Attention breeds attention

unsplash attention

Nature by Linas Ikanevicius on Unsplash

This is a very short observation of a very small phenomenon, nothing new or ground-breaking, but something I wanted to explore.  I’ve noticed it a couple of times recently in my current class of mixed teens and adults.

The first example was in a class when we were focusing on adjectives describing emotions prior to listening to a FCE exam question.  The lexis came from the coursebook, the activity we’d been doing was pretty standard, categorising by negative and positive emotions, and we were checking the answers on the board.  I’d heard some typical slips during the categorisation stage:  confusion over the stress pattern in content, hesitation over the pronunciation of the “I” in delighted.  At the board I asked for the positive adjectives in alphabetical order, the first being content. I wrote it on the board, twice, with “adjective” above one, and “noun” above the other. I asked them how to pronounce the adjective and got a couple of correct answers and a lot of nodding.  We focused on both words in isolation and in context, then moved on to delighted, again hesitation, some stumbling over the “i” sound and -ed ending.  We broke it down into syllables.  There was some discussion whether the word “light” was the root and if that had any bearing on the meaning.  It doesn’t by the way, but it makes a good hook for the pronunciation. There was some discussion about the -ed ending and when it constitutes an extra syllable, which later helped with the pronunciation of frightened.  This stage in the lesson probably took about five minutes.

We moved on to a short discussion activity where the students discussed what made them feel content/delighted/frightened etc in preparation for similar short discussions in the exam listening task.  What I noticed was the added attention all the students were paying to their pronunciation, and not only to the words we’d focused on, but on their “voice” in general.  There were far fewer “Spanish” sounds (e.g. the “e” before an initial sp/st sound – Espanish, esport) . They really seemed to be paying more attention to how they sounded, and it didn’t seem to be slowing down the discussion either.  Stopping a moment, paying attention to one very small aspect of pronunciation had heightened their awareness of pronunciation issues in general, had raised the status, as it were, of their pronunciation.

I noticed a similar phenomenon in a short warmer.  We’d been looking at endangered species and the pros and cons of zoos in the previous class. I’d given all the students as they came in a post-it note with the name of one of the animals we’d been talking about on one side and asked them to write a short definition on the other.  And then very simply each student read out their definitions for the class to guess the animal. Very short, very quick, very simple, really just killing time till everyone had arrived and settled down.  I raised an eyebrow at little slips (it live) and genuine ambiguity (was that eat or it?) and sometimes incomprehension.  The students stepped in to help, peer correct, self-correct, as usual.  It was all pretty low key, no board work, just a nod , possible an echo, and on to the next.  But I noticed that as we moved on the students, once again, were being much more careful with their pronunciation, the initial “es” sounds  disappeared, intonation and stress was clearer, signposting meaning, clarifying ambiguity.  I hadn’t made any explicit correction of pronunciation, but in concentrating on being understood, the students were making adjustments.  Slowing down and paying attention, showing that I was paying attention, caused them to pay attention.   And so attention breeds attention.


This entry was posted in musings, pronunciation, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Attention breeds attention

  1. Is this how phonology should be taught? Not in discreet, separate lessons, but all the time, woven into the lesson along the way? The attention you pay to pron, and therefore theirs, is a given constant. It accompanies the words they learn and it informs the way they speak. Nice!

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