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from sea to shining sea
natalie baker-shirer with school children

My True Voice in action
Samples from the Pittsburgh program

How Hamlet Lost his Drawl
Acting students learn the golden voice

videoJeopardy! (with a twist)
Kids translate phrases into standard English

Additional Resources
Standard American Index

Standard American

My True Voice

Inner-City Students Learn
Standard American Speech  

In Pittsburgh’s inner-city schools, theater  students volunteer to teach youngsters  how and why actors develop an ability to speak  an unaccented form of  American English. My True Voice program creator Natalie Baker-Shirer explains that learning professional vocal skills  can give under-served kids a head start.

The My True Voice Program was created in 1999 to help improve Pittsburgh's primary education system by having college students — active, “in the moment” and creative — act as mentors to 10 and 11-year-old elementary and middle school students in the area of speech. The thinking behind My True Voice was straightforward: teach a Standard American dialect to underserved children and increase their chances for future success in the working world.

The program was inspired by two key requests. First, Indira Nair, the vice provost of education at Carnegie Mellon University, asked me to develop a course that would benefit our acting students and the community. Her timing was good: I was already looking for some way to help my matriculated first-year students to cement their newly developed techniques of Standard American speech production. Dr. Nair’s request gave me the opportunity to test my belief that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. Coincidentally around that time a board member of Carnegie Mellon University and The Extra Mile Education Foundation asked me to visit an Extra Mile School in Pittsburgh’s inner city to chat with a principal who wanted to improve her students’ speaking skills. Thus, the impetus for My True Voice emerged.

The program stresses the reading and understanding of imaginative language. Actor students make a one-year commitment to an inner-city school where they present the sounds of a Standard American Speech through phonetic awareness and practice. After practicing and perfecting sounds they help the children apply their new-found skills by reciting and interpreting the finest poetry. Each week, the children are challenged to memorize the works of poets Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Phyllis Wheatley. Speech recognition software developed by Cepstral, LLC is also used to help reinforce the sounds of Standard American speech.

Balancing Heritage and Standards

Children come to school fully equipped with the gift of language

As the noted linguist John McWhorter says, “Although children often come to school knowing nothing of history and having never read a book, they come to school fully equipped with the gift of Language itself, whatever dialect they speak.” We find that to be true; the students at the Extra Mile School already understand and appreciate the language and speech of their heritage. They haven’t sought validation. But in our view, education should offer new information and skills, not only validate what is already in the student. My True Voice aims to give students the ability to speak a generally accepted, standard variety of American English that will allow them to interact more effectively in a variety of environments. Students can accept or reject the usefulness of any learned skill, but very few elementary-school students are equipped to make judgments about whether acquiring a skill is even necessary. Thoughtful and responsible input from parents and teachers is essential.

Benefits Package

The University Mentors — our actor-teachers — see their skills getting stronger and find rewards in helping young students to acquire useful, lifelong skills. For me, it’s been particularly gratifying to receive appreciation from teachers, administrators and above all the parents of the children in the program. Meanwhile, children who enhance their speaking skills develop confidence in their ability to function effectively in a variety of environments. I hope that the program will also encourage them to consider careers in performing arts, especially (of course!) the theater.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • McWhorter, John. Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of "Pure" Standard English. Perseus Publishing, 2001.
Natalie Baker-Shirer was awarded the William H. and Frances B. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching in May 2001. At Carnegie Mellon, Ms. Baker Shirer teaches speech and phonetics as applied to Standard American English dialect. She has produced an instructional CD: Distinct, Efficient and Pleasing: A Practice CD of the Non-Regional Dialect of American English and an accompanying phonetics workbook for this course. Her other courses include Accents and Dialects for the Theatre, Voiceover (Broadcast) Acting and two community-based outreach courses: Speech and Phonetics Instruction and Outreach and Growing Theatre. Ms. Baker Shirer received a BFA in Drama from Carnegie Mellon, where she studied speech and phonetics extensively with Edith W. Skinner, and an MFA in Theatre Pedagogy from the University of Pittsburgh. Her acting career includes Broadway, theatres across USA and Canada, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, voiceovers including Emmy Award for narrating PBS' What Doctors See. With a passionate interest in outreach for the School of Drama, Baker-Shirer has developed a community based outreach course The My True Voice Project in partnership with the Extra Mile Education Foundation She and her students handle three schools. The My True Voice Project combines the teaching of pronunciation with an exploration of poetry and the use of voice synthesis software.

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Sponsored by:

National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York