Part Three: A top-down approach
There are many ingredients to good pronunciation in English. In my last post on the subject I focused on individual, discrete sounds and their importance for our learners, but the thing that strikes me most when I hear a non-native speaker of English with good pronunciation is the rhythm and overall delivery of the chunks of language they use, not individual words per se. As a native speaker, if I hear a familiar pattern my ear can naturally pick out information which is being packaged in a way that makes sense to me. If some of the individual sounds are difficult to discern this is unlikely to affect my understanding to any great degree.
The importance of stress-timing
And I’m being quite literal when I talk about packaging language into meaningful chunks. Let’s see why this is and why one of the most important things we can do to help our students with pronunciation is to draw their attention to the phenomenon of stress-timing. Here’s a nice activity someone showed me years ago to introduce this at the beginning of a course. I don’t remember who exactly (my apologies) but I’ve never forgotten it.
Write down the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the board and space them out so you can write some words in between them later. Tell the students it is a sentence and that you are going to practice pronouncing it. Then begin to drill it. It is important to establish a regular rhythm, perhaps tapping or snapping this out, and not vary this rhythm at all. Get them to repeat after you: “One, two, three, four.”
Now you add words. First you say, “One, and two, and three and four.” Later you can add in: “One and then two and then three and then four.” Finally you finish by saying:
A one and then a two and then a three and then a four.
Once again you drill each of these sentences two or three times and keep the rhythm constant. By the time you finish your students might think you’re a bit bonkers, but then ask them the following questions.
- Which of the four sentences has the most syllables?
- Which sentence takes longer to say?
The answer to the first question is pretty obvious, but for some non-natives (Spanish students, for example) the second question could be tricky. The answer of course is that all four sentences took exactly the same amount of time to utter. The rhythm was constant. You have just established the idea of stress-timing with your students.
In English we package pronunciation around chunks of information, or content words (here the numbers) which carry meaning. Grammar words often meld into one another, become weak or get gobbled up almost altogether to facilitate the stressing of the content words (just think about what happens to “and then a” when you pronounce that sentence).
Music to your ears
I won’t go into the specifics of it, but any of you who have studied music before will have noticed how similar much of this is to teaching note values. For me it has always been helpful to hear language as music, and I think many of our students can relate to this as well. All languages are musical in their own particular way, you just need to get your ear, and mouth, around the natural rhythm of the language. But to do this you need to practice, practice, practice.
I’ve often been surprised how many teachers tell me that they don’t drill or don’t like to drill. Often times they say it’s not communicative, or that they feel it’s too childish for older students. In my opinion they are missing out on a very valuable tool in their students’ learning. But let me make a few basic points about drilling before showing you how to use it:
- Just because it may not be the most communicative of activities doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Not everything in the classroom has to be communicative.
- Don’t drill everything. Use drilling sparingly. At the beginning of a course you may want to do it a bit more, but once you have established its importance with your students they should be receptive to it and get a lot out of short, quick sessions.
- Also move from set target structures you think you might want to drill (you can plan for these) to focusing on particular problems that come up with your students. Your technique will have become established by then, and you’ll be using it more as a type of quick correction and less in a prescriptive way. Your students will also appreciate this as it personalizes their pronunciation needs.
How to drill
You can drill literally any chunk of language, but, as I said, it’s worth focusing on what’s tricky for your students. Let’s say they have problems saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat” (no offence to cats). The first thing you have to do is find the words which carry the main stress. Here those words would be “more”, “way”, “skin” and “cat.” Then establish a rhythm, model it clearly and get them to repeat after you until it sounds fairly smooth. You might want to start out slow and speed up gradually. It can also be good to drill particularly difficult chucks in isolation. And where they’re having problems with connected speech take a closer look at what’s happening to the sounds, maybe using the phonemic chart for support.
There are many variations on drilling: jazz chants, substitution drills, and using drills to focus on a variety of other areas like intonation or even grammar, but perhaps one of the most important techniques to master is back-chaining. Back-chaining basically means starting from the end of the phrase and gradually adding on to it backwards until you are pronouncing the whole thing. So, taking our previous example we would say “cat”, “a cat”, “skin a cat”, “to skin a cat”, etc. If you’ve got one of those phrases that’s twisting your students’ tongues in knots, this will be sure to sort them out.
In this series of three posts I have looked at two basic ways you might approach the teaching of pronunciation, one bottom-up and based on discrete sound and the other top-down and based on how language is packaged around content words in a stress-timed rhythm. Everyone has their own style of teaching pronunciation and one of these approaches (or a mixture of the two) might suit you better than the other. But however you choose to do it, make sure that focusing on pronunciation forms a part of your teaching repertoire. Too often it’s the one thing we leave out to make time for something we deem to be “more important.” I’m not sure, however, that our students would agree. Let’s not sell them short.