Reflections on… Pronunciation

This is one in a series of posts in which I look back on 10 years of blogging and reflect on posts from the past.

I was slightly nervous about this one, if I’m being honest. I hadn’t read this post from 10 years ago for quite some time, but I knew it was there and I was pretty sure that what I had written wasn’t great. But face it I did, because looking back and reflecting shouldn’t only be going back to the things you got right, but also what you got wrong too.

Photo by Hana Lopez on Unsplash

In the original post, I basically claim that pronunciation teaching is a bit overrated. My main arguments seem to be based around the idea that we should be measuring student success in pronunciation by intelligibility, which I still agree with, but the problem is that I assumed that intelligibility to me meant that they would be understood by everyone. I wasn’t sufficiently aware of phonetics, concepts like English as a global language, or the features of English as a lingua franca. I didn’t understand that just because my ear was attuned to the accents of my students, this didn’t mean that it would be the same for everyone they ever met.

I experienced a demonstration of this some years later when I was training to be a Cambridge examiner. In the training you watch videos of candidates and grade their performance. There was one candidate who I could barely understand at all and I found it very difficult to even begin to evaluate him. After the video finished, the other trainees started talking about his language. “Did you notice how he used the present perfect?” “He developed his answer really well” and so on. I was dumbfounded.

A couple of hours later we watched another candidate, this time from South Korea. I had lived and taught in that country, so I made notes about his grammar, vocabulary and so on. When it came to the feedback, the other trainees all turned to each other and said “Wow, he was really difficult to understand” but to me, his English was as clear as day. This nuance was something I failed to appreciate in the original post.

Another of my arguments seems to be based around the idea of having a pronunciation lesson, and how this puts way too much time and effort into one area. Guessing, I think that my approach at the time was based around the idea that every lesson should be an integrated skills lesson, with a mixture of inputs and potential outputs. Now, I have absolutely no problem with having lessons focused on particular areas, especially of weakness that we have identified. I wouldn’t want to do every lesson like this, but nearly all of my students here in Brazil have received my past simple regular verbs pronunciation lesson because it’s a very common issue for Portuguese speakers. Identifying what our students need and doing some specific work on it is a key part of our jobs.

Another error I made is that I seem to think that ‘good pronunciation’ is something that can be picked up easily by exposure, and that is sufficient for our students. This may be my most egregious mistake. I compare it to the ideas of extensive reading and how that can influence learner production without focused language activities. The first problem with this is that it’s quite a claim without an evidence base. I wasn’t really into looking up the research in those days and it might have been a good idea, just to check. And secondly, it misses the crucial role that teacher feedback plays in pronunciation. Obviously, this is important in many aspects of language teaching, that’s why we haven’t been replaced by apps yet, but I think it plays a crucial role in working with our students to improve this aspect of their English.

Looking at the comments, as usual, provides a balance to my views. I am particularly grateful to Marisa Constantinides for her patient explanations. As she said “I appreciate your questioning attitude and I agree that we should not go overboard, I do think that both noticing (through listening as you suggest) and practising are both necessary!” and now I agree with her.

In this series of reflections on old posts, the common theme is the value of blogging. It has provided me with the opportunity to confront my evolution as a teacher. This original post was written from a highly subjective perspective, with only a few years experience to guide me. I read it now with ten years more under my belt, as well as a DELTA and a lot more reading and knowledge. I have been exposed to the work of Laura Patsko, Mark Hancock, Adrian Underhill, Taylor Veigga and others who have shaped my views. It allows me to appreciate the path I’ve taken and the one that lies ahead.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on… Pronunciation

  1. What a great post! It’s really interesting to read how your views have evolved since writing the original article. I believe that explicit teaching of pronunciation is valuable, but if someone had asked me about that three years ago, I’d have given a completely different answer! As you mentioned, it’s necessary to keep learning and be willing to change our beliefs.

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