Pronunciation is so multi-faceted and unique to each student, which makes it really difficult to teach! It’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially if your class is multicultural (students with similar language backgrounds will usually have similar pronunciation struggles).
The Prosody Pyramid is a great method for approaching pronunciation in a non-threatening, sequential way. The base of the pyramid is formed by thought groups, which are simply chunks of spoken language found within long sentences. They are book-ended by short pauses. Teaching your students how to identify these pauses and other attributes of thought groups into their speech can help them to incorporate them into their daily language and communicate more clearly.
Once your students have learned about and begun to incorporate thought groups into their speech, you can begin to improve pronunciation even more by taking it a step further and moving up the pyramid. Every thought group has a focus word within it. Native speakers naturally pause in between thought groups and they know how to emphasize and pronounce focus words to communicate effectively.
Today I want to focus on these words (pun intended), and I want to talk more about how native speakers unintentionally use them. Below you’ll learn more about what focus words are, how they’re pronounced, how to teach your students about them, and a few fun activities to help your students practice identifying them.
What is a Focus Word?
A focus word is simply the most important word within a thought group. The most important word within a sentence will change depending on the context that the statement is made in and who is speaking.
A simple statement, such as “I love red bell peppers” can have 5 different focus words. If I want to stress that I love the red bell peppers as compared to you or someone else loving them, then “I” will be the focus word. If I want to stress that I love them, not just like them, then “love” will be the focus word. I think you can see where I’m going here. The intent of the statement is integral to the selection of a focus word.
That being said, it really isn’t that difficult to identify the focus word in a statement, if you know what to look or listen for. Each and every thought group contains one, and you can figure out which word is being stressed by listening for the stress and by analyzing the intent of the message.
Listen: The first way to identify a focus word is through listening for pitch change. There will be a pitch change on the vowel of the stressed syllable of the focus word. The change in pitch can be either up or down.
Try saying the sentence, “I love red bell peppers,” and placing the stress on different words. I love red bell peppers. I love red bell peppers. I love red bell peppers. I love red bell peppers. I love red bell peppers.
Meaning: The second way that you can identify a focus word is through the meaning of the sentence and words. The focus word is usually, but not always, a content word. A content word is any nouns, main verbs, adverbs, adjectives, or question words. They are not pronouns, prepositions, articles, or conjunctions.
Knowing which words will most likely hold the most meaning, based on their definitions and connotations, can help you identify which word is the focus of the thought group. If you’re looking for the focus words within a conversation, it’s helpful to know that at the beginning of the conversation the focus word will usually be the last content word in the thought group.
Hey! I was just about to run to the store.
Hello, I’m looking for the closest Bookshop.
However, as the conversation continues, the focus will change because the speaker wants to draw attention to new information. After the focus is already established, details will become more important. It’s not necessary to continue to emphasize the original point.
There is an antique bookshop around the corner.
Take a look at the conversation below, and notice how the focus word shifts as the conversation progresses. While it begins with "keys" being the focus word, as the conversation continues "keys" becomes less important.
Person A: Have you seen my keys?
Person B: What keys?
Person A: The car keys. The ones for the Subaru.
Person B: No, I haven’t seen them.
Teaching Your Students
When creating this resource, I kept asking myself what information you would need in order to feel confident enough to teach your students about focus words. I decided to separate what focus words are from how to teach your students because you don’t necessarily need to tell your students everything about focus words when you’re teaching. However, it is helpful for you, as a teacher, to have a more complete knowledge of the subject.
If you’re teaching a beginner or intermediate-level class, I don’t recommend teaching all of the information above. Just give them the most important parts. Talk about how focus words are the most important words in a thought group and how they’re usually stressed with a change in pitch.
Focus words are really apparent when the individual(s) speaking are seeking clarification. Clarification-based conversations are a great place to start when trying to locate focus words and practice using them.
When teaching, it’s always helpful to have examples. While video clips can be engaging, it's sometimes hard to catch focus words in the midst of a fast interview, monologue, or conversation. Sometimes it's better to just say the sentences yourself.
As you say the sentences, speak more dramatically than you typically would, so that your students are able to really hear the change in pitch. As they get more practice hearing focus words and practicing them, bring it down to a normal rate and tone.
Another thing that can be helpful when teaching is to show your students how a focus word can be different within the same sentence or phrase. Take the, “I love red bell peppers,” sentence above, for example, and show them how a different focus word means a different focus for the sentence.
It’s important to teach ESL students that the way you say something can change the meaning or the tone of what you are saying. Vocabulary words and grammar are not the only important parts of successfully speaking and communicating in English.
Tap it Out: If your students are having a hard time identifying the focus words, have them tap or drum a sentence. Start out by simply saying a sentence, such as “I’m going to be late to work.” Then demonstrate how you want your students to tap out the sentence. For each syllable, tap the table. However, when the syllable is stressed, you’ll want to hit louder.
Another alternative to tapping out the sentence is to use a kazoo to “say” the sentence. Anything that will allow your students to hear the rhythm and the stress of the focus word will help them to take note of the intonation.
Worksheets: While I’m not usually a big fan of using a lot of worksheets, you can use a worksheet in so many different ways to practice identifying focus words. In fact, I’ve created a 3 part worksheet that you can use with your beginner-level students to help them identify focus words through listening and conversational context.
You can download this worksheet for free in our free resource library, just sign up for our newsletter below and receive access to the library. You'll need to prepare a few sentences for the first activity, but other than that there is no prep! Make sure your sentences are natural and flow well. There's nothing worse than "stiff" examples. Use language you would use in your daily life.
Teaching pronunciation doesn't have to be tedious and frustrating! Remember to take it slowly. The best way I've found for teaching pronunciation slowly is to begin with thought groups and then move on to focus words.
I Want to Hear From You!
When do you start to introduce pronunciation practice and how?
Which do you tend to focus on more in the classroom - individual letter sounds or overall rhthym?