Thursday, October 22, 2015

We have met the enemy (of pronunciation teaching in TESOL), and he is us!

Clker.com
Am often reminded of that great quip in the political cartoon Pogo, by Walt Kelly, embellished in the title of this post. In workshops we often encounter the following three misconceptions about pronunciation teaching, based vaguely and incorrectly on "research" in the field. Recently, in the comments of one reviewer of a proposal for a workshop on teaching consonants for the 2016 TESOL convention--which was rejected, by the way--all three showed up together! Here they are, with my responses in italics:

Currency/Importance/Appropriateness 
"Most learners have access to websites that model phonemes, such as Rachel’s English and Sounds of Speech by the University of Iowa."

Really? "Most" learners? What planet is that on? Billions of learners don't have web access, including the preponderance of those in settlement programs here in Vancouver. And even those that do still need competent instruction on not only to use them effectively, but find them in the first place. Furthermore, those sites are strongly visual-auditory and EAP biased, better suited to what we term "EAP-types" (English for the academically privileged). For the kinaesthetic or less literate learner, those web resources are generally of little value. There are half a dozen other reasons why that perspective is excessively "linguini-centric."

Theory, Practice and Research Basis ·      
"There has been much research, which has shown the central importance of the peak vowel in a stressed syllable. The focus on consonant articulation is less important."

That represents an "uninformed" consensus from more than a decade ago. Any number of studies have since established the critical importance of selected consonants for intelligibility of learners of specific L1s. Think: Final consonants in English for some Vietnamese dialects or some Spanish L1 speakers of English. 

Support for Practices, Conclusions, and/or Recommendations ·      
"The article made a nice specific connection between haptic activities, and acquisition of consonant sounds. However, there was only one source."

Good grief. The workshop was proposed as a practical, hands-on session for teachers, presenting techniques for dealing with specific consonants.(The one reference is a published conference paper linked off the University of Iowa website.) Have heard similar reports from other classroom practitioners, such as myself, who had  proposals rejected: Only "researcher certified" proposals welcome. So much for our earlier enthusiasm in TESOL for teacher empowerment . . .

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I'm with you 100%. It makes me wonder how people get on selection committees. We need a call to Acton action :) more pronunciation supporters need to get involved with TESOL instead of simply going to conventions and sitting in the sidelines.

Lynn said...

I just got several proposal rejections from the TESOL 2016 planners, and I noticed similar problems. Thanks for putting my vague feelings about the proposal evaluation process into such clear words.

Nellie Deutsch - Ed.D said...

I'm spreading the word to members of both IATEFL and TESOL and decision makers from both. Personally, I'm not surprised.

The Language Detective said...

You all can always send proposals to the Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching conference, where all readers know about pronunciation. Next year's conference will be in Calgary, Alberta on August 12-13, 2016. The them of the conference is Pronunciation and Technology. The call for papers is at linguistlist.org/easyabs/PSLLT2016

Anonymous said...

I too got rejected. Definitely thought I had a winning proposal: Mobile Microcourses to Improve Pronunciation in Chinese EFL teachers. And co-presented between an American and Chinese instructor working together on the project in China. How does it get any more real than that? Had generally positive comments, except that I was told to check the literature on the subject. Now I understand why based on your comment of "research-certified" proposals. We are in the middle of the study. The publication comes later. And I am a teacher, not a researcher.

Nicole Kaup
nicole@nwsoar.com

Anonymous said...

I guess if we want to see change, we need to join the selection committee.

Bill Acton said...

Anonymous gets it. We either become more or less engaged with TESOL--or any other professional organization. Part of the problem with TESOL is the vetting structure for vetters, based pretty much on self identification and demonstrating some level of reliability in reviewing model proposals. The interest section leaders have relatively little input into that process, although they do have some latitude as to what gets on the final program, essentially after the fact, when the "numbers" are pretty hard to work around.

Yelena Tower said...

You mention an "uninformed consensus" from a decade ago regarding the importance of peak vowels in syllables. From everything I understand, this doesn't at all mean that consonants aren't important (especially endings that are crucial to the listener's understanding). Rather, it means that if the major stresses sound natural, the listener will be able to overlook certain inaccuracies in consonant production (such as /f/ for /s/). Of course, there is no argument that major errors in sound-level pronunciation are detrimental to understanding. Most English users won't be able to tell that "bini" means "business." The idea is that as instructors, we shouldn't spend all our efforts on making sure that our students can pronounce Theta correctly when they are also making a hash of their spoken rhythm.

Brown (1988) has a very useful description of which vowel and consonant phonemes are most important for intelligibility. Those at the top of the "functional load hierarchy" are essential, while those lower down are not as vital to making oneself understood.

Bill Acton said...

Thanks for the clarification, Valena. You are absolutely right. The reviewer clearly had picked up about half the picture from somewhere. Whether a consonant is problematic depends, to a large extent on the learner's L1, current interlanguage "stage" and functional load it carries in context. To claim that consonants are less important, in principle, however, as grounds for turning down a proposal is also problematic . . .

Anonymous said...

I was a reviewer this last year and I was surprised at the inefficiencies of the process.Everything is self-identification. The problem is that TESOL is too big. You self identify with one interest section, but there is no way you can be an expert on all of the research or recent topics in that interest section, but you are expected to be. Also, in our reviewer instructions, we are told that sources don't need to be cited as long as the proposal references the theory, study or general knowledge available. That is mostly because of space concerns.

Unknown said...

There is an ongoing debate about how to improve the reviewer process for TESOL. It is a very large organization, and the conference does depend on volunteers in the interest groups in order to vet proposals. "Anonymous" does have it -- the more people from each interest group with a broad, current knowledge basedthat apply to be reviewers, the stronger the reviews will be. We also need such people to submit proposals and to become interest section chairs.

TESOL's base may be classroom teachers, but we want to make sure that there are open lines of communication (two-way) between researchers and practitioners. In fact, this is a main goal of TESOL 2017 in Seattle. If people have ideas for improving the proposal vetting process, increasing participation in the vetting process, or providing opportunities at TESOL 2017 for expanding communication and participation by TESOLers like those who have expressed concern here, please let me know.

Bill Acton said...

"Unknown" does sound like somebody in the "the know!" As the discussion develops, I'll be happy to summarize recommendations and forward them to Unknown! I'd only comment that I'm not sure that the problem is necessarily the absolute number of good proposals being submitted--just given the number of off-line emails I have had by very reputable practitioners and researchers this year and in previous years that have been rejected on similar grounds, or none at all-- but I could be wrong on that. Would love to see a list of the SPLIS reviewers this year! My guess is that most of those with the kind of background that Unknown alludes to did not volunteer to be a vetter--mea culpa this year!!! (Hence the title of the original blog post. TESOL is a problem; those of use in this specialization in the organization who are not actively involved in the interest group are at least as much so.

Margi Wald said...

Sorry, I did not realize that I was not logged in on Google. I am the Program Chair for Seattle. Please send comments and ideas to tesol2017@gmail.com.

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