Meaning, Form and Pronunciation

For many of us familiar with CELTA or other TEFL courses, the acronym MFP will have come to be regarded as one of the most important of the many acronyms we come across for teaching a second language. Used for both lexis and grammar, these three simple and easy-to-remember little letters were branded into our teaching methodology from day one as essential steps to follow when introducing any new piece of vocabulary or grammar with your students.

It’s simple enough – first you cover the Meaning, clarifying with the learners exactly what is being said. Next comes the Form. In the case of vocabulary, this is simply the spelling. With grammar, this is where we analyse the structure of the language itself, for example ‘subject + have + past participle’ for the present perfect. Next, traditionally, we would drill the Pronunciation of the new phrase or with grammar we would look perhaps at some of the cuter aspects of connected speech or regional pronunciation.

It’s all well and good, but even on my CELTA course itself there were doubts and murmurings amongst the trainers about whether this was still the appropriate pattern to follow when introducing new language to your learners.

The issue isn’t the content itself. Even if it’s perhaps a little over simplified, all aspects of language can be stripped down to these three simple parts. No, it’s rather the order in which we introduce them that is the issue.

One of my trainers at International House London (all of whom were incredibly inspirational in their own way) was adamant about structuring your language presentation not as MFP, but as MPF. This is a relatively simple change to teaching pronunciation before you teach the form, or rather before you show or analyse the form. As time has gone by I’ve grown to realise that this is not only sound advice, but essential in many parts of the world for avoiding engrained pronunciation errors and general confusion.

Reasons for Teaching with MPF

If you teach using MFP bravo, you’re already using a solid and proven teaching structure that not only caters to your students’ needs but also introduces language in a logical, engaging manner. However, if you genuinely want your students to get the most out of your lessons, it’s time to change.

Here’s why…

  • First and foremost, the form of most vocabulary in the English language is a distraction. Spelling is notoriously inconsistent and by showing how a word is spelt before you really nail the pronunciation, learners will most likely follow what their eyes, rather than their ears have told them.
  • If they see a word before they hear it, problem phonemes will generally be exaggerated by learners. For unusual sounds such as ‘th’ or ‘ght’ in a word such as ‘thought’, students will naturally want to try and pronounce them as they would in their own language, which as you can imagine will result in some strange and unintelligible pronunciation. By drilling the word beforehand, the pronunciation becomes dominant, and when they finally realise it’s spelt ‘thought’ and not ‘thort’, it’s much easier for them to accept.
  • We’re teaching in the 21st century. When you ask any language student why they are studying a language their main goal will be the ability to speak it. Whilst it’s not exactly easy to pin down precisely what ‘The Communicative Method’ is, one thing is for certain – the fluency and ability for your learner to speak is the main focus over being able to use grammar perfectly. Whilst the latter can help with the former, it should not be the priority for the average student. (This is not to say that grammar and form is not important, of course it is. It’s to say that in a given situation, an emergency for example, it is better to be speaking quickly and clearly, if inaccurately, than with perfect accuracy at unintelligible pace or with difficult pronunciation.)
  • Learning how to pronounce and say language before seeing it’s form is undoubtedly the most natural way of learning a language. As children we learn to speak incredibly well before we even start trying to write. Language is at it’s core a form of spoken communication, whereas writing and reading are evolutions of it. Looking at it another way, there are tens of thousands of native English speakers who are illiterate, yet can clearly and correctly communicate with people. Are they any less native-level speakers of the language?

The Real Problem with MFP

A good example of the problems that can be caused my MFP comes from my experience teaching in Italy. The word ‘hair’, for example, is notoriously difficult for Italians. Despite being only one syllable, it contains one phoneme which simply doesn’t exist in Italian (the ‘h’ sound at the start) and two phonemes which, despite there existing similar sounds, are generally pronounced too strongly.

In Italian, like Spanish, the spelling of a word generally suggests how it is pronounced. So if the word ‘hair’ is shown to students before they hear the pronunciation, they will instantly try to pronounce it more like ‘higher’.

You’d think that with some drilling, this could be eliminated but at elementary level, there are dozens of words with phonemes like this. Air, hair, his, is, eyes, our, hours, coat, house, boat, car, are and there are just a handful of short, straight forward words than can cause nightmares for English teachers in Italy. With all the new vocabulary and grammar being introduced at these levels, it’s crucial to make pronunciation the key focus for language reproduction over writing and spelling, as they are simply much more likely to require their L2 in a situation that involves speaking than writing.

If too much emphasis is placed on form over pronunciation, the damage it will do can take months to fix. By teaching and drilling the pronunciation first, by ear, students learn as they would if they were a child once again, absorbing sounds and language through context rather than a grammatical explanation. It’s a simple tweak to your methodology, and the rewards will be great for both you and your students.

So what are you waiting for?

A Note on Phonemes

The phonemic script is terrifying to new teachers, and most never bother to learn it. However, if you want your students to be able to learn outside of the classroom (which every teacher should want) you will want to introduce the phonemic script to your learners to some degree as soon as your comfortable with it.

There are many resources online for doing this, and we will be including some of our favourites in a future blog post. For now, however, remember that by encouraging your students to understand the phonemic script, you are giving them the tools to tackle new vocabulary without requiring a native to model the sound.

Do you currently teaching using MFP or MPF? What are your thoughts on it? Is communication or grammar the priority in your teaching methodology? We’d love to know, leave a comment below!

This is part two in our series ‘Nurturing and Promoting Conversation in the Classroom’. Part one, ‘Don’t Interrupt! How to Correct Correctly’ can be found here. Sign up to our newsletter and never miss a post, or follow us on the social media links on this page.

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