Pronunciation at IATEFL 2015 - some reflections

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Pronunciation at IATEFL 2015 - some reflections -

I can’t remember ever having seen so many pronunciation-focused talks on an IATEFL programme as there were in Manchester this year. Too many to fit into a single PRONSIG strand day. What’s more, many of them were so over-subscribed that there wasn’t even space to sit on the floor, as I found out to my own disappointment. I did get to see a fair number, nevertheless. Here’s a brief reflection on them.

Piers Messum argued with great passion for the importance of raising learner awareness of articulatory settings, and the role of the diaphragm and belly muscles in creating the pulses of air pressure that are so characteristic of English. He argued for a holistic approach to pronunciation – if learners can tune in to certain underlying features of English phonology which crosscut the entire sound system, the individual sounds themselves will come out of their own accord. Importantly, learners must do this tuning in for themselves – it cannot be achieved by simply attempting to repeat after the teacher. Piers told the audience that if they get one thing only from his talk, it should be this: go out and get J. C. Catford’s book A Practical Introduction to Phonetics. Catford, apparently, had been a teacher as well as an academic, which gives his insights a particularly practical relevance. See a video of Piers' talk here.

Bindu Varghese, of EC English Language Centres, New York, focused her presentation on the possibilities of peer teaching in pronunciation. As I have found in my own recent teaching experiences, this is something that can be particularly rewarding in multi-lingual classes. I very rarely need to give feedback these days – there is always another member of the class who can do the job equally well if not better. Bindu illustrated this point with a number class activities, one of which I will describe here, mainly as a note-to-self to try it out:
Step 1: Choose some minimal pairs of difficulty to one of the language groups in the class and embed them in a dialogue.
Step 2: Prepare some listening comprehension questions about the dialogue which hinge on correctly identifying the correct word from the minimal pair.
Step 3: Get two students from the language group to rehearse and then perform the dialogue to the class. Meanwhile, the rest of the class listens while trying to answer the comprehension questions.
Step 4: Get the class to check the answers and if something went wrong, work out what it was and how to fix it.
For peer teaching to work, says Bindu, you need to have a good supply of activities so students can work on the same point over and over, constantly recycling. You also need to make sure that outcomes are mutually beneficial to both parties in any peer teaching pairing. This is perfectly possible because, as Joseph Joubert said, “To teach is to learn twice”. What’s not to like?

Adam Scott, of St Giles school in Brighton, reported on his investigation into using synthetic phonics in an EFL setting. Synthetic phonics is a system developed to help native English-speaking children to learn to read and write. In this situation, the kids have already got the pronunciation but haven’t yet got the written form – quite the opposite of the case in EFL, so clearly some adaptation will be necessary. Adam mentioned, for example, that the phonics symbol for the diphthong in sound is /ow/. He found that this was very anti-intuitive for his non-native learners, who kept wanting to pronounce it as the diphthong in road, and he decided to change it. Adam explained that he decided to use phonics as an action research project because of resistance, particularly from Arabic-speaking students, to learning the IPA. The results of his project, while not resoundingly positive, were positive enough to convince him to continue working on it. One particularly interesting reflection Adam shared was this: he felt that during their experience with phonics, his learners’ mastery of the English spelling-sound system had moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence. In other words, they now knew what it was that they needed to learn, where previously they didn’t.


Steven and Jane Thompson also talked about synthetic phonics at a talk I attended with Adam later in the conference. Their presentation focused on phonics for young childrens’ literacy classes, a context more akin to the one which the system was originally designed for, but in this case intended for EFL young learners. This difference meant that a learning load which would have been 6-8 weeks for native children would be a year or more for their target audience. As they talked us through the careful phases in which the system is taught, one interesting term caught my attention: sightwords. These are words which are non-decodable from their spelling, particularly frequent function words such as the or here. These words do not follow any of the patterns or regularities which form the backbone of the phonics system, and as such, they have to be learnt as one-offs, by heart. In a question to Jane at the end of the session, we learnt that in her view the phonics – spelling correspondences should be regarded as approximate, not rigid. This is particularly necessary to accommodate accent variation.

Richard Benson’s title Do we still need the phonemic chart? seemed doubly controversial owing to the presence in the audience of Adrian Underhill, whose celebrated chart adorns many a classroom around the world. Richard began by attacking the IPA from all angles. It’s a big learning load, especially for learners with a non-alphabetic L1. It’s got an unhealthy proximity to RP and all the status and class baggage that carries. It includes obsolete sounds that are going out of fashion. And last but not least, few teachers know it well enough to use it with confidence in the classroom, and we only use it because our books and trainers force us to. All fair points, although I wonder if the point about accent relates more to phonetic than phonemic symbols – phonemic symbols are arguably more accent-adaptable. In any case, Richard then went on to turn the argument on its head by showing that, although living with the IPA is a pain, living without it is a bigger pain still. Without it, pron teaching feels bitty and random. Without it, we inevitably end up with imperfect folk phonetics being used. Without it, the relationship between sounds is opaque. Conclusion: instead of scrapping the chart, learn to use it better. Get students on board by demonstrating its value. Don’t use it to prescribe RP but instead adapt it to your own accent. Get more familiar with the system it represents and guide students around it. As Adrian does on these videos.

Catarina Pontes, from the Cultura Inglesa in Sao Paulo, brought us her practical pronunciation teaching tool kit, the first item of which was precisely Adrian’s phonemic chart, including a mini-demonstration. She asked us to choose a particularly difficult sound, and the class consensus turned out to be the sounds represented by TH. She showed us how to get at these by morphing from /f/ and /v/ and moving towards the TH – both on the chart and in our mouths. Catarina went on to demonstrate the use of rubber bands to represent vowel length, lip shape, and intonation contours. She recommended the use of mirrors – or selfies – to raise awareness of mouth position, and Cuisenaire rods to represent word and sentence stress. With these and many other tricks of the trade, Catarina delivered a no-nonsense practical demonstration of the basic techniques of our craft.

Finally, and at the heart of the PRONSIG strand day, we had input from someone from outside our customary circle – her majesty the queen. Or rather, Luke Meddings, with his extraordinary mimicry skills, impersonating her. Luke, whose parents were drama coaches, explained how the skill of impersonating is a matter of finding a ‘key’ – some set of the mouth, some typical mood or personality trait. Focus on this key and exaggerate; play with it. Just as we can impersonate a celebrity, we can also impersonate a type – and here would be the implication for pronunciation teachers. Get your students into the mindset of impersonating an English-speaking type. Luke’s ‘English type’ was a person hunching shoulders and dropping their facial features in an attempt to escape from the incessant rain, mumbling schwas as he slouched across the stage. A very entertaining presentation which delighted the audience, although I doubt this approach could replace Catarina’s tool kit, Adrian’s chart, or a good reading of Catford’s book.
As I say, these were only some of the pronunciation talks on the programme. I was unable to get into the room to see Wayne Rimmer or Sebastian Lesniewski (video here), which were packed out, but see a review of Wayne Rimmer by Lizzie Pinard here. Nor was I able to see the talks by Robin Walker, Laura Patsko or Richard Cauldwell, which were similarly crowded. I also missed Pamela Rogerson-Revell, but there's a review of it by Olya Sergeeva here.

But fantastic that there was so much pronunciation on offer, and long may it continue!


Hi Mark, Adrian Underhill also gave a short "masterclass" at the Macmillian Stand where he gave us a demo on how to use his pronunciation chart. I remember him saying "I am not interested in teaching symbols, I am interested in teaching sounds".
Mark Hancock's picture

That's an interesting sound-bite to ponder. Thanks Umes.

Hi, Mark! Thanks once again for attending my presentation and for summarizing it here so nicely! :) Cheers, Catarina
Mark Hancock's picture

Thank YOU Catarina!

Hi Mark! Thanks for attending my presentation. I'm glad you found some useful "take-aways". Have you been able to use any of the activities and do you have any feedback on them? Bindu

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