5 steps to improve pronunciation fluency
Teaching English pronunciation and intonation is a challenging job. And learning it is even harder. Part of the problem is that we are born with our first language intonation already programmed; we know that babies, by 6 months in utero, can already hear the intonation patterns of their mother and people around her. Those patterns are our first and deepest neural pathways for the sounds of language. They are not just second nature. They are first nature, so much so that we aren’t even aware of them. Like our skin, we aren’t conscious of them unless something is wrong. And the challenge is that it’s not possible to change something you’re not even aware of.
To develop skill in English pronunciation and intonation, a teacher must raise awareness in adult students, and give them opportunities to analyze and synthesize, to break apart and put back together. This awareness-raising stage isn’t so much about teaching micro-skills as much as it is about recognizing how English communicative sound signals differ from one’s “first-nature” communicative sound signals. Once adults are aware of what to change and why, they then need to know how to change.
These strategies are designed to show you how to teach your students increase their comprehensibility and communicate more fully with their listeners. Each step helps structure the sound of their message, which will in turn help listeners follow their ideas more easily. And that’s what we all want, right? The goal in speaking any language is to be understood, to have meaningful and fruitful conversations and interactions.
Teaching your students these strategies, and guiding them as they learn to use them will improve phrasing, articulation, and intonation. Regular, daily practice is best, even if they work on just one paragraph or one sentence.
The Process, in 5 Steps
Choose a video or recording that has a transcript, or find a text that is written as if the author is talking to you. The word choice and sentence structure of an article like this is much closer to natural speech and speaking fluency. Stay away from academic and research articles, which are written to be read, not spoken. They’re not a good choice for fluency practice because they have complex and compound embedded sentence structures. These require masterful skills in intonation to establish and maintain the relationships between all the ideas in their very long and complicated sentences.
Find a more conversationally written text, or an interview or speech with transcript. The first time you do this, you may want to make multiple copies of the text and work on each step separately. Do this with your students and guide them through the process. Advanced level students, however, should apply all steps to one copy of the text so they can see how these dynamics work together to create a fluid and fluent sound.
Step 1: Identify Thought Groups
First, read through the transcript for understanding, looking up words together and making sure students understand the meanings. On the first copy, mark brackets to define thought groups. Here is an example sentence with thought groups bracketed.
[First], [read through the text for understanding], [looking up words], [and making sure you understand the meaning.]
Model this for your students. As you say it out loud, pause briefly (and breathe) between brackets. By pausing between bracketed phrases, instead of breaking in the middle of words or between words, you structure and organize your thought groups for the listener. This is a critical step; English is not spoken word-by-word as it appears when written, and listeners can’t follow your train of thought if you break often and randomly.
It helps beginners to write each part on its own line, forming a vertical list that helps students remember where to pause.
[read through the text for understanding]
[looking up words]
[and making sure you understand the meaning.]
Sometimes you can say the whole thought without bracketing or taking a breath. This next one is short enough for native speakers to say in one go, but they will use stress and intonation to help listeners understand the flow of the message, since there are no breaks:
[Decide which words in each thought group should be emphasized.]
However, if students don’t have a strong control over intonation, they can take mini-breaks like this that help organize the thought groups:
[Decide which words] [in each thought group] [should be emphasized.]
Step 2: Link Related Words
Within the brackets, mark the places where one can use liaisons to link words that belong together in meaning. By connecting related words, listeners hear them as a cohesive thought, rather than having to process each word you say as a separate bit of information. In the following example, I’ve inserted underlines between words that belong together in context and are easy to connect.
[First] [read_through_the text for_understanding] [looking_up words] [and making_sure you_understand_the meaning.]
Here is another example.
[Often_these_are nouns_or verbs.]
Step 3: Highlight New Information
Now look more closely at the words inside the brackets. Decide which word(s) in each thought group should be emphasized. English emphasizes new information using energy, raised pitch, and longer duration on stressed vowels. Often these words are nouns or verbs. Sometimes a topic is expanded or defined further with adjectives, adverbs and determiners; in that case, those words may be stressed.
Here is an example. The bolded words are the ones I would emphasize.
[First] [read through the text for understanding] [looking up words] [and making sure you understand the meaning.]
Here’s a second example.
[Decide which words in each thought group should be emphasized.]
Step 4: Spotlight Stressed Vowels
Because we are connecting so many sounds in the message, we need to spotlight the most important ones. These are the new information words we talked about in Step 3. Once you have chosen your words to highlight, look at the vowels in their stressed syllables. Energizing these vowels is the best way to spotlight a message…by giving vowels clear articulation, longer duration and higher pitch, speakers make them much more noticeable and ensure that listeners catch their point.
In the example we’ve been using (the one that starts with the word “First”), the stressed vowel sounds that must be clearer and stronger and longer are:
/er/ in First
/ee/ in read
/ae/ in understanding
/oo/ in looking
/er/ in words
/ae/ in understand
/ee/ in meaning
If your students’ first language doesn’t have these sounds, it will greatly improve their comprehensibility and fluency to develop them. Stressed syllables must be clear enough and strong enough to stand out from the unstressed syllables around them. Since /ae/ and /er/ sounds are very common in English, and /ae/ only occurs in stressed syllables, mastering these articulations will immediately improve student comprehensibility and word rhythm.
Step 5. Signal Beginnings and Endings
In the previous 4 steps, we worked on organizing smaller thought groups and connecting the information within them. This last strategy is more of a macro-strategy; more like turn signals or traffic lights are, when you’re driving. They will help listeners understand the overall direction of the message.
Most languages, maybe all languages, end a statement with a drop to a low pitch. Hooray! We all have something in common. But not all languages drop to the same level. And not all languages start on as high a level as English. In fact, English uses a much wider range of pitch to develop spoken messages than most languages do.
One strategy that is easy to remember is “start higher; end lower”. And in between the start and end, if students reach the end of a bracket that is not the end of an idea, be sure to caution them not to lower their voices all the way…save your lowest pitch for those final full-stop signals. Once them come to a full stop, they should pause briefly to confirm that they’ve come to an end.
English uses an arc of pitch that begins on a high pitch, moves to mid-pitch to develop the idea, and drops to low pitch to signal finality. If, at this final point, a speaker is continuing on but changing topic, they will begin the new topic on a high pitch to signal a new start. But if they’re continuing the same topic, they don’t restart at high pitch. Instead, continue to develop the idea at mid-level pitch range until finished developing the thought.
These strategies correlate to paragraph development in writing. Surely writing signals such as punctuation and indentation developed to represent the vocal cues speakers employ to communicate and organize our ideas for listeners. After all, writing didn’t come first; speaking did!
First Develop Awareness
Awareness precedes learning! If you’re still not sure whether people really use these signals when they speak English, cue up an interview on YouTube, and listen specifically for any one of these strategies…play and replay a section of the interview until you begin to hear them. Once you learn to recognize them, once you become aware of them, once you do hear them, you’ll be amazed at how prevalent they are.
To develop your students’ awareness, find a video or recording with time codes and together listen specifically for one thing—listen for linking, or listen for pitch jump and pitch drop, or listen for stressed syllable vowels. Model and then ask them to mark time codes where they hear the signals, and compare their notes to another student’s. It needn’t take a long time, but practice this often and students will soon begin to hear signals and sounds that previously went unnoticed.
Then Develop Skill
To develop skill at using these signals, find a video or recording with transcript, but don’t start by listening to the recording. Ask students to look over a paragraph and decide for themselves—where should the brackets be, which words should be stressed, where should pitch drop and rise. Then listen to the speaker’s recording and compare their expectations with the speaker’s choices. Remember that people who speak ‘off the cuff’ tend to stop and start a lot because they don’t have their thoughts organized, so for starters, pick a skilled, clear speaker. After you’ve studied the speaker’s choices, then try out their strategies. Don’t have students record themselves at first—none of us likes to hear our own voice much so don’t put that pressure on them at the start. Later when they have some facility, they can record and you can give them feedback.
Just having your students practice a bit every day, raising their awareness, assigning intermittent practice, will help them get more comfortable with these signals, and they will improve.