Improvisation and pronunciation teaching Part 1: Cocktail parties, jazz and pron

In the last few years I have been exploring the role of spontaneity and improvisation in teaching, and have written and spoken about it here and there (IATEFL TD Newsletters 2009/2010; ETP issue 82, 2012 (with Alan Maley); IATEFL Conference Liverpool April 2013 (also with Alan) ; IATEFL Webinar Sep 2013; and various talks with titles like “The Jazz of ELT” and so on).

I’d like to round off 2013 with a few words first about this idea in general, and then about the particular application to pronunciation teaching.

To start with, take these three different activities:

Teaching a lesson

When teaching we usually have a plan, either on paper or in mind, and either more or less detailed. Once the lesson gets underway however a learning conversation develops, mediated by what actually happens, and to lead or facilitate this process with quality we have to let go of the lesson plan and follow the energy, curiosity and attention in the room. We enter a living and unprepared engagement with learning itself. Once this is dealt with and if nothing else suggests itself we may rejoin the plan though by now it may have been reshaped. But more usually by now something else has suggested itself for our curiosity and attention.

Whether or not we leave the plan, where the lesson is marked by student and teacher engagement in the learning, improvisation is bound to occur since that is the only way to be present to what emerges and not governed by what worked last time.

Playing jazz

And this classroom process is like the way that a jazz musician departs from the sheet music and starts to improvise, retaining (more or less of) the framework of the original music while responding in the moment to what the other musicians are playing.

A cocktail party

Something similar happens at a cocktail party. You may go with things you want to say to  people but you probably also hope to leave ‘script’ aside in order to respond creatively and freshly to what other people are saying and thinking. When I ‘over-stick’ to my script I miss the essence of the moment and risk being rather a bore.

The dark matter of teaching

In the first example, that of teaching, I propose that this kind of improvisation takes up a significant part of the lesson, yet since we don’t really observe it or describe it in our pre- or in- service training or have a place for it in our methodology we can’t really articulate it. Instead we are sensitised to the set piece moves of ELT like the steps of a listening exercise or the sequential steps given in the teachers book, and so on. I argue that this invisibility of improvisation makes it less easy for us to get better at it. And since this improvisation is hard to see, and because it is at work during so much of a lesson, I call it the “dark matter of teaching”

Teaching, also a performance art

By contrast the jazz musician, unlike the teacher, very much sees the process of improvisation, and can discuss it and evaluate it, and thereby develop ways to get better at it. And getting better at it, as with teaching, which requires both technique and listening well to what is happening. The same is true in drama training, where on day one of the course you’d expect to work on improvisation, to talk about and evaluate it and to see how to improve at it. Improvisation would not in that case be dark matter.  It would be ‘light’ matter, visible matter. I think of teaching as a performance art where preparation of some kind is essential, but the art lies in the performance.

Balancing the plan with what happens

As for the cocktail party example, or any other aspect of our daily lives like buying a newspaper or encountering a stranger, I can do this in a way that is governed by my routine or habit, where I am not present to it and therefore rely on my routine or habit to see it through. So there are two choices, I am less engaged and attentive to the moment so I rely on my routine from the past, or I am more present and responsive to what the moment offers and can be free from my ‘repertoire’.

Another illustration: Even a picnic has a both a plan and an improvisation. When I take some kids for a picnic in the woods I probably make a plan in order to have the ingredients for some fun, like going to a nice place, with maybe some grass and trees and a stream or lake, or rocks to scramble on, and food and water, balls and games, and an idea of time and things to do in what order and when to get home etc. And that plan helps me get things together and provide a rich setting to work in. It ensures useful ingredients, but it is not the cooking. And now, to have a really good time I need to be available to what happens, to drop the sheet music that got me there, and start to improvise, to respond to what happens as it unfolds, the discovery of a magnificent climbing tree, the ants getting in our cake, Jackie’s shoe in the river, and all the kids’ games that evolve. If I stick too much to my plan I will miss something. I know this because I have ruined picnics by failing to read what the moment offered and sticking to my need to control (and my fear of losing it). I’m happy to say I have, like you, also had wonderful picnics marked by receptiveness to what unfolded.


I am talking about improvisation in ordinary life and in the classroom that lifts us beyond the sheet music, liberates us from the ready made plan. It is not new to be aware of this, but it would be new to value it, discuss it and critique it, and thus develop ways to get better at it. Improvisation can be done well or badly and thus has quality criteria. Experience does not of itself mean we get better at it, and inexperience does not mean we cannot develop our  improvisation from the very beginning.

And who knows, maybe improvisation is an ingredient of the mysterious and elusive “Factor X” …. the quality that makes the good teacher good….

I’ve gone on longer than I intended, so before the year ends I shall stop, and in my next post pick up this theme and apply it specifically to pronunciation teaching. Meanwhile … Happy New Year!

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10 Responses to Improvisation and pronunciation teaching Part 1: Cocktail parties, jazz and pron

  1. Silvia Buck Tucci says:

    Dear Adrian,

    Thank you so much for this very inspiring post.

    It struck a chord with me as I do tend to improvise a great deal and often wonder about the quality of my improvisation in the classroom and its relevance to the student/group.
    Even though a part of me feels a little guilty about abandoning the class plan now and again, I do feel that it is exactly because the learner has been brought to the fore that a few tweaks to what has been decided a priori in the lesson plan, are perfectly justifiable.

    In your post you say:

    ‘It is not new to be aware of this, but it would be new to value it, discuss it and critique it, and thus get better at it. Improvisation can be done well or badly and thus has quality criteria.’

    After reflecting upon it, I found myself wondering how I could ‘freeze’ my improvisation moments in my mind in order to observe and critique them for my own professional growth.
    As I’m a self-employed teacher, I thought that as Step 1 I could jot down a few notes about the improvisation while the teaching is taking place or soon after the lesson is over, so that I’ll have some material to reflect upon.
    There is no Step 2 yet as I feel it will very much depend on what I find out in step 1. I might be wrong, but I can’t help feeling that an ‘a posteriori’ approach would be less stressful and more in sync with the whole idea of being in the moment. However, I would be interested to hear more about the criteria one could make use of in the process of observing and critiquing improvisation in the classroom.

    Thanks again for an inspiring new year beginning.
    Silvia Tucci

  2. Thanks for your reply Silvia. I think you are asking the key question. How can we observe and critique (our own) impro in the classroom? Once we see that there is a field to investigate, in this case the existence of our own improvisation and the fact that it may vary from helpful to unhelpful, good to bad, high quality to low quality, there comes the question, well how can I investigate this? How can I get hold of it and kick it around and see what it is made of, and what it feels like, and so on?
    Reflective practice invites us to have if possible several ways of connecting with our performance so as to re-view it. In the case of teaching what are some of the possible resources? Well, the ones we are familiar with are: 1) Notes made on the wing (like you say), 2) Observation from a colleague (less easy if self employed, as you say), 3) Feedback from the student/s, 4) Photos, taken by oneself or as part of an activity with students and they take photos too, 5) Make a video, set it up like a flip camera to stand at the back or side and film (part of) the lesson (and you can select a minute that show the st/s doing something interesting to show and learn from in the next lesson, while also looking for the impro bits of yourself teaching…. And so on.
    Then there are less obvious things 1) Write a poem or 50 word story about the class, 2) Do some 60 second spontaneous writing after the class beginning “The moment I remember myself improvising was ….
    Or “what I liked and didn’t like about my impro in this lesson was…. 3) or find a friend who will listen and ask catalytic questions … and so on

    But at the same time we also need to make some provisional judgments (to be revised later) about our impro as that will determine how to look for it and what ideally we want it to be like. In Switzerland they built the Large Hadron Collider to look for the Higgs Boson particle for which they needed a lot of provisional judgments about something they too had not seen before. Same process, but hopefully our will be a little quicker, cheaper, and more successful!

    On our case however we are not white coat scientists looking for something out there, we are self scientists looking for something in here. we are both observer and observed. And as such are evidence is subjectively gathered, subjectively viewed and subjectively interpreted (actually I’d say that of the Hadron guys too, though they might not be sympathetic). But that’s ok, what is means is that we need to get multiple perspectives. None of them is ‘true’ but together they add up to something.

    This is not a full response, but no one will read it if I go on longer….!
    What do you think?

  3. Silvia Buck Tucci says:

    Dear Adrian,
    Thank you for the very interesting ideas you offered on observing improvisation in the classroom.
    I have tried two of them and the outcome was really interesting. Got me thinking. The more I practise reflective teaching, the more questions pop up, and the more exciting the whole process gets. It sometimes yields unexpected results which get you wondering about what to do next, what to tweak, what to discard or not and why? While collecting data, inquisitive and focused questions can better help us get the answers we need in order to move on to the next step. Take for instance the moment I asked a student for feedback after an improvised activity with a vague ’Did you like it?’ question. Although she answered she had enjoyed it, I realised it was not enough material for my reflective practice and I should ask more focused questions in order to gauge the quality of the improvisation, such as
    1.‘ What did you learn from it?’ 2.‘How often do you think improvisation should take place in class?’ 3.‘Why?’
    This of course is all very subjective and I’m looking forward to comparing this student’s answers to those of others when I ask them for feedback on improvisation AND compare it to my own perception of the activity in question . Like you say,
    ‘…what it means is that we need to get multiple perspectives. None of them is ‘true’ but together they add up to something.’
    So,…a question comes to mind: Is it the journey or the destination? Well, why not both? And why not embracing reflective teaching while you are at it so as to make the journey a lot more pleasant and meaningful whichever destination you’re heading for.
    Thanks again.

  4. Beatriz says:

    Dear Mr. Underhill, I’ve just got one question: no more posts on the subsequent vowel sounds? Impatience is overwhelming me… I’m completely “in love with” your blog and almost an addict to your method. I just can’t wait to the two-week summer course at Cambridge!!!! Thanks a million zillion for such espectacular sound journeys; once and again I’m travelling around the geographic countries of our mindset with your unbeatable Sound Foundations. Cheers, Master.

  5. Hah! Thanks Beatriz for you charming note! And you are right, there has been a bit of a gap with the Story of Sounds Vowels episodes. I have realized that it is easier to write about consonants to readers who are not present because they have definite points of articulation. Vowels however do not have fixed points, they are an approximate ‘posture’ requiring ‘negotiation’ between teacher and student, which is less easy to do through writing. However, don’t worry, I have worked out what to do, and from February we will get into full swing with the vowel episodes. Meanwhile I want to finish this cycle on spontaneity and a couple of other things. But thanks for the reminder, you inspire me to get on with it!

  6. Beatriz says:

    Dear Mr. Underhill, after being struggling with finding a correct definition of phonetics and phonology and their difference, I’ve come to the conclusion that if I had to explain both terms to my students, I wouldn’t feel very confident with that matter, since I don’t see the distinction clear. Could you please help me with that? As usual, thanks in advance. Beatriz.

  7. The way I approach it, and I’m sure this is a pragmatic simplification, is to think of Phonetics as the study of sounds of (all) human languages, and Phonology as the study of those sounds of a particular language that make a difference in meaning. Thus phonetic transcription aims to be subtle enough to indicate all sounds of all languages, while phonemic transcription concerns itself only with the sounds of the language being studied. Furthermore phonemic transcription concerns itself only with those sounds that make a difference to meaning in that language, and not with the allophones (variants) of a single sound that make no meaning difference. These variants simply come under the heading of a single symbol. Phonetic transcription on the other hand would aspire to be able to show the differences of all those allophones, useful to linguists but not to learners

    A confusion arises because we language teachers talk about phonetic transcription (which is able to be much finer grained in indicating differences between sounds) when we probably mean phonemic transcription (which concerns itself with the broader brush indication of only those sounds of a language that make a difference to meaning).

    Any help Beatriz? Or more confusing…

  8. Beatriz says:

    Dear Mr. Underhill, after a thorough analysis of your words and some particular research of the concepts I asked you about above (phonetics and phonology), now a new question arises… I’m preparing a Powerpoint Presentation where I’ve included a hundred slides containing the following info:
    1. Articulatory organs and how they work to build up vowels, consonants and diphthongs. 2. I’m including the allophones of certain phonemes like /t/ BUT…

    3. I’m doing that of only a language: English and 4. Using some exercises of minimal pairs where the language sounds make a difference meaning. Isn’t that I’m using both PHONETICS and PHONOLOGY in the very same project? What if my Students, after giving the definition of both concepts, they ask me… So, what are we practising now with this presentation: Phonetics or Phonology? Is it possible to answer: “both things altogether”?

    In your extraordinary Master Class on Youtube with Adult Learners, are you putting into practice Phonetics or Phonology?

    Sorry for this mad mindset of mine, but it’s of paramount importance for me to have this clear enough since this is the starting point of my pronunciation classes.

    As always, thanks in advance.

  9. Hi Beatriz
    Regarding your point 2, when we are examining variations that we can hear but have no difference of meaning then I would say we are dipping into phonetic differences. In your point 4 we are looking at a change of sound that has the potential to make a meaning difference, the famous minimal pairs. And I would call this a phonological difference.
    The two terms are the same in that they refer to a (perceptible) difference in a sound. The two terms are different in that one (phonetics) goes into finer differences that do not actually make any difference to meaning. If we are language scientists we are probably interested in both. If we are language learners we are probably interested in phonology. But …. we should not get too hung up on the difference, because when learners are fine tuning their pronunciation they too are hearing and interested in phonetic differences. In my classes I help learners to make and to hear tiny phonetic differences simply because they can, and it gives them confidence. We could chose to be satisfied when they have only made the correct phonemic difference, but once a learner realises that they can ‘do pron’ they often want to play with the finer phonetic differences.
    I hope your pron classes go well and you all have some fun!

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