Getting the Music of English Right

Modeling language is, among a number of other teaching techniques, one of the first things the novice teacher needs to put a lot of effort and energy into in order to have a hand on, to say the least. In most pre-service teacher training courses I have taught several times at different institutions along many years, I have often been able to spot some aspects of the teaching of pronunciation that are frequently underplayed by teachers and need to be addressed, even with more experienced teachers and those teaching higher levels. Below is an attempt to explain some of the reasons why the problems occur and their implications for the learning of pronunciation.

– Overemphasizing units rather than whole chunks.

One of the factors which negatively impact a teacher’s ability to teach pronunciation and its other major components (e.g. rhythm, stress, pitch and intonation, to name a few) is, as odd as it may seem, their desire to produce sounds that are easily perceived and repeated by their learners. Clearly, with the best of intentions, the teacher is doing their best to facilitate the learning process. An example of this is when equal weight (stress) is placed on (nearly) all the words of either questions or statements.

Because the teacher wants to make sure that their students understand and pronounce all the words correctly, the natural speed, rhythm, pitch and stress in “She can ride a bike, but she can’t ride a horse.“, for example, are put aside (and often lost forever), which will ultimately result in a flat, monotonic utterance that doesn’t do much in terms of conveying a meaningful message. Rather than /shik’n.raida.báik, ba(t)shikaen.raida.hórs/, what the students often hear and repeatis a linear /shi-kaen-raida-báik, bat-shi-kaent-raida-hórs/, in which each word is articulated as a separate unit. (Please read the three italicized ‘a’ in the first transcription as a schwa. My ‘transcription’ is based on American English).

– Having students repeat words/phrases from a list.

Usually (but not only) found in materials designed for lower levels, lists of words and phrases (i.e. names of fruit, everyday activities and the like) may also run the risk of being overemphasized by the teacher trying to help their students  memorize them and learn the pronunciation of new items. How or why does that happen? A phenomenon that I have frequently observed is the teacher’s natural tendency to raise the pitch of their voice at the end of each word as if hinting to the students that the list is not finished and that there are more words to be repeated. What often happens as a direct result of this is a shift/misplacement of stress, especially in the case of compound nouns. Try reading the items on the list below with rising intonation (start low and end high):

– pineapple, watermelon, grapefruit, strawberry (and all the other berries), passion fruit;

– play in the swimming pool, find a parking space, lose your credit card, ride a motorcycle.

What you have probably noticed is that the primary stress placed on the first part of the compound slides forward to where the secondary stress should be thus producing something that sounds along the lines of – pineapple, watermelon, grapefruit, strawberry (and all the other berries), passion fruit.

In the case of the set phrases, what you would end up having is probably play in the swimming pool, find a parking space, lose your credit card, ride a motorcycle.

The problem can become even more serious if the unwary teacher is working with two- or three-syllable nouns that become another part of speech (sometimes gaining a different meaning) whenever the stress is shifted to either the first or second syllable:

– progress, increase, produce, import, invalid, refuse, object, desert, content, present.

I have often pointed out to trainee teachers that in addition to carefully checking the accurate pronunciation of the words they intend to teach, another thing they can do to make sure they model not only the correct sounds but also the natural intonation is to think of each item on the list as an isolate unit. If that is done, then their pitch will naturally be higher at the start and lower at the end when reading compound nouns (e.g. watermelon, grapefruit). As for set phrases ending with compound nouns, they will start with mid-range pitch, go higher at the first word of the compound and drop at the end (e.g. lose your credit card).


– “Good! Now say it in English”.

This is a catchphrase I learned from Adrian Underhill during some of the several pronunciation courses he taught in Brazil back in the 90’s. I have used it since then and find it extremely useful in helping students develop a more natural, close to native-like intonation. Here’s how Mr. Underhill used it. In “Really? That’s such a drag. I thought I’d passed it!”, for example, after making sure the students had learned how to

– blend the final /s/ in That’s with the initial /s/ in such,

– link the final consonant sound of the letters ch in such with the schwa sound produced by the unstressed indefinite article a, the final /t/ in thought with /aI/ in I’d, and the final /t/ in passed with /I/ in it,

he then modeled the utterance as a single whole so that the students notice the changes in pitch and stressed words to convey meaning (surprise / disappointment) and had all the class repeat after him a couple of times. After that, he mixed whole class repetition with individual repetition, and whenever a student got all the sounds right (as explained above) but failed to convey meaning due to flat (deprived of feeling) intonation, he said, “Good! Now say it in English.” Naturally, he did that in a light-hearted, funny way so the student didn’t feel s/he was being put on the spot. In fact, every time he did it the students laughed.

I have used this technique on such a constant and consistent basis that at times, the students themselves prompt each other with the command when they feel their classmates’ intonation needs improvement. Even more surprising, though, is when they challenge themselves by saying “In English now!”  If you haven’t used this technique and think it might work with your students, I suggest you give it a go. You are highly likely to be surprised with the results. Finally, do feel free to comment and add other ideas you find useful!







Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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