Thought Groups & Prominence
The following are taken
from two Teaching Tips
really useful way to help our students with their listening
is to help them become aware of 'thought groups' - a term
from the excellent phonology book for learners 'Speaking
Clearly' - Rogerson & Gilbert - (CUP). These are sometimes
called 'tone units' or 'sense groups'.
Rogerson & Gilbert define 'thought groups':
'When we speak, we need
to divide speech up into small 'chunks' to help the listener
understand messages. These chunks or thought groups are groups
of words which go together to express an idea or thought.
In English, we use pauses & low pitch to mark the end
of thought groups.'
A very nice way to highlight the importance
is through an activity in 'Speaking Clearly' that looks at
mathematical equations. Compare the following:
(A + B) x C = Y (A plus B, multiplied by C, equals Y)
A + (B x C) = D (A, plus B multiplied by C, equals D)
Say these two equations to yourself & note when you have
to pause. Each pause means an end of a thought group &
the start of another.
So how it is interpreted depends how the
utterance is separated into chunks.
After an activity like this, there are a
series of equations read out which when calculated give an
answer. If the thought groups have been interpreted correctly,
then the right answer will be given.
(2 + 3) x 5 = 25
2 + (3 x 5) = 17
With a listening text, after explaining the concept of thought
groups with examples on the board, get your students to mark
the groups on a short text. Then they can listen to the tape
to see if they were right.
We mark the groups with slash marks at the
beginning & the end of each group. Here is a short text,
similar to one in the book, with the thought groups marked:
a. /Who shall we invite to the party?/
b. /Well, //we could ask Helen./
a. /OK,// but what about Ben./
b. /OK// we could ask Helen & Ben,//
& don't forget Josh./
a. /Yes,// Josh.// What about Sarah
b. /OK.// So that's Helen & Ben,//
Josh //& Sarah & John./
The division of the thought groups in line
6 tells us that Josh will be going on his own but Helen will
go with Ben & Sarah with John.
Said often, but true - awareness is half
the battle won! Get them marking & listening.
A telegram warmer & prominence
This is a fun activity to use
as a warmer & also as an introduction to prominence.
Ask the students to write a
three or four word telegram in secret - elicit an example
to give them the idea. When all have one written, assign roles
in pairs of sender & receiver. The receiver sits in front
of the sender with her/his back to the sender who writes,
letter by letter, the telegram on their partner's back with
a pen. Not with the nib - the other end so that the student
'receiving' the message can feel each letter being drawn on
While the message is being conveyed the receiver can write
each letter down. When all of the telegram has been written
they check to see if it has been received correctly. Then
the students change roles.
After this you could then ask
the students to write their telegrams out in full & then you
could tell them about prominence (sentence stress). E.g. we
hear the prominent words - the content words (nouns, verbs..)
- not the grammar words (prepositions, auxiliaries..). The
content words carry the important information. This is the
first function of prominence - to convey important information.
The idea of telegrams is the same.
Then you could transfer this all to a listening activity -
the students listen to isolated utterances & have to mark
the stressed words/syllables. They then see if they could
get the message across with just these words - telegram style!
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