Last Thursday I participated in the ELTchat discussing pronunciation, and as usual there was a general consensus, in this case regarding the treatment of the subject, and the lack of time it is generally perceived as being given in the average class room.
The thing thing that struck me was that while there was the usual fertile and fascinating discussion, generally I found myself disagreeing with a considerable number of the tweets. I was surprised with the number of people who were advocating 100 % pronunciation focused activities and classes. They just didn’t seem to tally with my experience at all. Now I should state as a caveat that this opinion is based on my experience of teaching adults in Brazil and Korea and I accept that in other situations, such as with young learners and with other nationalities, it is entirely possible that the circumstances may be completely different. My approach to pronunciation has always been more hands-off than hands-on because I have rarely, if ever, met a student who had such problems with pronunciation so that they could not be understood even though they had acquired the other skills required to express themselves. I have never thought that it required anything other than the occasional focus. That is not to say it should be forgotten about. The teacher should be aware of it and tackle issues if and when they arise, but having a ‘pronunciation class’ seems as anachronistic to me as having a ‘grammar class’. Yes, the students need to need to know how to pronounce “tough and bough and cough and dough” but only when those words appear in a natural context, and certainly not lined up together, their only connection being how irritatingly inconsistent they are. Surely the primary objective of what we are trying to achieve in regard to pronunciation is comprehensibility. What other priority can there be? The specific needs of the student must, as always, be taken into account. When I was teaching Korean English teachers, their aim was to be become better at their jobs. Consequently, I didn’t spend any time teaching vocabulary related to business meetings or international politics because it wasn’t relevant to them. When it came to speaking, what they needed in regard to pronunciation was for them to be able to teach their kids with enough accuracy and confidence to do a good job. The time could be better spent on other areas where they needed more assistance. It was stated in the #eltchat that: “‘If you’re not teaching pronunciation, you’re not teaching English”. I would prefer to say: “If you’re teaching English, you’re teaching pronunciation (assuming that you’re teaching it well of course!)" Every listening and speaking activity is a pronunciation practice. Just as reading can greatly improve a learner’s vocabulary, I believe that the simple act of listening to a variety of speakers can help the students improve their own pronunciation. This belief comes from my own experience with my students that I have taught for longer periods, particularly in one to one classes. They were exposed to an amount of authentic listening that I would make equivalent, in my own non-scientific way, with reading a novella or short story every week, and, over time, I could hear the improvements. Just as immigrants to a particular city eventually start to speak with that particular accent, my students would, less dramatically, become clearer in their speech. As teachers it is our responsibility to make sure we help the students reach of level of intelligibility that will enable them to use their English as they require it. This isn’t about shirking my responsibilities, but rather it’s to do with simple pragmatism. In our attempts to rectify the perceived imbalance in the quantity of teaching time given over to pronunciation, we must be careful not to overstep the mark and move towards a prescribed, teacher-led array of activities that often have, in my view, a limited effect and an overambitious objective.