Alice Savage

Teaching English Pronunciation through Theatre

Vivi          Being able to speak effortlessly is a great luxury. Expert speakers can assume that their messages and the intentions behind their words are coming across in exactly the way they intend.

If they do think about sounds, confident speakers generally focus on the pragmatics. For example, they might ask themselves, How can I strike just the right balance so that I sound assertive without coming across as angry. Or How can I sound polite but signal that I need to leave?

Language learners, on the other hand, must think about sounds as well as tone and all piled on top of concerns about grammar and the delicate negotiation of relationships. In addition, this takes place in what is sometimes unfamiliar and fast-moving cultural territory. It’s no wonder learners need loads of practice before they feel comfortable.

Wouldn’t it be great if students could practice these layers of sound and meaning in a natural way without feeling overloaded? Well, maybe they can. Working with a play allows ELLs to experience, but also step outside of, the rapid fire stream of a conversation and examine it, practice it, and even break it up into pieces that can be reiterated in other contexts.

Before getting into a script, however, it may be helpful to look at some of the pronunciation skills that learners need. Fortunately, our field has examined spoken English on many different levels and come up with useful goals and materials for lessons. A quick sample of popular target areas reveals that teachers have a lot to work with.

To get help with individual sounds, students have pictures that show the tongue positions. They can practice these with minimal pairs and tongue twisters. They also have linking and reduction exercises that help them decode meaning when words run together, which frequently occurs in the stream of small grammar words that scaffold conversational English. “IMUNAWANA see your grades young man!” offers a classic example of how “I am going to want to . . .” might sound in a discussion between native speakers. HOWJA feel? (How do you feel?) is another.

Then there is stress. A big component of speaking with confidence is being able to hit the right syllable or word. Without stress, for example, the word PURpose becomes perPOSE, and may be confusing even in context. Consider the following:

A: I don’t see the purPOSE.

B: Where did you leave it?

When native speakers say, “huh” to a native student, it’s often a stress related problem. Here’s another example:

A: Where is the HOTel.

B: What’s a HOTel?

A: The Hilton HOTel.

B: Oh the hoTEL!

Hotel is an exception to the pattern of most two-syllable nouns, which generally stress the first syllable, so it can cause misunderstanding. Another frequent issue with stress is when a word has two meanings. DesSERT and DESert are not identical, but the stress distinguishes meaning. Or take words that can be both nouns and verbs. The noun generally stresses the first syllable and the verb stresses the second, at least for two-syllable words. For example, you pick up an OBject, but you obJECT to a bad plan.

Finally, stress can also make a difference in the intention of a sentence as in these examples:

WE made her a cake.

We MADE her a cake.

We made HER a cake.

We made her a CAKE!

Are we important? Or is the gesture of baking something for her? Is it all about the female involved (her?), or are we clearing up confusion because someone thought we made her a Cape?

We can also move further out from discrete sounds of language and get into intonation and implicit meanings that are embedded in the delivery such as sarcasm or humor.

“I’m just sayin’, you look a little rough.”

“Thanks! That makes me feel good!”

When it comes to implicit meanings, theatre is clearly useful. A play is meant to explore relationships and the effects of words and how they are said. At the same time, intonation and emotional expression are not the only way to work with a script. A scene with believable dialog provides natural samples of all the pronunciation points listed above. In a play, learners can take on the identity and voice of a native speaker. They can practice the sounds, make decisions about stress, and they can experience these choices in a back and forth interaction that is memorable, repeatable, and transportable.

It can be helpful to start with a recording and have students listen and mark stress, linking, and pitch. Pitch will be important in deciding whether a question is really a question or a rhetorical comment. If a recording is not available, the teacher can step in and provide a model, or perhaps she can make a home-made recording with a colleague. Students can then use the marked script to practice saying the lines along with the recording.

The next step might be to try out alternative interpretations. Students can be instructed to think about how the speaker might deliver a line if they were confused, angry, hurt, or trying to be empathetic. Students can practice with each other and listeners can be instructed to guess their partner’s emotional state or intention.

Finally, teachers and students can identify scenes that lend themselves to specific pronunciation work. For example, some plays include different types of questions, including rhetorical and tag questions. And most scenes have opportunities for reductions and linking, particularly when the exchanges are quick and emotional.

Here’s an example from Only the Best Intentions to illustrate these different possibilities. In the scene below, a young woman (Gigi) is talking to her father (Paulo), and her brother (Jaime). She is furious with her fiancé (Oscar) because of his excessive gaming.

Jaime: Gigi left Oscar.

Paulo: (Shocked) Wait, wait, wait a sec. What? What?

Jaime: She’s not going to marry Oscar. She changed her mind.

Paulo: You can’t do this, Gigi. What will people think? Your grandparents are flying halfway across the world to meet him!

(Gigi shrugs)

Paulo: You just need to talk to Oscar. I’m sure you can work it out.

Gigi: You don’t understand, Dad. He doesn’t love me. He only loves Epic Storm.

Paulo: What’s Epic Storm.

Jaime: It’s a computer game. Oscar’s got a super-high ranking.

Paulo: A computer game? You’re leaving him because of a computer game?

Gigi: It’s more like he’s leaving me for a computer game. I mean, that’s what’s happening basically. It’s the only thing he cares about.

Paulo: He’s leaving you, for a computer game? I don’t get it.

Gigi: I have been a complete idiot!

Paulo: What did he do?

Gigi: He didn’t do anything. That’s the problem. He just has other priorities. He would rather play Epic Storm than live in the real world with me.

Jaime: (Trying to be helpful) Well I kind of understand. Epic Storm is kind of addictive! Not trying to take his side or anything, but it’s a really fun game.

Gigi: You are taking his side!

Jaime: No, I’m just saying giving up Epic Storm would be a huge sacrifice. Like I said, he’s highly ranked.

Gigi: So he can be married to Epic Storm! I’m not going to compete with a computer game!

Students who take on these roles can “play” with this emotional storminess. They may struggle with embodying the character and getting the emotional pitch just right, but that is where rehearsal comes in. When students think about how a person might feel when they deliver a line, they can bring those feelings to bear on how they speak. Then through feedback from the instructor and peers, they can work on stress and sounds. In effect, through rehearsal with other actors, students can consolidate their pronunciation efforts to create an interaction that feels real.

Specifically, this scene with Gigi could be used for linking and/or reductions. The teacher (or students) can identify lines where the running together of words makes the message resonate emotionally. Then they can be pulled out for focused practice.

I don’t get_it.

I’ve been_a complete_idiot

What’d_he do?

I kind_of understand

Not_trying to take_his_side_or_anything

The teacher can use these samples for drills or integrate them into short roleplays. For instance, pairs can create a workplace dialog in which one colleague is complaining to another about the bad behavior of a third.

A lesson could also focus on the naturally occurring stress emphasis of the line where Gigi corrects her father’s comment, “You’re leaving him because of a computer game?” by saying, “It’s more like he’s leaving me for a computer game.” This is a difficult line to deliver if you are new to English, but with practice, it can be said with the fury that makes venting fun. Students can find other sentences that are worth spending some practicing, and it’s generally fun for them to muster up the appropriate emotion. Then once students are confident that the message is clear, they can enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from performing.

Professional theatre companies might spend four to six weeks rehearsing a play. That’s because they want to make the character’s struggles with other people and the world relevant to an audience. When language learners get a chance to do this, even if they don’t fully memorize a play, they are also rehearsing, rehearsing for a performance, but also rehearsing for life.

For more material, please check out the series of short plays here: Alphabet Publishing Books The scripts work well as sources of plot driven, interesting conversations that can be used as texts for reading skills, spoken lexical chunks, and pronunciation, contexts for grammar, and even produced for a multimodal embodied learning experience.







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