miércoles, 30 de diciembre de 2015

Some "inconvenient truths" of pronunciation teaching

2015 is coming to an end and once again, I wanted to thank you for following, reading and/or criticising this blog. 

This post is a very brief reflection on some of the many lessons I have learned this year, out of reading good books, interacting with my experienced colleagues, but also, and more importantly, after considering the feedback and success or failure of my best teachers, my students. I don't want to elaborate on these ideas at length, since there is a lot to say about each, but at least I wanted to list them here today. Who knows, I might write a few posts on these thoughts in 2016.

These are some of the "inconvenient truths" that I believe every EFL teacher needs to embrace when it comes to pronunciation teaching:

  • Pronunciation is a "messy" matter. Things may definitely go awry, discipline-wise, when we do pronunciation work. Pronunciation tasks may turn out to be "ridiculous" for students, and they will most certainly be "noisy".  The development of these activities requires a lot of control and attention on the part of the teacher, a lot of moving around the classroom to monitor what students are doing; keeping your eyes open for possible peer bullying or ridiculing, and yes, it may be tiring. We may need to decide very carefully on our timing (the last few minutes before the bell goes?) if we have a difficult group, we may need to change seating arrangements, or establish a "safe" routine. We, of course, also need to make sure our students understand why they need to work on their sounds and intonation in the first place. All in all, pronunciation "chaos" is an issue we have to anticipate, but it should not scare us away from integrating pronunciation to our lessons regularly.
  • Non-native teachers of English can be good models and instructors. This is something I heard Robin Walker state many times. I think we should never underestimate the process that each of us, non-native speakers of English, has actually been through to build our accents. We can use all this knowledge of our L1 and of what it takes to learn a foreign accent to our and our students' advantage. At times I get a bit cross at teachers systematising sounds only by introducing videos or animations of native speakers producing the sounds. I think that our presence and constant input in the classroom can be a great asset to our students as well, and we can demonstrate the production of the sound ourselves, "live", in many different ways (see my "tips and tricks" post), apart from the introduction of native speaker voices (or other voices, if you are using other L2 speakers as models, which you can read about in the ELFPron blog). There is also a corollary: perception and production may go hand in hand, though we need to ensure exposure to a number of different accents and voices, while perhaps selecting one variety for perception (already a tough issue!).
  • Student success depends a lot on psycho-social aspects. As I listed on my post on pronunciation goals, and on my review of the book "Pronunciation Myths", motivation, feelings about the foreign language, rapport with the teacher and fellow students,  they all have a major bearing on student performance. This is something that needs to be acknowledged from the very start, and the more we get to know about students' expectations and views on this, the better. Students need to appropriate the process and the new articulatory moves to make sure there is progress. This is a tough and very complex issue, and I personally need to work it out still.
  • Pronunciation is a matter of the mind...and the body (and the heart, given the previous bullet point...). This is quite obvious, you might think. But indeed, we need to remember the implications of working with people's bodies. We are, metaphorically speaking, the "fitness instructors" of our students' speech muscles and organs, perhaps their "physiotherapists", in a way. We teach our students how to become aware of what their organs do, and how to make changes to their speech with different exercises, different "dance" or "fitness" routines to develop their proprioception abilities (You can read a lot about this on Adrian Underhill's blog, by the way!). Plus, giving students feedback on their performance is not the same as making corrections on a written composition, and this requires great care and kindness; it's a skill I personally have been trying to learn for years, and I have not always succeeded in.
  • Proper pronunciation teaching resembles the work of a tailor or a craftsman. I have recently realised there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to pronunciation. Part of the systematisation process can be carried out with the group as a whole, but the ultimate fine-tuning processes need to be developed on an individual basis, and this requires getting to know our learners individually, testing different approaches and strategies, giving lots of personalised feedback, and this, means investing quite some of our own time, yes. And it is also a craft for us to learn; I have been doing this for years and still have a lot of questions, I keep discovering a lot of new ways to approach things, and I pretty much suspect that as times change, practices will have to change. So all in all, pronunciation teaching and learning make up a very personal process of discovery, of constant reflection, and as such, it only works if we help our students become aware of the inner workings of their speaking body, help them create different mental images of what the foreign language and its accents sound like, and invite them to ask themselves the right questions to be able to keep up with the times.

And some of my beliefs, omnipresent in this blog:

  • Pronunciation can be seamlessly integrated to other areas, content and skills in the ELT classroom.
  • Pronunciation work can be fun.
  • We need to teach intonation, and do so communicatively, and in context.
  • Teaching pronunciation requires, as with other content areas of language, some serious research and study on the part of the teacher.

Finally, two new discoveries I've been trying to develop into coherent thoughts:
  • Success in a foreign language pronunciation is partly dependent on our ability to be mindful.  (A podcast-y reflection on this coming up very soon)
  • Learning a foreign accent is in a way a process of appropiation. The big challenge is finding and loving our own L2 voice. (Some Harry Potter-inspired reflections on this here)

In summary, I think pronunciation teaching is by far, a greater learning experience for the teacher than it might be for the learner in the long run. I honestly thrive in all the lessons I keep learning, and I hope I can still continue asking myself questions to improve on my practices. And to keep blogging, of course (BTW, it does feel like this...)
Image from: https://missglayiii.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/hp4_17.jpg

I want to wish you all a lovely start of 2016. 'kiːp 'kɑːm ən prə'naʊns 'ɒn

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