This is part of a series of posts suggesting an ELF pronunciation syllabus for the New Cutting Edge coursebooks, from Elementary to Upper-intermediate.
I’m really interested in ELF pronunciation, I hear you cry, but I’m stuck with the coursebook set by my school *sigh*… Many of us are subject to institutional constraints such as a textbook, but this is by no means an obstacle to adopting an ELF approach. In other areas, like grammar, we’re perhaps more used to being selective with the coursebook to address students’ needs – devoting more time to some activities and less to others. Similarly, adopting an ELF approach doesn’t require a major shift in what you already do. Just follow these simple steps:
1) Sit down with your coursebook in one hand and the Lingua Franca Core in the other (it’s going to be a crazy night!), and check which pronunciation activities in your coursebook match the LFC.
2) Leave out the pronunciation features which are not in the LFC, and then conduct a diagnostic test to figure out if your students need to work on the areas focused on in the remaining pronunciation activities.
3) By deleting a bunch of activities, you’ve just acquired extra classroom time to spend on improving students’ pronunciation of LFC features, as well as work on accommodation. Happy days!
If this all sounds suspiciously simple, then take a look at the syllabus below that I created for my school, where we use New Cutting Edge for all levels (elementary to upper-intermediate). There are notes below explaining various points to keep in mind when applying an ELF approach to a coursebook.
ELEMENTARY NEW CUTTING EDGE
Maybe include productively
|Module 1||Stress in questions (p13 / 16)||Word stress (p9 / 10 / 12)||Short forms (p11)Intonation in questions (p13 / 16)||p13/16: See note A|
|Module 2||Short / long vowel distinction in ‘this / these’ (p18)||Word stress (p19)||Vowel quality of ‘that / those’ (p18)Short forms(p21)Polite intonation (p24)The sounds / ð / and / θ / (pronunciation spot p25)||p18: See note B|
|Module 3||Stress in questions (p27)||Silent syllables (pronunciation spot p33)||Weak forms of ‘do you’ in questions (p27)Weak form of ‘to’ in telling the time (p30)||p33: See note IN.B In an ELF context it seems doubtful whether it is really beneficial to spend too long teaching students to say half past three instead of three thirty.|
|Module 4||Words ending in –s (pronunciation spot p41)||Third person verb forms (p35)Polite intonation (p40)||p35: See note Bp41: See note C|
|Module 5||Can / can’t (p44)||p44: See note B and See note D|
|Module 6||Sentence stress (p55)||Word stress (pronunciation spot p59)||Linking (p53)Polite intonation (p58)||p53: See note E|
|Module 7||Pronunciation of ‘weren’t’ (p60)The sounds / ɔ:/ and /ɜ:/ (pronunciation spot p67)||Stress in dates (p61 and p65)||Weak forms of was /were (p60)Regular past simple forms (p63)‘th’ in ‘the seventh of May’ (p65)||p60: See note Fp63: See note Cp65: See note G and See note A
p67: See note A
|Module 8||Sentence stress (p71)||Word stress (p68)Word stress (pronunciation spot p77)|
|Module 9||Sentence stress (p79)Stress in questions (p83)||Schwa / weak forms (p79)The sound /I/ (pronunciation spot p85)||p79:See note H|
|Module 10||Pronouncing -ing (p86)Vowel sounds (p88)Polite intonation (p93)|
|Module 11||The sounds /w/ and /h/ (p103) – if these are problematic for your students||Weak forms (p97)Pronunciation of ‘the’ (p101)|
|Module 12||Weak form of ‘to’ (p105)Polite intonation (p107)Short forms (pronunciation spot p111)||p111: See note E|
|Module 13||The sounds /ɒ / / əʊ / and / ɔ: / (pronunciation spot p119)||Silent letters (p112)||Present v future (p116)||p119: See note Mp112: See note Ip116: See note E|
|Module 14||Sentence stress (p123)||Polite intonation (p125)The sounds /æ/ and / ʌ / (pronunciation spot p127)|
|Module 15||Sentence stress (p131)||Word stress (p128)||Vowel sounds in ‘have to’ (p133)|
Note A:Exercises with combined focus
There are a number of exercises combining both relevant and irrelevant pronunciation features for an ELF context. It may be impossible to separate them if you want to use the exercise straight from the book. Try focusing on the relevant area by:
- working on the irrelevant area receptively rather than productively
- only drilling the relevant feature
… and if students are inclined to try and produce the irrelevant feature despite not drilling it:
- only monitor for the relevant feature and focus on this in your feedback
- explain to students, if they ask for feedback on their production of the irrelevant feature, that the way they are producing it will not stop people understanding them. Highlight that their production of the relevant feature is much more important in making sure they are understood.
Several ‘pronunciation’ boxes are labeled as such even though their main aim seems to be reinforcing the grammar point. These exercises have been excluded from the pronunciation syllabus as they are not actually focused on any specific area of segmental or suprasegmental pronunciation work.
However, this is not to say that these so-called ‘pronunciation’ boxes are entirely without value. Students may well benefit from doing the exercise in order to consolidate the grammar point. As teachers we just need to keep this aim in mind.
The grammar-focused pronunciation boxes often include dictation-style listening exercises. These can be really good for developing students’ bottom-up listening skills (something which is often not focused on explicitly in coursebook activities labelled ‘listening’), and have merit in their own right as listening activities.
Related to note B, there are also some boxes labelled pronunciation which appear to be aimed at consolidating a grammar point, but may in fact serve a wider pronunciation purpose, depending on the needs of your students. For example, students might miss the –s off plural nouns because they simply forget this grammar point. However, they might miss the –s off a plural noun like ‘books’ because they have difficulty pronouncing the consonant cluster /ks/. Similarly with –ed verb endings such as ‘helped’, where the difficulty might not be forgetting the grammar but actually pronouncing the consonant cluster /pt/.
If your students have difficulty with consonant clusters, these exercises could be very beneficial.
It is worth noting that research shows that intelligibility is less compromised by inserting a sound in order to produce a consonant cluster rather than deleting a sound. That is to say, people are still likely to understand if you pronounce ‘helped’ with two syllables instead of one. But if you miss out the /p/, people are much less likely to understand. Keep this in mind if you use these exercises to practise consonant clusters. If you insist your students pronounce ‘helped’ as one syllable, are they likely to compensate by deleting a sound and become less intelligible?
Not only is the teaching of weak forms and contractions omitted in an ELF context, it is actively discouraged because reducing words is damaging to ELF intelligibility. However, students still need to be able to decode weak forms and contractions receptively (i.e in reading and listening) and so these exercises are not entirely without value. For example, students need to be able to recognise that ‘I’ll’ means the same as ‘I will’.
Many of the exercises begin with a dictation-style listening, and as stated in note B, these can be really good for developing students’ bottom-up listening skills (something which is often not focused on explicitly in coursebook activities labelled ‘listening’).
Many of the boxes labelled ‘pronunciation’ may actually be more aimed at improving students’ listening skills, as they often start with a dictation-style exercise. If you decide to use these to work on students’ bottom-up listening skills, keep the following points in mind:
- Students might instinctively try and copy what they hear and want to practise producing it. For some students, saying it aloud might be an important part of improving their ability to hear it. If this happens don’t feel you need to stop them, but also don’t feel you have to then offer feedback or drill it.
- You can pre-empt the above situation by setting up the activity in a way which clarifies the aim, i.e understanding other people. The aim of the exercise is confused by the title being ‘pronunciation’ which people assume to mean ‘developing your pronunciation’, rather than ‘understanding the pronunciation of others’.
- Doing the listening exercise and talking about how difficult the speakers are to understand can help raise students’ awareness of how damaging these pronunciation features can be to intelligibility. Hopefully they will then have a better understanding of why these features are undesirable in an ELF context, and so are less likely to want to practice producing them anyway.
- You may wish to skip these boxes entirely if a) the needs of your students mean that listening practise is not a priority, or b) they are unlikely to encounter many native English speakers; non-native speakers are less likely to employ features of connected speech anyway.
Although research shows that vowel quality is generally not important for maintaining ELF intelligibility, the / ɜ: / sound is an exception. So the time you save not focusing on other vowel sounds, you might like to dedicate to working on /ɜ:/ by bringing in extra activities to practise this.
Also, try starting a class list of words with this sound as students come across them. This should be possible even at the lower levels. For example, by the time Elementary level students study ‘weren’t’, they are likely to have already encountered nurse, her, first, purse, bird, burger, journey, Thursday, thirteen, university.
Some teachers may be surprised that / ð / (the ‘th’ in mother) and / θ / ( the ‘th’ in ‘thumb’) are not necessary to maintain intelligibility. However, as Walker (2010) points out, they are even absent in some native-speaker varieties of English, for example in Ireland, Jamaica or New York. They are often the last consonant sound acquired by native-speaker children. Also, research shows that these sounds are particularly resistant to classroom teaching techniques (Walker, 2010:29)
You might feel that it’s difficult to teach stress without teaching unstress, but if you focus more on the stressed syllables, the other syllables will naturally sound weaker by comparison. In the ELF classroom, there’s no need to insist that the weaker syllables sound like a schwa. In fact, it’s difficult to teach students to pronounce schwa anyway, because by virtue of focusing on it, students often end up stressing it!
In exercises where work on stress is combined with work on schwa, you can raise students’ awareness of schwa by highlighting the difficulty this might cause in understanding native speakers. But then you don’t need to focus on the schwa productively. Instead make sure the productive work is focused on making the stressed words stand out more. See notes D and E for more on this.
Some exercises labelled ‘pronunciation’ are really more aimed at improving students’ spelling by raising awareness of the mismatch between sounds and letters in English. For students who need to improve their spelling, these exercises may be very beneficial and help them to see spelling patterns. But remember to clarify the aim of the exercise for students, as labelling it ‘pronunciation’ obscures the fact that it actually benefits writing the most.
Also, you can help to focus students on this in the way you approach an exercise. For example, silent letters (such as the ‘l’ in ‘could’) can be approached as something that needs to be added in the spelling rather than omitted in the pronunciation. After all, students are more likely to forget the ‘l’ in the spelling of ‘could’ rather than pronounce it wrong by sounding the ‘l’.
Regardless of whether you teach in an ELF context or not, you may feel there are both advantages and disadvantages to teaching the phonemic chart. The main point to remember in an ELF context is that the phonemic chart does not provide a model for how you should speak. You could view it as providing anchor points or sub-headings to help you group different spelling patterns together.
Given that word stress is not thought to be important for intelligibility (but is included as a ‘maybe’ in this ELF syllabus for reasons explained below), students are unlikely to be misunderstood if they simply produce a noun with the stress pattern of a verb or vice versa. However, this is not to deny that these exercises might have value in developing listening skills and raising awareness of the concept of stress.
The inclusion or exclusion of stress in the LFC has been debated, and Jenkins herself referred to it as a “grey area” in 2000. Field (2005) said that in his intelligibility tests “the extent to which intelligibility was compromised depended greatly on the direction in which stress was shifted and whether changes in vowel quality were involved.” (2005:399) However, more research is needed in this area.
Some exercises are more aimed at revising or consolidating vocabulary work than improving any specific segmental or suprasegmental pronunciation features. These exercises may be beneficial as extensions of the vocabulary work, but just remember to keep this aim in mind and so use the exercise appropriately (see notes A-E for more details).
Research shows that vowel length distinctions (for example, pairs like /ɪ/ and /i:/) are important for maintaining intelligibility. The length issue is also relevant for diphthongs. To maintain intelligibility, the precise quality of the diphthong is not important as long as the variant used is consistent, as long as the length is that of a diphthong or long vowel.
The time you save not focusing on other vowel sounds, you might like to dedicate to working on vowel length distinctions by bringing in extra activities to practise these.
- As with everything in class, choosing what to focus on depends on your students’ needs. You may have some students who need ELF but some others who need to integrate in a country with native speakers. It is possible to juggle both needs by shifting the balance between receptive and productive focus for individual students. See notes A and E for more.
- To maintain intelligibility, research shows that vowel quality is not important. In native speaker varieties of English, vowel quality is very unstable in any case (Walker, 2010:34). The most important thing is vowel length, and also checking that students are consistent. They need to choose one variant for a vowel sound and stick to it.
- When Jennifer Jenkins drew up her list of pronunciation priorities called the Lingua Franca Core, based on classroom data, she excluded word stress. She found this did not impact on intelligibility. However, critics have queried this omission, given that nuclear stress is included in the LFC. They argue that in order to stress something at sentence level, you need to understand which syllable to stress at word level. Therefore, I have included word stress here as a ‘maybe’.
- Nuclear stress is termed “crucial” by Jenkins (2000:153). She says “the greatest phonological obstacles to mutual intelligibility appear to be deviant core sounds in combination with misplaced and / or misproduced nuclear stress” (2000:155). Therefore, it seems worthwhile spending extra time on this in class. Hopefully omitting some of the other pronunciation areas in the coursebook means this time will be available.
- Attitudinal functions of intonation are omitted from the LFC as research shows it is highly subjective and almost unteachable (Jenkins, 2000:151).
Field, J (2005) Intelligibility and the Listener: The Role of Lexical Stress. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 39/3
Jenkins, J (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. OUP
Walker, R (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca. OUP