Holistic V linear sequence for pronunciation teaching. Integrating pronunciation. Further questions from teachers on the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL

Sequence in a pronunciation course

Q1: I’ve been reading Kelly’s book How to Teach Pronunciation and I have also watched and read some of your material. It seems to me that Kelly’s suggestion is to deal with the sounds and the chart little by little, while your suggestion is to work with the whole chart. What are the pros and cons of both approaches? (Ana Castro)

Q2: There are various textbooks (such as Well Said) that are organized into chapters, with presumably easier-to-learn parts first, building up to more complex aspects of speech like clusters and intonation.  Does pronunciation really suit this type of approach, and if so, should we use them in a ‘stand-alone’ fashion or as an accompaniment to, for example, a listening and speaking course? (Martin Cooke)

AU: Thanks for these questions Ana and Martin. It’s a current and relevant question because our profession still has not resolved how to integrate pronunciation fully into teaching programmes in the way that grammar and vocabulary are integrated. And I think this is partly because we have not resolved the question you ask. For simplicity let’s reduce things to these two opposed approaches:

Holistic, all the sounds are in play, and the focus shifts to whichever one/s need attention, according to what is being said at any point in a lesson. The same is true of connected speech.

Sequential, all the sounds are in use (because they have to be) but only some will receive attention – according to a pre-determined order. Others are left ‘til later, as is connected speech.

Doing it sequentially works for Grammar and Vocabulary …

Most of us are very familiar with the second approach, the sequential syllabus, because that is what guides our selection (and postponement) of most grammar and vocabulary items. Some perceived advantages of this are that it offers a way to manage the unlimited amount of ‘content’ of both grammar and vocab. A pre determined sequence enables us to do a bit at a time, in a workable order, to keep on track, and to ensure that important things don’t get left out. It also, quite by chance, fits neatly with the currently dominant course book mode.

…. but does it work for Phonology?

What I said above goes for grammar and vocab. But going back to pronunciation (including connected speech) I don’t think that those advantages of the sequential approach still apply, because:

  • Pron does not have the problem of an endless amount of material. In fact there is very limited material, though what there is suffuses everything and in multiple permutations.
  • You need to have all this material (sounds and the simple devices for joining them and for spreading energy across an utterance) in circulation at the same time because as soon as you string the first few words together you are working in all three realms of sounds, words, and connected speech. All at once. And in the very first class. It does not make learning sense to delay connected speech until a year or even a month later when learners are connecting speech from the first lesson.
  • Pron is not a series of separate bits but a single interconnected system, where everything depends on everything else (vowels help define what each other is not; stress depends on meaning; stress and unstress define each other; vowel change depends on untress; pitch movement is relative to non movement and both are relative to the speaker, and so on).
I advocate forms of holism for phonology teaching

Here are four points in favour of this view:

  1. The content for sounds and connected speech is not endless in fact it is very limited. There are only 44 sounds (and possibly half of these may be workably similar to those in the St’s L1) plus a handful of rules/tendencies that govern the ways sounds are put together to make words, and words put together to make connected speech. Many of the latter are in any case physical short cuts taken naturally in the movements of tongue, lips, jaw and voice.
  2. You need all the sounds at once, and from the beginning. Thus there cannot be a strict syllabus of sounds. You must have them all in circulation from the first moment and you then work on any of them as needed, and gradually they all get better together. Of course you prioritise in any moment in a lesson, but over several lesson most things get some attention. You keep coming back to the same things in slightly different contexts, as ‘teachable moments’ occur within the zone of proximal development’ (ie within reach of the student’s learning edge). And gradually an English phonemic set emerges, which needs to be seen as one system, not as 44 bits.
  3. Stress and unstress is important in the uniquely English distribution of energy across an utterance. And vowels mostly change their sound when in unstressed positions. This is different from many other languages and needs attention from the very beginning. This is not a nicety but an essential part of the OS of English and crucial for comfortable comprehension. Within a lesson attention to connected speech follows only shortly (perhaps a minute or two) after attention to the sounds in the words, in fact as soon as the students are making an utterance out of two or more words.
  4. The challenge in learning pronunciation is not cognitive capacity (as it may be with Grammar and Vocabulary) but the physical coordination needed to pull off a handful of unfamiliar muscular manoeuvres in multiple arrangements.
In summary one could say:

Everything in phonology is interdependent, and since there is not much of it, and since you need it all now, then it pays to have it all in circulation now.”

Returning to Martin and Ana’s questions, I would say by all means use the material in the pronunciation books as a resource, and as a back up, but do not be bound by the sequence and the timing implied. Regarding the chart, I do not say teach all the sounds now, but have them all in circulation now, be ready to focus on whatever needs doing at the point when it needs doing, and use the chart as a map of the terrain and as a tracking device for the system that is gradually emerging. Conversely, by holding back on certain sounds or on the treatment of untressed syllables or on connecting words together, by holding until later what needs doing now, you may miss the teachable moment, deprive learners of what they need at the “point of purchase” of new language, and thereby oblige them to default to non-useful holding patterns that get in the way of everything, lower morale, and bring about habituations that are harder to change later.

The key to integrating pronunciation ….. may be under our noses

Proponents of a sequence approach will say I have presented a lopsided argument, and they may be right. But forms of holism in phonology need very full discussion, since here lies the key to one of our shared holy grails, the integration of pronunciation with everything else.