Tag Archives: connected speech

To read better, improve your pronunciation?

To read better, improve your pronunciation….

This statement jumped out at me recently, from an excellent post by Robin Walker on Pronunciation for YLs. He was reporting from a talk by Catherine Walter at IATEFL 2008, and reading this (perhaps surprising) statement sent me off to find her original research.

In her article Phonology in second language reading: not an optional extra, Walter questions the idea that the skill of reading is something which needs to be taught to second language learners. She argues that successful L1 readers already possess the cognitive skills needed to build a mental structure or representation, which is, in fact, what we mean by ‘comprehension.’ According to Walter, comprehension isn’t actually a linguistic skill, so it’s fruitless to talk about transferring it from L1 to L2.

So why are some learners competent at reading in L1, but struggle with reading in L2? Obviously, lack of linguistic knowledge plays a part. Fascinatingly, though, Walter cites a study (Robertson et al 2000)* which used MRI scanning to show that sentence comprehension and comprehension of a text as a whole take place on different sides of the brain.

Walter doesn’t mention this, but, of course, there has been a lot of speculation about left brain and right brain thinking. Interestingly, sentence level comprehension, or decoding, used the left frontal lobe (associated with analytical, logical processing) and text comprehension uses the right frontal lobe (associated with intuition).

So a learner may have effective (non-linguistic) comprehension skills, and even be able to decode L2 sentences, but still struggle. Why?

According to Walter, it may be to do with how we use our working memories. Part of the working memory is something called the phonological loop:

‘a short-term memory mechanism that stores information in phonological form and automatically rehearses that information by unconscious sub- vocalisation.’ (Walter 2008)

In other words, as we listen, we automatically ‘record’ the last two seconds of what we hear in the memory, like a little Dictaphone. It’s why we can repeat back what we have just heard, even if we weren’t really listening properly to the speaker.

There is also evidence that we do exactly the same thing as we read- that we also sub-vocalise and record the sound of what we are reading. We don’t see it, we hear it.  At least, this is true for those of us with L1s that are alphabetic (there is some evidence that learners with non-alphabetic L1s, may use more visual representations).

However, if our phonological representations of what we have just read are unreliable, we may find it difficult to associate these sounds with meanings, and thus find it difficult to keep meaning in our short term memory. This, in turn, will make it harder for us to carry out meaning building processes on the text as a whole.

Walter’s research in this paper concludes that unless learners are also poor at comprehension in L1, we would be better off teaching them to improve how they ‘mentally represent spoken language’ than teaching comprehension skills.

Some suggestions:

As much exposure as possible to the spoken language- so lots of listening and watching videos in English.

Listening while reading – hearing the spoken version while reading a text. This could mean using sub-titles, or following a transcript while listening, or listening to an audio version of a written text while reading. I would suggest that these don’t have to be instead of our usual listening or reading activities (I’m not quite ready to throw out more traditional reading and listening procedures), but as a follow up.

And finally, explicit focus on features of pronunciation, such as minimal pairs work , and focus on word stress and on how words change in the stream of speech . This kind of work will help learners to develop a more reliable repertoire of L2 sounds, which, Walter suggests, could also help them to hold what they are reading more efficiently in their short term memory, which in turn will greatly help with building up the meaning of the text.

And even if this isn’t the case, it will certainly help with developing fluency in speaking and confidence in listening, so what have we got to lose?


 * Robertson, D. A., Gernsbacher, M. A., Guidotti, S. J., Robertson, R. R. W., Irwin, W.,Mock, B. J., et al. (2000). Functional neuroanatomy of the cognitive process of mapping during discourse comprehension.

Psychological Science, 11, 255–260

 

 

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Filed under Different ways to use a coursebook, Pronunciation, Teaching methodology

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

If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.

celta compendium cover

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Filed under Pronunciation, Speaking