There are many teachers who are overwhelmed by teaching grammar, uncomfortable with open-ended speaking activities, or struggle to properly support their students when reading (if that’s you, click here!). Nevertheless, pronunciation proves to be one of the most difficult and most important aspects of English for both teachers and students to overcome.
Cough, rough, and through or watched, needed, and picked are all perfect examples of the unpredictability of English pronunciation. And we haven’t even thrown in dialects and accents yet!
There are many factors involved in pronunciation, aside from dialects and accents. Individual vowel sounds, intonation, and setting goals are all very difficult areas to navigate. So, how do you choose what to focus on in your ESL class?
It, obviously, varies from classroom to classroom, student to student, and teacher to teacher, but the best question I’ve ever asked myself when teaching pronunciation is, “what is most likely to hinder a speaker’s communication?”
The answer to that question is, almost always, focused on intonation and rhythm. If an ELL puts the emphasis within a sentence on the wrong word, it can disrupt communication entirely. Take the ever popular phrase, often used to show the importance of punctuation, for example: Let’s eat, grandma! v. Let’s eat grandma! With the emphasis on ‘eat,’ the hearer can understand that the speaker is talking to grandma. However, with the emphasis on ‘grandma’, the hearer may believe that she is the object of the verb ‘eat.’
Intonation is very important, but it’s a vague subject to cover. The rhythm of English is found within paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and individual words. Today we’ll be focusing on the intonation and rhythm of thought groups, which are similar to phrases. How can your students improve their pronunciation of thought groups? The answer is simple: define, teach, and provide opportunities for your students to practice their use of common signals within their speech.
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What are Thought Groups?
In the most simple terms, thought groups occur when you break down a long sentence with a short pause for easier listening. They’re often grammatically accompanied by commas, though not always. To identify a thought group, simply listen for the speaker to pause before and after them, but not within. Look at the example below.
Sometimes / when I go to bed / I like to read beforehand. / This allows my brain to calm down / and prepare itself for sleep. / It also helps me because I always overthink before I go to bed / and I stress about the details of the next day. /
Oftentimes, thought groups will contain a focus word that has more emphasis than the other words within the phrase. This allows the listener to identify the most important information that is being communicated.
Thought groups also have their own intonation contours. The rhythm within a thought group is unique. There is often a change in pitch at the end of the thought group (often falling), and a lengthened last syllable. Try it out with the sentence below.
“The teacher said, / “That student is really smart!”
Teaching Your Students
The best way to teach your students about thought groups and to improve their pronunciation is to make them aware of common signals within English. Let them know that a thought group should have a pause before and after it, should contain a focus word with more emphasis, should have a change in pitch at the end, and should have a lengthened last syllable. If your students are aware of these common signals, they can move on to identifying them and using them in their own speech.
Aside from the signals mentioned above, saying something more quickly or slowly can signal different things to a listener. Make your students aware of these patterns. For example, lengthening a word can signal that that information is important or new (I need you to set aside the blue paper…). Lengthening blue shows that there is more than likely different colored paper, but the speaker specifically needs the blue. It's important information.
Likewise, saying a phrase more quickly will let the listener know that the information is old, secondary, or not important (I need you to set aside the blue paper on the desk). By saying "I need you to set aside the blue paper" quickly and lengthening the last phrase, "on the desk," the listener is told that the last bit of information is more important than the first.
After introducing your students to these road signs, you can begin to have them practice listening for the road signs. Give them opportunities to pay attention to audio clips, video clips, or your own speech.
Learning often takes an information-identification-incorporation format. Students will learn information, identify it in other’s speech, writing, etc. and then incorporate it into their own. Check out my activity suggestions below!
Mark My Words
Variation 1: Play your students an audio or video clip. I recommend TedTalks! The pronunciation and speech patterns of their speakers are highly intentional, but diverse. They also have generated transcripts for each and every talk, which is perfect for this activity!
Have your students listen to the audio or video once. Then, give them a printed-out version of the transcript. While they listen to the audio or video for the second time, your students will mark out the thought groups with a line for every pause. Go over the transcript as a class, and review any areas of the audio that were confusing.
Variation 2: This activity is similar to the one above, though just a bit harder. This time, give the students a transcript of the audio or video first. Have them work with a partner to mark down where they think the pauses should go. They can practice speaking it to make sure that it flows nicely.
Then, listen to the audio or video together. Explain that different individuals may break down the same speech into different thought groups. Just because their pauses were different from the original doesn’t mean that they were wrong!
Practice Your Pause
The most basic way to practice incorporating something after identifying it is to simply copy, and this circumstance is no different. Have your students practice pausing their speech before and after thought groups by copying the speech patterns of your audio or video clip.
They can work with partners or small groups. I recommend having them rotate partners so that they can get different opinions and more help from their peers. If you jump into the rotation, you can monitor and make mental notes of the most difficult sections for your students to review later.
I posed a question at the beginning of this article. The questions was this: “What is most likely to hinder a speaker’s communication?” It turns out that the best way to make sure that you’ve achieved your objective of effective communication, is to make sure you understand one another.
I’ve created a worksheet, which you can download in our free resource library, for your students to complete with one another. Student A will have to read a statement and then ask a question to student B to ensure that student B understood correctly. If the first student pauses in the wrong spot, the second student will not understand correctly.
Take a look at the worksheet and let me know if you use it in your classroom!
Pronunciaton. Think of it as a pyramid. In order to get to the top, you have to first climb over the widest part. In this case that is a thought group. Once your students are familiar with the intonation and rhythm of the English thought group, they can progress to tackling focus words, stress, and individual letter sounds.
What's the Next Step in Teaching Pronunciation? Focus Words.
Check out An ESL Teacher's Guide to Pronunciation and Focus Words Now!
Remember that learning often happens in an information-identification-incorporation pattern in every aspect of language, not just pronunciation! Make sure your students understand thought groups and can identify them in others' speech before practicing incorporating them into their own speech.
I Want to Hear From You!
It can be really hard for students to put themselves out there when practicing pronunciation. What are some ways that you get your students to step outside of their comfort zone in order to learn and grow?
Is pronunciation tough for you as a teacher? What are some aspects that are most difficult, and how can I help you?