Five compelling reasons to ‘over-emphasize’ pronunciation at Primary school (or in the early stages of acquisition)

1. To facilitate and ‘speed up’ the development of speaking proficiency – as Levelt’s model of first language speaking production posits (see picture 1, below), spoken output requires the orchestration of many complex processes, some more complex than others, but all placing serious demands on our brain, in terms of processing efficiency. The speech production process starts in the conceptualizer that generates ideas and ‘sends’ them to the formulator which translates them into meaningful and grammatically correct sentences; then the monitoring system steps in checking the output accuracy before any sentence is uttered; finally, the articulator will orchestrate the use of the larynx, pharynx and mouth organs, whilst the monitoring system will have been overseeing speech production every step of the way.This process becomes even harder when the ideas generated by the brain (in the conceptualizer) need to be translated into speech in real time in a foreign language; the whole process slows down considerably – hence the hesitations and pauses in our language learners, even the more advanced ones, when speaking in the target language; and their errors, due more to cognitive overload than to carelessness (unless by ‘carelessness’ we mean lack of effective monitoring).

Picture1–Levelt’s model of language production (adapted from: http://homepage.ntlworld.com)

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The complexity of the language production process and the challenges of performing it in a foreign language mean that our Working Memory has to juggle simultaneously all of the tasks that speaking involves and may lead less expert L2 speakers, as already mentioned, to slow down production and make mistakes due to processing efficiency. Hence, foreign language learners need to learn to master the lower order skills, i.e. effective control over larynx, pharynx and articulators  as early as possible in order to ‘free up space’ in Working Memory for the kind of cognitive processing that happens in the conceptualizer and formulator; this will allow Working Memory to work more efficiently and focus only on the higher order skills, i.e.: the negotiation and creation of meaning, the transformation of meaning into the target language vocabulary, the application of grammar rules and self-monitoring.

Consequently, if we do not foster the automatization of pronunciation earlier on, through regular practice, we will delay our students’ development as fluent speakers. I have experienced this often in the past on taking on Year 7 classes which had been given very little pronunciation and/or speaking practice during two years of French/Spanish in Primary. Is this an argument against the Comprehensible Input hypothesis or The Silent way? Maybe.

2.Fossilization – On the other hand, if we plunge L2 learners into highly demanding oral tasks too soon, without focusing long and hard enough on pronunciation through easy and controlled tasks, their Working Memory will  have less monitoring space for sound articulation, as they will focus on the generation of meaning (i.e. what happens in picture 1’s conceptualizer) with potentially ‘disastrous’ consequences for  their pronunciation , in that they will resort to their first language phonological encoding to produce the target language sounds (language transfer). If pronunciation errors due to this issue will keep slipping into performance lesson after lesson, oral practice after oral practice, the mistakes will become fossilized and carried over to later stages of proficiency as fossilized errors tend to be impervious to correction.

3.Phonological encoding affects recall – the more the learners become versed in the articulation of the target language sounds, the faster and more effective will be their retention of target language words in their Long-term memory (encoding). Why? This is because of the limitations of the ‘phonological encoding device’ in our brain’s Working Memory, i.e.: the articulatory loop (see picture 2 below). The articulatory loop has limited space (or channel capacity as psycholinguists call it), hence, if a word is not pronounced ‘fast enough’ the brain may not simply be able to encode it. The faster the articulatory loop ‘pronounces’ the target language the easier it will be (a) to memorize new words, especially longer and more challenging ones (from a phonological point of view) and (b) for Working Memory to process longer units of language (phrases/sentences) – as the less space words take on in the articulatory loop the greater the chances will be for longer words to be held in Working Memory at any one time. This speeds rehearsal in Working Memory and, consequently, uptake as well retrieval and production.

 Picture 2 – adapted from: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/SLA/STM.htm

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4. Stigmatizing output may lead to simpler L2-input from L2-native speakers – I am not a fan of Stephen Krashen but I do admit that he has come up with some great ideas, such as Narrow Listening and the one that relates to the point I am about to make; the fact, that is, that if a beginner/intermediate learner has bad pronunciation, any L2 expert who will interact with him/her may actually send easier L2 linguistic input his/her way presuming that his/her level of proficiency and/or language aptitude – as signaled by his/her pronunciation – is low. This will have negative implications for  learning as if you are exposed to simplified input when you are at the early stages of language learning you may not learn much from it, not enough to bring you to next level, so to speak.

I tend to agree with Krashen on this one as I have seen this happen several times. And I will add, that often, in naturalistic environments, something even worse may occur: L2 native speakers may avoid engaging in conversations with L2 non-native speakers with poor pronunciation, for fear of not being understood or not understand and having going through the awkward process of asking the interlocutor to repeat.

 5. The critical age hypothesis – This applies only to the first years of Primary school, when children are 5 to 8 years old (or younger); the age, that is, where the sensory-motor skills which control the movement of the larynx, pharynx and the articulators are still ‘plastic’, i.e. amenable to modification. After that age, it seems that the child’s receptiveness to pronunciation modelling/instruction diminishes drastically. If this is true, as compelling recent research evidence suggests, it is at this age that learners must be focused on pronunciation and taught ‘phonics’, pretty much as happens in their first language lessons, through fun and engaging speaking activities, lots of singing, listening and computer assisted phonetic learning.

Five important flaws of GCSE oral tests

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Research has highlighted a number of issues with oral testing which examination boards and teachers need to heed, as they can have important implications not just for the way GCSE syllabi are designed, but also for the conduct and the assessment of oral GCSE exams as well as for our teaching. The issues which I will highlight are, I suspect, generalizable to either types of oral tests conducted in other educational systems, especially when it comes to the reliability of the assessment procedures and the authenticity of the tasks adopted. They are important issues, as they bring into question the fairness and objectivity of the tests as well as whether we are truly preparing children for real L2-native-like communication.

Issue n.1 – Instant or delayed assessment?

A study by Hurman (1996), cited in Macaro (2007) investigated to what extent examiners’ assessment of content and accuracy of candidates’ responses to GCSE role-play affected tests. Hurman took 60 experiences examiners and divided them into groups; one spent some time before awarding the mark and one did it instantaneously. Hurman’s findings indicate that waiting a few seconds before awarding the mark seem to result in more objective grading. This, in my view, is caused by the divided attention that listening and focusing on assessment causes – I have experienced this first-hand many times!

This has important implications for teachers working with certain examination boards. Cambridge International Examinations board, for instance, prescribes that, at IGCSE, the teacher/examiner award the mark instantaneously and explicitly forbids the practice of grading the candidates retrospectively or after listening to the recording. If Hurman’s findings were to be true of the vast majority of examiners, examination boards like CIE may have to change their regulations and allow for marking to be done retrospectively when the examiner’s attention is not divided between listening to the candidate’s response to a new question, when still marking the previous one – an ominous task!

Issue n.2 – What does complexity of structures/language mean?

This is another crucial issue, which I found year in year out when moderating oral GCSE/IGCSE candidate’s oral performance during my teaching career. Teachers listening to the same recording usually tend to agree when it comes to complexity of vocabulary but not necessarily when it comes to complexity of grammar/syntactic structures. Chambers and Richards’ (1992) findings indicate that this is not simply my experience; their evidence suggests that there was a high level of disagreement amongst the teachers involved in their study as to what constituted ‘complexity of structures’. They also found that the teachers disagreed also in terms of what was meant by ‘fluency’ and ‘use of idiom’ – another issue that I have experienced myself when moderating.

To further complicate the picture, there is, in my view, another issue which research should probe into, and I invite colleagues who work with teachers of nationalities to investigate; the fact, that is, that L1-target-language-speaker raters tend to be stricter than L2-target-language-speaker ones. This issue is particularly serious in light of Issue n.5 below.

Issue n. 3 – Are the typical GCSE oral tasks ‘authentic’?

I often play a prank on my French colleague Ronan Jezequel , by starting a conversation about the week-end just gone by asking question in a GCSE-like style and sequence until, after a few seconds, he realizes that there is something wrong and looks at me funny… Are we testing our students on (and preparing them for) tasks that do not reflect authentic L2 native speaker speech? This is what another study by Chambers (1995) set out to investigate. They examined 28 tapes of French GCSE candidates and compared them to conversations on the same themes by 25 French native speakers in the same age bracket. They found that not only, as easily predictable, the native speakers used more words (437 vs 118) and more clauses (56.9 vs 23.9), but also that:

  1. The French speakers found the topic house/flat description socially unacceptable;
  2. The native speakers found the topic ‘Daily routine’ them unauthentic and – interestingly – produced very few reflexive verbs
  3. The native speakers used the near future whilst the non-natives used the simple future
  4. The native speakers used the imperfect tense much more than the non-natives
  5. The non-native speakers used relative causes much less than the French

Are these tests, as the researchers concluded, testing students’ ability to converse with native speakers or their acquisition of grammar?

Issue n.4 – The grammar accuracy bias

A number of studies (e.g. Alderson and Banerjee, 2002) have found time and again that assessors’ perception of grammar accuracy seem to bias examiners, regardless of how much weight is given in the assessment specification on effective communication. This issue will be exacerbated or mitigated depending on the examiners’ view of what linguistic proficiency means and by their degree of tolerance of errors; whereas a teacher might find a learner’s communicatively effective use of compensation strategies (e.g. approximation or coinage) a positive thing even though it leads to grammatically flawed utterances, another might find it unacceptable.

Here again, background differences are at play. Mistakes that to a native speaker might appear as stigmatizing or very serious might seem mild or not even be considered as mistakes at all…

Issue n.5 – Inter-rater reliability

This is the biggest problem of all and it is related to Issue n.2, above; how reliable are the assessment procedures? Many years of research have shown that for any multi-trait assessment scale to be effective it needs to be extensively piloted. Moreover, whenever it is used for assessment, two or more co-raters must agree on the scores and, where there is disagreement, they must discuss the discrepancies until agreement is reached. However, when the Internal moderator and the External one, in cases where the recording is sent to the Examination board for the assessment, do not agree…what happen to the discussion that is supposed to take place to reach a common agreement?

Another important issue relates to the multi-traits assessment scales used. First of all they are too vague. This is convenient, because the vaguer they are the easier it is to ‘fiddle’ with the numbers. However, the vagueness of a scale makes it difficult to discriminate between performances when the variation in ability is not that great as it happens in a top set class, for example, with A and A* students. In these cases, in order to discriminate effectively between an 87 and a 90% which could mean getting or not an A*, research shows clearly that the best assessment to be used should contain more than the two or three traits (categories) usually found in GCSE scales (or even A Level, for that matter) and, more importantly, should be more fine-grained (i.e. each category should have more criterion-referenced grades). This would hold examination boards much more accountable, but would require more financial investment and work, I guess, on their part.