(Posted today on the OXFORD TEFL blog)

See what’s going on, try something different, learn from it.

That’s my teacher development mantra. You can use it anywhere and it applies to everything. Let’s start with the first bit: See what’s going on…. To follow our road to becoming the best teachers we can be, we need to question our beliefs and hidden assumptions, especially assumptions we have taken on board without realising, which, if left unseen, can skew our questions and actions.

But becoming aware of one’s assumptions is not easy especially if those assumptions come as taken-for-granted hand-me-downs embedded in the conventional wisdom/s of our professional discourse. In this blog post I’ll try to illustrate this by highlighting three areas of pronunciation teaching that I believe contain assumptions that are misleading, perhaps keeping us stuck – as they did me – causing our development road to curve back on itself.

This belongs to see what’s going on in the mantra. In the second part of this post I’ll suggest three corresponding practices to explore, part of try something different in the mantra.

Part 1.. See what’s going on

Challenge 1: We pay lip service to pronunciation as a physical activity, yet we approach it cognitively.

Thus we confuse know-about with know-how. Grammar and vocabulary are presented to learners through cognitive descriptions and problem solving activities. We see this in the way course books present well-crafted cognitive puzzles in which the student has to search, find, match, answer, identify, manipulate, transform, solve and so on, … in order to apply the rule (deduction) or discover the rule (induction).

So here’s the question: do we over-apply this cognitive approach to pronunciation? Isn’t pronunciation primarily a muscular, neuro-motor activity? Surely pronunciation is the coordination of several sets of muscles around the mouth (plus breath and voice muscles) making it less like learning grammar and vocabulary, and more like learning the choreography of a dance? Pronunciation is primarily a know-how rather than a know-about.

Perhaps in our teacher preparation we place more trust in the act of going outside ourselves to learn about pronunciation (eg from books and linguists), rather than inside ourselves to sense and feel our own muscular know-how in action, which would show us how we can help our learners do the same? And even if we do go inside ourselves and register our muscular movements, do we do so in a cognitive ‘describing’ way rather than sensing and feeling the movements through our proprioception? In other words do we unwittingly prioritize know-about over know-how?

Cognitive description certainly provide a useful schema for teachers but it cannot be the primary learning approach for our students, and therefore not the primary teaching approach either, just as a book on the description of dancing or skiing cannot be the primary way to learn dancing or skiing

Challenge 2: We act as if learners can repeat their way out of a habit.

Our L1 habituated muscles and neurology can only get us as close to a new L2 sound as our L1 neuro-muscular grip allows. There is no point in practising what is in effect an L1 muscle configuration in the hope that it will transform into the L2 sound, which requires a letting go of that L1 grip.

What is needed is a slight shift in the muscle configuration that releases the L1 neuro grip. But this can only be initiated consciously and deliberately be re-connecting with the muscles Then new sounds become possible, and once a better approximation is found then it is worth practising it, because being outside the L1 habit range it is unfamiliar, and requires a new habituation.

So here’s the question: What happens when you are asked to repeat a muscular coordination (ie a sound) that you haven’t yet got? Don’t you have to find the new setting first? But how do you release the muscles from their L1 habit range? You can’t repeat your way out of a habit from inside the habit! So to unhook from my mother tongue habit I first have to make conscious contact with the muslcles that are needed for the change, to find them in my body map, to get behind the habit and steer the muscles in another direction, even while initially uncertain what that direction is.

Challenge 3: Are we failing to integrate pronunciation fully with the rest of classroom activities?  I

f you glance at a coursebook you may get the impression that pronunciation is an add-on, attended to in the weekly “pron slot”. Yet pronunciation is in everything we do, in every part of every lesson. In every language activity pronunciation of some sort is being rehearsed by every learner – even when they are silent. In speaking and listening there is obvious rehearsal and consolidation of pronunciation, and when reading silently there is an internal subvocalisation which itself has a pronunciation, and when writing most learners subvocalise the words and phrases while assembling them internally, and again while writing them down. In all these cases the inner voice is active and it has a pronunciation.

Thus every part of every lesson is already a pronunciation lesson from the first moment to the last, even if the teacher never teaches or corrects pronunciation. The only variable is whether by default the learners apply L1 pronunciation to the new L2 language, or whether L2 pronunciation is put into the mix.

 A question here is “Once we realise that pronunciation is taking place in every moment of every lesson, does this not open up a whole new pronunciation adventure playground that allows integration of pronunciation into every class activity?

We may help ourselves if we let go of the idea of a linear, sequential syllabus for pronunciation. We clearly need all the sounds to be in circulation from the first moment of the first class, all of them influencing each other, and all of them gradually getting better together, some requiring more attention than others.

Part 2.. Try Something Different

Here are three areas for exploratory and reflective practice. Published today on the Oxford TEFL blog. Please click here to continue with Part 2