In this post I’d like to conclude what I started to say about improvisation and pron teaching a couple of posts ago.

To improvise well in my response to a learner’s utterance means to engage with what they are working on in making the utterance, to see what they need to work on to make it better, to select a doable improvement that they are ready to attempt, and to find a way of making this intervention.

And this requires two things of me, the teacher:

1.. That I attend not just to the learner, but to their learning. I need to get closer to their learning so that I can see the moves of their awareness, what they are trying to do, what they actually do, and what they think of what they have just done. All this tells me what is going on in the learner’s awareness. For example, it may be that the learner can indicate on the chart the four sounds of a word, but does not say the final one. Does she see that there is something to work on here? Is she aware or not that there is a sound missing when she speaks? Does she hear the final sound when I say it? Does she think she is saying it? Is her awareness at the moment simply not tuned into final sounds? And so on…

 2.. I need a range of differential responses ready, and I need to be free enough not to use any of them. My choice of which to use must be guided by the learning in front of me, not by which one ‘worked’ last time. So perhaps I don’t use any of the ready-made responses, but instead alter one, or tailor a new one. The range of possible ready-made responses could include: Asking her to point out the sounds on the chart; Getting her to compare that with what she actually says; Asking her to say each of the sounds she points to, separately and then together; watching to see when, if and where a penny drops/an awareness is made: seeing if she spots the difference when someone else says it with/without the final sound, and so on.

(A separate issue, which I mention in order to put to one side, is holding the space such that I can attend fully to her, while also engaging the attention of everyone else in what is happening, and having other differential demands to offer to each other student in a personally calibrated way, thus to one, “say it faster”, to another, “join the words”, to another “use less energy” to another “try slower and clearer” and so on).

Going back to my analogy of the cocktail party in the previous post, Step 1 above corresponds to listening to what the other guest is saying, to know where they are coming from and what is important, thereby to inform my own next contribution which is Step 2, to make a fresh and relevant contribution that takes the conversation somewhere worthwhile, and which is more than just a habitual or stock response that I use in situations like this.

It is in this sense that I want to develop my ability to improvise in pronunciation teaching, whether dealing with sounds, words or connected speech, because only then can I work from where the student actually is.

An improvisation technique that has helped me: And here is the single technique that has probably helped me most in respect of improvisation in pronunciation teaching. When a student makes a pron mistake that they cannot immediately improve on:

1.. I say the mistake the way they are saying it, internally in my vocal apparatus but visible to the students, or if I say it aloud, then it is as if to myself. This gets me closer to the muscular moves (in the mouth) that the student is making.

2..I then say the required (correct) version, which gets me closer to the muscular moves that the student needs to make.

3. If these are single sounds then I might say each aloud, as if to myself as a personal inquiry, but also audible to all. First I say the two separately, then close together and then if possible as a glide. This shows me exactly what movements in the mouth are required to get from the mistake to the new version, and as I realise this I say aloud eg: “Ah, so lips forward and tongue back a bit” which is what the student in question needs to do.

4.. This process takes 5 or 10 seconds. All the students have witnessed it and tried it in themselves (not because I asked them too but because muscle evokes muscle) and maybe even the student in question has been able to apply it. And if not, I now know exactly what the student has got to do, and I can go about it according to my experience and skill.

I hope you have managed to follow this! It’s difficult to put a shift of awareness into words as I’m sure you have found. The issue of improvisation is something I intend to explore further, maybe I’ll start a separate category for it on this blog. In the next post I hope to resume the vowel ‘Story of Sounds’.