Experimenting with ‘the Inner Workbench’

In Meaningful Action, Underhill explains his concept of the Inner Workbench: the place in our mind where we hear and manipulate inner speech. Putting learners in touch with this place as they convert thoughts to speech, getting them to feel and describe what happens there, may create a memorable experience of speaking for them and a deeper understanding of what learners do in order to speak.

I wrote the instructions on the board:img20161103210552

It’s a simple little activity as you can see. We went through the steps with 5 phrases for agreeing / disagreeing in conversation, I tried to listen for changes in their pronunciation – not easy. I recorded it,listened back and had some questions:

  1. How much time should pass in between each stage? I think it’s easy to move on too quickly.
  2. What can we do after step 4? I wasn’t really sure what to do in class. I did some correction of really noticeable mistakes that were affecting clarity, but I think the skilled workbench manipulator could get more deeply inside the student head to find out what’s going on.
  3. How many models should the teacher provide?
  4. When is working with Inner Ear most helpful – remedially or at the presentation stage?

I got students to write some comments about the activity. They all said it was (quite) effective, useful or interesting. Some either said it helped or they would want to do it again.

The most interesting comments for me where these:

This activity is quite helpful. We might now the accent, pitch and stress to speak. But we have to focus more on it (so this confirms my answer to point 1 above, I think)

Many people do that (not sure if she’s talking about the activity or just generally in life people listen to their inner ear. I’m guessing the latter) but they don’t realize how to.

Definitely an intriguing activity and useful idea to add to the toolkit – the Inner Workbench.

Any suggested answers to the questions above?

Underhill, A. (2013). The Inner Workbench: learning itself as a meaningful activity. In Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching. CUP

6 thoughts on “Experimenting with ‘the Inner Workbench’

  1. I’ve always felt we don’t allow learners enough time to come to terms with new pronunciation. The concept of the inner bench is indeed intriguing. I wasn’t aware of ‘Meaningful Action. Will look it up. Thanks.

    1. Quite – the idea that it’s better to study one thing (even something small) thoroughly rather than glossing over a range of items is a major conflict for me in the classroom. I’ve come to favour the latter option over recent months, but certainly, this activity has given me food for thought for the other option. Underhill references two articles by Tomlinson (one of which is available here: https://www2.njcu.edu/cill/vol6/tomlinson.html) in his chapter on the Inner Workbench. Cheers for commenting.

    1. Nice one, Matthew. Yeah I was lucky to be back in the UK over the summer and snapped the book right up. Hopefully won’t be waiting too long for some more Inner Workbench data!

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