Teachers on the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL were discussing the problems of explaining pronunciation. This follows the previous post “Inside versus outside knowledge of pronunciation”
Teacher Miriam posed this question: How do I describe the differences between sounds, and explain how I am making each sound? AU: In my view your own question How am I making each sound is a great starting point, because you have to find it first in your own muscles before you can do anything useful. Once you have found the sound in your own muscles you can more easily see what the student is doing and what they need to do differently and then facilitate them in doing that. Starting with the cognitive description, which is how our teacher training courses often do it, may not be as useful in the classroom as we think.
Explanation itself can be the problem ….
The abstracted description does not replace the directly experienced physicality. Helping students to reconnect with the muscles that make the difference is the primary way of getting behind the habituated movements and postures of the L1 pron. You can’t simply think your way out of a muscular habit with the theory, nor can you repeat your way out of a habit. Instead you have to see what the muscles are doing and then get them to do something different. And for that you have to contact them. But how? As you already said: start with yourself. Teachers need to know what they are doing in their own mouths. The rest follows quite easily. The good news is – it’s not very difficult if you approach it through physicality. Click here for a three 3-minute videos that might be of direct interest here, and then select videos 6, 7 and 13.
Cognitive algebra v physical choreography
An English speaker (especially, but not only, a native speaker) may use grammar without knowing what they are doing, and then when they become a teacher of English they start to find out how grammar works, otherwise they can’t help their learners except by saying “repeat after me”. And they discover a sort of cognitive algebra of what goes with what which we call the ‘rules of grammar’. Fine.Now take pronunciation. An English speaker (especially, but not only, a native speaker) may use pronunciation without knowing what they are doing, and then when they become a teacher they want to find out how pronunciation works, BUT….. with pron the ‘rules’ are physical, and involve physical positions and coordinations. The cognitive algebra of grammar cannot be patched in here, but is replaced by a physical choreography of sounds and connected speech. If you learn pron cognitively, ie learn ‘about’ it from the outside, reading articles, looking at mouth diagrams, describing it with Latin and Greek words and so on, then when you go to teach you suddenly find it doesn’t help. It works well for language scientists – linguists – but not for language teachers and learners. It’s like a dance teacher going into the class to teach samba after only having read books about it, rather than finding the samba in their own body, muscles, balance etc. And you can only get this by sensing your body. Then you can help learners do the same. When you learn a physical skill with your muscles it’s direct and easy. When you learn a physical skill with your head, …. well…it’s different, maybe it’s impossible.
This does not cover your whole question, but finding how you make the sounds yourself should immediately shed a new light on how you describe them. how you sense the differences between them, and how you help learners to get there. If you would like to watch some ways of locating each sound through your ‘pron muscles’ you might like to explore these extra short “How to” videos here, starting from video no 10. Have fun!
Dear Mr. Underhill,
For a while, in state secondary schools in Madrid, I have been using your wonderful chart to show my Spanish speaking students how to improve our pronounciation of English. Doing so has made me develop that choreographed approach you wrote about, basing it on funny examples that serve as hooks. I have also adapted the chart you designed to the specific needs of my students. I would like to talk with you about all this now that I’m thinking about the way to pass this pm ti others. I haven’t been able to think of a better way to get directly in touch with you. Thanks in advance for your attention, MG
Thank you Maria. Its good to hear from you. I will get in touch with you, meanwhile if you want to put your thoughts here I will reply and we can discuss in a way that others can also see, which I have found benefits everyone. Adran
Thank you, Mr. Underhill!!!
From what we have privately said, I think the most interesting point to discuss in this forum is whether it would be worthy to give teachers the chance to dirty a bit your neat chart in order to make it easier to understand for a specific group of students. By dirtying, I mean use colours as well as highlight elements and even add words. To be honest, from the very first time I used it in a class, mine was a dirty version that has kept getting quite full little by little. I am really happy with the results I get, even though the improvement I have observed has had almost no reflexion in the very formal mostly grammar and vocabulary-based assessment methodology that we have to follow according to regulations.
Let’s see if there are any opinions on the matter.
Love and peace,
P.S. By introducing the link to my very humble blog, I’m aiming to overcome every bit of self-consciousness. I do so making a hard effort as it is so typical a feeling amongst us, Spaniards, that Spanish shame is the name British chose to give to the shame a person experiences for what someone else is doing not brilliantly.
Hi Maria, yes, dirty the chart as much as you like! I think the class should make it theirs.
I think it is also useful to make some blank charts ie with the same boxes in the same places but lots of space for writing in example words and new vocabulary as they learn it. Have a big one on the wall that the Sts fill in with words and other things as the lessons go by, and a small one (A4 size) for each student to have their own private one to write words they want to use as examples for the sounds.
As for shame, don’t even think of it. Be bold! Take courage! You are an explorer of learning and a leader for the next generation to try to make the world a better and more understanding place. This can only come through learning. You and your colleagues are all VIPs. No shame in that!