The acronym MPFA will be well known to most English Language Teachers, who probably first come across it in their pre-service training: Meaning, Pronunciation, Form and Appropriacy. It represents the order in which new language – be it grammar or vocabulary – is taught.
You start by building a clear context which shows the meaning of the target language – that could be achieved with a picture, a mime or a story. You try to elicit from the learners what you are after and if they cannot provide it, then you give it to them. What follows should be some good choral and individual drilling to make sure they are saying it correctly. At this stage you might want to make sure they understand the target language, as drilling something which has not been understood will only result in bad habits. Then the teacher will move on to the form i.e. getting the lexeme or the tense on the whiteboard. The final stage is to deal with how appropriate the target language is in a given context. For example, ‘commence’ is quite a formal word, most often used in written form: it would not suit an informal conversation in a café, rather the synonym ‘start’.
M P F A is the procedure I use and it is the one I always recommend other teachers. However, some use a slightly altered order: M F P A . Given that English is not a phonetic language – written English is not representative of how it is said in most cases – I personally think it is better to drill pronunciation first and then move on to the form, as many learners might see the construction “I talked” and pronounce the -ed ending as /ed/ and not /t/. I have had learners who base their pronunciation entirely on the written form and when I point out that what I am saying is different to what is written, they say that they just assumed to have heard me incorrectly. However, regardless of this there are those out there who advocate the M F P A procedure.
I had always thought M P F A is the right way to deal with new language in the classroom and could not really imagine any teaching situation which would refute that. Until this week.
With my intermediate teens, we had two lessons on Third Conditionals: one lesson to present and practice the language; the other to revise, practice and produce the language. The target language was delivered through the use of a text and the kind of example sentence we were dealing with is shown below:
If he had begun his experiment in the summer, it might have been easier.
For this level of learner, this language is quite difficult, and tricky. I should also point out that the learners were a monolingual class of Polish speakers, in whose language the Third Conditional does not exist as a tense in its own right.
I had expected to follow the M P F A format but I quickly realised that the sheer length of this item of grammar does not lend itself to drilling. At best the sentence can be broken down into sections and drilled, chorally and then individually, bringing the learners’ attention to the segmental and suprasegmental features. As a result, I followed the M F P A format and got the form up on the whiteboard, so that the learners would have the scaffolding they needed to produce the target language.
I have since been considering other systems-focused lessons and have been wondering whether there is something I have missed with regards to the M P F A procedure.
After careful thought, I still stand with the notion of drilling pronunciation before moving onto form. However, I think in the case of the lesson mentioned above the issue is not with the format of M F P A or M P F A but rather with the method of the lesson.
The most outstanding teachers have a set of tools to their disposal in class. Here by the word ‘tools’ I mean rather ‘techniques’ , such as Guided Discovery, PPP and Task-Based Learning. These tools are not applied for the sake of variety but out of an understanding of their appropriacy to a given learning situation. For example, the teacher might opt for a Guided Discovery approach when teaching an elementary group who have already covered the Past Simple with regular verbs and now need to move on to the Past Simple with irregular verbs: the knowledge is in essence already there, they simply need to be guided into discovering the irregularities – a mere extension of the regular ones.
This approach of ‘tools’ is better known in the English Language Teaching world as Principled Eclecticism. It is the notion that educators pick and choose methods and approaches which will be the most conducive to a positive learning experience in a given context.
Given all this, when it comes to my lesson on Third Conditionals I think it is safe to say that my choice of lesson format was not ‘principled’. I say this for two main reasons:
(1) As the learners already knew Second Conditionals, the Third Conditional is simply an extension of that knowledge and could have been successfully taught through the use of a Guided Discovery worksheet, particularly given that they were working with a text which contained the target language.
(2) Although many older methods, such as the Direct Method and Audio-lingualism, are often viewed as discredited things of the past, it is all too often forgotten that key elements of the modern day classroom stem from these methods, such as choral and individual drilling. I could have used the Direct Method technique of extracting the language, giving the learners some words to work with e.g. wake up earlier, be on time, and drilling them, e.g. if I had woken up earlier, I would have been on time. All of this would have been done orally and before getting to the form on the whiteboard.
In summary, I still maintain pronunciation should precede form, even in situations where the easier option for all involved would be to have form precede pronunciation. Above only two methods have been referred to: perhaps another approach would work even better – I would welcome any suggestions in the comment section below.