Friday, March 20, 2009

Module 5 Assignment

Module 5: Options: Combined Assignment: Testing Theory and Critical Pedagogy/Critical Discourse Analysis

A critical appraisal of the use of Received Pronunciation in the listening components of ESL examinations and related materials


Deciding to make a new career as a TEFL teacher more than ten years ago, several of my close friends and relatives asked, “But how can you be an English teacher?” I knew of course that they were referring to the Tyneside accent which they and I shared. They asked this question after I had spent several years as a solicitor undertaking advocacy, (not on Tyneside). The fact that a Geordie accent, in their eyes, would preclude a career as a TEFL teacher but not as a lawyer, might say a great deal about the way people can view the necessity for the transmitters of English to use Received Pronunciation, (RP).

When I took my first tentative steps in my new career with a Trinity TESOL Certificate, my course tutors and then new colleagues gave quite the opposite view. Learners should be exposed to a variety of English native speaker accents: from the regions of the UK, from Ireland, America, Australasia and South Africa. The language, I was assured, “belonged” to me and to all native speakers, not just to those with RP.

With these two conflicting opinions in mind, I have spent the subsequent decade listening to materials provided to assist learners’ listening skills, and have been struck by the heavy preponderance of RP voices. Even the non-RP accents often sound not-quite authentic, as if being spoken by a natural RP speakers who had assembled a small battery of accents at drama school as part of their CVs.

This essay will examine two sets of materials: sample listening tests from the City & Guilds IESOL examinations (City & Guilds, 2007), and listening materials from a commercial text (O’Connell 2002b) used to prepare learners for the IELTS examination. These two particular sets of texts have been chosen simply because, as a City & Guilds examination item writer I had copies of the sample papers, and because I happened to be using the IELTS texts when planning and researching this essay.

The examination of these materials will involve a critical analysis of the pronunciation element of the discourse in question, with particular reference to the preponderance or otherwise of RP.

I should add for the sake of clarity that this work is interested only in the pronunciation used in the texts being analysed. The actual words used could, indeed form the subject of a critical discourse analysis too, but that is not my intention here. I am concerned with the voices.

I will also consider the matter of accents from the perspective of testing theory. In particular, does the use of accent in the materials affect test validity for better or ill?

Received Pronunciation Defined

I follow Roach (2004) in categorizing RP as “the present-day version of the accent that has been used as the standard in phoneticians' description of the pronunciation of British English for centuries”.

For the sake of clarity, UK regional varieties of RP will be excluded from the definition: to do this, only RP varieties in which vowels in the BATH group (Gupta 2005) are pronounced as long /bA:T/ (that is, not short /A/ or even /{/, the variant heard amongst educated speakers in Northern England and elsewhere) will be regarded as RP for the purposes of this study. I will also exclude all variations which display rhoticity, such as one might hear amongst the upper middle class privately educated natives of Edinburgh, for example.

Thus, for the purposes of this essay, “RP” refers to the classical form of that style of pronunciation: that used by the middle classes of south east England who will usually have attended fee-paying schools and the older Universities, who we might describe as “native RP speakers”, and who Trudgill (2002) estimates comprise 3% of the British population.

However, it would be simplistic and misleading to consider this particular variety of RP to be simply the pronunciation norm of a particular speech community. It is much more than that. Fabricius (2005, 135) defines “construct-RP” as “the more or less conscious and more or less consistent construct of pronunciation norms and accent attitudes that can be held in people’s heads, or presented in pronunciation dictionaries”. I shall return to the relationship between speech-community-RP and construct-RP later.

Critical Analysis of the Pronunciation Used in the Texts: Background

I should explain that in analysing these texts I am operating in the interstices of Critical Discourse Analysis, Critical Pedagogy, and Testing Theory. These three areas overlap here. CDA is used as an analytical tool for examining the texts themselves: and by texts I mean that aspect of them which is manifested by the speaker’s accent. The Critical Pedagogy aspect emerges when we consider the way that these texts will actually be used in the classroom: the interaction between the teacher, the learners, and the disembodied voice of the materials. In particular, one must be aware of the high stakes nature of these texts. Finally, there is Testing Theory, in particular, considerations of authenticity and fairness, (Bachman, 1996).

I take as my starting-off point for the critical analysis of these texts van Dijk’s definition: “CDA is a – critical – perspective on doing scholarship: it is, so to speak, discourse analysis ‘with an attitude’.” (Van Dijk, 2001). The “attitude” is taken up on behalf of the 97% of British native speakers who, (per Trudgill, 2002) do not form part of the native-RP speech community and for whom construct-RP is a facet of culture which tends to exclude them. To be sure, they could learn to speak in construct RP, (and some do), but then so could women learn to be more masculine in their approach, and black people learn to make racist jokes at their own expense, in order to be accepted and to “get on”.

The critical pedagogy cudgel is also taken up on behalf of the learners who are presented with this pedagogic and testing discourse, operating perhaps with the implication that what they are listening to is representative of English pronunciation.

To use texts whose purpose is to prepare learners for examinations might seem to be an unusual choice for an essay one of whose two principal perspectives is CDA, (the other is of course Testing Theory). That is because the relatively new (Wodak, 2001 p5) discipline of CDA and has been associated with the critical analysis of political discourse, (Fairclough, 2001, for example), and media discourse, (van Dijk, 1986).

Widdowson (1995, 169) suggests that those doing CDA select their texts in order to prove an existing hypothesis. His view has much to recommend it. For example, van Dijk in a very instructive essay (van Dijk 2001) nontheless chooses a neo-liberal internet petition statement on the iniquity of US anti-trust laws to demonstrate his approach to CDA. I can agree with his approach but feel that his subject resembles a fish in a barrel.

The attraction of a critical analysis of exam oriented ESOL texts is that, unlike the authors of van Dijk’s petition, or New Labour’s collaboration with the Daily Mail (Lister, 2001), the producers of our texts are unlikely to have any overt or even conscious institutional bias. Indeed, the IELTS website states that it is the organization’s intention that “IELTS remains fair and unbiased regardless of nationality, background, gender or lifestyle, and that IELTS encourages, reflects and respects international diversity.” (IELTS, 2008).

The Texts


[This section edited out. Email me if you want a shufty and an explanation].


O’Connell (2002a) is a commercial text designed to prepare candidates for the IELTS examinations. Efforts have been made, it would appear, to imitate the format of the real examinations in the book: “[the IELTS listening] recordings may include a range of accents, including British, American or Australian English. For this reason, different accents are used on the tapes accompanying this course”. (O’Connell 2002a, p6).

There are a total of twenty sound files with this text (O’Connell 2002b). I shall here conduct a brief survey of the accents used in the first ten:

1 A male voice speaks in classic RP to give instructions. (He performs the same function in all of the following files). There is then a conversation between two students, where one interviews the other about eating habits. The interviewer has the voice of a young woman RP speaker. Her male interviewee is also young, but speaks with Estuary English, a form similar to RP but featuring some aspects once associated with cockney, such as glottalization of the central consonants in “lettuce”, for example.

2 A male RP speaker then introduces a female who speaks Standard American.

3 Two voices, one male and one female, both RP.

4 A male speaker of Standard Australian.

5 A male and female voice, he has RP, she has a Liverpool accent.

6 A female speaker of Standard Australian.

7 A male RP speaker and female with a Welsh accent.

8 A male and a female speaker, both Standard Australian.

9 A female RP speaker and the Estuary speaker from file 1 reappears.

10 A female speaker of Standard American.

We can see that IELTS has done more to be inclusive than the wall-to-wall RP of City & Guilds. There are a total of 27 voices heard, some of them, like the ubiquitous instruction giver, are heard more than once. If you include the instruction giver’s ten appearances, we hear a total of 17 RP speakers, about 65 %. British regions make two appearances. There are also two manifestations of Estuary English, two of Standard American, and four of Standard Australian. So RP is not the only voice, but it most certainly predominates.

The texts: a critical analysis

My analysis of these texts, with pronunciation of the words “bath” and “grass” as a touchstone, is extremely simplistic. Expert speakers of English versed in the culture of the United Kingdom will understand that issues surrounding the pronunciation of those words in relation to sociolinguistic authority and power are complicated: for example, those in linguistic authority will comprise many individuals who take a /bæθ/, but they will be in a minority. Likewise, those who lack power will include those who take a /bA:θ/, but they will be in minority. I should explain that by “those in linguistic authority” I mean those whose words are given weight in English-speaking culture in the UK: broadcasters, academics, politicians and senior business figures, for example.

My theoretical scaffolding for examining the use of accents is drawn, like Fairclough’s (1992b, p49) on Gramsci’s (1971) model of hegemony, whereby a dominant group or social class takes control in a state of “unstable equilibrium” (Gramsci, 1971) of social practice, unstable because it is a scene of struggle. Fairclough admits (1992b p50) that many may consider it surprising to see “sociolinguistic order as one terrain of hegemony”, and calls in aid Foucault (1984) who sees discourse itself as the “the thing for which and by which there is struggle”.

The production of the texts used in this essay is, (per Foucault 1984, p110), “controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers, and its dangers”. As an examination item writer for the City & Guilds IESOL and ISESOL examinations (admittedly a very new one) I have some knowledge of the production of these texts. I can say that all item writers are bound by a proscribed list of topics essentially the same as those covered by the acronym PARSNIP which Grey (2002) refers to as a publishers rubric for ELT materials, namely no: Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, or Pork.

With regard to the accents used in listening materials, I can say that item writers must give instructions on the production of texts to the actors who will speak the listening materials. At my item writer’s training, nothing was said regarding accents. We were not told whether or not directions regarding accent was part of our role as item writers. I have not yet tried to affect an actor’s choice of accent in the materials, and do not know the procedures the actors use: do they have a director? Or do they decide themselves what accents to employ? How would they react if they were directed to deliver a text in a Tyneside accent, for example? These are questions which could be regarded as a site of struggle, and it is one I hope to visit in the near future: unfortunately I can give no report from there at the time of writing this paper.

In her critique of popular commercial EFL texts used in Australia, Wajnryb suggests that they offer a “very, very thin slice of a clean, affluent social environment”. It is suggested that in presenting English as it is spoken by a very small number of people, our texts, the City & Guilds in particular are doing the same thing, presenting English as spoken on the set of a costume drama, (where other accents will be heard, to be sure, but never from the mouths of the central characters), or from the studios of the BBC.

Any teacher who has worked with EAP students who have achieved or are working for the magical IELTS 6.5 score at a UK University will have heard them lament that they can understand their lecturers but not people who they meet in shops or pubs. Indeed, these learners will often express some bewilderment: they were aware from the cultural constructs of cinema and television that people in the UK spoke with accents other than RP, but not the 97% of Trudgill’s (2002) estimate. Nothing in their IELTS training prepared them for the rich accents of Glasgow, for example, (not the dialect which Glaswegians speak amongst themselves: when discoursing with non-Glaswegians, whether from Newcastle or Beijing, they will adopt a Glaswegian accented form of Standard English).

I now return to the distinction between construct and speech-community RP explored by Fabricius (2002). She argues (p120) that it is a “largely mythical object”. Native- (or Speech Community-) RP must be distinguished from “Construct RP” which is the accent English dictionaries’ pronunciation schemes are written in. The two can be distinguished because linguists will talk of what is “permitted” in RP, and they must be referring to construct RP because it would be nonsense to speak of permission in connexion with a Speech Community code. However, the Construct cannot be successfully separated out from the Speech Community, which is historically the accent of those in authority in Britain, arising as it did in the fee paying schools of the 19th Century, becoming a badge of education amongst those who went on to attend the older universities, and thence to assume positions of power in Britain and its empire, in the established church, politics, the military and civil service.

These historical associations mean that, for a native English speaker in the UK, (and in other inner circle countries, per Kachru (1985) construct RP cannot be separated from its speech community non-identical twin and become a neutral, value free code, despite its role in dictionaries and teachers’ English phonology courses. Gupta (2005, 25) notes that some of her research subjects from northern England “were noticeably hostile to /g:s/, describing it as ‘comical’, ‘snobbish’, ‘pompous’ or even ‘for morons’”.

The Testing Theory Perspective

In considering the problem of accents in examination materials, there is a nagging voice that says, whatever the wider claims of critical pedagogy, the use of RP as a standard is a compromise made in favour of learners, for whom passing an IELTS or City & Guilds examination can be a life changing event, bringing great economic and societal benefits to them. In other words, whilst one might see the classroom and even the examination room as a scene of struggle, learners and exam candidates will not appreciate trying to improve their family’s living standards on an ideological battlefield.

Furthermore, the nagging voice continues, it simply is not reasonable to teach students using the hundreds (or thousands?) of native speaker English accents, (let alone the almost infinite variety of non-native ones), so why not teach and test them with a limited range, with RP predominating? After all, it has served English language teaching well for a century or more. Presenting a Beijing based learner with an examination text in, say, a Manchester accent when he or she has been receiving instruction from a Chinese L1 teacher and RP listening materials is simply unfair.

We should be aware that IELTS is a very high stakes test, used for the purposes of University admission and to “provide language ability evidence for the purpose of immigration”, (Chalhoub-Deville, 2000). City & Guilds IESOL is a little less prestigious, perhaps, but as its information leaflet (City & Guilds 2006), which has on its cover the legend “SET YOUR WORLD IN MOTION” over a representation of the Earth, proclaims: “City & Guilds International English Qualifications (IEQs) are a comprehensive range of quality English language awards designed for those who need a passport to work, study and travel around the globe. They are recognised by employers, educational institutions and professional bodies worldwide”.

Given the high stakes then, let us consider whether the exclusive use of RP in City & Guilds listening, and its predominance in IELTS, would affect the test validity in anyway. Are candidates liable to receive an advantage or disadvantage, or does the pronunciation leave the test validity unaffected?

There has been little research into the effect of accent on intelligibility of utterances as it relates to test validity, and none at all, it seems, with regard to RP. The research that has been done is inconclusive.

Major et al (2002) found contradictory results when testing a hypothesis that non native speakers would perform better in listening tests when the speaker was a member of their own speech community. This study was conducted as part of a continuing process of development of TOEFL, (Test of English as a Foreign Language), which performs for the United States a task similar to IELTS in the UK and Australasia. They found that native Spanish speakers gained an advantage when the listening test was spoken in English by a native Spanish speaker; but Chinese students with a native Chinese speaker appeared to be at a disadvantage.

In a subsequent study (Major et al, 2005, p63), they found that ESL students experienced difficulty with ethnic and international dialects, but not with Standard American or American regional dialects. For Major et al, (2005) the significance of accents and dialects in testing is in relation to authenticity, (per Bachman, 1996). That is, with TOEFL acting as a gatekeeper to American Universities, it should test to ascertain if candidates are able to benefit and contribute to a course of study. They will encounter accents which diverge from Standard American. Thus, students who are taught and tested in Standard American will find that the tests are inauthentic, and they will be at a disadvantage in the real world of University education.

We can say the same for IELTS and City & Guilds IESOL: they should prepare candidates for the situation which they will encounter if the pass the examination. With IELTS in particular, this could be admission to a UK or Australasian University, where they will encounter RP, to be sure, but they will encounter also a vast range of other native and non-native accents and dialects.

City & Guilds IESOL is less associated with University entrance. In the Information Leaflet, (City & Guilds 2006), we are shown a photograph of an Italian personnel administrator for Kraft, Anna Lobascio, who says that her company is multinational, operating in 68 countries, “so writing, speaking and understanding English is very important.” Again, Anna is likely to encounter RP but surely her overwhelming contacts will be with other non-native speakers, and with Standard American.

Bachman (1996) also refers to test “fairness”. If a test is to be fair it should be testing what has been taught. With regard to listening, a learner will probably have been taught by non-native speakers, (Medgyes, 1992), and by non-RP speaking native speakers. All of them will have used listening materials in which it is possible that RP will have predominated. Is it fair that they should be tested in an RP environment?

Or will it have any significant effect at all if the listening test is, or is not in RP? Is the candidate who has been taught to say and hear /b{T/ going to be quantifiably disadvantaged by a listening test where the speaker says /bA:T/? Or vice versa? Yang, (2007) notes that polysyllabic utterances are not rendered unintelligible by phoneme change of the nucleus, (because the adjoining syllable will clarify meaning).

It is clear that this is an area which would benefit from further research. Such research should consist of analysis of learners’ comprehension of spoken texts in a variety of accents and dialects, both native and non-native. But this should be cross referenced with data about the learner’s experience with listening to date: who have their teachers been? Were they native or non native? If native, did they have RP or not? What other listening materials has the learner used? Does s/he listen to the BBC? Can s/he distinguish different native accents? Does s/he ascribe value to any particular accent? It would be my hypothesis for such research that over-use of mars a test’s validity because that renders it inauthentic and unfair.


Received Pronunciation as a concept is a difficult beast to pin down. As Fabricius (2005) puts it “the accent both still exists (in a phonetic and phonological sense) and does not still exist (in a social sense)”. But for an accent that “does not still exist” it is hard to escape from. Spoken (per Trudgill, 2002) by 3% of the inhabitants of the UK, it has somehow managed to occupy 100% of the content of City & Guilds IESOL listening sample papers, and almost 70% of an IELTS course. In critical terms, with regard to pedagogy and discourse analysis, that cannot be supported. It is unjust to the millions who seek to learn English to advance their economic fortunes, and to the many thousands who teach them.

It is worse than unjust, it is simply bad teaching. My hypothesis that overuse of the accent renders tests unfair and inauthentic has not yet been tested, but if research bore out that hypothesis, surely we should put this ubiquitous yet non-existent phenomenon behind us, and teach, and test, listening for use in real life, genuinely communicative situations.

“I think in listening to English, the problem of accent is only temporary. We can overcome it quickly." These are the words of a learner quoted in Goh, (1999, p30). One hopes that she is right.


This list includes not only those references referred to in the text, but also background reading which was helpful in shaping my thought for this essay, but which could not be referred to directly for reasons of space

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