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Thought Groups & Prominence

The following are taken from two Teaching Tips

Thought groups

A really useful way to help our students with their listening is to help them become aware of 'thought groups' - a term from the excellent phonology book for learners 'Speaking Clearly' - Rogerson & Gilbert - (CUP). These are sometimes called 'tone units' or 'sense groups'.

Rogerson & Gilbert define 'thought groups':

'When we speak, we need to divide speech up into small 'chunks' to help the listener understand messages. These chunks or thought groups are groups of words which go together to express an idea or thought. In English, we use pauses & low pitch to mark the end of thought groups.'

A very nice way to highlight the importance is through an activity in 'Speaking Clearly' that looks at mathematical equations. Compare the following:


(A + B) x C = Y (A plus B, multiplied by C, equals Y)


A + (B x C) = D (A, plus B multiplied by C, equals D)


Say these two equations to yourself & note when you have to pause. Each pause means an end of a thought group & the start of another.

So how it is interpreted depends how the utterance is separated into chunks.

After an activity like this, there are a series of equations read out which when calculated give an answer. If the thought groups have been interpreted correctly, then the right answer will be given.


(2 + 3) x 5 = 25

2 + (3 x 5) = 17


With a listening text, after explaining the concept of thought groups with examples on the board, get your students to mark the groups on a short text. Then they can listen to the tape to see if they were right.

We mark the groups with slash marks at the beginning & the end of each group. Here is a short text, similar to one in the book, with the thought groups marked:

a. /Who shall we invite to the party?/

b. /Well, //we could ask Helen./

a. /OK,// but what about Ben./

b. /OK// we could ask Helen & Ben,// & don't forget Josh./

a. /Yes,// Josh.// What about Sarah & John?/

b. /OK.// So that's Helen & Ben,// Josh //& Sarah & John./

a. /Yes./

The division of the thought groups in line 6 tells us that Josh will be going on his own but Helen will go with Ben & Sarah with John.

Said often, but true - awareness is half the battle won! Get them marking & listening.


A telegram warmer & prominence

This is a fun activity to use as a warmer & also as an introduction to prominence.

Ask the students to write a three or four word telegram in secret - elicit an example to give them the idea. When all have one written, assign roles in pairs of sender & receiver. The receiver sits in front of the sender with her/his back to the sender who writes, letter by letter, the telegram on their partner's back with a pen. Not with the nib - the other end so that the student 'receiving' the message can feel each letter being drawn on her/his back.


While the message is being conveyed the receiver can write each letter down. When all of the telegram has been written they check to see if it has been received correctly. Then the students change roles.

After this you could then ask the students to write their telegrams out in full & then you could tell them about prominence (sentence stress). E.g. we hear the prominent words - the content words (nouns, verbs..) - not the grammar words (prepositions, auxiliaries..). The content words carry the important information. This is the first function of prominence - to convey important information. The idea of telegrams is the same.


Then you could transfer this all to a listening activity - the students listen to isolated utterances & have to mark the stressed words/syllables. They then see if they could get the message across with just these words - telegram style!

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