Q&A: Giving feedback on pronunciation

Teacher Keava O’Brien raised an interesting question regarding giving feedback on pronunciation (while on the Trinity College Teacher Training Diploma).

Question: Could you give me a little guidance on giving feedback on pronunciation after speaking tasks? At the moment I have a quick feedback session where we look at some of the language which came up. With lexis and grammar I’m selective – we maybe focus on two or three points only, to try to get the most out of it. Now I’m trying to apply a similar approach to their pronunciation. I highlight only a few words which have a problem in common to try to focus on one specific point at a time. And then as a quick follow up we brainstorm words with the same sound (or spelling or stress pattern or whatever the common problem is) hoping that the associations will make the pronunciation more memorable. I find that my learners are usually quick to identify the common problem when they see the words together.

However, I’m worried this may be a little restrictive as it ignores for the moment the other issues I notice during a speaking task. I would appreciate your perspective on this or any ideas you could share on giving feedback and error correction after an activity. Thanks in advance!

Reply Hi Keava. You raise a really good point, Giving feedback on pronunciation is a crucial activity. And I think you’re right to be selective about what to give feedback on. And if you can locate several instances of the same problem that highlights the issue, raises awareness and offers a richer set of memory hooks. I don’t think this is restrictive at all since in order to focus creatively on something you have to ignore the other things for the moment.

Pron is NOT a sequential syllabus

This raises a further issue that is relevant to  giving feedback on pronunciation, which is this: With pronunciation there cannot be a sequential teaching syllabus because all the sounds are needed from the start. You can do grammar and vocabulary in a sequential syllabus over months or years, but it does not work like that for pronunciation because you need all the sounds at the same time. But since there are only 44 sounds, and since they all fit onto one sheet of paper (eg the pron chart), and since those sounds cover all words and all connected speech too, it’s not a problem to attend to them all at approximately the same time. AND each sound helps the learning of each other sound. They are one set, not just 44 separate items.

Selective and holistic

So when giving feedback on pronunciation you have to be selective at any one moment, as you describe, yet over the course of a few lessons you deal with anything and everything else. This suggests an approach to feedback that is focussed and detailed in any moment, that puts the practised sounds back into the context of connected speech before moving on, and that takes a holistic approach over a series of lessons. A holistic pronunciation syllabus (ie all the sounds worked on and gradually improving as one set) is needed because every sound helps define what every other sound is and is not. Any correction is helping the learner to fine tune the muscles that make the difference to the sound in questions, and to all the other sounds.

Use the chart in feedback

Relating to giving feedback on pronunciation I find it pays to refer to the pron chart (nearly) all of the time. When a student says a sound accurately enough you can point to it on the chart, and say “This is what you just said”, or have the student find and point at it. If what they say is in fact another sound, then you point to that other sound on the chart, so they can get immediate feedback (you wanted to say that but in fact you said this). And if what they said is not sufficiently like any sound on the chart, then you point off the chart! And again they have immediate feedback and can try something different. So no mistake is wasted. A mistake is never a dead end. Every mistake is a learning opportunity. Every mistake is a fragment of the tudent syllabus coming to light. As Caleb Gattegno said “A mistake is a gift to the class”

New vocab on the chart

In your correction Keava you can use the chart to point out the different instances of that sound, and to search for other words containing it, When introducing new vocab you can start by pointing the sounds on the chart while they say them, then invite them to join the sounds in sequence to say the word fluently, and once that is right, ask them what they think the English spelling might be.

Alternatively you can say it once aloud, and tell the Sts NOT to repeat it but to listen to it internally, in their ‘mind’s ear’. And only then, when they have represented it internally, to say it aloud. You can then ask them “How many sounds in that word?” and to answer it they have to represent and separate the sounds internally in their mind’s ear..

Involve the students in selecting items

One other tip about giving feedback on pronunciation is to involve the Sts in the collecting and selecting of items for feedback. Get them to buy in to the process of gathering items for feedback, of noticing and questioning their own and each other’s performances…. even if they find it strange or awkward at first.

Culture of exploration rather than correction

Giving feedback on pronunciation is a great opportunity to grow a class culture of exploration rather than a culture of correction. Correction gets included and but as a by-product of exploration. In this way correction becomes a subset of exploration, rather than the other way round.