Sounds are social creatures. While there is certainly value in helping students with individual sounds, the fact is that there is a lot more to pronunciation than segmentals. Imagine trying to have a conversation without knowing how we blend sounds together, or how sounds are so often reduced in connected speech. Imagine practicing pronunciation without feedback from peers, telling us whether they have actually understood what we are trying to communicate.
This is not to say there is no value in teaching minimal pairs so students can distinguish one vowel or consonant sound from another, particularly when there is interference from the first language. Spanish speakers will need help articulating /b/ versus /v/, for example. And all will need to learn that while written English has only five vowels, spoken English has upwards of twenty. Twenty!
But the reality is that in real-life, students will not have the advantage of sounds being broken down into individual units. Even at the lower levels, they need training in decoding and producing suprasegmentals, aspects of speech which extend over the individual syllable, including stress, reductions, and linking. To be prepared for communication outside the classroom, they also need the kind of practice that allows them to negotiate meaning—to use pronunciation as a vehicle for effective communication.
So, how can we help students get used to connected speech from the very beginning, and how as teachers can we make pronunciation practice feel more socially relevant?
Brown and Kondo-Brown suggest that a focus on connected speech has great value in lower-level classrooms. They note that aspects of connected speech such as linking and reductions are present in all registers, formal and informal, and that 35% of all words can be reduced in normal discourse. If students are not trained to hear these, misunderstandings can occur.
One way to connect learners to connected speech early on is to introduce new vocabulary in phrases and collocations. For example, in a lesson on extreme tourism, students might be introduced to such phrases as aware of danger, afraid of risk, used to heights, and open to challenges. Learning vocabulary in phrases helps students in two ways. For one, students are learning vocabulary and grammar together as chunks and are more likely to recall them as whole units.
Second, as students listen to and repeat the phrases, they will begin to hear patterns of connected speech. For example, the content words such as adjectives and nouns are stressed (e.g. aware, danger, afraid, risk, heights, and challenges). In contrast, function words such as the prepositions to and of are not. Another pattern is the reduction of the prepositions to and of: awarea, afraida, and usedta, and openta. If vocabulary is taught as single words, we would miss out on the opportunity to focus students’ attention to such reductions and stress patterns.
We can also have students decode the phrases to help them see differences between written and spoken English. Students can be asked to count the number of words within select phrases, for example. Dictation activities could have students identify the unstressed words, such prepositions and articles. By starting with phrases, we are able to take our lesson in many directions.
On the productive side, pronunciation drills can be built up from word to phrase so students have more scaffolding in hearing and producing connected speech. For example, if students are learning to form wh- questions with the present progressive, a possible focus might be on how wh-question words link with is and are. Teachers can scaffold this by having students repeat the Wh-word, then the Wh- word + is/are, and then the full question, as in: What What are What are you listening to? or WhenWhen isWhen is he coming?
Alternatively, teachers may find it useful to build backwards: to listening to are you listening to What are you listening to? Either approach helps to not just break things down, but even more importantly, to build things up.
Pronunciation experts also warn that listening and repeating should not be where pronunciation practice ends. In addition to focus-on-form activities such as dictations and cloze activities, students need opportunities to use what they have learned in communicative tasks. To prepare them for the real-world, they need feedback on whether communication is broken or maintained.
Simple pair activities can be designed to target a specific pronunciation point, give students choices, and encourage effective communication. To follow up on linking with wh-questions, for example, one partner could be given a pair of Wh-questions to choose from: (a) What is Kim doing today? / (b) How is Kim doing today? Based on the chosen question, the other partner answers with the correct corresponding response: (a) She’s playing soccer. / (b) She’s doing great. This encourages students to listen for linking, but for the purpose of responding appropriately.
All in all, if we can help students listen for connected speech from the very beginning and offer them opportunities to both decode it and appropriately respond to it, we may be able to give them an important head start on their journey to communicate effectively in English.
Brown, James D. and Kimi Kondo-Brown, eds. Perspectives on Teaching Connected Speech to Second Language Speakers. Monoa: National Foreign Language Resource Center, U of Hawai’I at Monoa, 2006.
Savage, Alice and Colin Ward. Trio Listening and Speaking 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
*Article originally appeared in the August 2017 Teaching Adults Newsletter, Oxford University Press. For more articles like this, please visit Teaching Adults: www.oup.com/elt/teaching-adults.