People ask me this question occasionally, and therefore I thought this topic would lend itself well for a short blog post. Last year, I taught a TESOL diploma course on pronunciation instruction and at the beginning of the semester I asked my student teachers this exact question. They posted their views to a Moodle course site for everyone to read, and it turned out that some thought it was useful, while others were unsure or saw little value in using it. In regards to more experienced teachers, in an academic English preparatory program I coordinated in Canada, some of the instructors saw little merit in using the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) in their speaking classes. In fact, some admitted that they didn’t really know the IPA well enough to use or teach it to their students. I find this rather unsettling because if teachers don’t know the IPA, it’s probably safe to assume that they have, at best, a limited understanding of how vowels and consonants are produced. Anyhow, I think the IPA should be part of every L2 teacher's tool kit, no matter in what context s/he teaches. Knowing the symbols and, consequently, understanding the places and manners of articulation are powerful tools that L2 teachers can utilize to explain and show students how to produce sounds while pointing to phonetic symbols and drawing their learners' attention away from the spelling difficulties of the English language. Most teachers don't need to be experts in phonetics, but I'm really not sure how a language teacher, who lacks a basic understanding of the IPA, can address a student’s difficulties with pronouncing vowels and consonants.
Last weekend, I attended the 2013 TESOL Research Network Colloquium at the University of Sydney. It was an excellent event with several stimulating presentations, including Anne Burns' afternoon keynote. The timing of her talk – researching teacher cognition (TC) – was perfect as my doctoral research examines second language teacher cognition (e.g. thoughts, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes) about pronunciation pedagogy. One aspect of her talk was particularly intriguing: the impact that context has on TC and practice. Below are some of the points she made:
- Context is fundamental to understanding the relationship between TC and practice
- There is no simple cause and effect relationship between TC and practice
- Incompatible relationships do not necessarily reflect flawed practice
- TC may often appear to be incompatible with practice because of social, instructional and/or institutional factors exerting powerful influence on teachers
These four bullets highlight the fact that TC is a challenging (and somewhat messy) but very important area to be researching. Cognition is not easily accessible, and to make matters even more complicated, because of the context in which one teaches, cognition data obtained by a researcher might not be an accurate reflection of a teacher’s true knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, perception and attitudes about practice. At the end of the plenary talk I couldn’t help but wonder whether and to what extent TC changes if a teacher moves to a different teaching context. As a matter of fact, this would be an interesting study (although its feasibility might be rather problematic): investigating TC in relation to employment change(s). Any takers?
I am a Lecturer in TESOL at the University of Wollongong in Australia. I blog about L2 learning, L2 teaching, L2 teacher education, and research.