Teaching English prosody

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As mentioned under the teaching of vowel and consonant sounds, when teaching the spoken language it is essential to take into account how humans learn unfamiliar sounds and phonetic patterns:

  • Initially, those sounds are registered by the brain as undifferentiated from the ones a person is familiar with.
  • As exposure continues, the listener’s brain learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words. Neural connections that reflect this learning process are formed in the auditory cortex of the left hemisphere for most individuals.
  • With further exposure, both the simple and complex circuits ─which correspond to simple sounds and sequences of sounds─ are activated at virtually the same time and more easily.

Research has also shown that these neural connections are formed not only in terms of sounds but also with other regions of the brain associated with visual, tactile and even olfactory information related to the sound of the word, which give meaning to such sound. Moreover, the flow of neural activity is not unidirectional, from simple to complex. It also goes from complex to simple. In the early stages of learning, the neural circuits are activated in bits, incompletely and weakly. With more experience, practice, and exposure they achieve a more complete picture of what is being learnt. The more the exposure the less the input required to activate the whole picture. In this respect, knowing what the problems are, will be essential to tackle the specific problems.

The teaching of word stress in English words is very important, particularly as it means that the stressed syllable in a word has roughly the same length as all the unstressed syllables together. So while in Spanish it is only a question of loudness, in English it is a question of loudness and time length.  Thus, for example, both in English and in Spanish not placing the stress on the appropriate syllabe (loudness) may lead to serious misunderstanding. This may be so because there are two words which have the same sound, but different meaning. Think, for example, of the difference in Spanish between LIbro and liBRÓ or the differences in English pointed out under Stress, syllables and words (see p. 58). Even when there are no such pairs, though,  placing the stress on a different syllable may easily lead to the listener perceiving a different word like, for example, understanding “reTAIN” instead of “WRItten” if the stress were misplaced on the latter and pronounced as “writTEN”. On the other hand, words such as COMfortable, in English, have the stressed syllable with the same duration as all the weak syllables together.

This is why it is essential to teach the intonation and stress pattern of a word when it is introduced for the first time or when the teacher sees that it is mis-stressed.  There are different techniques (e.g. repetition, writing the stressed syllable in capital letters, marking it, exaggerating its stress, etc.)  to draw the students’ attention to their problems with word stress. One such problem may be caused by cognates and the differences should be pointed out right from the beginning. Thus:

Cognates ending in –ción/-tion:

  1. Spanish words ending in –cion (condición, estación, etc.) have a primary stress on the last syllable,
  2. while the English words ending in –tion (condition, station, etc.) are stressed on the preceding syllable.

Cognates ending in –al:

  1.  Spanish words ending in –al stress the last syllable (capital, animal, natural),
  2. whereas English words ending in –al stress the third but last syllable (capital, animal, natural)

 Cognates ending in –dad/-ty:

  1. Spanish words ending in –dad stress the last syllable (responsabilidàd, humanidàd, dificultàd.
  2. English words ending in –ty usually have the stress on the third but last syllable (reponsibility, humanity), but sometimes the stress falls on the same syllable as the original adjective (difficulty).

Important as it is to focus on word stress right from the moment we first introduce a new word, learning and practising the typical English rhythm patterns is just as essential. As rhythm is connected to physical hyman activities, kinaesthetic activites have been found to be particularly useful, according to authors such as O’Connor or Celce-Murcia. Thus, Underhill (1998) suggests using the fingers to break connected speech down into words and then join the fingers together according to the beats. Both Underhill and Gower (2005) suggest using Cuisenarie rods. In this case the tallest rod represents the stressed syllable in the tone group.

Others, like Lado, advise the use of a musical scale with dots of different size representing the words in the tone group. This form is rather visual and the rhythmical beat is clearly seen:






I   need                   a  rest

In this line, and arguing that, English being stress-timed, its rhythm patterns are very similar to a musical phrase, Celce-Murcia, Avery and Underhill, among many others, advocate for the use of nursery rhymes, verse and limericks or Jazz Chants. In this respect, C. Graham has designed many different activities and provided a great deal of suggestions and ideas on how to use jazz chants. See for instance: http://www.teachingvillage.org/2010/05/23/how-to-create-a-jazz-chant-by-carolyn-graham/ , or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAYwoLZso7s

We certainly recommend all teachers to watch this video by AdrianUnderhillon Teaching pronunciation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kAPHyHd7Lo. We’ll be asking questions on it at our blog.

One of the problems with using nursery rhymes or jazz chants or some of the other activities suggested here with teenagers is that they often reject the activities considering them “too childish”, demotivating, or embarrassing to perform. This led Janelle Fishchler to carry out some research on the use of rap to teach rhythm to teenagers. This is the link in case you are interested in reading her paper  http://minnetesol.org/journal/26articles/6_article_fischler.htm. Based on her research she has published  Stress Rulz: Rap Music Pronunciation Activities for the ESL Classroom, a book which comes with an audio CD.

As we have pointed out here, timing is an essential feature of English rhythm and intonation patterns. Unfortunately, it is also an essential part of the English curriculum, which very often requires covering an impossibly large amount of grammatical concepts, not leaving time to practise them in the classroom. Thus, the English teacher has to bear in mind the time they have to cover all the elements in the curriculum at Secondary School level, and what the priorities are for a particular group. Indeed, even if it is very important to learn to recognise, discriminate and produce appropriate English sounds and stress and intonation patterns, it may be more important for a particular group to develop other aspects of communicative competence. In the final analysis of oral production in English, it is the individual teacher who has to decide, plan and design accordingly how to best meet the needs of a particular group and its individual members.

Extract from our forthcoming book:

Fonemas y grafemas en inglés. Breve comparativa con el español.

 Phonological, orthographic and orthoepic competences in English.

(Material de estudio y análisis para personalizar tus temas a las oposiciones de profesores de secundaria y de primaria, ayudarte a relacionar la lengua inglesa con la española y sugerir algunas ideas para su aplicación en el aula)