Thank you, Glasgow!

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A big “thank you” to everyone who came to Glasgow for the first of our ELF Pron presentations, as part of the British Council 2013-14 Seminar Series. It was great to meet teachers from such a variety of contexts including private language schools, FE colleges and universities across Scotland – all with a shared interest in questioning traditional assumptions about learners’ pronunciation wants and needs. You can view our slides here, download the handout here, and watch the official video of the presentation here.  We’d love to hear from you if you’ve had a chance to take any of these ideas into your classroom, and find out what worked or didn’t for you.

What really struck us about the event was how refreshingly sensible and practical the discussions were in the Q&A and afterwards. Both of us writing this blog have recently finished Masters dissertations in the area of ELF pronunciation, and were often bewildered and frustrated by some of the negativity in the academic world towards an ELF approach to pronunciation. What attracts us to an ELF approach is how practical it is and how well it sits with our beliefs as practising teachers – that students and their needs should be at the heart of what we do. But the less ELF-friendly literature led us to feel we could face a thorny Q&A, so we were ready for healthy debate… which never materialized.  Because the teachers we spoke to seemed to have pretty similar reactions to us, along the lines of “well, that figures”.  Because you know what: it’s really not that big a deal! Robin Walker summed it up neatly when he said (2010, p. 71):

“teaching pronunciation for ELF is primarily about re‐thinking goals and re-­defining error, as opposed to modifying classroom practice.”

This rings so true for us. Since becoming interested in an ELF approach to pronunciation (perhaps the word ‘approach’ makes it sound a bigger deal than it is), it’s the small changes in our classrooms we’ve noticed the most; the decision to respond in a certain way in a particular moment in the classroom. Here are a few such ‘ELF moments’ we’ve experienced:

  • A student says /aɪ tɪŋk/ for “I think”.  The teacher doesn’t pounce on it and correct it, but lets it go.  If a student questions the substitution of /t/ for /θ/, the teacher acknowledges that many native speakers use the latter, but that this is not crucial to ELF intelligibility.
  • A student’s use of nuclear stress really helps to communicate her message in a speaking activity. In feedback, the teacher highlights this and asks the student to model it for the class, so questioning the assumption that a native speaker model is what should be aspired towards.
  • A student speaks to the teacher after class to complain she had difficulty understanding her partner’s accent and does not want to be paired with them again. The teacher asks if they have to speak to people with this accent outside of the class. The answer is yes, so the teacher tries to help the student see it as a great opportunity to develop their ability to understand that accent.
  • During a pronunciation activity on stress, a student asks why the teacher inserts an /r/ between ‘saw’ and ‘us’ in the chunk ‘they saw us’. The student asks if the way she pronounced it is correct or if they should pronounce it like the teacher. The teacher explains that native speakers often do this, but that in an ELF context it’s not necessary as it can make it more difficult for other people to understand.

So rethinking our goals by no means requires a complete overhaul of what we already do. The ‘ELF moments’ described above are simply the result of questioning the assumption that a native speaker model is appropriate for all students. Even just finding out in what context your students plan on using English can make a big difference to the small choices you have to make minute-by-minute in the classroom.

Have you experienced any ‘ELF moments’ in your classroom?

References:

Walker, R. (2010). Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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