In this blog post, I will explore the benefits of doing teacher research and provide tips on how to go about it effectively in the early years and primary classroom. As course director on a diploma course and online tutor on a teacher development course focused on pronunciation, I get asked about ways we can integrate pronunciation into lessons with children. Here are some of the questions Iʼve been asked:
- Is it a good idea to use phonemic symbols with my seven / eight year olds?
- Could I use the phonemic chart with my ten year olds?
- How can I teach pronunciation to early years children?
These questions are challenging to answer without extensive knowledge of the specific learners and their context. Some of these teachers are working with large groups of fifty 12 year olds in China, while others are teaching early years in private language schools in Romania – neither of which I personally have experience of. But I always respond to their questions with this: So, I think you should do some classroom research to answer that question and I will support you so your research is effective! As a course director I regularly supervise teachers doing such research, and when I read their conclusions I find many clear benefits.
I’d like to share some examples to hopefully inspire you to do two things:
- Carry out action research to experiment with new techniques and approaches.
- Integrate pronunciation into your primary English lessons.
This will help develop your reflective practice, help you learn more about pronunciation (or your chosen area of research) and add to your teaching toolkit!
Example 1: Gareth in Barcelona
Gareth was teaching 10-11 year-olds and wanted to help them improve their pronunciation. He started by making a note of all the issues he heard in class. Then, we chatted and decided that in order to make his research effective we should narrow the focus. He had identified issues with various individual sounds, word stress and sentence stress but since he was quite new to the world of phonology we thought attacking individual sounds was a great place to start. I recommended Greg do some reading on the different areas: how we form the vowel and consonant sounds of English, how to teach the place and manner of articulation and how to integrate pronunciation into lessons. I asked him to come back to me once he had a clear idea of what he could do over a series of lessons to teach the individual sounds he had identified.
He wrote up his title, rationale and mapped out some lesson activities and teaching techniques. We discussed how these might fit into his lessons and then agreed he would do two lessons and write short reflections on his experiments.
One challenge for developing teachers is to reflect effectively. Often we tend to describe what we did and comment on whether learners enjoyed it or if they did it correctly, but we forget to analyse why it worked (or not) and what aspect of it engaged our students or not. This is an added bonus of doing classroom research. We develop our ability to analyze and reflect on our teaching. And as Donald Freeman suggests, real development only happens when there is a shift in attitudes and beliefs. This shift only comes about after good reflection and analysis.
I helped Greg focus his reflection and move from being descriptive to analytical by asking him to say why he made the comments he made. Greg went on to teach really effective lessons to the extent that his learners could write famous celebrities names in phonemic script. They even made a treasure hunt for each other writing in phonemic symbols. This had a positive impact on their pronunciation as Greg knew to focus heavily on the physicality of how we make these sounds and used the symbols as a useful memory hook to remind them how to say the sounds! He found enjoyable, engaging and effective ways to help the learners put their teeth, tongue lips and jaws in the right position to make English sounds. By the end of the research he was integrating pronunciation into every lesson both in a pre-planned way and through corrective feedback. His toolkit has expanded significantly through the trial and error involved in this whole process.
Example 2: Anna in Spain
Anna was teaching early years and wanted to develop as a materials writer. She wondered if she could combine her passion for creating materials with learning more about phonology and teaching pronunciation. I said, ‘Absolutely, but how?’ She looked at different materials for teaching early years and thought about her own goals of writing for early years and primary learners. She decided she would like to write picturebooks. She turned out to be a skilled artist and felt she could combine all her talents into creating a picturebook to develop pronunciation.
She looked at other published examples and identified key characteristics of picturebooks for the age group. These included having engaging characters, cool visuals and an age appropriate narrative. She decided to focus on the issue of pronouncing /b/ and /v/ with her Spanish speaking learners, and created characters whose names contained these phonemes. She then planned her story and brainstormed other words which include these sounds.
She then considered how best to integrate this into the lessons she taught and how she could do this while meeting the objectives of the course she was teaching. I observed two lessons to give her some feedback and was amazed at how she had managed this. The children loved it, and she ended up doing all sorts of activities around the picturebook. She has gone on to be a tutor and is still developing materials! Her development was incredible.
Through these two cases I hope I have shown how we can all do effective research to push us forward in our development. Some key areas to consider if you want to do similar research with the children you teach are:
- choose something you are passionate about
- make it specific and narrow in focus
- do lots of reading so you are informed about what you are doing and why!
- be analytical and reflective not just descriptive
- put a time limit on it, I’d recommend 10 lessons
- make it tangible and practical
- run it by a supervisor, director of studies or mentor
- gather evidence – student’s work, your reflections, observations from others
- write it up into an article or research paper or info sheet for your teacher’s room
All these steps will help you develop your classroom practice and ability to reflect and analyze your teaching and more importantly help your learners!