Podcasting and Pedagogy

Andrea Harbin (State University of New York, Cortland)

As students of medieval literature ourselves, we have, almost without exception, had to memorize the first part of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  This experience, for me, was wonderful and is part of why I turned to medieval literature as a graduate student.  I still recall driving around in my little green bug reciting the prologue for my own amusement.  Yet that memorization process is not always that positive experience, nor does it always serve to familiarize students enough with Middle English that they feel comfortable reading it.   As a teacher in a program that largely trains high school teachers, I have been looking for a way to redesign this traditional assignment in the hopes that it will help these future teachers become comfortable enough with their pronunciation that they will feel confident in front of their own classrooms.  To this end, for the past two years, I have been developing this assignment, in which students use podcasting to perfect their own readings of Middle English.  These podcasts are enhanced with slides showing the text of the reading (and much more from my more creative students).  This paper addresses this assignment, its benefits, pitfalls, and processes.  I’m hoping that this will lead to a larger discussion of the uses of technology in teaching medieval literature.

               The benefits of learning to pronounce Middle English effectively

One of the questions that arises here is why do we still want our students to gain some facility with the reading and pronunciation of Middle English?  Is this simply a dogged adherence to the methods by which we ourselves were taught, or is there a sound pedagogical reasoning behind asking our students to engage with not only the sense of the text but the sound of it as well?  After all, some students might argue, if they can correctly read and understand the text in Middle English, what does it matter if they cannot speak it with some skill?  My own answer to that question is multiplex.  In my teaching of medieval literature in general, one of my aims is to help my students gain a sense of the culture that surrounds the texts themselves.  For American students in particular, the medieval period can seem unreal – fantastic – because here we have no medieval architecture to make the period seem more real.  In an attempt to remedy this, in my Middle English classes, we explore not only the language and literature, but some of the historical, social, archeological, architectural, and artistic aspects of 14th century England as well.  For American students, this grounding of the works in the culture seems particularly important.  Engaging the students with the sound of the language is an important element of this cultural grounding.  What I hope they come to realize is that this is not just modern English with funny spellings and odd vocabulary but a different language with its own sounds and grammatical structures.  Furthermore, Middle English literature comes from a culture in which orality was still primary.  Unlike our own culture that emphasized silent reading, reading in 14th century England was largely aloud, as illustrated by the famous image of Chaucer reading aloud (from the Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 61 Troilus and Crisede [1] ). [2] An understanding of the poetics of Middle English, thus, should consider the sounds of the language as surely 14th century poets did.   Barbara Stevenson notes in her discussion of the teaching of Chaucer’s language:

Hypertext literacy theorists establish parallels between medieval manuscripts and current multimedia; both can employ a synthesis of word, image and icon, and sound.  Contrasting pages from a facsimile of the Ellesmere manuscript with the students’ own Riverside Chaucer edition reinforces the point, as does demonstrating the hypertext edition of The Book of the Duchess (McGillivray) [3] .  The images from this edition are not as vivid as those in the Ellesmere, but the students can hear Chaucer’s poem read aloud, illuminating the importance of sound to medieval poetry. [4]

In bringing together manuscript examples, cultural artifacts, history, and language, I have been aiming for a multimodal approach to the study of Middle English language and literature that synthesizes the best of both current pedagogical emphasis on multi-modal learning and the multi-sensory nature of medieval literature itself.

Stevenson, in her approach to teaching Middle English, turns to composition studies for a model of instruction that emphasizes process rather than product.  She says “Learning language is now recognized as an active process, recursive as opposed to linear, that takes place in a social setting as opposed to a solitary one; hence pedagogy requires careful sequencing of collaborative activities involving peers as well as the instructor” [5] .  Her detailed approach to Middle English instruction relies first on modeling, then translation in small groups before the students move on to selecting their own passages for reading/performing aloud.

My own method, like Stevenson’s relies on both social and recursive practices.  In addition, it draws on what has come to be called Web 2.0 technologies, described by P. Anderson [6] as “a more socially connected web in which people can contribute as much as they can consume” (4).  This move from the idea of students as receivers of knowledge to students as producers of knowledge is an important aspect of the project and is one that should be increasingly appealing to today’s “digital native” – as this next generation has been termed.

The Assignment

To my mind, there were a couple of aspects missing from the traditional assignment of memorizing and reciting the first lines of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  Firstly, the students can’t really hear themselves speaking, nor are they encouraged to listen closely to their own production.  Secondly, the process itself is largely a solitary one of practice and memorization in isolation before the final performance, often in front of only the instructor, and that one performance is then graded.  There is little here to encourage creativity or self-reflection.  Furthermore, there is often little room for improvement once that final performance has been produced.  My own students for this project were graduate students, many of whom were or would become working High School teachers.  It was important to me that they become comfortable enough with the language that it would not only appeal to them more, and perhaps lead them to a better understanding of the literature and its poetics, but also that they would be willing and able to share this literature with their own students.  I wanted them to be able to read with confidence to their own students, and to engage those students in this same process of discovering Middle English.

To begin our introduction to Middle English pronunciation, I used the summary of spelling and pronunciation from Thomas Garbáty’s Medieval English Literature [7]  This was supplemented by recordings of readings from Alan Baragona’s website The Criying and the Soun [8] and recordings from the Chaucer studio (which I put on reserve at the library for the student’s reference) [9] .  I also expected my students to read aloud in class from the beginning so that they could become more comfortable with public reading of the texts and so that I could provide more guidance.  Thus far, all is typical of the traditional Middle English classroom.

What I have added to this traditional pedagogy is the use of enhanced podcasts to allow the students to hear themselves reading Middle English and to share those recordings with others (particularly their fellow classmates).  To do this, we used Garage Band to create student recordings of passages of Middle English. The students also created PowerPoint slides that showed these same passages.  These slides were then added to the recording within Garage Band in such a way that the slides gave a visual representation of the lines the students were reading (thus creating the enhanced podcast).  The process for creating an enhanced podcast is relatively simple, and the instructions that I used may be accessed through the SUNY Cortland web site:  “How to create an Enhanced Podcast” [10] .  These podcasts were then uploaded to a course page on iTunes U for the rest of the students in the class to hear.   If you do not have access to iTunes U for your course, I have found you may also upload these podcasts to YouTube as well.  The process of creating the enhanced podcasts, while relatively simple, did require in-class instruction and practice in a computer lab.

While many of our students are quite comfortable with technology in general, I found that few of them had worked with Garage Band.  Because of this, I devoted one class period in one of our Mac labs to a workshop on how to create the podcast.  Within this one class, my students were able to create a basic podcast with some slides and accompanying recording.

The first time that I used this assignment, I made the mistake of giving just one final due date at the end of the semester.  That first semester, the recordings in general were poor.  My best students, of course, worked on several versions and submitted a sound final version.  My less diligent students, however, were content with whatever recording they were able to put together.  This experience convinced me that I needed to build in required revision and more detailed commenting on my part.  This, of course, dramatically increased my own workload, but the results from my later attempts at the assignment were much more satisfactory.  For this past semester, I created three points during the semester when podcasts were due.  The podcast assignment as a whole was worth a set number of points, and the students could continue to revise until they had either received full credit or until the end of the semester.  My commentson their podcasts were also more formal, with points assigned to their technical competence, their skill in pronunciation, and the artistry of their reading.

What I found in this past semester was that both students’ skill and their fluency increased over the course of the semester.  As always, I had a wide range of ability to speak Middle English among my students, but even the least proficient students showed marked improvement by the end of the term.  My first example is from a student in the middle range of ability.  Her first podcast is not bad – much of her pronunciation is good.  She has some errors and more notably a real hesitation and lack of confidence in her reading. (Early Podcast) [11] By her second podcast, her fluency and confidence are much improved.  She still has some pronunciation errors, but not as many as before. (Later Podcast 1) [12] My best students went from sound pronunciation at the beginning of the semester to full productions complete with sound effects by the end of the semester (Later podcast 2) [13] .

Student Response and Lessons Learned.

What I found through this endeavor was that both the student response to the assignment and their proficiency with the language increased.  Their increased proficiency was apparent both in the improved podcasts and in their in-class reading abilities.  For many of my students, the greatest improvement was in their confidence in reading.  It did not take my students long to learn how to pronounce Middle English.  What took more time was their discovery of their ability to pronounce Middle English.  And certainly, by the end of the term, even my best students still had lapses in their performance of the language (as opposed to their linguistic competence – or knowledge of the language).  And if you listen to my students’ podcasts, you will surely hear many faults.  Yet this to my mind was not my main purpose.  What my students have gained in increasing their competency with the language and their confidence in that competency is, in part, the ability to engage with the literature more fully because they are less hampered by the “foreignness” of the language and their own discomfort with that.  The assignment also allowed them the opportunity to express themselves creatively, both through their performance of the text and though the accompanying images, sound effects, and music.

The learning curve was at times steep because the students were learning both a new language and new technologies.  One student wrote about the assignment “I have to say, the first time I tried to complete the podcast using a PC, I was ready to beg you to let me memorize and recite it.  Honestly- there were tears!”  Yet she went on to say:

I thought that the assignment was very effective.  I liked the fact that I was able to hear exactly what I sounded like pronouncing Middle English; this made it very easy to correct my mistakes.  I also liked that we had more than one chance to complete the assignment- this stressed the importance of learning the language and the way in which it was intended to be read, rather than worrying about getting it perfect the first time (which does not seem possible for students who are unfamiliar with Middle English).  Having several chances also took the pressure off and made the work enjoyable.

The recursive nature of the assignment was appreciated by all of the students.  Another noted “I liked that we didn’t have to memorize the material; we could concentrate on the pronunciation and the meaning instead. I also liked that we had multiple chances, and that we had our old podcasts to use as a reference, “  and another said “You and I both noticed how my recording times went from nearly 4 minutes, to 3-ish, to just under 3 minutes. On the first recording I was clunky, slow, and not a pleasure to listen to… and by the last recording, while I was still not a pleasure to listen to, I was much more speedy with my delivery.”   While I don’t know that I would disagree with his assessment of his own performance, I will say that – as he himself notes – his overall competence and comfort with the language improved dramatically.

The assignment, even after two years of development, is still not perfect.  In its next iteration I will make changes.  To make the podcasts easier to review on iTunes, I will implement a standard file-naming requirement to include the student’s last name and date.  The way that iTunes U presents the podcasts does not make it easy to determine which is the most recent podcast without downloading it first.   Perhaps more important are revisions I am making based on student response.  As one student noted, she thought the assignment was effective but because it involved so much work, she felt it should be worth more than 5% of the grade. I suspect she is right.  I initially kept the percentage low to remove some of the pressure from the students, but with so many opportunities for revision, perhaps this is not necessary.  I will also include a second workshop day later in the semester so that the students can work together on both the technical and linguistic elements of the project.

I also plan to add my own podcast to the iTunes course page to explain the assignment and give an example of what I would like to see from them — though I don’t know that I am adept enough yet to add the bird noises.



Anderson, Paul. “What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education (TechWatch report).” JISC Technologies and Standards Watch, n.d. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/reports/2007/twweb2.aspx.

Baragona, Alan. “The Criying and The Soun”, n.d. http://www.vmi.edu/fswebs.aspx?tid=34099&id=34249.

Caughey, Elizabeth. The General Prologue, n.d. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aax4tMfoIxk.

Doty-Blance, Tera. “TechInfo » Instructions for Creating an Enhanced Podcast with Garageband from a PowerPoint Presentation”, n.d. http://blog.cortland.edu/techinfo/?p=448.

Garbaty, Thomas J. Medieval English Literature. Waveland Pr Inc, 1997.

“Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde.” Parker Library on the Web, n.d. http://parkerweb.stanford.edu/parker/actions/page_turner.do?ms_no=61.

Hungerford, Ella. The General Prologue: 1st try, n.d. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twq1jD6jnsc.

Stevenson, Barbara. “‘In Forme of Speche Is Chaunge’: Introducing Students to Chaucer’s Middle English.” In Approaches to Teaching Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Shorter Poems, 144-148. Approaches to Teaching World Literature (ATWL). New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2007.

The Canterbury Tales: 2nd Try, n.d. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQcGM_0UO6g&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

“The Chaucer Studio”, n.d. http://creativeworks.byu.edu/chaucer/.


[1] This is a link to a copy of the manuscript at the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College.  The image itself is a couple of pages in at the beginning of the manuscript.  Parker Library on the Web presents a wide collection of manuscripts and provides us with another way to bring our students to an understanding of book culture in the Middle Ages.

[2] “Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde,” Parker Library on the Web, n.d., http://parkerweb.stanford.edu/parker/actions/page_turner.do?ms_no=61.

[3] My insertion of hyperlink here. This hypertext edition is currently available on CD-ROM through MSU Press.

[4] Barbara Stevenson, “‘In Forme of Speche Is Chaunge’: Introducing Students to Chaucer’s Middle English,” in Approaches to Teaching Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the Shorter Poems, Approaches to Teaching World Literature (ATWL) (New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America, 2007), 145.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paul Anderson, “What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education (TechWatch report),” JISC Technologies and Standards Watch, n.d., 4, http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/reports/2007/twweb2.aspx.

[7] Thomas J. Garbaty, Medieval English Literature (Waveland Pr Inc, 1997).

[8] Alan Baragona, “The Criying and The Soun”, n.d., http://www.vmi.edu/fswebs.aspx?tid=34099&id=34249.

[9] Most of the Chaucer Studio recordings are now available for digital download as well. “The Chaucer Studio”, n.d., http://creativeworks.byu.edu/chaucer/.

[10] Tera Doty-Blance, “TechInfo » Instructions for Creating an Enhanced Podcast with Garageband from a PowerPoint Presentation”, n.d., http://blog.cortland.edu/techinfo/?p=448.

[11] Ella Hungerford, The General Prologue: 1st try, n.d., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twq1jD6jnsc.

[12] The Canterbury Tales: 2nd Try, n.d., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQcGM_0UO6g&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

[13] Elizabeth Caughey, The General Prologue, n.d., http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aax4tMfoIxk.

Appendix 1: Middle English Podcast Comments

Name: __Sample Student_____

Technical execution (5):  Good recording.  When you make a mistake, remember that you can go back and rerecord it.  This is the benefit of the recording vs. the live recitation.

Please number your lines in the next version.  It makes my review much easier.

5 pts

Pronunciation (40):

You’re pronouncing most of this very well.

I do have some comments and suggestions:

Remember that a is as in “father”: “bathed”  “straunge” “made” “space” “pace” “array”

“i” is as in “machine”: “Inspired” “I” “my” “by” “tyme”

“e” is as in “they”: “Englelond” “we”

Listen again in particular to these words: “nyght” “pilgrimes” “knyght”

Pronounce everything except terminal e when followed by a vowel.

25 points

Performance (10 possible points): I don’t yet get a sense that you understand the sense of what you’re saying.  Try to get comfortable enough with your recitation that you can pay attention to the sense of the lines and read them more naturally.

5 pts

35/55 pts.    (Return to article)

Appendix 2: The Podcast Assignment

The temptation will be to recite your lines here and now and submit the recording.  However, one of the reasons that I want you to do a recording rather than simply memorizing the lines and reciting them in person is that the recording allows you to hear your own pronunciation more clearly.

Review the pronunciation guidelines that I’ve given to you.

If recordings of your reading are available online, listen to them and then to your own recording.  Recordings from the Chaucer Studio are also on reserve in the Library.
Garage Band also allows you to easily re-record only a portion of your reading.  So if you find you would like to re-record only one line, you may do so.

Practice with the recording and listen to yourself.  When you have a recording that you are completely satisfied with, I will have you upload it to iTunes U.  Each recording should be titled with your name and the podcast number (e.g. Harbin1).

Finally, try to have fun with this.  Try to hear the beauty of the language, to feel the rhythm of the poetry and to find your own confidence as a reader of Middle English.

See the syllabus for due dates.(Return to article)


Andrea Harbin is an Assistant Professor at the State University of New York, Cortland where she teaches medieval literature in the English, and Adolescence Education in English programs. Her primary research interest lies in Medieval Drama.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom, Volume VIII, Issue 2, Fall 2010 http://www.teamsmedieval.org/ofc/SP09/Fall2010Podcasting.html

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies