We teach pron: Connected Speech

During the same lesson that we featured in our last blog post, Nicola Teaches Word Stress, we decided to explore one of our Commandments of Phon: Listening needs more phon.

We will continue teaching together throughout January and February 2018 and reflecting on our experiences in this series of blog posts and in our talk at IATEFL 2018! This stage of the lesson was with the group of B1 adult learners in UAB Idiomes in Barcelona, which we described in our last post.

When we listened to the audio we were going to use in this lesson we felt it was quite slow and slightly unnatural, making it rather easy for this group. So we decided that Nicola would record answers to the 5 questions on food habits in her natural east of Scotland accent. We wanted to expose the students to this and focus on some aspects of fast, messy fluent speech in this lesson.  Re-recording audio tracks yourself with more natural speech can increase the challenge in your lessons.

I set up the listening activities with a ‘gist task/ specific information task’ staging. The aim of this was to boost the students’ confidence in their first listening activity of the course, and also increase their understanding through a supportive cycle. The majority of the group had expressed a need to improve their listening and speaking skills in their needs analyses, and everyone had also marked ‘pronunciation’ as a difficulty for them. With this in mind I wanted to show the students that, yes, they can follow fast speech and get the general idea.

The gist task was to match the answers to the original questions. The students were successful in this task, which was a priority in the lesson plan. I decided to do two things here to help their confidence. Firstly, I gave control of the listening over to them by allowing them to decide whether they wanted the utterance to be repeated or not. They asked for two of the five utterances to be repeated. The second thing I wanted to do was highlight that they had understood enough of the content to do the task. Praise after completion of the task was vital here while emphasising that it wasn’t necessary to understand everything. I told them it was perfectly normal to hear sounds that they didn’t recognise when listening to fast fluent speech, and that I would now go on to help them improve their understanding of the ‘noise’.

One of the specific information task questions was based on the utterance ‘I drink a couple of cans of coke every day’.  I will discuss this particular task question here. I asked the students to listen to the first utterance again and state how many cokes Nicola drank every day. Most of the students could confirm that they heard ‘drink’ and ‘coke’. Two students said that they had heard ‘can’, but expressed concern that they had not understood the other words in the sentence and had not heard any numbers.   

To help them understand the utterance completely, I designed a supportive listening task cycle that would allow the students to listen to the same utterance over and over but have a different task each time. The thinking here is that if we change the task and not the material, not only can we can maintain their motivation and focus, but also give them more time to listen.   

I used the following staging for support:

Stage one: Students listen and count the number of words they hear. I asked the students to do this in pairs and groups of three. Together they were able to debate how many words they had heard and which words. Nicola and I both felt this was a good peer support stage.

Stage two: Scaffolding. I confirmed that there were 10 words and drew the scaffolding below on the board and invited them to tell me which words they had heard, for example, ‘___   drink   ___   ___   ___   cans   ___   coke   ___   day’ I allowed students to listen as many times as they wanted to give them time to build up the sentence. They managed most of it, but I had to give them ‘of’ after ‘couple’. This was a challenging and engaging stage for them.

Stage three: Pass on the Pron – Sentence stress.  With the utterance complete on the board I asked them to underline the stressed words in the sentence and mapped out the stress pattern with stress bubbles o O o O o O o O o O. It was important at this stage to pass on the pron knowledge to them to give them a better understanding of the musicality of English. Content words are stressed while functional words are not. Many of them were not aware of this and agreed that it helped give them an understanding of the utterance.


Stage four: Students listen and notice what’s difficult. We had anticipated that linking/ liaison, vowel reduction and elision would cause some problems in understanding, and we had proof of this when nobody could hear the ‘of’ after ‘couple’, and thought that there was only one word instead of two here. The vowel sound was reduced to the schwa, it linked with the final /l/ of the previous word and the /v/ elided – /kʌpəl ə kænz/. As support here I asked them to read and listen to the utterance and tell me what was difficult for them. They were able to pinpoint parts of the utterance that were difficult, but were unable to explain why. This is where ‘pass on the pron’ is again vital. We needed to show them the above difficulties, explain what happens and why to give them a better understanding and more confidence. For instance, I told them that this linking always happens and gave them an opportunity to predict which words would join when we listened to the next utterance. We don’t expect them to have completely taken this onboard today, but we are sure that over time they will begin to have a better understanding of it.  

Stage five: Drilling. By now the students have had ample time to listen and build up an understanding of the utterance and its sounds, so they are ready for some controlled production of it. At this stage I back chained chunks at first, eventually building up to drilling the full utterance. Back chaining then separating the utterance into chunks to drill worked really well. Some of the students said they found the chunks more manageable and that the entire utterance was challenging for them. To keep things going I drilled part of the utterance with one half of the group and the other part with the other half, then the full utterance with the girls and then the full utterance with the boys – the idea here was to keep the drilling going and get the students producing and understanding the musicality of the utterance. A great takeaway for us here was seeing how much they enjoyed this drilling and noticing how easily they got into the swing of it. ‘This half versus that half’ and ‘boys versus girls’ was great fun for them and added a little bit of competition, which we think made them perform better. Many teachers shy away from extensive drilling, possibly because they feel that the students won’t enjoy it. However, we feel that if the teacher can show enthusiasm for the drilling, and also communicate its importance to the students, it can become a vital stage in their pron development.

Stage six: Listen again – can you understand it better? This was a vital stage for us. The idea here is to help the students realise that now they can understand much better than before. With so much work on an utterance that the students had struggled to understand in the beginning, I wanted to show them that now they had a better, if not full, understanding of the utterance. I played it again and asked them if they had understood it fully. They completely agreed that they had! This was a massive takeaway for us. More work like this on other utterances over a period of time will build up their understanding of fast fluent speech, and we feel we have the proof here!   

Repetition of the same utterance works if we give the students more time to listen to it by giving them a different task each time.

%d bloggers like this: