Do teachers need a detailed knowledge and understanding of articulatory phonetics to teach pronunciation effectively?

Three weeks ago I was a guest tutor on the Oxford TEFL Online Diploma course.  They run this and other teacher training courses throughout the year. Click here for info. The participants were asking a range of interesting pron questions, to which I was trying to make useful responses. Happily I have permission to reproduce a few on this blog. Here is one.

Greg Black’s question:  To what extent do you think that teachers need a detailed knowledge and understanding of articulatory phonetics to teach pronunciation effectively?

My response:  I think teachers do need a certain kind of knowledge. But in my view it is not primarily a theoretical or descriptive knowledge they need, such as is usually taught through books, and is certainly useful, but rather the ability to experience the physicality of the sounds and sequences of sounds in their own mouths, muscles and breath. If they can learn or be in the process of learning the physicality of the sounds, words and connected speech they are making, then they know at first hand what it is they need to do to help their students and they can set about finding the best ways to do so

This way, teachers do not even need to remember their explanations and techniques, almost better if they don’t in fact, because this means that rather than give a neat remembered piece of information, probably the same as they gave last time, they are going to look and sense within themselves in real time and in front of the students. And this brings about a quite different learning relationship. It’s like when a dance teacher tries out the step she wants you to learn, not merely to demonstrate it, but to see for herself just what you need to do and where your difficulty might be, and what she needs to do to assist you. And you learn even from her process of learning. I use a term from neurology proprioception to describe this process. It means sensing the movement of your muscles, knowing what they are doing.

As one develops this knowledge and this habit for on-going physical inquiry, I think one builds up a knowledge that is responsive, robust and helpful to the learner. And then suddenly all the theory falls into place, quite effortlessly. I tried to use this approach when writing my book Sound Foundations, that is to help the reader to start with a direct and physical experience of producing the sound (or word or stress or intonation), and then it is much easier to label it and discuss it. For example, once you have direct experience of your students you can more sily learn their names and talk about them and remember them. But it’s difficult to learn their names until you meet and experience them. Same with pron.

In my view the real knowledge a teacher needs comes from experiencing pronunciation physically, and observing that experience in order to help students replicate something similar.

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1 Response to Do teachers need a detailed knowledge and understanding of articulatory phonetics to teach pronunciation effectively?

  1. Beatriz says:

    Mr Underhill, do you have a personal e-mail address? I need to ask you a few questions about the summer courses… By the way, I wrote an entry some days ago and I’m looking forward to hearing your answer. THANKS, Master.

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