Twenty things in twenty years part ten: the main point of focusing on pronunciation in class isn’t to improve pronunciation!
Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I’ve observed over the years, I’ve seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where it IS focused on it’s often instinctive attempts at correcting mispronounced discrete phonemes of the kind we’re all so familiar with due to the phenomenal success of certain books that hone in one these areas.
Part of the problem, of course, is that after a certain (very formative) point, time spent on pronunciation reaps very scant reward, especially when compared to other areas of language that one could work on. Imagine the degree to which you might expect your communicative competence to be boosted if you were to spend a hundred hours studying, developing and revising vocabulary – and then compare and contrast to what you might expect to gain in communicative terms if you were spend those hundred hours working on your pronunciation. In all but a few rare cases, there’d be no comparison.
Partly this is because – unlike other areas of language skill (with the possible, arguable exception of writing, of course), pronunciation is essentially a motor skill, and ultimately develops as a result of practice, practice and practice. And then some more practice after that – in much the same way as a musician learns a song by going over and over and over the fingering and the strumming and the chords and the notes, drilling them into the muscle memory until they become second nature.
When it comes to discrete phonemes, there is often little we can really do in the limited time that we inevitably have with. If students are struggling, say, to produce a /v/ instead of a /b/ or a /r/ instead of a /l/ we can stop them when they err; point out what they’re saying and show with our own mouths and voices how we would do it differently. We can explain and demonstrate that a /v/ sound is voiced and requires the bottom lip to raise up and touch against the two front upper teeth, for instance, and we can encourage students to practise, pointing out when they’re still doing it wrong – and once they nail it, telling them and encouraging them to remember the feel in the mouth the sound makes and to practise it at home. We can correct it again next time we here it, but really after that they’re pretty much on their own.
Some people seem to have a much better ear for the degree to which what they’re producing resembles the output or models they’re exposed to, and there’s also surely some kind of sociocultural / psychological element involved which must affect the degree to which many speakers try – and deliberately don’t try – to accommodate themselves to particular kinds of native-speaker norms. I’ve often pondered how it is that the manager of my beloved football club, Arsene Wenger, can have lived in London for almost two decades and can have learned English to such a remarkable degree and yet all the while has clung to more or less exactly the same kind of French-inflected accent he first arrived with.
Well, part of the problems seems to be the fact that accents stick very early on, and once we’ve passed a certain point, changing this is incredibly hard to do. Research findings on this obviously vary, but there does seem to be a considerable body of evidence to suggest that we start being primed in our own first language from our very earliest moments here on earth, and this priming seems to last. This, coupled with the kind of lingering class-bound prejudices and perceptions that once led George Bernard Shaw to observe that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, might explain the proliferation of accent reduction courses that prey on the insecurities and fears of NATIVE speakers. Obviously, if your priming in L1 has led to the production of sounds radically different to English, then you may well have problems unless quite an intense focus on pronunciation is made a central part of your early experience of learning the language. Debate rages on about whether or not there actually is a cut-off point beyond which it’s all-but impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation, but there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that by the early twenties accents in a foreign language are already pretty fixed. All of this may well go some way towards explaining why I’ve met only perhaps three or four non-natives who didn’t live in a native-speaking country until they were adults who could nevertheless be mistaken for natives (as well as why the vast majority of non-natives I know who do live in native English-speaking environments are easily identifiable as non-native – often to their great annoyance – despite speaking amazingly good English). It also accounts for the Chinese and Thai students I somehow teach whose learning thus far has been both almost entirely based on written sources and also very much in vain as the English they have acquired is rendered unintelligible by their accents, which are rooted very strongly in the tonalties of their mother tongues.
To add a further level of complexity to these obvious issues, recent discourse about ELF – and particular the work of Jennifer Jenkins, who has written at length about what she sees a phonological core of ELF that allows communication unimpeded by lapses in intelligibility without forcing strict adherence to the native-speaker RP construct (as she sees it) – has (and I’ll be gracious here and add unintentionally) led to a furthering of the Why bother? attitude to pronunciation. The vast majority of discrete phoneme mistakes don’t affect intelligibility; natives can’t even agree on how to pronounce grass and castle, while the Irish (allegedly!) say TREE TREES to describe these things:
We’ve all got accents, even native speakers . . . so what if my students sound French or Russian or what-have-you? That’s because they are. I can understand them all, why bother? And so the self-justification continues. Given all of this, you may yourself by now be thinking why bother. What’s the point of slogging on with something so unrewarding and that offers so few noticeable signs of improvement in return for such hard work on your part?
Well, on one level, the point is that even incredibly fluent students, like the Finnish woman Hanna who I recently taught on a Pronunciation & Presentation Skills course, still fret (in what may, to many native speakers seem like an unnecessary manner, but this does not detract from the reality of these emotions) about their accents and feel they could be improved – often by moving closer to some perceived idealised native speaker mode, which often means RP. Interestingly, actually, non-natives seem far more concerned about the finer details of pron than most natives for whom a diversity of options is a norm. I’ve lost count of the number of times after a talk I’ve done a non-native teacher has asked me whether I say ofTen or off-en, for instance.
So there’s that, but even this argument about student desires, persuasive though it may be, still actually misses the point.
Because the main issue here is that the REAL reason for persisting with pronunciation is NOT because it has that much of an impact on students’ own pronunciation.
It’s because it’s help students LISTEN better.
For students, listening is hard for one of two reasons: either they’re hearing language that’s simply unknown to them, and thus they fail to understand it in the same way as they would if they were to see it written down – or else they’re hearing language that they’d be able to deal with if they saw it written down, but cannot grasp as it comes out in the acoustic blur of normal speed speech. This is often because their main exposure to language has been the written form; and because listening – and more crucially the inter-relationship between listening and pronunciation – has been neglected during the early stages of their language learning experience.
If students cannot hear language that they are able to process when written down, it is rarely if ever because of issues with discrete phonemes. If it’s outside of the classroom, it may perhaps be because of a particularly unfamiliar or strong accent, though inside the classroom such accents are generally filtered out. This means that it’s down to what happens when we speak at speed: the use of weak forms, the elision of sounds at the beginning or end of words, the way words ending in consonants are linked to following words if they begin with vowels, the way we add in /w/ and /j/ sounds to link between vowels across words (as in the /j/ English or go /w/ ahead) and so on.
What this means is every time you take your time when modelling and drilling (both chorally and individually) the weak forms and linking and so on in a phrase like IT’S A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE or HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW, you’re helping the students get that little bit more used to how words sound when run together and said consecutively.
And while your efforts may or not impact positively on their own actual pronunciation, the chances are they’ll slowly contribute to your students being better able to distinguish language they have already studied when it comes at them think and fast in future listenings.
As you can probably imagine, a not inconsiderable number of the presentations at the recent IATEFL conference in Liverpool revolved around technology – and (less frequently!) its use in ELT. On occasion when watching some of these sessions, I did start to feel as though I’d stumbled into a fairly poor advertising hour (“Have you heard about Brainshark? Well, it’s a great sight that could have wonderful application in the language classroom”) as I’m subjected to such strident pitches for sites that I often wonder if the presenters are on commission – and if not, then why not?! At other times, you get almost comic misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what certain sites may be able to do for you and for your students (“Scoop.It – a great site that helps you publish class magazines”), but without a doubt the single biggest claim often made to support the utilization of more tech in the language classroom is that it somehow helps to “connect” your classroom to “the real world”.
Now, I’m sure that I myself have been guilty on more than one occasion in the past of talking about “the real world” as somehow existing outside of – and in contrast to – the classroom, but let’s face it, it’s a daft construct, isn’t it? The classroom is as much a part of ‘the real world’ as the police station, the football stadium, the hospital or the newsroom. Students do not cease to be ‘real people’ simply because they step into the language classroom, and teachers are no less ‘real’ there either!
I was given pause to think further about all of this last week as I was went in to teach my Upper-Intermediate class on Monday morning, the day after the Boston bombings. Like most of you out there, I suspect, I suffer from the usual slow drift of students into class, despite the fact we have an institutional lateness policy that excludes students until the break time (I teach three-hour classes – from 09:00 to midday) if they turn up more than fifteen minutes late. As such, we usually kick off with some chatting and some reformulation of student output – or, if you prefer, what a certain strain of conference attendees have started referring to as ‘Dogme moments’, a phrase guaranteed to raise hackles!). Understandably, this often involves “the real world” impinging on the classroom as students want to discuss things they’ve seen or heard about outside over the weekend, etc. I was expecting something about the bombings to come up, but as it turned out several of the students hadn’t heard anything about it, simply because they don’t really keep up with the news, or if they do, it’s L1 news mainly focused on home. The one student who did seem to be up on the story simply said “Yes! Terrible! Terrible!” when I asked if folk had seen the news about it, and all we ended up with on the board as a result was the following:
Did you see the news about the bombings in Boston?
> Yeah, it’s awful, isn’t it?
Horrendous! And no-one has admitted responsibility yet, so they’ve got no idea who did it.
> Well, let’s hope they catch the culprits soon.
The underlined words, I gave the first letter of each and then paraphrased the meaning, in order to elicit from the group. They provided all of the words except for culprit (“I know what you mean, but I don’t know this word”), which I then gave then . . . and they then carried on chatting with each other about their weekends – trips to Cambridge, a musical someone had seen, the weather, a great new Japanese restaurant, and so on! The usual mish-mash of activities that students engage in over a London weekend. Some further reformulation occurred and at 9.15, we locked the door – metaphorically speaking, in case you were wondering – and got on with the class.
if you adhere to (one of ) the tech evangelist lines, and particularly the tech-Dogme nexus that I’ve touched on before, then perhaps this might have been a moment to follow the road to “the real world” and ‘zap in’ some content from the outside world. I’ve often seen it suggested that one of the great advantages of the ‘connected’ classroom is that the teacher is able to tap into students’ supposed interests in current affairs and the like, and at the click of a button, access content online that deals with these issues.
What the teacher then actually DOES with this content is less clear, in general, but let’s for a moment roll with this idea. Let’s assume that the flicker of interest that the bombings elicited was something I decided was worth pursuing and that, on a whim, I called up a BBC news report . . . this one, for instance . . .
What does one DO with this? Perhaps I show the class it, and tell them to take notes on what they understood. They could then compare ideas in pairs or groups, and I could then round up, picking up on things they were struggling to say. None of these things are bad per se, but there are issues particularly to do with what (a) how much the teacher – and the students – ARE actually able to notice, in terms of new language (b) whether what we notice on the first couple of listens IS actually the most useful and worthwhile language to spend time looking at and (c) what on earth one THEN does with the video after all of this.
My own feeling is that one of the great advantages of published classroom material – at least the good stuff out there – is that it’s generally well graded and that there’s usually at least SOME focus on language contained within texts and that the teacher is able to sit down before the class and have a look at exercises they’ll be teaching – and tapescripts / readings they’ll be working with – and think about the language that’s available in therm to be taught. With ‘zapped in’ material, we’re left to rely on our wits and our intuition and noticing skills, and this places a great burden on the teacher. We often simply notice what’s unusual or strange on first listen. Try it yourself with the video clip above. Listen through and note down what you think you’d pick up on and think about teaching?
The first time I did it the words and phrases I picked up on were the finish line, cordoned off, a line of copy / copy and breaking news. Now, whilst these items will almost certainly be NEW for many students at Upper-Intermediate level, you don’t need to be a linguistic genius to realise that actually these may well not be the most USEFUL items in that particular listening. Far more fruitful to explore – and far harder to be aware of and to pick up on whilst doing this kind of thing ‘live’ – would be things like THEY’RE INVESTIGATING THE EXPLOSIONS / THEY’VE LAUNCHED AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE EXPLOSIONS . . . and to then explore words around INVESTIGATION: a thorough / police INVESTIGATION; they’re still pursuing their INVESTIGATION; the INVESTIGATION has revealed that . . . and so on.
In addition to all of this, there’s then the question of what one might do AFTER viewing this zapped in content? Ask the class to comment on and discuss how they feel about? well, you may very well STILL not get much more than “Terrible! Terrible!” out of them! Ask them to speculate about who may have carried it out? Good luck with that one! Usually a recipe for all manner of prejudices and conspiracy theories to pour forth – or else simple honesty along the lines of ‘How on earth should I know!’
So, yes, of course technology CAN bring content from the web into the classroom, but there are clearly issues about whether or not this is desirable, what it leads to in terms of teaching – and whether this is the most useful thing we could be teaching at this time, the load it places on teachers, the random accumulation of language it results in, the often fairly unsatisfactory conversations that then result and so on.
However, believe it or not, none of this is really the point I wanted to make today in this post! The above is really just an exercise in thinking through how conference claims about the ability of tech to ‘connect’ us to ‘the real world’ could pan in out in reality and in specific exercises. What I really wanted to focus on today was the fact that in reality, it’s surely the TEACHER and the STUDENTS that connect classrooms to ‘the real world’ – as we all live in both that world out there and the classroom simultaneously.
In my class last Monday, the other connection to the bombings actually came whilst we were doing a reading from OUTCOMES Upper-Intermediate based around an email from someone who’d been in Venice for the carnival. One exercise that followed the reading was encouraging students to extract certain lexical items from the text and looked like this:
D Find words in the email that mean the same thing as the words in italics in 1-8
1 It was very kind of Nina to let me stay at her house for free.
2 The city was completely full of tourists.
3 It’s not surprising most costumes look so good.
4 The locals generally continue with traditional costumes.
5 The Plague Doctor costume is quite scary and threatening and evil.
6 The food is delicious, but high in calories.
7 Venice is completely changed in a good way during carnival.
8 People light and explode fireworks all the time.
Students scoured the text again to find the correct words. As they were doing this, I got some extra examples onto the board to show more about how to use some of the items. As usual, I left some words gapped so that these could be elicited as we checked things. I then put them in pairs to compare their ideas before rounding up and going through the answers (which were, in case you were curious, as follows: put me up, packed with, no wonder, stick to, sinister, fattening, transformed, set off). As I elicited the answers, I explained meanings, paraphrased, gave extra examples, contextualised usage and so on. Here’s just one section of the board by the time we’d finished:
“The real world” impinges here in all manner of different ways – as it does everyday as we work our way through the class coursebook! The comment about eating biscuits was a joke on both myself and a lovely Chinese guy I’m teaching, Xuhong, who insists on bringing a large packet of custard creams to class every day, many of which I then feel compelled to eat, resulting in both of us bemoaning our expanding waistlines!
The mobile network comment was clearly a reflection of the day’s news from Boston! Perhaps ironically, this then sparked more discussion than the initial conversation at the start of the class! There was some discussion about how this actually worked, what the mechanics of this were; the fact that the Madrid bombings had been set off by mobile led to a brief explanation of what these bombings had actually been, for those unaware of them; there was then considerable talk about how hard it must be for the rest of the city to function without mobile connectivity!
And then we moved on to some speaking, with students discussing festivals / carnivals they’d been to!
So my point here is that the idea that technology automatically ensures ‘connectivity’ with the outside (‘real’) world not only needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and critiqued and considered thoroughly, but that it also actually fails to take into account the ways in which teachers link what’s in coursebooks to what’s going on outside throughout our working lives, day in, day out.
In the first part of this two-piece post, I basically ran through the talk I gave at IATEFL Liverpool this year, in which I explored some of the ways in which the original ideas behind Dogme can be used to better exploit classroom material. Here, I want to move on to consider how else some of the ideas put forward might Dogme contribute to good practice when it comes to utilizing coursebooks?
Well, the first two commandments of Dogme are interactivity – the belief that the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and among the students themselves – and dialogic processes, the idea that learning is social and dialogic, and that knowledge is co-constructed.
In a hardcore Dogme approach, these ideas are thrust forward to support the notion of a speaking-activity-and-reformulation-only kind of approach, yet there’s surely no reason why interaction and dialogue can’t be part of how we use coursebooks. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that you can’t really use a coursebook well unless you do so interactively and unless there’s dialogue involved in the checking of answers, in the exploitation of texts and so on. Let’s consider another example. Let’s look at how it’s possible to run the listening that follows the speaking about social issues that I showed and considered in the first part of this post.
Imagine for a minute that you’re a student in one of my classes. You know that you’re going to hear five news extracts and that your task, first time around, is to match each one to one of the social issues previously discussed in this Speaking slot below.
Now, I’ve yet to work out if it’s actually possible to embed sound files into WordPress blog posts, so until then I’m going to have simply include links.
Play the first two extracts here and match them to the relevant topics above, OK?
Once you’d listened (to all five extracts, obviously, in a real classroom situation), I’d then put you in pairs and ask you to discuss with your partner which issues they were discussing – and how you knew. While you were doing this, I’d be writing on the board gapped sentences containing relevant bits of lexis from the extracts themselves that I wanted to focus on whilst rounding up the answers, to see how much language you’d noticed whilst processing the listening texts for gist. The board may well end up looking something like this.
They’ve launched a new i………. aimed at ending homelessness.
There’s growing c………… about the number of people sleeping r……….. .
Homeless people often end up v………. to drugs and violence.
She took her employers to c…….. and won her c………. .
She was d………. promotion because she was pregnant.
She was a…………… €487,000 compensation.
I’d then stop you and round up by asking “OK, so number 1. Which issue were they talking about? Yeah, OK. Homelessness. How do you know?” and then from what students told me – with some prompting of my own, I’d paraphrase the gaps above and elicit – or try to – the missing words (initiative, concern, rough, vulnerable, court, case, denied and awarded – just in case you were wondering). So, for instance, to elicit the first gap, I might say something like “Yeah, the government – or the local council – is starting – launching – this new plan of action to try and tackle the problem of homelessness, so they’re launching an? Right. An initiative. Where’s the stress? Good. INItiative. Everyone. Again. Good!”
Once we’d finished with the listening text, I’d then ask students to tell each other about any similar stories they’d heard – and to explain how they feel about each one.
Now, it seems to me that even this tiny little snippet of classroom practice involves plenty of interactivity: you’d be interacting with the listening text and then with other students; I’d then interact with the whole class as a group, AND with the language from the text AND with the board. Out of the dialogue we’d engage in, we’d reach a mutual understanding of – and deeper appreciation of – the texts and this two-way dialogue would ensure that the strongest and most confident among the group were called upon to provide language for the weaker and less confident members. The teacher may lead, but the input would be co-constructed and mediated.
Finally, by then discussing with each other similar stories students had heard about, we’d address three final commandments from the Dogme Big Ten: voice – the learners’ voices are given recognition, along with your beliefs and knowledge; relevance – the relevance of the materials to the students’ lives is explored and opened up, and through doing this there’s a kind of critical use that comes into play as well. Dogme suggests that teachers and students should use published material and coursebooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases. Well, by ensuring students have the opportunity to relate content to their own experiences, worldviews, cultures and countries, the material facilitates exactly this. It encourages the students to localize content and language – and to word their own worlds, having first been scaffolded and supported en route. And if that’s not Dogme, then I don’t know what is!
So there you have it. What I’ve tried to do with these two posts is to help shunt Dogme away from the posturing and pseudo-revolutionary communes it’s been in danger of moving permanently into and dragged it back towards something approaching the middle ground. And I’ve possibly also helped – albeit in some tiny little way, natch – to reframe the debate around what is and isn’t Dogme.
Perhaps rather than setting things up as coursebook versus teaching unplugged, we can now start to consider how some of the basic precepts behind the original manifesto can guide and inform both the utilization and the construction of more worthwhile coursebook material.