Stressing Out about Pronunciation

Okay . . . not that kind of stress

Say What?– Part Two of Pronunciation in EFL

First, let’s quickly recap Pronunciation Part One and then we’ll move on to all the good stuff in Part Two.

So, in the last post we talked about some critical things– “linking,” “reduction,” and how to use a good respelling system. To truly help your students with their pronunciation, you’ll need to grasp these ideas. I’d also like to remind you that if you didn’t have time to read the linked downloadable documents at the end of the last post, you should make time to do it soon.

Today, in Part Two, we’re going to round out the idea of teaching how people really sound when they speak English.

Stressing Out–Words and Sentences Need Some Stress

Different languages not only have different alphabets, grammar and accents, but they also lay different stress patterns on spoken sentences.  Your students may be able to nail tricky things like the past tense and the “th” sound, but can they stress their sentences like a native speaker?

In English, when we say a polysyllabic word—two syllables or more—we always stress one syllable above the others. This is so natural to us that it’s hard for some people to hear this stress unless they practice listening for it. If you aren’t sure how to identify stress in spoken English, perk your ears up for tone, length of time, and loudness.

Here are some examples:

Banana – to native speakers of English, this fruit sounds like buh NAEH nuh

Say it aloud and listen carefully—the second syllable is slightly higher in tone, lasts longer, and is pronounced as slightly louder.

But, if you’re teaching Thai students, for example, it’s more natural for them to say: buh naeh NUH

This is another reason that respelling words is important to help your students learn how to properly pronounce and stress words. You can rewrite the stressed syllable in capital letters.

Now, not only words but sentences have stress patterns that students will need to learn and when you use a respelling system it will help your class decipher these patterns as well.

Words that the language deems not as important often reduce in time, loudness and tone. While other words are more critical to meaning and therefore have more more stress-they are louder, longer, and have a higher tone.

But how do we know which words are important or not? The English language seldom has any rules that are ALWAYS true, but here is a rule of thumb to help you teach stress: Important words, or “Content Words”, are nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The rest of the sentence will be made up of less important words, or “Function Words.” These consist of pronouns, helping verbs, conjunctions, and prepositions.

To illustrate: “My name is Bob,” when written showing sentence stress: my NAME is BOB. The words “Name” and “Bob” are the most critical parts of the communication.

However, a word of caution. It’s possible to overdo word and sentence stress in the classroom.    Always remember that you need to speak naturally when teaching your students stress. Keep in mind you want your students to speak naturally too—and overstressing words and sentences can sound as bad as stressing them incorrectly.

Here’s an analogy that may help you organize your thinking about sentence stress: When you’re having a phone conversation on a mobile or cell phone, sometimes bad connections break off some of the words. But you don’t need to hear every word of the conversation—you can glean the meaning of the sentences by picking up the important words—precisely the words that are stressed in a sentence.

Teaching students how to stress individual words and groups of words takes time and practice. Again, though, this practice is worthwhile and your students will be much better English speakers because of it. If you make some mistakes along the way, it’s not the end of the world. Trying it out and working with it will develop your skills and your students’ skills and get you further down the road of being a great teacher.

To learn more, check out some of these great resources:

Word Stress – an excellent resource page at English Club.

Sentence Stress  yep, our friends at English Club again . . .

Kent University Phonetics Resource Page – this website is sometimes offline, if it doesn’t work, try it again later.

The British Council Pronunciation Page – many excellent articles on different pronunciation topics.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t stop reading now—check out the links above and familiarize yourself with sentence and word stress

TED’s Tips™ #2: Practice makes perfect, so put all these ideas together, practice and then work with your students to TRULY help them improve their spoken English skills.

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Ready, Set . . . Read!

Read at lightening speed!

Tips for Teaching Reading in EFL

One thing that new teachers of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) may not realize is that even quite literate students may not understand how to read efficiently in a foreign language.

People, especially adult learners, don’t learn reading skills in a new language the same way they learned to read in their first language. Also, they may not know how to apply some reading skills in English, even though they can implement the same kind of skill in their native language.

For example, once when I was a teacher in Saudi Arabia, I was asked to teach a group of people learning to be computer programmers. These budding programmers were expected to learn all of their material for all of their computer courses in English. Unfortunately, when I started with them their English skills weren’t good enough to start with their most basic requirement—the heavy Introduction to Computers textbook we had. It was the same kind of textbook you’d find in a Computers 101 course at a community college in the States or in Britain.  And these students were probably already quite good at computers, but they weren’t good enough at English to tackle that textbook. This was, as you might imagine, quite dispiriting for the students.

To get around this problem, and to prepare them for this key course in their studies, I taught them not exactly the textbook material, but instead how to read the textbook. By learning how to read the textbook, they also learned the introduction to computers, and a whole lot of useful English target language.

Break it down

Right away, in the first class, I told the students that I also believed the book was difficult, but that we were going to break it into pieces so it would be easier.

First, we went through the table of contents and discussed as a group what the entries there might mean.

Next, we flipped through Chapter One, like a native speaker might do when going to a bookstore or library, and checked out the illustrations. We discussed what those pictures might mean, and then we looked at the captions.

After we felt comfortable with that, we went through the section headings in the chapter and discussed those. Next were the subheadings.  Then we hunted through the first chapter looking for words that were bolded or in italics. We checked out the sidebars. Basically, we looked at the chapter in safe-seeming chunks so that by the time we were down to the plain old reading of the chapter, the students already had a clear picture of what the text would mean. We joked about it, that we already knew it, and I was pleased that my students were no longer intimidated by it.

Survey the (reading) territory

This technique, looking over the parts of a text before reading, is called “surveying.”  When students survey a text, they don’t read it word-by-word. They look for key ideas, especially in headings and subheadings and they go through larger passages for facts or details. Native English speakers routinely use this skill when they don’t have time to read everything—in college courses perhaps.

Teaching this technique (along with skimming larger pieces of text and scanning for specific details) helps English learners.  Get your students to guess and predict what will be next in the text.

Guessing and predicting are important reading skills for your learners. Getting them to guess and predict from context is a great way for students to soak up new vocabulary. When native speakers come across an unfamiliar word in our own language, we can usually make good guesses about what it means from the context. In fact, much of the vocabulary native speakers have comes from casual exposure to words in books and other material, rather than from word lists and memorization. This skill is doubly important for non-native speakers.

Rather than just supplying your students with definitions of the words that they don’t know when they do reading exercises, try this: Get the student to read the sentence or paragraph and let the rest of the class guess what the word may mean. This can help the students hone their reading skills as a group.

Reading and listening are more similar than you think

For EFL purposes, reading is one of the four major skills in English. Writing, speaking and listening are the other three. You may be surprised to learn that the reading and listening skills are very closely related. They are both “receptive” skills.

If you are reading or listening, you are receiving the information.  When you speak or write you aren’t receiving information, you’re broadcasting it.  So these skills can be grouped together in pairs. When students use receptive language (reading and listening), they have information coming to them and they have to interpret and comprehend that information. They need to take in the big ideas and important details and dismiss the inessential information.

As you might realize from my description of the Saudi students, I have always found reading to be one of the most fun skills to teach and your students will enjoy it too if you use these ideas.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Break hard, scary portions of reading material into smaller, less threatening chunks.

TED’s Tips™ #2: Surveying material and guessing and predicting meanings of vocabulary words are great exercises to improve your students reading skills.

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