To celebrate the launch of Project Fourth edition, author of the pronunciation SIG journal, Robin Walker explores the place of pronunciation in the upper primary classroom.
A few years ago I was crossing the playground in Spain, on my way to a training session with local teachers. As I was going past two young girls I heard one of them say ¿Jugamos al inglés? (Lets play English). The idea of ‘playing English’ roused my curiosity, and I stopped and eavesdropped. What followed was a stream of sh- and z-like sounds with not a word of actual English among them. But the rhythm was very English, and very un-Spanish.
By the time they get to the 9-15 age group, young learners are usually very aware that English feels and sounds different to their mother tongue. This makes this a great age for working on pronunciation, and offers us an opportunity to sow seeds that will produce very tangible benefits. We know from experience, for example, that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get a short phrase out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce, and as teachers we are sometimes guilty of misinterpreting these ‘gaps’ in production as gaps in a learner’s knowledge or understanding.
But poor fluency isn’t the only outcome of poor pronunciation. Listening is a nightmare for students with limited pronunciation skills, either because they simply don’t recognise key sounds or words in their spoken form, or because they have to concentrate so hard when listening that their brains very quickly overload and ‘block’. When we spot problems with listening we are tempted to respond by doing more listening work, and are frustrated when this has no effect. What is need, of course, is focused pronunciation work.
Although problems with speaking and listening are obvious to us, poor pronunciation can also badly affect reading and writing. At the level of writing, for example, students might write coffee instead of copy, or berry instead of very. My tourism students used to write Festival at the beginning of a series of points in favour of an argument. At first I didn’t understand where this was coming from. Then they told me that I said this a lot in class. What do you think I was saying? (Answer below*)