The Silent Way for Pronunciation

From the very name of the approach “The Silent Way” I dismissed it as I believe input (or exposure) is one of the three conditions necessary for successful language learning.

This exposure to what I’d classify as “comprehensible input” (from both the teacher and my classmates) is certainly one of the main reasons I attend group language classes myself, as a language learner. So I don’t like the idea of the teacher not being a source of input and listening practice for learners.

As a teacher, my classes are very student-centred and too much TTT has never really been a problem for me. However I do of course talk to my students.

How can “silent” and “pronunciation” go together?

You may be aware of Adrian Underhill’s way of introducing pronunciation. If you aren’t, watch his video. When I first saw him present this, I started to understand pronunciation in an entirely different way. I learnt how sounds were formed and how to show my students how to move their mouths into the right position for sounds they were struggling with.

Pronunciation is a motor skill. Pronunciation experts like Messum, whose webinar I watched as part of IATEFL #webconf17, say we don’t actually learn pronunciation by hearing and copying but that we need to learn how the mouth, tongue, lips and even body are used to produce the sounds of English.

Let’s revisit Underhill’s approach with this in mind.

You may or may not have realised he never says the sounds as he’s teaching them. He shows students how to position their mouths and the students themselves actually produce the sounds. He gives them feedback on their performance, whether it’s good or if not, feedback on how to improve. This (in my understanding) is teaching pronunciation the Silent Way.

In the classroom

I was sort of aware of this before, but perhaps not fully aware of the implications. I have definitely at some point said things like “learners can’t say what they can’t hear” (and vice versa). But I’m no longer sure that’s entirely true. If learners position their mouths correctly, won’t they produce more or less the right sound?

Of course, it is not easy to get learners to position their mouths correctly.

I’ve tried. I’ve used Underhill’s way of teaching the phonemic chart to three different groups: speakers of Vietnamese in 2015, speakers of Korean (and one Arabic) in 2016 and speakers of Spanish in 2017. I did initially try not to say the sounds myself but I have to admit I did sometimes say them. Habit! The most recent time I taught the chart, I definitely caught myself modelling too much and was aware of it at the time. However I’m pretty sure I was just thinking “oops, stop modelling” rather than considering the reasons behind it and why it’s so important to show rather than model.

Now I understand how the Silent Way can be used for developing pronunciation as a motor skill, the next time I teach phonemic sounds (or the chart itself), I’m going to be doubly conscious of this.

Over to you: How do you teach pronunciation, particularly the phonemic sounds?

References and Further Reading

This post was inspired by November’s IATEFL Web Conference 2017, realisations from Messum’s excellent session on pronunciation and reading I did afterwards.

Pronunciation

Silent Way

Other

  • Thornbury, S. (2015) Blog: S is for SLA (Second Language Acquisition)
  • Exposure, Motivation, Use:
  • Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning, pp.4-11

Images from Pixabay or my own work, unless otherwise stated.