Taking pronunciation practice to the next level: Let’s forget about individual sounds and focus on the message

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The importance of teaching learners about nuclear stress.

Traditionally, pronunciation practice has been centered on what some would typify as “articulatory gymnastics”, i.e. a drill-based approach for teaching selected L2 sounds (or segments). The use of these drill-like activities has been criticized overtly and regarded as “techniques of the past which have never yielded very good results” (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994: 132). Yet, speech therapists consider articulatory gymnastics (i.e., a set of exercises aimed at developing and strengthening the organs of the speech apparatus) has proven to be useful when it comes to adjusting the organs of speech to the L2 settings, especially if done as soon as deviant phonological forms are spotted. 

However, sounds are not just the only point to cover if we want the learner to achieve intelligible pronunciation standards. Nowadays, researchers have been debating about two opposing principles to adhere to in pronunciation lessons: the nativeness principle and the intelligibility principle, the former lays emphasis on the interlocutors’ ability to communicate effectively, i.e., without communication breakdowns, while retaining degrees of accentedness. The latter, on the other hand, strictly relies on the need to encourage the development of a native-like accent and thus condemns any trace of the speaker’s L1. It is this second principle that, in general, underlie the traditional methodologies in Phonetics and Phonology lessons.

Jennifer Jenkins (2000) asserts that, when teaching pronunciation, we need to lay singular emphasis on the intelligibility principle, especially on account of the fact that we are living in a globalized world. According to this author, if intelligibility is defined as the ability to be make yourself understood when interacting with other interlocutors without having to develop a native-like accent and if this interaction takes place between a native and a non-native speaker of the L2, then we should be working on other phonological aspects than just sounds in isolation. 

In this way, Jenkins’ approach appeals to the sociolinguistic concept of “accommodation”, which in turn fosters two key aspects of intercultural communication: tolerance and respect for non-native accents, which are thought to be fundamental values for interconnected societies. To this end, Jenkins states the instructor needs to focus his attention on the following phonological aspects:

  • Most consonants (in particular the unvoiced plosives /p,t,k/ as they have a unique feature of English, aspiration, which is what causes unintelligibility issues).
  • /3:/, as in the word “girl”, as it tends to be replaced by any other vowel the learner sees in orthography. In that case, the pair “word” “war” could be pronounced /wo:r(d)/ – /wo:r/, thus leading to unintelligibility issues as well. 
  • Consonant clusters, in particular those that begin with the /s/ sound (as in the “spin”) Not pronouncing the initial /s/ will cause unintelligibility due to a change of word: ”pin”.
  • Vowel length (especially when the vowel occurs  before voiced or unvoiced consonants)
  • Appropriate word grouping into tone units (a minimal unit that can carry intonation) and proper placement of the nucleus (the most prominent syllable/word in the tone unit, as it is the syllable/word in which a change in pitch direction (the tone rises or falls) occurs. 

In this blog post, we propose that instructors start focusing on nuclear stress (also sentence stress) and, in particular, contrastive stress. Nuclear stress is defined as “the main stress appearing within a single phrase [or tone unit], the stress that distinguishes a black bird from a blackbird, and that occurs on the pronouns in John called Mary a Conservative, and then she insulted him. (Trask, 1996: 243). Contrastive stress (also emphatic stress), on the other hand, is “Stress which is placed in some element of the utterance in order to contrast it to some other element, either in the utterance or in the context: I said ACcept, not EXcept.” (Trask, 1996: 93).

Focusing our pronunciation lessons on items other than sounds means that we are somehow moving away from traditional approaches, which have mechanic discrete point exercises, to engage the learner in lessons that involve a communicative—and more realistic—element. Therefore, the learner will be immersed in a multi-skill classroom, which incorporates the pronunciation component and sees it as one more skill to be developed rather than as an isolated item to be dealt with if time allows. Of course, this shift in paradigms calls for a change in teaching styles and mindset. But it is totally worth it. 

Here’s a set of activities to help students be aware of nuclear and contrastive stress and how they contribute to meaning while practicing bottom-up reading comprehension, orthoepic competence and unrehearsed speaking.

The activities are part of a communicative syllabus that combines different accuracy and fluency aspects of the target language and include peer-to-peer and self-assessment stages as well. They are ideal for advanced students of general English and Phonetics and Phonology lessons included in teacher training and translation and interpreting. 

Step 1:

Review what the concepts of nuclear and contrastive stress are. This could be done by having students fill in blanks in a paragraph with key words (key words in bold). 

Explain/Review the conceptual meaning of the following key words.

  1. syllables
  2. stressed (syllable)
  3. prominent
  4. energy
  5. pitch
  6. (tone) units
  7. movement
  8. tones
  9. nucleus
  10. contrastive

Complete the following text with the words we have just worked with. (Text can be projected or printed.)

contrastive       syllables units       movement energy tones       pitch nucleus prominent stressed 

English words are made up of 1. ______________. Some of these syllables are 2.____________. For example, the word holiday has three syllables (ho . li . day). Yet, only the syllable ‘ho’ is stressed. To produce a stressed syllable, the speaker needs to make it 3. ____________ by using muscular 4. _______________. In this way, a speaker makes the such syllable louder, higher, and longer. 

And yet there is another element: 5. _____________. Roach (2013) says that this  is an auditory sensation. A high-pitched syllable will be heard as stressed while the rest will be heard as unstressed. 

Just like in grammar, a paragraph is divided into clauses, in pronunciation discourse is divided into 6. _____________. In each of these units, called tone units, there is a syllable/word in which a 7. _______________ of pitch (i.e., the pitch rises or falls) occurs and creates significant 8. ______________. Those syllables in which tones occur are said to carry nuclear stress, in other words, the major pitch movement in the tone unit, or 9. _______________, which centers the listener’s attention around it. In English the nucleus is usually found in the last word in an utterance.

But nuclear stress is not the only concept that matters when it comes to drawing an interlocutor’s attention to a given word. When the stress is placed on a word contrary to its normal accentuation (in order help the listener focus their attention on new meanings or information), there is 10 ________________ stress. 

Note: to make the activity easier, you could provide the first letter of each word in each blank. 

Answer key

English words are made up of 1. syllables. Some of these syllables are 2. stressed. For example, the word holiday has three syllables (ho . li . day). Yet, only the syllable ‘ho’ is stressed. To produce a stressed syllable, the speaker needs to make it 3. prominent by using muscular 4. energy. In this way, a speaker makes the such syllable louder, higher, and longer. 

And yet there is another element: 5. pitch. Roach (2013) says that this  is an auditory sensation. A high-pitched syllable will be heard as stressed while the rest will be heard as unstressed. 

Just like in grammar, a paragraph is divided into clauses, in pronunciation discourse is divided into 6. units. In each of these units, called tone units, there is a syllable/word in which a 7. movement of pitch (i.e., the pitch rises or falls) occurs and creates significant 8. tones. Those syllables in which tones occur are said to carry nuclear stress, in other words, the major pitch movement in the tone unit, or 9. nucleus, which centers the listener’s attention around it. In English the nucleus is usually found in the last word in an utterance.

But nuclear stress is not the only concept that matters when it comes to drawing an interlocutor’s attention to a given word. When the stress is placed on a word contrary to its normal accentuation (in order help the listener focus their attention on new information), there is 10. contrastive stress. 

Step 2: 

Extempore activity: Individual activity

Visual prompt (show students the picture below) and 

Audio prompt: Have you ever been in California? If you have, talk about the places they visited, what you did and your experience there. If you have not been in California, mention any information you know about it.

Step 3:

(Text can be uploaded to Extempore as an image, projected on screen or printed.)

Extempore activity:  Individual activity

Media prompt: Listen to the following text read by a native speaker of General American English and

Q1: divide the text into tone units, (paper submission)

Q2: underline which words carry the nucleus in each tone unit, (paper submission)

Q3: highlight three examples in which of contrastive stress, (paper submission)

Q4: explain why you think there is contrastive stress. (audio answer)

Expected answers:

Q1

Q2 (answers are underlined)

Q3 (suggested examples are italicized)

Q4: contrast is made between Northern and Southern San Francisco, ski versus surf.

SCRIPT

California

Every year,/ millions of tourists visit California.// California is known for its beautiful scenery,/ warm climate/ and excellent food.// There are twenty national parks in California.// They are visited by over thirty million people every year.// Many world-famous museums are found there,// including the Getty Museum in Malibu/ and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.//

The State is divided into two parts called Northern California/ and Southern California.// San Francisco and Yosemite National Park/ are found in Northern California.// San Francisco has water on three sides/ and is a city with a beautiful bay/ and several bridges.// Its streets are always filled with tourists.//

On the north end of the bay/ is Napa Valley,/ where many excellent wines are produced./ South of San Francisco,/ there is an area that is famous for its computer industries;/ it is known as Silicon Valley.// Many excellent computer industries are found there.//

Los Angeles/, Hollywood/ and Disneyland/ are found in Southern California.// Southern California is known for its desert areas,/ which are sometimes next to snow-capped mountains.// Southern California is one of the few places in the world/ where you can ski in the morning/ and surf in the afternoon.//

Source:

Richards, J., Hull, J. and Proctor, S. (2012). Interchange Level 2 Teacher’s Edition with Assessment Audio CD/CD-ROM. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Step 4

Extempore activity: To be done in groups using Rooms

Media prompt: 

The following activity consists of two parts: 

  1. Record yourself reading the text trying to pay attention to nuclear stress and contrastive stress shifts. 
  2. Choose one partner in your Room and provide them with feedback about their reading. Feedback should be based on the following parameters:
    • Clarity of the reading
    • Accuracy of nucleus placement
    • Accuracy of contrastive stress shifts

Like this Activity?

For more great ideas, check out our 29 Speaking Activities eBook! They’re designed to be used for all languages and can be modified for both assessments and practice!

This is post was created by Cristina Chiusano. Dr. Chiusano is a Department chair at Universiad de Montevideo, Uruguay, an EFL instructor at the Teacher Training Program and Translation Degrees, Unversidad de Montevideo, and a Spanish teacher of online courses at Abiline Chirsitian University. She has a MA in TEFL and Spanish as a Foreign Language as well as a PhD(c) in Linguistics.