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Pronunciation: The Right Track

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Jamie Evans

on 22 July 2014

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Transcript of Pronunciation: The Right Track

Pronunciation: The Right Track
with Jamie Evans
Welcome. This Prezi is not about going too much into methodology or research; no long words will be used.

This Prezi will explore how, when and why we should do pronunciation work in the classroom, and more importantly, how to get students to focus on their individual pronunciation weaknesses, so they can produce comprehensible utterances when speaking English, as well as improve their listening skills.
Pronunciation: Poor relation?
Pronunciation is often neglected or given little attention, covered only as part of a coursebook activity in a unit or as an isolated activity, such as minimal pairs. There are many reasons why it is not given its rightful place at the heart of language learning, including: a lack of teacher knowledge, training and or confidence. In schools where course books are used, there is often enough less time or scope for exploring pronunciation beyond a bit of drilling, especially if the teacher is required to get the students through a whole unit before the lesson ends.

There is also the ongoing debate about what aspects of pronunciation are important to focus on, as RP (received pronunciation) fails to take into account that English is a Global language, coined
"Global English"
, with wide variations in pronunciation throughout the English speaking world. (see Jennifer Jenkins "Global English")

There are students who strive to achieve a "native" accent, usually British RP or American, which is sometimes encouraged by their teachers, who see a native speaker accent as a benchmark of student language excellence. Equally, some students do not see pronunciation as being important, as long as they are understood. For them, focusing on segmental and supra-segmental features of pronunciation is a waste of valuable learning time.

So, the question is: should the aim of pronunciation be about being understood, or should it be about sounding like as close to a native speaker as possible?
Why Focus on Pronunciation?
There are many reasons why pronunciation should be a regular and meaningful part of student learning, including:

developing listening skills
improving comprehensibility and fluency
dealing with problem sounds that cause confusion or incomprehensible utterances
understanding how word sounds change when part of a phrase
increasing student awareness of different aspects of pronunciation
reduce student unease at hearing themselves using different speech patterns and sounds from L1
raising student confidence
showing how pronunciation carries meaning, e.g. attitude
providing skills for dealing with accents
Prosody - Rhythm & Melody
When using target language in speaking activities, students tend to focus on using vocabulary and grammar correctly, rather than how the delivery of their utterances are received by the listener, something native speakers also often do when giving presentations, making speeches, etc, which is why they can be extremely dull to listen to.

A lack of awareness or skills means that although the language used is comprehensible, the lack of appropriate rhythm and melody can result in the listener failing to grasp the actual meaning of what's being said. This can lead to misunderstandings, which is why pronunciation work on prosody is an essential aspect of student learning.

Examples of typical problems:

incorrect emphasis, conveying the wrong meaning
thought groups not separated by changes in rhythm and or melody
breaks in the middle of a phrase where there should not be one

Such problems make it harder for the listener to follow the speaker's train of thought, which inevitably results in the listener disengaging from the conversation.

All languages have ways of highlighting important information when speaking. English is a particularly difficult language in terms of being able to achieve good melody. However, without melodic cues, efficient communication becomes less likely.
Children learn to recognise the rhythm of their L1 by the age of 1. Consequently, they will go on to unconsciously apply it to any other language they learn in the future. This why it is important to focus on this aspect of pronunciation as much as possible, giving it the time it both needs and deserves in the classroom.
Rhythm -Syllables
A Syllable

is the smallest unit of English rhythm
has a vowel sound at centre
the number of syllables in a word is usually obvious to native speaker
different languages have different phonological rules
a lack of awareness and skills leads to difficulty for speaker and listener
some languages do not have consonant clusters without a vowel, e.g.
ort (typical Spanish student error)
listening comprehension increases when students notice rhythmic effect on the number of syllables, including small words like articles, affixes, auxiliaries, etc. (e.g. this, this is / late, later)
students who cannot hear the difference in rhythm often leave out small words when speaking or in writing, showing they are not hearing them
teacher must teach students how to identify syllables
teacher must draw attention to rhythmic differences of words, e.g. start / started, ease / easy
students must do regular word stress activities to recognise words need syllable stress for listener comprehension
teacher must recognise that incorrect stress alone may not result in loss of meaning, but combined with grammar errors and poor pronunciation of word / phrase, can lead to a serious failure in communication

Listening & Speaking
Research shows that students who learn about prosody are often more able to grasp what is being said by English speakers, e.g. on TV, the radio, in face-to-face conversations, etc.

"Native speakers talk too fast" is often due to students not being able to process important grammatical signals or contracted speech. Coupled with this is the fact they cannot keep up in an ongoing conversation, stemming from having no understanding or awareness of intonational cues.

Another problem students have is picking up on emphasis, which highlights the important words. Add pitch contrast between different pieces of information, and there is a good chance the student will fail to comprehend what the speaker is either saying or actually means.

prosody alters the sound of individual words when placed into phrases, sometimes making them unrecognisable. Therefore, students may know a word when it's written down but fail to understand it when said in an utterance. So get students looking at how native speakers use rhythm and melody to organise thoughts, highlight important words, and guide the listener.
Content &
Structure Words
In English, we emphasise important words,
content words
, which carry the message. They include:

nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, numbers, etc.

Structure words
are not usually the focus of a phrase. They include:

pronouns, prepositions, articles, "to be" verbs, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, etc.

It is very difficult for students to hear the structure words, especially when weakened and contracted, e.g. she's a...., in rapid speech. Therefore, students should focus on listening for and being able to emphasise content words to be able to understand and be understood.

Focusing on reducing structure words is challenging, as the teacher is asking students to focus on structure words that need to be weakened to almost inaudible. The solution is to focus on content word to show the contrast between the two word groups. Once students have a good command of sentence rhythm and melody, they are often more willing to explore why and when words are emphasised or weakened.
Contractions& Reductions
Students can be unwilling to work on improving their ability to use contractions or weaken sounds, as they believe that it is "bad pronunciation". It is, however, vital that teachers do a lot of work in this area of pronunciation, as without it, the prosodic aspects cannot be developed. Furthermore, it is the only way for students to gain greater fluency, make it easier for students to be understood by native speakers, as well as understand them.

Activities: poetry, chants, questions, etc.
Contractions &
Reduced Sounds Activity
Get the students to say the sentences below:

1. How do you spell your name again?
2. Where did you go out last night?
3. What do you get up to in your free time?
4. Why do you want to take the FCE exam?
5. Could you tell me what time the train leaves from this station?
6. Do you want another cup of tea before you go?
7. He's one of the coolest guy on campus, isn't he?
8. She's the only doctor I'd go to in this town.
9. I think there's an ATM around here, but I'd better ask someone.
10. If you think I'm going to do that, you're off your head.

Get the students to read the sentences pronouncing each word with equal emphasis. Then get them to practise them with reduced pronunciation, i.e. weakening the sounds. Get them to pay special attention to the rhythm and how content words become more audible and structure words become less audible.
Peak Syllable
English language students tend not to focus on syllable stress when learning new vocabulary. It's the teacher's job to draw their attention to it, for two very important reasons:

1. Each multi-syllable word has a stress syllable.

2. Each thought unit has a key word which is stressed, and if it is a multi-syllable word, the stress syllable is the most important syllable in the utterance.

We went to
don last week and had an abso
derful time.

Note: the content words are emphasised, as are stress syllables, but it's the
in wonderful that is the peak syllable, as it conveys the speaker's key message.
Native speakers use a variety of signals to stress key words, including:

contrastive vowel length
contrastive vowel clarity
pitch change

Although the above occur simultaneously, teachers should focus on them individually, building up to using all of them together.

Note: Don't assume that loudness is the essential component when teaching stress!
The vowel at the centre of a syllable may vary in length for a variety of reasons, what consonant follows it for example. However, stress is the main cause for the lengthening or shortening of a vowel in an English word.

Some languages do not have lengthening of syllables, as this changes the meaning of words, Japanese being a good example.

Students might find it hard associating stress with the length of a vowel sound, so it's worth spending a lot of time looking at how to lengthen syllables and listen for the contrastive lengthening.
It is important to be aware that stressed vowels are clearly distinguished from each other, whereas most unstressed vowels are weakened to schwa /ə/.

Schwa acts as a contrast to highlight stressed vowels, which must be uttered clearly.

Looking at this aspect of pronunciation goes a long way to improving both students' pronunciation and listening skills. When getting students to develop this skill, do not focus on all incorrect sounds, as this will raise the students' anxiety and frustration levels. Rather, look at mastering crucial syllables - the others can be relatively "muddy".

Vowel clarity is worth the time, as it gives students the skills to focus on the crucial words, correct sounds in the peak syllable, thereby making a quick fix so the conversation can proceed. As with all things pronunciation related, if the students can produce it, they stand a much better chance of recognising contrastive clarity when listening to native speakers.
English relies on intonation to show the difference between old and new information. The stressed syllable of the focus word is identified by a change in pitch.


Have you had a good
? (pitch goes up)
I had a
ible day. (pitch goes up then down)

Each person has their own pitch baseline, which varies (up or down) to draw attention to the focus word. Also note that the pitch syllable does not necessarily always rise.

Pitch changes are the signal of new information or special importance. The stressed syllable is lengthened to make the pitch change easier to hear. Regular practise needs to be done to make students able to identify and signal key information.
Vowel Sounds
Peak Syllable
vowel sounds in the peak syllable must be extra long and clear, as they identify the important word in a thought unit
other parts of the thought group can be muffled
pronunciation of vowel sound needs to be accurate to achieve necessary clarity, which is often very hard for students to do
figuring out how to pronounce a written word can be very difficult, as English words are often spelled differently to how they are said
getting students making the rights vowel sounds is an essential early skill needing a lot of time and attention, as they often want to practise target language in their own time, e.g. reading aloud or in conversations


vowel sounds are not formed by touching any point inside mouth, whereas consonants are
L2 learning involves adding new sounds not found in L1
incorrect guessing or poor teacher pronunciation can lead to fossilisation of mispronunciation
Non-Roman Script students have to learn alphabet characters through kinaesthetic and visual parts of the brain by repeating drawing letters, whereas L1 Roman script students only have to learn sounds in sequence. (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.)
L1 Rhythm Interference
L2 students tend to rely on L1 rhythm system, which interferes with acquiring literacy in L2
listening to a new language within the constraints of L1 rhythm can be hindered by mistiming
English Spelling
English spelling is complicated, even when students have a grasp of English rhythm
Native English speakers can also have difficulty with English spelling
do not neglect the alphabet, as it is important that students know the name of each letter in case it needs to be written down when not understood in spoken form
Vowel Sounds
Vowel Letters
students must learn how to say vowel sounds accurately
students must learn how to decode letter spellings
students must learn the difference between vowels with and without glide-offs (click on link below for more info), as well as the effect of stress
students should start by learning how to pronounce vowel letters of the alphabet, especially hard for Roman script L1 learners where the pronunciation is different
long and short vowel sounds can change when words are said in phrases rather than in isolation, as in a dictionary
divide vowel sounds into two types: alphabet vowel sounds and relative vowel sounds
show how the sounds are made using lips, mouth, etc, using diagrams, demonstrating, getting students to hold up a mirror, etc.
teach vowel rules: i). 2 vowels together = first is sounded, secondly is silent ii). last letter silent -e = vowel before it is sounded
teachers must not focus on monosyllabic words with low level students, but multi-syllabic words too, to develop the skill to hear and utter correctly

Rules for Low-Level Learners

Two Vowel Rule:
two vowels = first vowel sounds like alphabet name, e.g. cake, and second vowel is silent, e.g. soap

One Vowel Rule:
one vowel in short word = sounds like relative of alphabet vowel, e.g. had (note: no off-glide)

Rules of Higher Level Learners

When they have grasped how to count, pronounce and stress syllables, they can adapt the two vowel rules to help work out multi-syllabic words.

One Vowel Rule:
one vowel in stressed syllable = normally sounds like relative vowel, not alphabet sound, e.g. apple, relative, integrity, interesting, redundant, etc.

Two Vowel Rule:
two vowel letters in stressed syllable, first sounds like alphabet sound while second is silent, e.g. available, approach, recruit, etc.

Vowel glides link: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~krussll/138/sec3/glides.htm

intelligibility depends on how clear consonant sounds are, e.g. "What is it?" may be heard as "Where is it?" if students have not learned to recognise the final stop in "what"
focus on core consonant sounds
focus on other consonant sounds if time allows
focus on consonant sounds at end of word, as they give crucial grammar clues, usually spelled with s or d, e.g. books, laid, passed, etc.
as many languages do not have consonants at end of words, they present a challenge of students, who may not notice them or their significance
teach students to recognise
contrast by doing lots of practise using pairs, so they can feel tongue position (do with eyes closed to avoid distractions)

(stop) and

= formed by stopping air flow in mouth] = /b/, /p/, /d/, /g/, /k/
= sound continues as long as wanted]

all non-stop sounds are either continuants or a combined stop and continuant, e.g. beginning and ending sounds in

simple drilling of consonant or vowel minimal pairs does not achieve much in terms of students mastering the English sound system
certain sounds must be addressed first as a matter of urgency
establish a basic understanding of English rhythm and melody at the earliest opportunity. Without this, teaching individual sounds is inefficient, as students will practise English sounds with L1 rhythm
getting the L2 rhythm makes pronouncing L2 sounds easier
incorporate pronunciation into lessons as an integral part of learning rather than simple drilling or fun class activity
Prezi content research source: Gilbert, J.B. 2008.
Teaching Pronunciation: Using the Prosody Pyramid
. Cambridge University Press.
The Right Track
Original photo by Jamie Evans 2010
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