Identifying and practising thought groups


This is the second in a pair of posts on the theory and practice of teaching nuclear stress for English as a Lingua Franca (ELF).  The first post explained what nuclear stress is; this post will demonstrate one way of working on this with students.

In the first post, we talked about tone units.  These are short segments of speech which feature one prominent syllable (see the post for a fuller explanation).  They are also sometimes called thought groups.

David Brazil explains in his excellent course on teaching pronunciation that:

“An appreciation that speaking involves one in adding tone unit to tone unit as one proceeds, not, as one tends to think, word to word, is an important part of the awareness on which its successful use depends.” (1994: 3)

The activities suggested in this blogpost take as a starting point this notion of grouping words into units.  The idea is to identify boundaries between groups, rather than identifying features within groups.  I find that this approach is a good way in to working more precisely on nuclear stress, which can be much harder for both teachers and learners to get their heads round!

There are different ways to identify and practise using tone units/thought groups in the classroom.  One way I have tried and found useful is to use general listening practice as a springboard for receptive pronunciation work.

In other words:

  • You do some listening exercises with students as you normally would, focusing on general comprehension and/or comprehension of detailed meaning and/or specific information in the recording.  This is how you would normally listen to something you wanted to hear about.
  • You then might discuss the content of what you heard, again engaging primarily with the message rather than how it was encoded.
  • Then, rather than moving on to something else, you go back to the recording (or a small part of it) and focus intensely on the sound, drawing attention to how the speaker divides up the stream of speech into thought groups.  (I prefer to use the term ‘thought group’ with students as it seems easier for them to grasp and work with than ‘tone units’.)

The idea is to focus first on what is said, and only then how it is said.

Brazil observes that there are two very good reasons for staging pronunciation study in this way:

  1. because “we do not normally attend consciously to the pronunciation of the language we hear or speak.  It consequently requires considerable concentration to do so.  It is better, therefore, if students are not compelled to do it at the same time as they are having to cope with the quite demanding business of putting together or responding to what is being said.  [They should] be thoroughly at home with the content of [a communicative event], so that it has all become as ‘automatic’ as possible before they embark upon the much less natural business of listening for, and reproducing, particular sound patterns.” (Brazil, 1994:4)
  2. because focusing on overall prosody of pronunciation, such as intonation, should focus on “speaking language which is carrying a message, and doing so in some situation in which that message matters to both speaker and listener.  In this way it contrasts, for instance, with the practice of using lists of words to perfect the pronunciation of particular sounds.” (Brazil, 1994:4)

Here is an example of how you might practise identifying tone units with a group of roughly intermediate-level students, using a very short video from the BBC News website.

I chose this specific video for 3 main reasons:

  1. I thought its content would amuse and engage my students.
  2. Its style, speed and length were appropriate for their level and for demonstrating tone units/thought groups very clearly.  This was the first lesson we’d ever worked on this aspect of pronunciation, so I felt that having a reasonably uncontroversial demonstration of how it works was important.
  3. As a news clip, its style and organisation were somewhat clearer and more formal than spontaneous speech.  Roach (2013:367-368) observes that for beginners (which I interpret to include novices to pronunciation analysis in this way, if not actually very low-level learners in general), “it is best to start on slow, careful speech – such as that of newsreaders – before attempting conversational speech.”

Note: the full video is about a minute and a half long.  You only need to use the first 29 seconds.  Here it is:

First: general listening comprehension

  1. Get students to brainstorm unusual sports and competitions.
  2. They watch the video once and identify what unusual sport/competition is featured. (answer: competitive eating)
  3. They watch again and answer some questions: When did the event start? How many hot dogs did he eat?  How long did this take?  Did he feel good about this? (answers: nearly a century ago; 69; 10 minutes; yes, he was full of confidence)
  4. Get them to discuss what they think of this contest.  For example, does it count as a sport?  Is it a good/safe/healthy idea?  Would they try it?  How does a person practise for this sort of event?!  And so on.

Next: identify ‘thought groups’

  1. Give students the tapescript.  It should be typed without any punctuation, so this does not (mis)lead them to assume punctuation = pronunciation.  It should have a few pauses marked already (the convention is to use forward slanting lines), to help get them started.  You can download the one I prepared here.  You’ll see that I’ve included a typed, punctuated tapescript on the other side of the handout for students to look at later and compare/contrast punctuation marks with thought groups divisions.  The part they need to use for the following analysis looks like this: nuclear stress tapescript
  2. Get the students to mark IN PENCIL where they think there is a natural break between words.  They should do this alone, then can compare before you play the recording again.
  3. They listen and compare their notes with when the speaker actually pauses.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as necessary – it might take about 3 or 4 times before they feel like they’ve caught everything.  (This is why you suggest they use pencil to make their notes!)
  5. Conduct feedback.  This can take some time, as there will undoubtedly be some disagreement and you’ll need to refer back to the recording and discuss with students why they marked pauses in particular places.

On this last point, note that there is not necessarily a strict right/wrong answer key for this activity.  The point is to raise students’ awareness of how speakers break up the stream of speech, and how this facilitates listeners’ understanding.  Brazil points out that:

“when we are using recorded data it is not always possible, even for practised ears, to agree about what is happening.  It is both honest and expedient to admit that there is sometimes room for doubt.  If and when disagreement becomes an issue, it is best to represent it to students as a reason for reassurance: if the experts can’t always agree, there is nothing to worry about if they can’t!” (Brazil, 1994:5-6)

When I did this particular exercise with students, I noticed that they struggled particularly to predict where the speaker would pause when there was a prepositional phrase involved.  They tended to assume the speaker would pause before the noun, not before the preposition, perhaps because they saw the noun as the ‘head’ of the phrase.  For example, they would predict:

he was full of // confidence

instead of :

he was full // of confidence

Similarly, they would predict verbs always falling at the end of a thought group, such as:

and this is // Joey Chestnut

instead of:

and this // is Joey Chestnut

When the difference was pointed out to them and they listened again, they were astounded at how counter-intuitive this felt to them.  It appeared to be quite a common difficulty, regardless of my students’ different first-language backgrounds.

Finally: practise dividing short texts into appropriate ‘thought groups’

  1. Now distribute short texts to students, into which they must insert appropriate points to pause.  The texts should be of a similar length to what they’ve just listened to – it seems very short, but there’s quite a lot of cognitive effort involved and believe me, this will be plenty for them to work with!  They should also not involve too much new vocabulary, as this gets in the way.  For my class, I used this resource from One Stop English, as it was on the topic of competition (like the video clip they’d just watched) and was graded very low, so they could worry about pronunciation and not about unfamiliar lexis.  I adapted it very slightly to suit the number of students in my class and to make their texts a uniform length – you can download my adaptation here.
  2. Once they’ve marked where they think it would be appropriate to pause, they should read their texts to each other.
  3. Their peers should comment on how they thought it sounded – natural? comfortable? appropriate? clear?

With any lesson like this, it’s helpful to finish with some reflection on why this is so useful and how they might apply it in ‘real life’.  For example, when giving a presentation, when dictating information over the phone, etc.  It is important to draw students’ attention to the fact that of course they cannot prepare everything they say every day in this way; but by taking some time for deliberate practice of this area, they build up their awareness of it, with a view to making this part of their active pronunciation repertoire over time.


Brazil, D. (1994). Pronunciation for advanced learners of English (Teacher’s book). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roach, P. (2013). English phonetics and phonology: A practical course. (enhanced EBook edition)Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



6 thoughts on “Identifying and practising thought groups

  1. Pingback: Understanding nuclear stress | ELF Pronunciation

  2. Pingback: Identifying and practising thought groups | TEL...

  3. Pingback: Inspirational speeches: authentic recordings | ELF Pronunciation

  4. Pingback: Thank you, London (and beyond)! | ELF Pronunciation

  5. Pingback: Nuclear stress – ‘ELF priorities’ post 2 of 3 | ELF Pronunciation

  6. Pingback: Teaching Academic Content through English: University of Bordeaux course – on teaching languages with technology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s