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Making a Case for Beginning with Suprasegmental Features in Pronunciation Teaching by Scott Shelton
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Integrating pronunciation work

A.C. Gimson (1962) states in An introduction to the Pronunciation of English:

If the word is admitted as an abstracted linguistic unit, it is important to notice the differences which may exist between its concrete realization when said (often artificially) in isolation and those which it has when, in connected speech, it is subject to the pressures of its sound environment or of the accentual or rhythmic group of which it forms part.

Students often see words and understand them when they are isolated, but later when the word is heard as part of a group, its perceived form can often be radically different. The student is then unable to differentiate it from the group of which it forms a part:

It has often been claimed that English speech is rhythmical, and that the rhythm is detectable in the regular occurrence of stressed syllables; of course, it is not suggested that the timing is a regular as a clock - the regularity of occurrence is only relative. (Roach 1983)

Helping students perceive this inherent rhythm can be done by focusing on features that produce it, such as weak vowel forms, assimilation, elision, contractions, linking and merging. It can also be done by simply focusing on prosodic features such as tonic prominence and tone groups as a first step and later analyzing what happens to word endings and vowel sounds as a result.

Penny Ur (1984) states in her book Teaching listening comprehension:

Although the English systems of stress, intonation, and rhythm might be less obviously difficult than problems of the actual sounds, it can interfere with the foreign learners' understanding of spoken English and is therefore worth drawing attention to the existence of certain general patterns. Primarily among these is the division of utterances into tone-groups. The rhythm of speech is based on these 'tones'.

I have found that by integrating pronunciation teaching with listening, via dialogues, it is possible to draw students' attention to tone units and prominence by demonstrating how words are grouped together and how certain words are chosen and highlighted by the speakers to be more important and thus, more prominent (usually by being louder and longer). In this manner, one can effectively raise students' awareness of the functions of these features, which can later be integrated into production practice once they are at least marginally understood.

I wholeheartedly agree with Gilbert (1984) who believes the skills of pronunciation and listening comprehension to be interdependent. She states plainly:

'If they (the learners) cannot hear English well, they are cut off from the language…If they cannot be understood easily, they are cut off from conversation with native speakers.'

Observing students in class

In my observation of Spanish students speaking in class, I find that they consistently employ a very narrow pitch range, which can make them sound flat and monotone. This is sometimes too easily overlooked by the teacher who may become accustomed to this and of course by other students who may not recognize it.

The dangers outside of the classroom for the learner may be that native speakers will interpret them as uninterested, or even worse, arrogant. Awareness can be raised in the students' mind by comparing a recording of native speakers to a recording of a student in class, or another non-native speaker, and asking them to listen and note differences in pronunciation for discussion. Sometimes just recording each other in class and analyzing the results can be very informative for students.

Recently, in a class of mine, we were doing some recording and transcribing as part of a noticing experiment (not having pronunciation as its focus). Several students made unsolicited comments regarding the 'flatness' or 'monotone' sound of the speaker whose recording they were working on and after some discussion decided that this made him sound worried or bored.

I think that it is important to be sensitive to students' feelings and often this kind of information is better noticed by themselves or a peer in class than having it always come from the teacher. Most students in class are open to what their peers have to say and it may be more memorable and less threatening than if always coming from the teacher. Self and peer correction, and in this case, noticing, should help to eliminate the problem of students building up resistance to teacher based criticisms in this potentially sensitive area.

Another problem Spanish speakers have is that they do not always drop low enough in their pitch range at the end of a thought. This can cause awkward pauses and frustration as the listener is waiting for the signal that the speakers' turn is over and his or hers is about to begin. Again, the teacher needs to raise his or her students' awareness to this fact. One way is through use of video or recorded material, which involves two or more participants, and guiding the students' attention to how their voices change as one person finishes and another begins. This awareness can then be transferred to active production work on 'turn taking' and how thought groups affect intonation.

In Rogerson and Gilberts' book, 'Speaking Cearly', (Rogerson & Gilbert 1990:54) work on thought groups is first introduced by working with divisions and pauses in numbers and sentences before moving on to work with pause and pitch movement in dialogues and monologues. In this way, they aim to help students recognize and produce thought groups and to be aware of some of their functions in English, such as using them to clarify complex sentences, mark main and subordinate clauses, and of course give vital information about whose turn it is to speak.

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