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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

August 2009

Topic: Extra Extra!! It's The Special Summer Rerun Issue!!

It’s summer. That means it is time for the beach, barbecues and, of course… summer reruns. This month, each Think Tank member chose a previously published piece to recycle. While some people don’t like summer reruns, on TV or on the Web, as Wikipedia points out, “Many viewers appreciate the opportunity to re-watch a program they enjoyed or watch one they missed the first time round.” In our case, substitute “read” for “watch,” and we’re there.

By the way, Wikipedia also points out that the invention of reruns is usually credited to Desi Arnaz, TV star, producer, and husband of Lucille Ball (I Love Lucy). You are just seven sentences into this and probably already learned something.


We’ll be back in September with a new discussion on motivation.


Marc Helgesen

Language Learning and the Senses

Sight. Hearing. Touch. Smell. Taste. Five simple words. Five very powerful senses. And every bit of information we take in, we do so through those senses. Since this is how our brains get input – and make meaning of it -- this is something that all of us as teachers will want to be aware of. It just, well, makes sense.

Of the five senses, sight (Visual), hearing (Auditory), feeling (alternately called Kinesthetic [movement], tactile [touch], and haptic [touch/ movement/ emotion] are the most useful in the classroom. Smell (Olfactory) is strong. If I ask you to remember the smell of fresh baked cookies, you may well start to salivate since the memory of the smell is so strong. So is taste (gustatory). Try bringing chocolate chip cookies to class and check what the students remember. But V-A-K are the senses most often and most easily used in learning languages and other skills at school.

Everyone, barring a disability, has and uses all the senses. But we also have one that we use more than the others. It is called the “preferred modality.” The modalities are sometimes called “learning styles” or “processing channels.” Those are just different ways of talking about the senses.

Your preferred modality, by the way, doesn’t mean the one you like the most – just because you like music doesn’t mean you are an auditory person (It most likely means you are human – everyone likes music). Rather, your preferred modality is the one which, when there is nothing going on to force a change, you use as a starting point. You can often tell your preferred modality by noticing your own behavior. For example, imagine you are going to a lecture. Which of these do you usually do?

1. Take a lot of notes, which are probably fairly neat.

2. Make a recording instead of taking notes.

3. Take a lot of notes, then never look at your notebook again (it may be better that way – the notes are a mess).

4. Watch the speaker closely as you listen.

5. Close your eyes so you can focus on what you are hearing. You might mentally repeat key phrases or points.

6. Move around in your seat –adjust your position, move your arms, tap your fingers, fidget – as you listen, even though you are paying attention.

It is useful to be aware of your own style for several reasons. It is the way you usually process information so it is often the way you learn best. And, since that is the way you take in information, it may well be the way you teach.

This is just a quick introduction and isn’t meant to be a full sensory preference evaluation (more on that later), but you probably found yourself relating to a few of the ideas and not relating at all to the others. Ideas 1 and 4 are typical of visual learners, 2 and 5 are thing auditory learners do, 3 and 6 are typical kinesthethic learner behavior.

Of course, it is useful to be aware of your own style for several reasons. It is the way you usually process information so it is often the way you learn best. And, since that is the way you take in information, it may well be the way you teach. It is no surprise that many of use give out information the way we process it. After all, it makes sense (to us) that way.

But what about learners who process things differently? What about learners whose learning style/preferred modality is different than the way you teach?

What follows is an attempt to deal with that. I originally made this chart that you can download at the bottom of this article for myself. I know I am a kinesthetic learner who also rates quite high on visual. And my score on auditory scales are quite low (this is a typical pattern: high on one, fairly high on another, quite low on the third). I was worried about my auditory learners – what was I doing to make sure the class makes sense (so to speak) for them? I identified the main types of activities we do in class. Then I looked at the three main sensory areas. I tried to identify things I can do as a teacher to make sure I have the main senses covered. I also noted things they can do as learners. I try to make sure that my teaching covers the range of senses– it is useful for students to get practice with all the senses. I usually introduce a few options. Students naturally gravitate towards the activities that fit with their learning styles.

To use the chart, either take a learning inventory (see note at end) or just look over the chart and see which things you already do. It may indicate your learning/teaching style. Then make it a point to try some of the other items, especially those that are not necessarily part of your regular pattern.

Work with it. Play with it. I think your students will see the light, or it will ring some bells for them. Or maybe it will just feel right. Whatever happens, they’ll be learning.

Download Language skills across the senses: A list of tasks here

Note: To find own preferred modality, take a learning style assessment like this one. Here, I find “Learning styles test 2” to be the most useful with my students.

If you want to have your classes take the inventory as well and doing so on the Internet isn’t practical, there are photocopiable tests in Knowing Me, Knowing You by Jim Wingate available from Delta Publishers and In your hands by Jane Revell and Susan Norman, Saffire Press.

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Curtis Kelly

To what extent should learners be given choices when they engage in classroom activities?

This month we were asked to rerun a piece we had written before. Since the current Think Tank archives do not have all our older pieces, I chose this one about student choices. It speaks on an educational approach little known in Asia, but needed now more than ever before. As many people have commented, this approach, although associated with Adult Education, also works with college students, high school students, and even children. Maybe this is so because it represents educational humanism, whose lovely head rears from time to time with labels like “Montessori method” (1900’s), “progressivism” (1930’s), “humanism” (1970’s), “learner centeredness” (1980’s), and so on.)

To what extent should learners be given choices when they engage in classroom activities?

Give learners choices? What a notion.

Education is after all, "filling a bucket, not lighting a fire," and letting learners decide what they need to know is like, well, letting people decide who to marry or what religion to believe in. Please! Leave it to us experts!

Giving learners "choices" is the basis of creating autonomous learners (which, by the way, is part of a recent Monbusho directive). In fact, in my field, Adult Education, there is a whole pedagogy based on learner autonomy called "andragogy." At its heart is the notion that children are by nature, dependent, teacher-directed learners, whereas adults are independent, self-directed learners. It was developed by Malcolm Knowles during the adult education boom in the West when it was found that programs for adults were experiencing horrendous dropout rates, of about 50 percent. Teachers were using the same test-driven, teacher-directive pedagogies that have been in use since 1100 A.D. (and still reign in Japan), and their adult students were dissatisfied.

An appropriate pedagogy for adults includes group discussion and problem solving rather than lecturing, and allowing learners rather than the instructor to determine and satisfy their own learning needs.

Adults tend to be autonomous, self-directed learners with specific, life-centered reasons for engaging in study. Therefore, the traditional model of knowing teachers pouring their own experience-based knowledge into the empty vessels of their students' heads does not, and cannot, apply to adults. Nor does the motivational approach of defensive learning: "Pass this test or I'll fail you." Adults, facing tasks according to their own sociological situations, are motivated to learn in order to succeed at these tasks. Therefore, an appropriate pedagogy for adults includes group discussion and problem solving rather than lecturing, and allowing learners rather than the instructor to determine and satisfy their own learning needs.

Just a minute! "Allowing learners rather than the instructor to determine and satisfy their own learning needs?" Nice in theory, but in practice, it sounds like a horror movie for teachers. But this is just because we are still caught in the teacher-centered pedagogy for children. There are methods that support learner autonomy, such as learning contracts, which I am increasingly using in my own college classes. In a learning contract, the student determines what must be learned, how, by when, and what proof will be given to show mastery. The instructor becomes more of a learning "manager" - or as we like to say, "facilitator" - than "teacher." Likewise, our pupils become "learners" rather than "students."

It works. I know. I am currently engaged in satisfying the requirements of a learning contract myself. My facilitator is an Internet expert in Wisconsin, and without even a peep from him, I am doing far more serious study than I have ever done before.

Therefore, from the perspective of Adult Education, giving students "choice" in their studies is not just something "nice" to do for them, it is mandatory. It is the basis of the only pedagogy that works for adults. In fact, the theories behind this pedagogy can explain the increasing level of malaise in today's college and high school classrooms. Whereas in the 1980's an eighteen-year-old was still a "child", adulthood comes a lot more quickly to the youth of this millennium, and with it, that all-consuming need for self-direction.

Give learners a choice? Absolutely. It is immoral not to. The notion that one person has the right to determine what another must know is absurd. On a more positive note, though, their making choices serves our ultimate mission, the building of better human beings. As Brookfield writes in The Skillful Teacher (1990, p.95):

"When people who are not used to having to having their ideas granted any public credibility find that they are being listened to carefully and seriously, this is an astoundingly powerful experience. It can precipitate major changes in their self-images...and personal lives."

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Chris Hunt

Do you Do Tests?

(I guess I have two reasons for selecting the following piece. Firstly, it’s probably my most notorious piece of writing and has probably generated more response than any other. Secondly, and sadly, testing children is still rife. It’s more than the norm than ever. This piece, though flamboyant, remains a call for something else...)

There is some very simple advice given to people who are considering taking drugs. It goes like this:

Just say no.

Here is some very simple advice for children who are confronted by teachers offering tests.

Just say no.

If only it were that simple. If only children had that much power. If only teachers gave them that much respect. If only teachers gave them the choice.

I think that teachers who impose tests on children are the equivalent of drug pushers. I’d even go so far as to say that it should be a criminal offence. The idea of ranking and classifying children disgusts me. How dare teachers take something as sweet and precious as young life and stuff it raw and bleeding through the sausage grinder of standardised tests, or any test for that matter. What gives them the right to do so? What gives them the right?

Just what is the purpose of a test, or rather what function does it fulfil? Putting aside the issues of ranking I guess tests are supposed to reveal what students know, but they usually do this by showing what students do not know. This is unnatural.

A baby exploring the world is learning through experience. It is the experience that shapes learning. The baby does not need a test to know what it knows. It is too busy exploring and learning.

A baby exploring the world is learning through experience. It is the experience that shapes learning. The baby does not need a test to know what it knows. It is too busy exploring and learning. Moreover, the baby does not know that it is ignorant of anything. Ignorance is truly bliss. But once a child is confronted with the idea that they don’t know something they start to learn not knowing. They start to learn that there are right answers and there are wrong answers. The joy of learning becomes contaminated by doubt. It becomes contaminated by the fear of getting something wrong and the desire to be right. This is the creation of lack of knowledge. Children stop learning through exploring and instead start looking for the right answers.

In a much earlier essay Curtis Kelly suggests that testing and grading suppresses maturation. If this is the case for teenagers how much more so for children? Children are inherently more fragile and impressionable than teenagers and young adults.

What sense does testing children make? A group of children are exposed to some information and then tested to see if they have got it. This presupposes that the teaching is so effective it is possible for all the children to get the information. What’s the old adage? If the student performs well that’s due to the excellence of the teacher. If the student performs badly that’s due to the stupidity of the student.

Then there’s the concept of Multiple Intelligences. If this is valid then the concept of a single test for anything is absurd. For any given piece of information one would have to teach it in a multiple of ways and then have an equal number of tests.

But, I guess I’m missing the point. The real purpose of tests, like so much of school is to teach conformity. The purpose of a test is to teach that there are people in authority and they have the right to make people take tests. Not very useful, except for the people in authority.

So, let’s turn to something useful, and that is the idea of assessment. Targets and goals can help people to improve their skills. Knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses can help one to choose where to put effort, and also help one to assess how much more effort is required to achieve a particular objective.

With these thoughts in mind I often do one-minute challenges with elementary children learning English. I have created various worksheets, examples of which can be accessed from here. I never require children to use these sheets but rather offer them a choice to do some if they wish.

The important point for me is that each sheet has a place for a student to record a target. In other words students predict their own score before taking the challenge. Accordingly students are not measuring their performance against each other or against an external target, but rather against their own individual judgement of their ability. So even a score of 5% can be considered a success if it matches a student’s honest assessment.

It is important to point out that the challenges I make are self-referencing. By this I mean no claim for competence external to the challenge can be made. For example, I don’t think that being able to write out the alphabet in a minute will make children better readers and writers of English. But if improving one’s score is enjoyable children may end up doing more English which will probably help their English improve.

When I was at school in Britain there was an abomination known as the 11 plus. This examination determined whether children should be sent to the academic environment of the grammar school or to secondary schools where the emphasis was on learning vocational skills. I passed the exam and went to a grammar school. My brother failed. He was sent to a secondary school. Both schools were on a hill. The grammar school was at the top while the secondary school stood in its shadow. We could look out from the playground through a wire fence and see the other school below. Sometimes the boys would taunt each other and once or twice missiles were thrown. Fortunately my brother got into music. He became a drummer in a Boys Brigade band. He was able to transfer to a school that did music. His experience proved that escape was not impossible. But it was only by escaping that he had any real chance to pursue further education.

So by all means have some way of assessing whether individuals are competent to work on people’s teeth or drive cars upon the road. By all means make these assessments into tests but keep those tests well away from children. Keep that habit under control. Just say no.

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Chuck Sandy

Making Things Better

(This is a piece I wrote a few years back and as anyone who knows me well knows, I can still be somewhat of an educational rabble-rouser, though on balance I've become much better at system-wobbling. Since this piece was written, I've also wisely and finally learned that if I want others to change, I have to change as well. I am -- constantly. )

Rabble-rousing vs. System-Wobbling -- Or How I Learned The Difference

My first act of revolution in an educational setting took place when I was a six-year-old kindergarten student and quite consciously decided not to follow the teacher’s instructions. We’d been given a worksheet about barnyard animals and explicit directions to color the barn red, the donkey grey, and the chicken white. I was fine with the grey donkey, but the rest of it made no sense to me. I grew up in a house with a black barn across the street and had, as a pet, a chocolate brown chicken. What choice did I have? I colored the chicken brown and the barn black, and this simple act of rebellion cost me only a recess, which seemed a fine price to pay for autonomy and realism.
By the time I got to second-grade, I’d had it with having to sit in assigned seats in the cafeteria. Given the heady political times, it seemed only right to organize a petition and get as many people as I could to sign it. “No more assigned seats!” we all chanted as I handed the petition to our teacher. The result was freedom of seating choice, which seemed a fine reward for my agitation and activism.

My aim, as Clarke writes, is to “create disturbances and force wobbles in the system,” without, as Friere warns, “losing the battle for change by causing the alienation or demoralization of anyone involved.”

However, almost getting kicked out of the 4th grade for organizing my classmates in a rousing playground rendition of Country Joe and the Fish’s infamous Woodstock “fish cheer” was, I thought, much too high a price to pay -- especially for something so silly. Slowly, I began to learn the difference between being an agitator, and a rabble-rouser. I say slowly, for in fact, it’s something I’m still trying to keep clear in my mind.
As I’ve been going through a process of personal revolution and re-invention myself these past months, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about all this– which led me to read both Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of Freedom” and Mark A. Clarke’s “A Place to Stand.”
My thoughts, this change, and these books have encouraged me this year to resolve to become more of an agitator and less of a rabble-rouser. My aim, as Clarke writes, is to “create disturbances and force wobbles in the system,” without, as Friere warns, “losing the battle for change by causing the alienation or demoralization of anyone involved.”
Wobbling the system and creating disturbances is a positive act, meant to stir things up in an effort to create conditions that encourage change in the direction we hope for. As Clarke points out, we cannot force anyone to change, but as teachers we can “manipulate variables in the learning environment and to observe the consequences of these manipulations.” These manipulations of variables are wobbles, “actions which upset the habitual functioning of the system,” and they range from simple acts -- like reordering the sequence of class events or rearranging the chairs and tables in the room -- to more complex acts -- like beginning each class with a personal anecdote simply because it’s nice to do so or having students evaluate themselves and each other instead of relying solely on teacher feedback.
It’s not possible to fully understand what the results of these wobbles will be until the wobbling has been done, but one can hypothesize. Putting the chairs and tables in a circle might help increase group solidarity. Beginning each class with a personal anecdote might encourage students to see the teacher as a person and fellow learner rather than as an authority figure. It’s likely that having students evaluate themselves and their classmates might encourage both group solidarity and learner autonomy. It’s these sorts of hypotheses which make wobbling different from rabble-rousing. The difference also lies in the knowledge than any wobble can be undone, should the effects turn out unhappily and before anyone becomes alienated or demoralized.
As a new teacher, I had a hard time admitting that I was wrong, and so was often more of a rabble-rouser than a wobbler. Loaded up with knowledge fresh from graduate school, I forced the Communicative approach, for example, on students and more or less made everyone color their chickens white and their barns red. Later, I did the same thing as a teacher-trainer, and still later as a program administrator. Do this and not that, I said. See things my way, my actions demonstrated. This is the way it’s going to be, my classroom procedures dictated. This sort of stance, of course, is rabble-rousing at its worst, and any intended good is destroyed by such a posture. It took a long time for me to realize this and to understand that admitting my hypotheses and subsequent actions or manipulations were wrong is an act that encourages trust. Now, I’m learning to stand in front of a class (or group of teachers) and say with a laugh, “well that didn’t work out like I thought it would. Let’s try this instead” and noticing that my students (or colleagues) are more likely to come along with me as I wobble than when I rabble-rouse. Can you imagine the price I paid to learn that?
Still, wobbling and creating disturbances is not enough. I’m also learning both as a teacher and as a person that it’s necessary for me to arrive at a definition of where I stand. When Freire writes, “I cannot be a teacher and be in favor of everyone and everything. I cannot be in favor merely of people, humanity, and vague phrases far from the concrete nature of educative practice,” I realize that I must make clear to students, colleagues, and friends what it is that I do believe and how I feel about issues that are important to me. I realize it’s not enough to simply be a humanist. I must choose which issues to focus on and become a person who lives and teaches as he believes.
The central belief I’ve arrived at and am choosing to focus on now is that all people are not only capable of learning but are also hungry for it. I’m not talking here about being hungry for knowledge, but rather hungry for the sort of learning that comes about when people are taken seriously and are shown that their ideas -- and by extension their lives -- have value. Therefore, my other resolution is to become someone who does much more than teach skills and transfer knowledge. My aim, as Friere writes, is “not to transfer knowledge, but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge” by spending more time working on group-solidarity and by being someone more open to listening carefully to what my students (and colleagues and friends) have to say – while also demonstrating and explaining what I believe to be true.
Still, I’m also beginning to understand that it’s not enough to simply be an understanding person who creates a non-threatening environment for learning. I now think that Freire is right when he says, “the class (should be) a challenge and not simply a nest where people gather.” I hope that by wobbling rather than rabble-rousing, by taking a stand instead of waffling, by listening carefully while also trying my best to explain my own thought-processes, and by acting as I believe both in and out of class I can create, as Friere encourages, “an environment of challenge (where) the students become tired but they do not go to sleep.”
I’d pay a very high price for that.

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Dorothy Zemach

Telling Tales

(A version of this article appeared in TESOL’s former magazine Essential Teacher in Fall 2004.)
The other day I went with Kiyo, my Japanese graduate assistant, to buy a cup of coffee from a snack bar on the University of Oregon campus.
“Do you want room?” asked the student behind the counter.
(This means, in Oregon coffee-speech, “room for cream,” a little space left in the cup to add cream, milk, sugar, etc.)
“Yes, thank you,” said Kiyo. She stepped aside, and I ordered my coffee.
“Do you want room?”
“No, that’s OK,” I answered.
I noticed Kiyo taking her cup right past the condiment table. “The cream is over there,” I pointed out helpfully.
“Oh, I don’t want any cream,” she said. “I like my coffee black.”
“But … you told the girl that you did want cream,” I said.
“Well, she offered me something, and I felt it would sound rude to say no. She won’t know if I put in any cream or not, so it doesn’t matter.”
I digested this remark as I walked over to the table to get some cream for my own coffee. This time Kiyo was surprised. “But you said you didn’t want cream.”
“No,” I corrected her, “I said I didn’t want room for cream. That way I get more coffee. I take a little sip first, and then add the cream.”
* * * * *
At this point I stop telling the story and ask the students to guess what Kiyo and I might have been thinking about each other. Sometimes I have them guess in groups, or sometimes we have a whole-class discussion, but inevitably the class comes up with (in different words; and I deliberately encourage blunt wordings so that the insights don’t get lost in vague generalities) the following guesses:
Dorothy, thinking about Kiyo: “What a doormat. She’s paying for the coffee, so why can’t she say what she wants? If she can’t tell someone how she wants her coffee, how will she negotiate choices about her studies, career, and family?”
Kiyo, thinking about Dorothy: “How cheap can you get? If she wants more coffee, why doesn’t she buy a larger size? Will such a selfish person be able to have successful friendships?”
The next step is to tease out the underlying cultural assumptions. This takes more time, of course, but by the end of an intensive discussion the class can arrive at some simple yet profound generalizations, such as “In Japan, everyone looks out for others, and so everyone is taken care of. In the United States, everyone looks out for himself or herself, so everyone is taken care of.” Although we also discuss the dangers of generalizations, coming up with some helps students see that similar desires and motivations can manifest themselves in almost opposite ways.
However, what’s important for me as a teacher is not just the conclusions, which after all I could write on the board or have the students read from a textbook. The important part is the story itself, the path to the conclusion. Stories are fascinating, and students will puzzle out the motivations of characters with far more interest than they will read a two-sentence summary at the end of a chapter. Discussion with classmates sharpens critical-thinking skills while showing how many interpretations different people can have of the same events. Stories in books are good, but far more popular are stories that I tell, especially if they involve me (and especially if I don’t come out looking too good!).
Another benefit of storytelling surfaced for me last fall, when I noticed that some of the students were disappearing after the midclass break. Attendance wasn’t required as long as they learned the material in some way, so perhaps I shouldn’t have cared. But there’s something damaging to the ego about students who’ve dipped their toes in the water but don’t want to swim. So I took to telling stories. I told half of a story just before the break and the conclusion just after. I broke off at an interesting or confusing part of the story and asked the students to guess what would happen or what would have explained someone’s behavior. Then after the break, they shared their guesses, and I finished the story. It worked like a charm--everyone came back after the break, ready to talk.

Telling stories draws students in. They pay attention, think deeply, draw conclusions. And good stories are “telling”: They reveal insights, quirks, points of view, even truths.

Telling stories draws students in. They pay attention, think deeply, draw conclusions. And good stories are “telling”: They reveal insights, quirks, points of view, even truths. Stories are just as appropriate for skills classes as they are for content classes. Embed your stories with the target vocabulary and grammar, and students will happily drill themselves as they listen, ask questions, and discuss.
Not everyone has a collection of great stories, of course, or stories relevant to the class. My solution to this is simple: Make them up. Even true stories may need a little, ahem, adjustment to bring out the salient points. For example, in the opening story, just about the only truth in it is that I like coffee. I never had a graduate student named Kiyo, I don’t drink coffee with my students, and I prefer my coffee black. The story, though, never fails to generate a discussion. Sometimes I confess that it’s not real, especially if I want to guide the discussion towards stereotypes and changing cultural norms; but I don’t always. If you can’t bring yourself to, well, lie, you can always say, “I read somewhere about a man who ...” or “I heard of someone who once ....” I keep a file in my desk of good stories that I can retell or adapt: clippings from newspapers and magazines, excerpts photocopied from books, and anecdotes circulated through email.
If you have not used stories before, I encourage you to try. Begin your class with “A funny thing happened on the way to class today” or “My cousin once had a strange experience while traveling.” May you enjoy telling tales, and may all your tales be telling ones.

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Peter Viney

What are ways to introduce pronunciation exercises in lessons?

Teachers find it hard to integrate pronunciation into class. Reviewers complain that many books lack a consistent pronunciation syllabus. Pronunciation is a problematic area for many teachers, and when I was teaching for the RSA exams, phonology was the least popular topic. The committed have classrooms covered with phonetic charts, other teachers treat the problems as they appear. In global coursebooks, it’s difficult to establish a consistent approach to pronunciation. While Japanese students might benefit from work on “l” and “r”, Latin Americans would wonder what the problem was. Germans have awful problems with “v” and “w”. Most nationalities don’t. For Arabs it’s “b” and “p”.

Varieties of English are another major difficulty. Too much effort is often paid to accurately repeating some supposed “norm” for pronouncing individual sounds. On vowel sounds the teacher model shifts dramatically, both depending on country of origin, and with native speakers, on region. I once saw a brilliant demo lesson on basic vowel sounds, observed by twenty or so teachers. As soon as the discussion started, the vowel sounds from Canadian, Irish, Scottish and Southern and Northern English teachers varied enormously. The intonation patterns of Welsh, Australian and Norfolk speakers failed to match the text at all. When we were working on “The Wrong Trousers” ELT adaptation, we planned a series of stress exercises. But Wallace has a Northern English accent and in a word like Birthday, he puts equal stress on “birth” and “day” (where RP British English would stress “birth”).

The textbook should expose students AND teachers to a whole variety of exercise types. Then the teacher has to decide which type to develop with their class. See which ones are beneficial, which are popular. There are times where pronunciation work naturally occurssuch as on the endings of regular verbs in the past, or plural forms. The English as a Lingua Franca movement would point out that we should be delighted that students get any ending on the past, be it /t/, /d/ or /id/. In doing recordings, I’ve found both teachers and professional actors confused as to which are /t/ and which are /d/. It’s subtle.

Start by focussing on how pronunciation affects communication. I used to spend a lot of time in the first or second lesson teaching ways of saying ‘Yes.’ It can be a question (Yes? = What can I do for you?), it can be a cheerful affirmative, it can show doubt (Yes ……… = maybe). It can even mean “no”. e.g.

A: Do you like my new hairstyle?

B: Yes …

It can mean (as it often does in Japan) “I hear you” which is confirming attentive listening, rather than affirming or agreeing. In fact research on business meetings indicate that the most common word for introducing a negative response is “yes”:

A: So I think we can double production …

B: Yes. But …

Then at least people get sensitized to the fact that intonation affects meaning. And you can go from there. How far you go is another question. For example, Japanese students can benefit by physical tongue exercises in front of a mirror. Actually physically moving the tongue daily helps with those English sounds, but it’s best taught on a one-to-one basis.

I have seen more student confusion and embarrassment caused by over-attention to pronunciation than I have by anything else.

A word of warning. I have seen more student confusion and embarrassment caused by over-attention to pronunciation than I have by anything else. There are those who believe that students must perfect the sounds before progressing and those who believe students will slowly and gradually improve. I believe that a musical ear is the greatest factor in how well students pronounce English. In my travels I have met non-native teachers with impeccable grammar, wide vocabulary and extremely strong foreign accents. I have also met people who speak only a few words of English, but have a great accent. I think “musical ear” is the key. You can’t actually teach this. You can improve sensitivity. You can try to eliminate confusion.

An anecdotal example. I lost a filling in a tooth at Barcelona airport on the way to a seminar. There was a pharmacy, and I asked for a temporary filling material. The assistant said, “Sure, no problem” with a confident voice (and slight American accent). Before applying it to my throbbing tooth, I sat down to test my Spanish guess rate on the instruction leaflet. It said that it was extremely dangerous to get it on your hands or skin, and to seek medical attention if you did. This can’t be the right stuff to put in my teeth, I thought. So I went back to check. I then discovered that the assistant spoke about fifty words of English (if that), but had a great accent. She’d sold me some kind of superglue for repairing broken dentures. First, she must have had a great musical ear for language. Second, whoever taught her to pronounce that well did no one a service! It masked her inabilities in English. If she had had a strong Catalan accent, I would have assumed the possibility of crossed wires in communication!

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