Pronunciation and embarrassment

Last month I was again visiting tutor for an online teacher’s Diploma Training Course. Here is an extract from an exchange I had with Louise Guvett in which she raises an issue we probably all recognise, learner inhibition and embarrassment during pron work. This made me think and try to describe one or two of my own strategies. I offer this not as something for readers of this blog to push against, disagree with, and improve. Thanks Louise.

LG I find that some learners get really embarrassed when I try to help them with pronunciation, especially if they have difficulty making a specific sound. I can understand as they’re trying to move their mouths in ways that they have never moves them before. How can we encourage learners to lose inhibitions?

AU By losing your own inhibitions! The students take it from you! Be the leading idiot, less earnest, more fun! The other side of the embarrassment barrier lies liberation…..

LG I’m always the leading idiot!! Most of the time it works, but I think when one learner has an individual problem they become shy. Perhaps, helping this student individually to begin with, but then include the rest of the class. When this happened, however, I find that the other learners are keen to get involved, but the learner who’s making the error becomes more shy. Is this the wrong way to do it? Am I causing their embarrassment? Maybe it’s that they are disappointed because the other learners can make the sound effectively.

AU Well, what I try to do is: 
1.. Not to ‘fix’ the student, nor to see their thing as a ‘problem’, but to see this as an opportunity for a learning journey together
;  2..I work with them for a moment 121 in front of the group, not to fix the problem but to help the learner approach it and discover for themselves what needs to shift;  
3.. While doing this I hook up the others with my look, as if to say “hey watch this… there is something pretty interesting happening here…”, and for a half minute they are touched by some real 121 learning going on in front of them. And I also get other students to have a go… BUT even if they get it correct (which they might) I push them for a higher challenge (eg faster, or louder, or more connected, or more interesting or slower, or less energy, or clearer, or refine the sound etc etc) so after just half a minute everyone is individually challenged, no one is hanging about waiting for the first student to get it right “so that the lesson can continue” and I go back in the midst of all this to the initiating student (the one who brought the gift/mistake in the first place) and work further with them;  
4.. The mistake is not just a nuisance which ‘suspends’ the lesson while we stop and deal with it. It IS the lesson! A mistake is a gift. It tells us exactly what needs doing now.

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2 Responses to Pronunciation and embarrassment

  1. Louise Guyett says:

    Hi Adrian,
    I’m delighted that my question inspired this blog post! Since this conversation and the week you spent with us on the course, pronunciation has become a huge part of my teaching. When learners make a pronunciation “mistake”, I get excited as it gives the whole class an opportunity to work on something spontaneous. The learners also love the opportunity to challenge themselves and even when it’s someone else’s “mistake”, everyone dives in and has a go at improving their own sound.
    I experienced something lovely yesterday; a student who had moved to another class came up to me in the corridor and told me that he missed my lessons, especially the pronunciation work we did!! When he was in my class and we did pronunciation work, especially if it was inspired by him, he would come up to me after class and thank me.
    Now that pronunciation is such a big part of every lesson, the learners aren’t embarrassed, in fact sometimes I think they mispronounce things on purpose!! They take it seriously and ask lots of questions. New students in the class fit in quite comfortably too when they see the others and myself diving right in and having a go.
    Many thanks for the inspiration and encouragment you have shared.

  2. Julie Cuttance says:

    Hi Louise and Adrian,
    I teach English in a multi-lingual environment so that Q&A above was really interesting for me and has made a huge difference to how I deal with pronunciation, and in particular correcting it in my lessons. I have had similar positive results to the ones that Louise has described above.
    So, thanks a million!


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