Further questions raised by teachers on the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL.

The themes here are 1) at what age to start using the pron chart, and 2) what to do about pron meta language and explaining pron. Ana Castro writes: In my teaching experience I’ve found out that teaching pron to young learners is easier than teaching older students. 

  1. At what age do you think we should start working with the phonemic chart in class? Showing students the chart, symbols, etc? (mainly thinking about pre-schoolers and young primary students)
  2. Shall we introduce some meta-language when teaching pron to more advanced students (e.g. explain them what fricative, affricate, bilabial, etc. mean)?

Q1 Thanks Ana I recommend starting with the chart from the beginning of teaching a new class, and at any age. It is not about the symbols, although the symbols happen to be there. And I don’t ask or expect student to learn them, though in fact they nearly all do within a few lessons.

Learning our way round the mouth

The point is that for all of us it is the mouth we first need to learn our way round. It is the proprioceptive experience (the sensation of the muscle moving) that unlocks everything. Once you have connected with the muscles that make the difference you can use them to make a difference! The chart is just a map for that experience. The symbols are just splodges to put in the boxes, which can be useful later when using dictionaries etc. But the point is we are learning sounds, not symbols. This article The chart is not about teaching symbols may be of interest.

This one too you might find useful on Teaching pronunciation during early childhood

And you’re right, the younger they are the easier it is, because they are still in touch with the muscles that make the difference.

Meta language

Q2 Meta language is a set of terms to describe something else. That is the whole problem. What we need with pron is direct muscular experience, not more cognitive terms to describe a physical activity. This takes us away from the experience and in the end substitutes for the physical activity, but still leaving us disconnected form the very muscles we need to use in a non habitual way. This is why everyone is in such a stew about pron, because they have disappeared into a cognitive world abstracted from the physical event which is powerless to make the difference.

Non technical terms

As regards fricative, affricate, bilabial and other technical words, I would probably not teach those words unless I had a class of linguists. I teach people to explore and get to know the mouth, which is a bit different. And therefore the words I use tend to be much the same as the words for exploring a room, or a small garden. In other words I’m using prepositions of place, and a few verbs for putting, placing and contact, and a few words for the places, starting with tongue, teeth, lips. I add words as needed, starting with words supplied by the class. I need the knowledge of – and words for – direct tactile experience, which comes from sensing the mouth, from proprioception. The Latin and Greek meta words are words not of direct perception, but of knowledge ABOUT pronunciation. This article looks at The problems of explaining sounds:

Teaching Pron is not primarily a cognitive activity

Anyway…. Ana you have put your finger on something very important for all of us. I think this is at the heart of the problems we have with pron teaching. You can (more or less) teach grammar and vocabulary as cognitive problem puzzles. Course books are nowadays brilliant at this. But pron is not a cognitive activity. Like dance it is a physical activity. See also  Our algorithms for teaching grammar do not apply to teaching pronunciation