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Teaching Ideas

January 25, 2003

Slipping Pronunciation into the Regular Class

Judy Gilbert


In an ideal English curriculum, all students would have a class dedicated to pronunciation/listening comprehension. They would get systematic instruction and adequate practice in the most useful concepts and they would learn how all of these concepts are interrelated through the rhythm and melody of the spoken language.

So much for the ideal. In real life, teachers typically have to squeeze pronunciation into their classwork by sheer cunning. And because time is so limited, rather severe decisions have to be made about what's really important, leaving everything else for some later time. This prioritizing is rather in the nature of Emergency Room triage, but I think it's the only practical approach.

What should the priority items be? For some years I've been asking this question of colleagues, including those familiar with teaching English in Japan. With the requirement that each topic must meet a standard of both crucial utility, and also teachability, following is my short list of four crucial concepts.

You will probably notice that some traditional topics are missing – like voicing distinctions, aspiration, elaborations on intonation (especially as based on emotional meaning), and many familiar sound problems. The reason is that these topics don't meet the criteria of highest priority. They can be taught later if there is (miraculously) more time available.

General Approach
If the concept has been taught before, you need only reinforce it in a few minutes during the main lesson. If the concept is new, you will have to devote 10 or 15 minutes to an initial presentation. This is not ideal, but it's realistic. The small lessons below include an introductory lesson on the concept, and then suggestions for reinforcement using regular texts. If you keep the teaching goals in mind, you should be able to find opportunities in whatever book you're using.

The Japanese language doesn't allow many final consonants and, unfortunately, final consonants are often crucial for grammatical meaning in English. So, on a triage basis, I would just focus on the ends of words and resolutely ignore other mistakes. Otherwise you will find yourself back into absorbing all available time with minimal pair drills. The really crucial sounds are /d/ or /t/, /s/ or /z/ and /l/. (But don't spend time on the voicing distinction – there isn't enough benefit for the cost in time at this point.)

Considering the time constraints, the most useful phonological concept about sound distinctions is the difference between stops and continuant. Students must learn to recognize the distinction because of its significance for listening comprehension. These sound cues go by very fast in normal spoken English – mostly because auxiliary verbs are generally said as contractions. If students can learn to focus on these particular final sounds, they are on the way to getting the general principle of hearing and using final consonants.

Examples of grammar cues:
Tense: He's gone. / He'd gone. I'll cut it./ I'd cut it. We care. / We cared.
Singular/Plural: book/books (or third person singular)
Question words: "Where? / What?

Presentation Technique
1. Say the word "bus"
2. Continue the final sound as you march back and forth, until you run out of air.
3. Ask students to try it with you.
4. Say the word "but," throwing your palm up in a Stop! gesture (don't release the air, but hold your tongue in the stop position). The air can't get out because it's stopped by the tongue pressed all around the toothridge.
5. Have students try alternating /s/ and /t/ sounds until they can feel the contrast.
6. Put this on the board:
English stops: P T K B D G
English continuants: All other sounds

(Affricates like the first sound in "chip" and "judge" are combinations of stops and continuants. /tS/ and /dZ/, but this is an unimportant detail unless some student asks)

In the Regular Class
Any time you see a word that begins with a vowel, look to see the final sound of the word before. Use this pair of words to practice linking. A major advantage of practicing sounds in a linking position is that difficult final sounds become initial sounds and are likely to be easier for students to say.

Ask students to practice final continuants by saying the word before and slowing down the link, as in "an n n egg" or "tell l l all the news", or "burger r r and fries". For stop sounds, the words must be said together, as in "Stopall that noise!" or "Thankyou."

Using the Class Text - Fifty Fifty (page 2)
This grammar exercise has a box showing What in the first column, is/are in the next column, and name?/names? in the last column so that students can practice putting together a question using these elements (e.g. What is his name?/What are their names?) Another box gives the same type of information for Where, do/does, you/they/he/she, and live? (e.g. Where do they live?/Where does he live?)

After some practice with these sentences, the pronunciation element can be inserted by asking them to do it again, but this time focus mostly on the stop/continuant difference between Where and What.

Japanese ESL learners tend to produce extra syllables when speaking English, so both listening comprehension and intelligibility are improved when students learn to notice the number of syllables.

All practice with syllable number should be accompanied by some physical gesture, such as tapping the table or moving a foot. This physical movement is far more effective than merely taking mental notice. Thus the difference between "can't and "cannot" is one tap versus two. Following is a mini-lesson to present the concept, and to slip it into a grammar lesson. The concept can be recycled during later lessons simply by asking "How many syllables are in that sentence?" and then giving students time to tap out the rhythm.

Presenting the Concept
How many syllables?
sandwich ______ chocolate/chokoleeto
send a witch ______ gift/gifuto

prayed -parade / can't-cannot / sport-support
blow-below / walked-walk it / closed- closet

1. rested roasted planted listed
2. landed winded faded raided
3. planned climbed closed walked

What do the verbs in group 1 have in common? ___________
Group 2? ___________
Group 3? ___________

What is the rule?

(Rule: All regular verbs which end in the letter "t" or "d" have an extra syllable in the past. All other verbs don't. Incidentally, this syllable number distinction is far more important than whether the final sound is /t/ or /d/).

In the Regular Class
Ask students to think of some (regular) verbs and ask class if the past tense adds a syllable. Or just look for any multisyllabic word in the text and have them tap out the syllables as they say it. All practice with rhythm should be accompanied by some physical gesture, such as tapping a pencil or counting on their fingers while they say the word. This physical movement is far more effective than merely taking mental notice.

Using the Class Text - Basic English Grammar (page 129)
This is a spelling exercise related to the Simple Past. It asks students to "Give the -ed form of each word" for a list of verbs, including stop, wait, study, rain, open, need, help, fold, listen. This task is used as a spelling bee or for written practice. After they have finished the task, add a pronunciation element by asking students to pick out which -ed endings add a syllable. Then they should practice saying all these past tense verbs out loud.

CONCEPT 3. WORD STRESS: Contrastive Length
The most significant difference between Japanese and English rhythm is that Japanese syllables are about equal in length but English syllables are not. A Japanese vowel may be extra long, but that is because it is a "double vowel". But in English, lengthening has several different functions, most importantly to show the difference between stressed and unstressed vowels.

For instance, notice the difference in length of the three vowels in the English word banana. Although they are all spelled with the same letter, the first and last vowels are pronounced in an unclear, shortened way. This is not due to careless or hurry. The reduction is systematic. The reason for this shortening is in order to make the middle vowel (the stressed one) more easily noticeable by contrastive lengthening. Compare the English word banana with the given name of the Japanese author, Yoshimoto Banana.

Since we all learn the rhythm of our native language from (or maybe even prior to) birth, it tends to be applied automatically to any new language. Therefore, because lengthening for stress is essential to clarity in English, it is important to give students a conscious awareness of the difference, and enough practice in this crucial element of the spoken language.

Demonstration technique: using a wide rubber band
Stretching wide, heavy rubber bands while practicing the lengthened vowels can provide students with a kinesthetic focusing tool to reinforce the contrast in duration. (Note: thin bands are apt to break and also do not give the full impression of the mental effort involved in making some syllables longer than others.)

Stress Rules
1. In every English word with more than one syllable, one syllable is stressed the most (primary stress).
2. Lengthening the stressed vowel. Stressed vowels are lengthened in English, much like lengthening for double vowels in Japanese, but for a different purpose:
(Japanese) biru-biiru - Kosaka-Koosaka
(English) banana - California - America - rented - atom - atomic - economy - economic - chocolate
3. Stressed vowels are long and clear. Unstressed vowels are often very short and unclear (schwa /@/).

Schwa is the most common vowel in the spoken language because so many unstressed vowels are pronounced as schwa. It is one of the most difficult differences between written and spoken English because there is no alphabet letter for it. While students need to learn to lengthen the stressed vowel, they do not need to be able to use the shortened schwa sound in their speech (which is difficult for many English learners). But they DO need practice hearing it because the Japanese language scrupulously maintains the integrity of vowel sounds, so the frequent use of schwa in English is a major barrier to listening comprehension for Japanese learners.



Yoshimoto Banana






In the Regular Class
Any multisyllabic word will do for practicing lengthening for word stress. If you're uncertain, check a dictionary beforehand -- many native speakers are uncertain when asked this kind of question, although they rarely make mistakes when they aren't consciously thinking about it. Another way to practice is by asking the class to whisper. Whispering seems to focus the mind better on the teaching point. Also, it changes the atmosphere in the class and so makes an intriguing alternative mode for practicing.

Using the Class Text - The Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary (page 86 - occupations)
Most of the occupations are multi-syllabic. You will need to read them aloud to students. Then ask them to decide which syllable in each word has the most stress. If you're uncertain, check a dictionary beforehand -- many native speakers are uncertain when asked this kind of question, although they rarely make mistakes when they aren't consciously thinking about it.

WHICH WORD IS MOST IMPORTANT? (This is the most crucial concept of all.)

1. The focus word in a sentence is "new information" or something especially important.
2. The focus word is emphasized so that the listener will notice.
3. Focus emphasis is made by changing the pitch and lengthening the vowel on the stressed syllable of the focus word
4. "Old information" is already understood, so it should not be emphasized (if many words in the sentence are emphasized, the system won't work)

Compare how Japanese and English might show emphasis:




I didn't eat it. (My sister did.)
[pitch and length emphasis on "I"]


I didn't eat it. (I just licked it.)
[pitch and length emphasis on "eat".]

X: I want some shoes.
Y: What kind of shoe?
X: The beautiful kind.
Y: Black or brown?
X: Neither. I'm tired of black and brown. I want red shoes. Shiny red shoes!

The most significant and most easily taught form of the sentence stress is "contrastive stress". An especially effective approach is to have students challenge each other to give the appropriate answer, based on which remark the speaker has chosen. This makes a much stronger lesson than simply asking students to read from a script marked for emphasis.

1.a. It's a big dog. No, it's a wolf.
b. It's a big dog. No, medium size.
2.a. But I asked for two cokes! Oh, I thought you wanted tea.
b. But I asked for two cokes! Oh, I thought you wanted one.
3.a: I think that burger's mine. No, it's your brother's.
b. I think that burger's mine. Aren't you sure?

In the Regular Class
Any exercise which requires students to disagree is especially suitable for work on contrastive sentence stress, by practicing the pitch change and lengthening required in English. Dialogs and skits are particularly useful because the focus tends to shift from one remark to another.

Using the Class Text - Active Listening (page 11)
This exercise requires students to listen to math problems, such as "How much is three hundred eighty nine plus fifty-six?" After students complete this task, ask them to practice in pairs, changing one number and then asking "Did you say 'three hundred eighty-five'? The partner must then answer in a way to ensure that the questioner gets the message, "No, three hundred eighty NINE."

This use of contrastive stress is a crucial way to correct misunderstanding, because it puts a flashlight beam on the specific information desired. Students should be encouraged to change whichever number they wish, so as to make it a real challenge for the listening partner to notice.

Using the Class Text - Basic Grammar in Use (page 165)
This is a writing task involving comparative terms like older, bigger etc.

Write sentences with as---as---
Athens is older than Rome. Rome isn't as old as Athens.
1. My room is bigger than yours. Your room isn't ________________________ (Etc.)

Steps for adding a pronunciation element:
1. Do the exercise as a written task.
2. Then ask students to read the answers aloud, paying attention to giving emphasis to the word which is in contrast to the original statement.


Azar, B. (1984) Basic English Grammar , Prentice-Hall, New Jersey
Brown, G. (1990) Listening to Spoken English (Applied Linguistics and Language Study) , Longman, London Dalton, Christiane & Barbara Seidlhofer, (1994) Pronunciation, Oxford University Press, London
Gilbert, J (1993) Clear Speech , Cambridge University Press, NY
Gilbert, J & Rogerson, P, (1990) Speaking Clearly , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Gilbert, J (2001) Clear Speech from the Start , Cambridge University Press, NY
Gramer, M. (1993) The Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary , Oxford University Press,NY
Helgesen, M. & Brown, S. (1994) Active Listening , Cambridge University Press, NY
Murphy, R (1993) Basic Grammar in Use, Cambridge University Press, NY
Swan, M (1993) "Integrating pronunciation into the general language class" Speak Out! Newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group (11)Jan: 5-9.
Wilson, W. & Barnard, R. (1992) Fifty-Fifty, Prentice-Hall Regents, New Jersey

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