. M., & Freed, S. (2017). Intersubjective and discussion characteristics in online courses. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 18(1), 29-44.

Salter, N.P., & Conneely, M.R. (2015). Structured and unstructured discussion forum as tools for student engagement. Computers in Human Behavior, 46, 18-25.

Shriberg, L., Hinke, R., and Trost-Steffen, C., (1987). A procedure to select and train persons for narrow phonetic transcription by consensus. Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 1(2), 171-189.

Xie, K., Yu, C., & Bradshaw, A. C. (2014). Impacts of role assignment and participation in asynchronous discussions in college-level online classes. The Internet and Higher Education, 20, 10-19.