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Making a Case for Beginning with Suprasegmental Features in Pronunciation Teaching by Scott Shelton
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Working from the very top

Although work on supragegmentals may be the way in, it may be necessary to start from even further up in the 'top-down' approach in pronunciation teaching. Many learners of English may have built up resistance to pronunciation teaching, may have an attitude problem with English as an imposed force in their lives, or may not have a desire to loose their national or personal identity by changing their pronunciation to sound more like an English person or an American, for example.

Laroy (1995) offers a selection of original activities in his book, Pronunciation, which work to lower learners' thresholds of resistance to the foreign-ness of English, and to create positive attitudes both to the language and to their own ability to handle it. He suggests holistic activities involving relaxation, rhythm, music, and physical response, which approach pronunciation in an off-hand manner rather than through direct, head-on confrontation.

If we start with creating a relaxed, positively charged attitude towards pronunciation (and any other aspect of language learning as well), help our students question their own prejudices, develop their own insight and awareness, and involve them personally and in a communicative manner, we can hope for better results teaching the 'unteachables' of intonation, rhythm, stress and voice setting.

In the classroom, teachers need to be aware of how they present work on pronunciation, and the attitude they pass on to their students. Murphy and Bolstad (1977 in W. Acton 1997) warn that:

It is often mistakenly assumed that the way we talk about and work on pronunciation is relatively unimportant, compared to the conscious "cognitive" stuff going on. No matter how carefully the explanation or practice is done, if it is set in comments and interpersonal relationships that are not suggestive of success and learning, the efficacy of a lesson will be seriously compromised.

Techniques for the classroom

Teachers also need an inventory of techniques that can be employed when they are teaching pronunciation. Avery and Ehrlich (1992) suggest conducting, which refers to moving the arms and hands in concert with the rhythm, stress and intonation of a sentence, word or phrase. This technique works quite well, especially if it is done in an exaggerated manner. I recently had a class working on lexical phrases, and we came up against the phrase, "you're putting words in my mouth". It seemed that everybody wanted to place the stress on 'mouth'. I successfully used the conducting technique to indicate the correct intonation, and in the end, the whole class was doing 'the wave' every time the phrase came up.

Other techniques such as tapping out the rhythm of a phrase or using nonsense syllables to illustrate difficult intonation patterns, or slowing down and speeding up utterances as a technique to help develop fluency, are also quite effective. By exaggerating the elements of connected speech at different speeds, students who are hesitant or pause inappropriately in their speech can be helped to sound more natural and fluent. Back chaining is extremely helpful when students are having problems with the rhythm of an utterance, especially longer than usual ones. By beginning at the back, the intonation contour of the original sentence is preserved. Shadowing, which makes quite a demand on students as they try to keep up with the recorded voice and eventually are left with to their own devices as the sound is lowered, is always enjoyed and can be extremely beneficial as students are stretched and pushed towards native speaker speed and delivery.


By starting with the suprasegmental areas of pronunciation, we are putting pronunciation practice in its rightful place, viewing it in the same light as grammar, syntax, and discourse: as a crucial part of communication. Pronunciation needs to be seen as more than correct production of individual sounds, and should be integrated into the communication class, linking pronunciation with listening comprehension, and allowing for meaningful pronunciation practice. In future work in my classes I plan to bring these features more into the forefront, integrating listening work and pronunciation through tasks used to sensitize, improve recognition, discriminate and provide opportunities for meaningful, communicative production practice.


Thornbury, S. (1993) 'Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology'. ELT Journal Volume 47/2: Oxford University Press

Evans, S. & Jones, H.R. (1995) 'Teaching pronunciation through voice quality' ELT Journal Volume 49/3: Oxford University Press

Laroy, C. (1995) 'Pronunciation': Oxford University Press

Dalton, C. & Seidlhofer, B. (1994) 'Pronunciation': Oxford University Press

Avery, P. & Ehrlich S. (1992) 'Teaching American English Pronunciation': Oxford University Press

Grimson A.C., (1962) 'An introduction to the Pronunciation of English': Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.

Roach, P. (1983) 'English Phonetics and Phonology: Cambridge University Press

Ur, P. (1984) 'Teaching Listening Comprehension': Cambridge University Press

Gilbert, J. (1984) 'Clear Speech'. Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in American English': Cambridge University Press

Gilbert, J & Rogerson, P. (1990) 'Speaking Clearly' : Cambridge University Press

Acton, W. (1997) 'Seven Suggestions of Highly Successful Pronunciation Teaching' :The Language Teacher Online


Scott Shelton has been involved in EFL teaching since 1991 and has taught adults from all over the world. Scott has taught multilingual groups at St. Giles College in San Francisco, California and monolingual groups at International house in Madrid, Spain. He was awarded his CELTA teaching certificate from St. Giles College and also holds the Cambridge Diploma (DELTA) having followed the course at the British Language Centre in Madrid. Scott currently teaches in New Zealand.

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