The next few posts feature practical questions raised by teachers following the current online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL. On the topic of teaching pronunciation at different learner levels David Newstead posed three questions, relevant I think to teachers everywhere:
  1. I find that in other areas of language teaching the expectations of ability and knowledge tend to be fairly clear. Pronunciation less so. How much do you distinguish between pronunciation at different levels?
  2. When or should we stop accepting “understandable” pronunciation and demand something more from students?
  3. Or are these questions too focused on some kind of structured one size fits all, an attempt to categorise pronunciation issues when in reality the answer simply lies with the individual students and their personal needs and objectives?
Q1. Hi David. Thanks for these useful questions which I’ll try to respond to in order:.You ask first about distinguishing between pronunciation at different levels. 

I think that with Pron it’s in a way the same at every level: sounds, word connections and stress/unstress. The same processes are being iterated at each level with gradually developing mastery. With Grammar and Vocab you can indeed have a linear syllabus which is cumulative, and at every level there are more new things to be learnt. We have many syllabuses like this. One can change the order, but there is always some new ‘item’ to learn. The view that there is always more stuff to learn along an approximately linear syllabus may apply to Vocab and Grammar. But I suggest Pron is different in several ways:

  1. There is not much to Pron. There are approximately 44 sounds, which do not have to be exact but have give and take in how they are realised. These 44 sounds can be shown on one sheet of paper (eg my chart). That’s all there is. There is no second sheet, because from these 44 sounds you can make all the words of English, and the ways that sounds are joined together into words follow a few pretty straightforward rules. And these words join together to make all the connected speech, again there are a few fairly straightforward rules about how this is done. And that’s it.
  2. With Pron there is no syllabus. All the sounds are needed at once from the very first lesson, and you are connecting words together into chunks and sentences from the beginning. So from the first lesson you (T and Sts) are working across all aspects of pron. In this sense there isn’t really a syllabus, you just work on any of those three levels that presents itself, and gradually get better at all of it (at different rates for different learners, as always). You the teacher can work on whatever your ear tells you is obstructing their intelligibility. At earlier levels you may find plenty to work on, so you have to choose. Certainly you can pre-select what to focus on in a lesson, but you can’t then ignore everything else. At higher levels it may be more obvious what needs to be done.
  3. Pron is physical. It is not a sort of cognitive algebra like grammar, it is a physical activity like dance. It uses only a handful of muscles, it takes place internally, mainly in and around the mouth but also in the voice and chest/lungs, and since muscles work by moving it is largely visible – hence the possibility of lip reading. Maybe you have seen this short video on The muscle buttons? It may help you on this: Select video no 7, , at this link

So I would work on these three fronts (sounds, words, connected speech) at every language level, from beginner to super advanced. And what I do is to help learners to work on the awarenesses they need (usually physical, but also aural) to make the sound, word connection, wordstress, rhythm clearer, more fluent, perhaps slower, perhaps faster, than at the moment. I get them to do the best they can at that moment, always with the goal of comfortable intelligibility in mind. And I keep up that gentle pressure on pron all the time while they are practising their grammar forms and vocab chunks. So I do not usually need a pron slot. Pron just piggy backs everything else that is going on. Pron is infused into all other language activities providing a kind of “third dimension” to all language activity in the classroom.

Q2 Your second question asks if and when we should stop accepting “understandable” pronunciation and demand something more from students?

This is a great question. And again, what I find is that this distinction disappears when I ask the St to upgrade just one little DOABLE step from whatever they have just done. I invite the next little bit more from the Sts. There is never nothing to do, though sometimes of course you leave things because you and the Sts are preoccupied with other stuff. You never leave wrong words and word order unchallenged. And the Sts are grateful, usefully challenged and pleased You always help Sts to do the best they can at that moment. Why should it be different for Pron?

So in my case I always have a playful and enjoyable edge for upgrading something about what they say. Whatever a St says, there is something in the sounds, words or connected speech that they can take a bit further, It is not that they make a mistake, I am not looking for mistakes as such, I am looking for opportunities where they can see what to work on in the interest of being always more comfortably intelligible, and thus more self expressive and confident.

And this will be different for different class members. The simple guideline to keep in mind is this criterion of comfortable intelligibility. You are helping them all the time not simply to become correct, though that is useful and fun and insightful, but there is a bigger goal beyond, which is to be comfortably understood, And to easily comprehend when listening to others. Mouth and ear are intimately connected through the neurology, so the practice of either informs the other. To help Sts to hear something elusive (eg something that is fast, or with untresses that ‘lose’ sounds) you can get them to practise saying it. And then suddenly they can hear it. The mouth teaches the ear.

Q3 You ask if the answer to teaching pronunciation at different learner levels might simply lie with the individual students and their personal needs and objectives?

In my view yes, Work with what you hear, all the time nudging them from what they can already do at the moment, to attend to what they cannot yet do, working across all three areas of sounds, words and connected speech. And each little one to one upgrading you offer serves the whole class. Imagine you are a guide taking a few visitors through a challenging part of a national forest …. you work with each of them at their own level according to what they encounter and what they can do. You watch, you wait, you are ready. The problems each one faces educate the whole group. And you don’t have a pre-set syllabus in mind. I think it’s a bit like that. What do you think?

So, thanks for these questions David. I hope this offers you some food for thought, and that other teachers will find this of some use. I wish you well with your explorations – and your Diploma!

Videos: If readers of this blog would like insights into the physicality of making and teaching all the sounds you’ll find a series of three minute videos here