Teaching, recycling, and correcting pronunciation

A lot is said about the importance of recycling in language learning. By that, we mean that it’s important for students to be exposed to what they learned on previous lessons as a way to, for example, allow for faster retrieval from memory. Not only do we talk about multiple encounters with words, expressions, grammar structures or anything else related to language learning, but we also stress that it’s paramount that such encounters be meaningful. More and more often coursebook writers make sure they include the same expressions in different parts of the book in a way to help the absent-minded (or, in a worst case scenario, the careless) teacher expose his or her students to such item. But there’s one area I feel many teachers fail to get their students to practise after they’ve first been exposed to: pronunciation.

When we learn mathematics, for instance, we are constantly exposed to what we were taught previously. Teachers make sure you remember 2+2, 9*7, or any other basic math for the rest of your school life. Well, it can’t be any different, can it? It is this very basic knowledge that will get you into more advanced maths. However, this doesn’t seem to be true when it all comes down to the teaching of English pronunciation. And the worst part of it is that, in a communicative classroom, there is always a chance for us to have meaningful encounters with an aspect of pronunciation that has been taught in any given lesson. Why is it that this is still overlooked by many teachers?

I’ll give you one example: If a coursebook writer (let’s not even leave it to the teacher alone) presents learners with the correct intonation of information and yes/no questions in the very first unit, and if there are exercises on that to help learners notice such features, why is it that learners still get to the end of the semester without the faintest idea of how to use the correct intonation? One thing that might shed light into that is the fact that after this exercise is done, teachers no longer make sure their learners use the correct intonation to ask questions. Instead, they seem to worry much more about the grammar or the vocabulary involved in asking the question. If one thing is left out, it certainly is pronunciation.

Just like learning and practising that 2 + 2 = 4 is of utmost importance if one wants to solve an advanced maths equation, I believe that learning and practising the correct intonation for questions is important if one wants to understand the many pronunciation features that come into play when using an unreal past conditional (a.k.a. third conditional). If teachers don’t understand that it only makes sense to teach learners one new thing if this one thing is going to be recycled afterwards, then it’s simply a waste of time to spend time teaching that. Teaching doesn’t imply learning. Learning is far more complex than teaching, and as such needs to be treated more carefully. If teachers are not willing to spend time in future lessons revising and correcting learners on something that they’ve learned before, why would you bother to teach that in the first place? If it’s not important enough to be recycled, revisited, and corrected, it’s probably not important to be taught in the first place.

10 thoughts on “Teaching, recycling, and correcting pronunciation

  1. Hi Henrick,
    As always, I enjoy the thinking you present in your blogposts. When people learn *fullstop* they are creating pathways in their neural networks. When we hear things over and over, we remember them, even if they are not correct. We learn rote means of 2+2= 4, and the melodic tune of the ABC’s. As our brains rehearse these learnings over and over, the myelin on the neurons is coated for fast efficiency and permanence. There is a saying out there in Brain Science: practice makes permanent. Permanent does not mean correct, because we can hardwire our connections in the wrong way. This is why is it important to continually model for students the correct means of speaking. It is also important to have strong, fluent language models. Providing learners with correct innovations and pronunciations is paramount.

    Let practice make permanent correctly.

    All the best!

    1. Hi Susi,

      Likewise, I always enjoy reading both your posts and your comments! 🙂

      The idea of rote learning is definitely not something that I’m very keen to, but it does happen. As you said, the more we hear or are exposed to one thing, we’re likely to reproduce it, even if that’s done automatically, without any thinking or reasoning whatsoever. I really enjoy learning from your comments. Loved the practice makes permanent – had never heard that one before. I guess I could equate that with fossilised mistakes, right?

      The problem with not modeling correctly and correcting whenever necessary is that learners will have a hard time to get it right in the future.

      And I have to quote you: “Let practice make permanent correctly!”



  2. I think that one of the reasons this is so easily overlooked in the classroom, is because language is used all the time. There is the assumption (whether it is realized or not) that students will pick these things up naturally. We can’t assume these things. When you listen to young students speak, you will often hear that they say a word the way they hear it. This doesn’t always get corrected because it is so close to the actual word that we may not pick up on it right away.

    1. And that’s exactly the problem with overlooking pronunciation. More often than not, students won’t pick things up naturally – or worse, they’ll pick up something they’ll assume to be right because no one has ever corrected them. 🙂

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