From BC TEAL to Pronunciation Teacher Preparation: An Update from Down Under

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by Michael Burri

[This article was first printed in the Winter 2017 issue of TEAL News.]

Mario Andretti, a famous racing driver, once said: “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” The last 3.5 years of being a doctoral student in Australia have certainly been spent in the fast lane. Like most PhD students would attest, balancing research, teaching, marking, research assistant work, publishing, and family life can be challenging. Yet, being able to balance all these different factors can also be tremendously enriching and, dare I say it, fun! Instead of just summarizing my last 3.5 years, I thought I would use the BCTEAL acronym to guide my discussion about key aspects that have helped me navigate—as well as survive, enjoy, and complete—the fast-paced adventure of being a doctoral student.

B for BEING PREPARED. Going into my PhD well prepared was critical. Prior to my doctoral studies, I often questioned the wisdom of living in Surrey and working at the downtown BCTI campus in Vancouver. Now I know, however, that this long commute was an important preparatory stage because it allowed me to read extensively on the train. Having read (and summarized) most of the key literature and research on pronunciation pedagogy provided me with a valuable head start, and it enabled me to begin my PhD confidently, knowing that I was familiar with the literature in the area of my proposed course of study.

C for CONNECTIONS. Networking with people face-to-face as well as online (through Twitter and several Facebook groups) to discuss research, publications, work, teaching etc. has been informative and inspirational. Moreover, presenting at various conferences (AILA, TESOL, AAAL, Face of English, LED, Mekong TESOL) in several different countries (Canada, Vietnam, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand) has been beneficial in that it provided me with opportunities to engage with the language teaching and research community. Connecting with people has been one of the most important factors in my doctoral journey because it inspired me to keep working on my research.

T for THANKFULNESS. Reminding myself occasionally that being a PhD student is a real privilege helped me push on and move forward! I was fortunate to have been offered two scholarships by the University of Wollongong (UOW); hence, I was getting paid to do a PhD. Being aware of this privilege allowed me to maintain a positive outlook when things seemed to spin a bit out of control.

E for ELASTICITY. Being flexible to adjust to unexpected circumstances was a critical element throughout my PhD journey. Upon enrollment I realized relatively soon that I had to change the focus of my initially proposed research in order to collect data in a pronunciation teacher preparation context. That also meant that I had to write and defend my proposal within five months (PhD students are usually given 12 months to complete this process at UOW). This was not what I had expected; yet, I had little choice but buckle down and get the proposal done. Towards the end of my candidacy, flexibility was required again, as my wife and two of our three children suddenly had to return to Japan for several months due to a family emergency. My oldest son and I remained in Australia. Even though it was wonderful spending all this time with him, turning overnight into a full-time dad delayed the submission of my thesis by several months. These instances helped me better understand that life takes its course, and that flexibility is a useful means to navigate through stormy times.

A for AUTHORSHIP. Having to write an 80,000 word dissertation (or thesis as it is called in some universities in Canada and Australia) was perhaps my biggest concern at the beginning of my PhD. I lacked confidence in my ability to write and craft convincing, empirically based arguments. Subsequently, right at the beginning of my doctoral journey, I decided to write on a daily basis; it did not matter whether that was a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire page. This turned out to be a good decision, even though I did make the occasional acquaintance with the infamous writer’s block. Composing regularly (as well as receiving excellent feedback from my two supervisors) resulted in a gradual increase in confidence and writing skills. Oddly enough, I now find writing to be an interesting and empowering, almost liberating process, and I’m currently working on several manuscripts that I hope to get published in the not-so-distant future.

L for LIFE.  Sometimes I had to tell myself that there were more important things in life than doctoral studies. Having my family with me definitely helped me in this regard. The Illawarra region – of which Wollongong is the main city – is an incredibly beautiful place and there are so many things to do. Thus, every few months we would rent a car, load up the kids and all the camping equipment we had shipped from Canada, and take off to explore a national park, caves, a costal town or a nice and quiet beach. These little adventure trips were refreshing. They allowed me to spend time with my family and get my mind off research (although my children would occasionally look at me and ask: “are you thinking about your research again?”). 

Compartmentalizing the experience of doing a PhD in a foreign country into six neat “boxes” is, of course, a bit of an artificial exercise. Throughout the past 3.5 years, these six components (as well as a multitude of other factors) were interwoven in interesting ways, but they did play a critical role in helping me complete my doctorate. I submitted the final/revised version of my thesis last October, and some of you may now be wondering about the actual focus of my PhD. So, here is a quick summary.

My thesis is a collection of four journal articles that are book-ended by an introduction/methodology chapter and discussion/conclusion chapter. The study examined the process of 15 student teachers learning to teach English pronunciation during a postgraduate course on pronunciation pedagogy; an area in additional language teacher education that lacks empirical research. To obtain a thorough understanding of this process, I triangulated several instruments to collect data: two questionnaires (one at the beginning and one at the end of the course); observations of all the weekly lectures (13 in total); four focus groups that were held three times during the course; students’ assignments; and one-on-one interviews with seven of the 15 participants. The amount of qualitative data was overwhelming (remember the Andretti quote?) but collecting this mountain of data was necessary in order to really understand what learning to teach English pronunciation entailed.

Once the initial data analysis was completed, the findings were divided into four journal articles, with each article exploring pronunciation teacher preparation from a different perspective. The first paper examined the general impact the pronunciation pedagogy course had on participants’ cognition (thoughts, attitudes, knowledge and beliefs; Borg, 2006) about pronunciation instruction (Burri, 2015a). The effects participants’ linguistic backgrounds had on learning to teach pronunciation was the focus of the second paper (Burri, 2015b), while the third paper investigated the connection between participants’ teaching experience and learning to teach pronunciation (Burri, Baker, & Chen, accepted). The last article then examined the relationship between student teachers’ cognition development and their identity construction (Burri, Chen, & Baker, under review). The objective of the discussion chapter was to amalgamate all of these findings and form a theoretical model of what constitutes learning to teach English pronunciation. I am going to present this model—the first of its kind—at the TESOL Convention in Seattle next March. It would be great to see some of you there!

Besides presenting at the TESOL conference, I have been offered a 2-year full-time lecturer position in the School of Education at UOW, starting February 1, 2017. I am delighted to have been given this opportunity, as it will allow me to gain valuable experience in a familiar environment. This means that my family and I will be staying in the Wollongong area for at least another two years. I am not sure what is going to happen afterwards, but one thing is certain, the past 3.5 years have been a truly life-changing experience down under.

References:

Burri, M. (2015a). “My perspective changed dramatically:” A case for preparing L2 instructors to teach pronunciation. English Australia Journal, 31(1), 19-37.

Burri, M. (2015b). Student teachers’ cognition about L2 pronunciation instruction: A case study. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 40(1), 66-87. Doi: 10.14221/ajte.2015v40n10.5

Burri, M., Baker, A., & Chen, H. (accepted). “I feel like having a nervous breakdown”: Pre-service and in-service teachers’ developing beliefs and knowledge about pronunciation instruction. Journal of Second Language Pronunciation.

Burri, M., & Chen, H., & Baker, A. (under review).  Joint development of teacher cognition and identity through learning to teach L2 pronunciation.

Biographical Information (From the Winter 2017 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter)

Michael Burri is a lecturer in TESOL at the University of Wollongong. Prior to his move to Australia, he got his MA in TESOL from TWU (2008), worked as instructor/program coordinator at BCIT (2008-13), and enjoyed being the BCTEAL PD Chair (2008-10). His professional interests include pronunciation instruction, L2 teacher education, teacher-based assessment, and contextualized pedagogy. He tweets about L2 teaching/learning/research at @michaelburri and some of his publications and conference presentations can be accessed on his website at www.michaelburri.weebly.com.

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Original reference information:

Burri, M. (2017, Winter). From BC TEAL to pronunciation teacher preparation: An update from down under. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/TEAL-News-Winter-2017.pdf