I’m just back home in Riga after a fortnight at Bell Teacher Campus, Cambridge, where I took the ‘From pronunciation to storytelling: a complete approach to comfortable intelligibility’ course with Adrian Underhill along with 13 others from around the world.
Other teacher courses were running at the same time, and our 21 weekly core course hours were supplemented with other workshops, talks and plenaries with other ELT dons such as Chaz Pugliese and Silvana Richardson.
It’s always a danger going to courses and conferences, getting giddy with the new ideas for a while and then dropping back into old routines. The length of this course presents another danger (I experienced the same with the IATEFL conference in 2015): such a saturation of ideas that later on it’s difficult to recall just one, let alone put any into practice. So now’s a good time to sit down, go through my notes and draw out some key lessons to start running with. So what are the main points I take away?
1) The phonemic chart is more than a wall decoration
This picked up from where I left off at IH Toruń’s teacher training day in March, where Adrian’s plenary brought his chart to life (yes, he invented it). Used correctly, it’s NOT about learning symbols and writing out sentences in phonemes (how I miss Delta Module 1), but using proprioception to feel what’s happening in and around the mouth to make the correct sounds. The chart is laid out as a map to support this discovery (I’ll be back on this in detail in a future post – the first Mouth Gym session can expect company very soon). So when I’m back in class in September, the chart’s going up at the front of the room. I’ve even bought myself a telescopic pointer!
2) Drilling isn’t the most effective way to teach pronunciation
I say, you repeat, but the ears aren’t necessarily in tune with the mouth. If you don’t understand the intricate positioning and movement of the four ‘buttons’ (mouth, jaw, tongue, voice) to make the sounds, how can you recreate the sound? It’s like hearing a recording of a four piece band and trying to play the tune back instantly.
Instead, by teaching pronunciation physically rather than cognitively, we can teach students exactly what each of the four ‘instruments’ are doing, have them experiment and experience themselves, and use the chart to demonstrate. This doesn’t mean that modelling has no place; but learners need to know how to produce the sound themselves.
3) Pronunciation is in everything, so we should be teaching it with everything
Reading? You pronounce the words internally.
Writing? As you read it back…(see above)
Grammar and vocabulary? Remembering structures and words often comes back to our internal voice sounding them out in our heads.
So after introducing the phonemic chart bit by bit, it should be used to complement everything else we do in class. There are many more activities we can do with pronunciation other than drilling, as I’ll get to in another post.
4) Native speaker = better teacher?
I’ve written about this before, but it will still be the case in September that learners specifically request a native speaker over a local one. Two nuggets from this course:
1 – The vast majority of the teachers at the Bell Teacher Campus had a first language other than English, and were giving up part of their summer to improve their teaching skills. Commitment and enthusiasm should be well above passport on a learner’s teacher shopping list (or an employer’s, for that matter).
2 – Just because we (native speakers) know how to do something, it doesn’t mean we know how to teach it. It’s more important to be aware of how we make certain sounds, and I hope all of my course mates feel ready to share that in their teaching now, no matter what their mother tongue.