Helping students with connected speech

There is a huge difference between what our students see printed on a page and what we actually say in everyday speech.

In a recording of a TESOL Spain Presentation on Youtube (well worth watching), Mark Hancock makes the following joke:

Patient: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got two theik, a near rake, sore rise, bruise darms a stummer cake and I far tall the time.

Doctor: I see, perhaps you’d like to way tin the corridor?

(Try reading it aloud)

The joke [apologies for the vulgarity ;) ] showcases a good number of examples of features of connected speech. Teacher can tend to shy away from highlighting these in the classroom, but research shows that teaching learners about connected speech can really make a difference in terms of how well they understand native speakers. See for example, Authentic Communication: whyzit important ta teach reduced forms (Brown 2006) . Equally, some ability to use these features in their own speech will also be likely to make students more confident and fluent speakers.

Features of connected speech

As a brief overview, there is a strong tendency in English to simplify and link words together in the stream of speech, in order to help the language flow rhythmically. Some of the most common features:

Assimilation

This is when the sound at the end of one word changes to make it easier to say the next word. For example:

‘ten boys’ sounds like ‘ tem boys’ (the /n/ sound changes to the bilabial /m/ to make it easier to transition to the also bilabial /b/)

Incidentally bilabial just means two lips together, which is a good example of the kind of jargon that puts people off!

Catenation

This is when the last consonant of the first word is joined to the first vowel of the next word. This is very very common in English, and can be very confusing for students. For example:

‘an apple’ sounds like ‘a napple’ (Teacher, what is a napple?)

Elision

Elision means that you lose a sound in the middle of a consonant cluster, sometimes from the middle of a word. E.g. ‘sandwich’ becomes ‘sanwich’.

Or from the end of a word. For example:

‘fish and chips’ ‘fishnchips’

Intrusion

This is when an extra sound ‘intrudes’. There are three sounds that often do this /r/ /j/ and /w/

E.g. ‘go on’ sounds like ‘gowon’

I agree sounds like ‘aiyagree’

Law and order sounds like ‘lawrunorder’

[I probably should have used a phonemic keyboard!]

If you want to discover more about features of connected speech- and I think it’s fascinating stuff, there’s a list of useful books at the end of the post, but now let’s look at some activities to help raise awareness and encourage more natural sounding speech.

Connected speech activities

I remember reading somewhere that there are three ways to deal with pronunciation in the classroom: integrating it into other activities, dealing with it discretely, and completely ignoring it. ;) Let’s assume we aren’t going to do the latter, and look at the other two approaches.

Integrated activities

I strongly believe that students should be made aware of the basics of connected speech right from the start. I don’t mean that you should be teaching your beginners exactly what catenation is, but you can certainly show them how words link together and what happens to sounds in the stream of speech. You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t even need to know very much about the technical aspects; you just need to listen to yourself very carefully and notice what is happening in your mouth as you speak.

Drilling and using the board

At lower levels, we tend to teach quite a lot of functional chunks, such as ‘What’s your name?’ Phonetically that could be transcribed as /wɔ:tsjəneɪm/. However, this is likely to confuse (terrify) the students. Instead, using the board, you can just show the students how the words link by using arrows, and write the schwa /ə/over the top of ‘your’ . Alternatively, you can use your fingers to show how the three words (separate fingers) meld into one long sound (push fingers together). And model and drill the phrase as it is said naturally.

If students struggle with longer phrases, try the technique of back-chaining, starting from the last sound and working up to the whole sound bit by bit. For example with ‘Where do you come from?’ you drill ‘frum’ ‘kumfrum’ ‘dz-kumfrum’ ‘where-dz-kumfrum’ I have no idea why this works- but it does.

Using recording scripts

Where new language has been recorded (or by recording it yourself), ask students to first look at the chunk of language written down and try saying it a few times. Then play the recording several times and ask them to write down what they hear, however they want to spell it. Use the two written forms to elicit the differences (such as the use of the schwa) and then drill the more natural pronunciation. You could of course just say the phrase for them, but it can be hard to keep repeating something exactly the same way.

Make it part of presenting new language

Whenever you are dealing with new language, you need to be thinking about the meaning, the form AND the pronunciation. So if you’re teaching ‘Have you ever + past participle’, make sure you’re teaching it as something like /əvju:w’evə/ not ‘Have… you… ever…’ You don’t need to explain that the first /h/ is elided or that there’s an intrusive /w/- just provide a good model.

Incidentally, I say ‘something like’ because individual ways of connecting and simplifying speech do vary a bit.

Be aware of the difficulties connected speech may cause with listening

If students struggle to understand something in a recording, or that you say, be aware that they may actually know all the words, just not recognise them in the stream of speech. A great example of this is the student who asked me what ‘festival’ meant. I went into an explanation, giving examples of different festivals…but teacher, he said, why do you always say it at the beginning of the lesson? (I was saying First of all…).

If students don’t understand a phrase, see if they do understand it written down and then take the opportunity to highlight the differences between the written and spoken forms.

Discrete activities

As well as teaching connected speech as you go along, it is also worth doing some discrete activities for the purpose of awareness-raising.

  • A good activity to start learners thinking about connected speech and weak forms is to dictate just part of some phrases. For example: ‘uvbin’. After students have written these down as best they can (this should be a light-hearted activity), you dictate the full phrase, in this case ‘I’ve been to Paris.’.
  • After doing a listening activity, try doing a dictation where you handout the recording script, with chunks of 2-3 words missing. These should include some aspects of connected speech. Students have to complete the gaps, which will help to develop their decoding skills.
  • Mark Hancock has some great activities in Pronunciation Games and on the HancockMacDonald website. I particularly like The Word Blender, a game for A2/B1 students which starts to help students identify some of the features of connected speech.

This is necessarily a very brief and somewhat simplistic overview. For more information and ideas, you could try:

Reading

Sound Foundations- Adrian Underhill- Macmillan

Pronunciation- Dalton and Seidlhofer- OUP

Pronunciation Games- Mark Hancock-CUP

Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ DELTA Phonology_Assignment_and_Lesson_Plan

Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ powerpoint on features of connected speech

32 Comments

Filed under Pronunciation, Speaking

32 responses to “Helping students with connected speech

  1. Thanks for this Rachel this is really useful for me as some of my students have been having listening issues and they seem to stem from their inability to distinguish words from each other. They know they words they just hear them all together! I confessed that I wasn’t the best versed in how to teach connected speech (and week sentence stress) as for some reasons it wasn’t an issue I came across that often in Ukraine (but have much more here in Spain yet Russian is suppose to not really have sentence stress where as Spanish does, though very different.) I wonder if certain nation groups find it easier than others. What has your/other peoples experience been?

    • Hi Chris,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think that all languages have features of connected speech, but perhaps it is more of an issue in a more stress-timed language like English, because we have to ‘mash’ words together in order to keep the rhythm, whereas a more syllable timed language (like Spanish), pronounces each syllable more clearly.I understand that Russian is supposed to be more stress-timed, so that may explain the difference you perceive.
      Incidentally, the whole syllable or stress-timed thing is a bit of a mine-field as the distinction isn’t clear cut, it seems to be more of a continuum. The clearest contrast I have found is between European Portuguese (more stress timed) and Brazilian Portuguese (more syllable timed) and certainly in my experience it is easier for the Portuguese to produce English- sounding connected speech.

      • I thought it was the other way round with Spanish and Russian (which shows my lack of research but definitely explains a lot including why I found Russian easier to distinguish words from each other.) Can’t believe I got it the wrong way round!

      • You just made me go and check in case it was me- which is the problem with jargon!

  2. thanks rachael, like chris i found this another informative post. and many thanks for link to the hancockmacdonald site and that great word blender activity.
    i often refer to the phonology section in Learner English by Swan and Smith but it does not have any refs to connected speech.
    ta
    mura

    • Hi Mura,
      No, I noticed that Learner English doesn’t mention this when I looked up Portuguese to make sure I had it right. I love Mark Hancock’s stuff- little known fact- I used a lot of his stuff before Pronunciation Games was published as he and his partner, Annie MacDonald, were colleagues at Cultura Inglesa in Brazil.

  3. sharon noseley

    Thanks Rachael for bringing our attention to an issue that is often overlooked in EFL classrooms.As said it is not just for speaking but listening too..I’ve uploaded my mega assignment for my DELTA on phonology which led to a connected speech focused lesson..the plan took so long because I had to start off teaching the IPA then move on..loved Mark Hancock’s CDs and exercises btw..they were a great help to prepare the class for a connected speech lesson.. I had to upload it to your fb page as couldn’t work it out here! Keep up the great work on your blog!

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  5. Sophia

    One of my favourite topics Rachael – another great post. Also loved the ‘festival’ example. Brilliant.

  6. Leo

    Another great post, Rachael and some new (for me) terms. “Catenation” ? I would have thought [I woodathought] it was a medical procedure :)

    Connected speech is one of the topics I personally find very interesting too. Most of my adult students have major difficulties understanding spoken language (for example, in films) due to the features of connected speech you outlined above. I’ll be sure and integrate your suggestions into my lessons.
    Thank you.

  7. Hi Rachel,

    Love this kind of ongoing dialogue in the comments section. Just wanted to add the pointing out how some of these connected speach ideas play out in the L1 is often helpful to get students feeling a bit more comfortable with their use in the L2. Most learners are not aware of the fact that these are feautures found in their own language. For example in Japanese, there are reduced vowels that undergo elision (the fist /u/ in Tsukue) and there is assimilation as well just as Brown mention in the article the /n/ can become /m/. By having the students break down these feautures in their own language, it can help reduce the feeling that English is a particulary nasty language which, in its spoken form is somehow just trying to trip a learner up. That being said, these features do seem to be a bit more prominent in English than say in Japanese.

    Kevin

    • Yes, I think that’s a very good point! I think students definitely can feel that English pronunciation is a special circle of hell..
      It can also help, I think, to point out that connected speech is how we make it EASIER to say things.

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  10. goppu

    it was very useful for me .. i felt this was the reason of success…thanks alot.. goppu wadwal

  11. Hi Rachel,
    Great blog and a lovely post – as a teacher and trainer quite terrified of teaching pronunciation, you’ve given me some great inspiration and I’ll be trying out some of these ideas very soon. I promise :) Great links and resources too btw, thanks again!
    Gabrielle

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  14. Emmanuel

    Hi Rachael,
    am Emmanuel from Nigeria you jut help me understood what connected speech is all about,you a the best and am happy you made me understood more God bless you.

  15. Naveed Ahmad

    Excellent blog! Thanks for creating it. What, do you think, is the order of difficulty level (context: non-natives listening to natives of English) amongst the 4: Rhythm, Elision, Assimilation and Linking?

    • Many thanks, Naveed. I would guess that rhythm is probably the easiest to ‘get’ followed by linking, and assimilation and elision the hardest..which is why I think the latter two are probably best taught mainly for receptive use.

  16. There are some activities that I’ve already been doing and there are also some new ones. I really like The Word Blender activity. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to just drilling your students with words. I’m sure my students will enjoy this.

  17. Reblogged this on Kaur Gibbons' Thoughts and commented:
    Useful for my recent pronunciation workshops.

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