In the last few years I have been exploring the role of spontaneity and improvisation in teaching, and have written and spoken about it here and there (IATEFL TD Newsletters 2009/2010; ETP issue 82, 2012 (with Alan Maley); IATEFL Conference Liverpool April 2013 (also with Alan) ; IATEFL Webinar Sep 2013; and various talks with titles like “The Jazz of ELT” and so on).

I’d like to round off 2013 with a few words first about this idea in general, and then about the particular application to pronunciation teaching.

To start with, take these three different activities:

Teaching a lesson

When teaching we usually have a plan, either on paper or in mind, and either more or less detailed. Once the lesson gets underway however a learning conversation develops, mediated by what actually happens, and to lead or facilitate this process with quality we have to let go of the lesson plan and follow the energy, curiosity and attention in the room. We enter a living and unprepared engagement with learning itself. Once this is dealt with and if nothing else suggests itself we may rejoin the plan though by now it may have been reshaped. But more usually by now something else has suggested itself for our curiosity and attention.

Whether or not we leave the plan, where the lesson is marked by student and teacher engagement in the learning, improvisation is bound to occur since that is the only way to be present to what emerges and not governed by what worked last time.

Playing jazz

And this classroom process is like the way that a jazz musician departs from the sheet music and starts to improvise, retaining (more or less of) the framework of the original music while responding in the moment to what the other musicians are playing.

A cocktail party

Something similar happens at a cocktail party. You may go with things you want to say to  people but you probably also hope to leave ‘script’ aside in order to respond creatively and freshly to what other people are saying and thinking. When I ‘over-stick’ to my script I miss the essence of the moment and risk being rather a bore.

The dark matter of teaching

In the first example, that of teaching, I propose that this kind of improvisation takes up a significant part of the lesson, yet since we don’t really observe it or describe it in our pre- or in- service training or have a place for it in our methodology we can’t really articulate it. Instead we are sensitised to the set piece moves of ELT like the steps of a listening exercise or the sequential steps given in the teachers book, and so on. I argue that this invisibility of improvisation makes it less easy for us to get better at it. And since this improvisation is hard to see, and because it is at work during so much of a lesson, I call it the “dark matter of teaching”

Teaching, also a performance art

By contrast the jazz musician, unlike the teacher, very much sees the process of improvisation, and can discuss it and evaluate it, and thereby develop ways to get better at it. And getting better at it, as with teaching, which requires both technique and listening well to what is happening. The same is true in drama training, where on day one of the course you’d expect to work on improvisation, to talk about and evaluate it and to see how to improve at it. Improvisation would not in that case be dark matter.  It would be ‘light’ matter, visible matter. I think of teaching as a performance art where preparation of some kind is essential, but the art lies in the performance.

Balancing the plan with what happens

As for the cocktail party example, or any other aspect of our daily lives like buying a newspaper or encountering a stranger, I can do this in a way that is governed by my routine or habit, where I am not present to it and therefore rely on my routine or habit to see it through. So there are two choices, I am less engaged and attentive to the moment so I rely on my routine from the past, or I am more present and responsive to what the moment offers and can be free from my ‘repertoire’.

Another illustration: Even a picnic has a both a plan and an improvisation. When I take some kids for a picnic in the woods I probably make a plan in order to have the ingredients for some fun, like going to a nice place, with maybe some grass and trees and a stream or lake, or rocks to scramble on, and food and water, balls and games, and an idea of time and things to do in what order and when to get home etc. And that plan helps me get things together and provide a rich setting to work in. It ensures useful ingredients, but it is not the cooking. And now, to have a really good time I need to be available to what happens, to drop the sheet music that got me there, and start to improvise, to respond to what happens as it unfolds, the discovery of a magnificent climbing tree, the ants getting in our cake, Jackie’s shoe in the river, and all the kids’ games that evolve. If I stick too much to my plan I will miss something. I know this because I have ruined picnics by failing to read what the moment offered and sticking to my need to control (and my fear of losing it). I’m happy to say I have, like you, also had wonderful picnics marked by receptiveness to what unfolded.


I am talking about improvisation in ordinary life and in the classroom that lifts us beyond the sheet music, liberates us from the ready made plan. It is not new to be aware of this, but it would be new to value it, discuss it and critique it, and thus develop ways to get better at it. Improvisation can be done well or badly and thus has quality criteria. Experience does not of itself mean we get better at it, and inexperience does not mean we cannot develop our  improvisation from the very beginning.

And who knows, maybe improvisation is an ingredient of the mysterious and elusive “Factor X” …. the quality that makes the good teacher good….

I’ve gone on longer than I intended, so before the year ends I shall stop, and in my next post pick up this theme and apply it specifically to pronunciation teaching. Meanwhile … Happy New Year!