sabato 22 settembre 2012

Adrian Underhill Hour

I've recently started training teachers at Swan Training Instititute.  Gillian who heads the programme is a fan of Adrian Underhill.  Me too.  His Sound Foundations book is one of the two best books about pronunciation teaching for English Language Teachers*. His approach is inductive and raises awareness of how the mouth works.  Those are key.

He's helped me develop an appreciation for helping learners to grow their awareness.  It's only after this step that they can affect their intelligibility.  He is great at making the steps small for the learner while making the learner's abilities physically obvious. This makes for a memorable experience of discovering how we make sounds.  Making memorable sounds and sounds memorable is what he does.

Yes there are some things I would change- memorable bits have to be recalled and reassembled before they can be part of output in any word or phrase- so a symbols lesson may not do more than impress.  But it still raises awareness.  Symbol learning lessons work well as trust building lessons. This may be the reason to do pronunciation lessons on day one.  It also makes for great workshop material- but Adrian made it into that.  Previously it was a field of enquiry.  I'm a bit ambiguous about this being a positive development.

Reverence for the Chart and the idea that this set of symbols works successfully for all native speakers: it simply doesn't hold water and that's why I and so many teachers must reject it as a descriptive and prescriptive tool. The Chart: it's simply a not true description or prescription of the contents of our language in a phonological or phonetic sense.  It may be "useful lie" for some students and teachers who need to feel that they can "learn a language in just 60 minutes."

Also teaching this chart inevitably causes chuckles as you have to speak like someone who has more gold in their house than you do while pretending they speak better than you do.  We all feel silly pretending things about the queen. And we should.

So I like him and what he's done but think he's a snake-oil salesman and the chart is bunk. Yep.

DH Lawrence said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain legions." But this is just a pronunciation blog.

But then again we all do contain legions... Legions of capabilities, registers, joke accents, our interview voice, levels of formality, we whisper and we shout and mock and feign interest.  Perhaps there is no one hour lesson which can do more than raise awareness of how complex things can be in pronunciation.  Teaching is reductionist- Does that make it bunk?

I really enjoyed this lesson and there is always more to learn about teaching and learning especially from Mr Underhill.  I think he knows that a master teacher teaches the student what they need to know and he, like all of us, has taught what he didn't know when he was a new teacher and and only what he did know later on.  The third step of teaching- when you teach what your students need- is a higher plane. I'm curious to know if you think this is him at his most learner focussed or his most content focussed. The balance is everything here.

Knowing this chart is like knowing your history, you have to know it to move beyond it meaningfully- without brashly throwing phonology and phonetics away as bunk.  Phonology and phonetics provide many solutions to problems from L1 transfer. Phonology and Phonetics are not his exclusive domain nor are they encapsulated in the Chart anymore than they are in the English File books.  Phonology and Phonetics are the investigators'.  If you are an investigator into how to help your learners, you will doubtless have wrestled with phonology and phonetics or you will need to.  And you may have found Adrian's Chart equally useful and frustrating.  And bravo if you have.

It's a fascinating time to be teaching because we can change it all by raising questions and making resources and doing writing up our research and importantly criticising each others' work constructively. We will figure it all out and that may mean moving beyond the idols of old.  We need to teach this stuff differently.

*The other is How to Teach Pronunciation by Gerard Kelly.  Highly recommended by myself and Paul Robinson wherever he is.

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