The other day I observed a few lessons by a very good Japanese English teacher at a junior high school. At one point in the lesson, while the students were reading the textbook passage out loud, she walked around the classroom with two pads of post-it sticky notes, one green and one pink. As she listened to the students, she gave them pink notes for parts they did especially well, and green notes for parts they were having trouble pronouncing. On each note she wrote a specific phrase, word, or part of the word the students were either doing well or needed to improve. And at the end of the class, she made some general comments and engaged the students in a little extra practice of specific pronunciation errors that many students were making. Each student who received a green note, however, was responsible for coming up to the teacher after class and demonstrating that they could produce the sound correctly.
I was deeply impressed for a couple of reasons. First, because this is the first time in three years and dozens of observed EFL lessons that I have seen a teacher do this. It was great to see a class that dealt with pronunciation at all; and it was especially impressive to see a Japanese teacher deal with pronunciation in this manner. Too many JTEs ignore that fact that English, like any language, is first and foremost a system of sounds. The written form dominates language lessons in Japan, where learning English has traditionally meant essentially learning to read English. Listening activities usually consist of listening to the blocks of audio that just verbalize the text content. And I think it’s fair to say that most JTEs won’t go near pronunciation in a class without an ALT or a CD ready to model the “correct” pronunciation. It takes confidence, and it takes an acceptance of the view that a JTE is a valid example of language use in the classroom–language as sounds, language as culture, language as a means of communication, all of which the teacher displayed nicely. And second, this teacher demonstrated something that is incredibly important in pronunciation learning (and indeed in all of language learning): formative feedback.
For any type of learning, it is essential that people can see what they need to do (a model), can give it a try (practice), receive feedback on their performance or learning (formative feedback), and then get a chance to do it again to correct problems. Of particular importance is the feedback loop of performing a skill or demonstrating knowledge and then receiving quick, actionable, formative feedback that can immediately be used to make improvements. Yet this simple procedure seems to be a rare thing many language classrooms, even when the subject is as clear a skill as pronunciation. That it is effective seems to be beyond question. Hattie (2012) stresses the importance of feedback, particularly disconfirmation feedback (Hey, you’re doing that wrong!), and Wiliam (2011) makes the case for embedded formative assessment that I found so compelling I did a series of posts on the book last year. Both of these authors are concerned with general learning and teaching. In the last year or so, however, I have increasingly come across papers and books that make the case for feedback in language learning, like this one from Derwing and Munro in Pronunciation Myths:
“Ample studies have shown that improved pronunciation can be achieved through classroom instruction…However, it is becoming increasingly clear that a key factor in the success of instruction is the provision of explicit corrective feedback (pg. 47).”
Not only is explicit formative assessment important, the claim is made that it is essential. Without it, that is under conditions of exposure alone, learning (improvement of pronunciation) does not seem to happen at all! Derwing and Munro mention two studies to back this up. The first is Saito and Lyster (2012) who managed to get Japanese students to improve with only four hours of training with the dreaded /r/ and /l/ sounds. The other is Dlaska and Krekeler (2013) who found that explicit instruction feedback was much more effective than just providing models. After years of don’t-disturb-the-learners-while-they’re-engaged directions, it seems that the role of explicit correction is finally being recognized.
You might argue that what the teacher I observed was doing was not that efficient or important. In cases, like EFL courses in Japan, where time is so limited, it may seem unreasonable to spend time on pronunciation, especially with the high importance of entrance exams and other high-stakes tests. Indeed many teachers argue that pronunciation is something they just don’t have time for. But actually, the teacher wasn’t spending much time on it at all. Most of the correction happened while the students were doing a reading fluency task (reading the text content multiple times). The teacher’s general comments and whole-class feedback/practice, took less than two minutes. Several years of similar feedback will undoubtedly have a positive effect on student pronunciation, student confidence, and student attitudes toward the importance of making the sounds of English reasonably accurately. In addition to the teacher’s feedback, student to student (peer) feedback could also be put to use. That will also help with sound discrimination training and meta-linguistic skill training.
Dlaska, A. & Krekeler, C. (2013). The short-term effects of individual corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation. System, 41, 25-37.
Saito, K. & Lyster, R. (2012). Effects of form-focused instruction and corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation development: the case of English /r/ by Japanese learners of English. Language Learning, 62, 595-633.