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Teaching Tips 127

Tone it up
Content listening
Lower levels


Tone it up

Last week we had another look at tone units & mentioned tonic syllables. Tone units divide speech up to make it all easier for the listener. We pause at the end of each tone unit.
See the Tip from last week:

Within each tone unit there is a tonic syllable, & this is important as it is where the tone changes. There are five main tones in English -


It can be difficult to hear the tones & it's not only students that need ear training but teachers as well. We can hardly integrate intonation into our teaching if we feel unconfident about actually identifying the movement in the first place. So listen out for tonal movement in conversations you have & with the audio teaching materials you use. The more you do, the easier it becomes.

There are several functions of intonation, the main ones being Grammatical, Attitudinal & Discoursal.

The Grammatical function - intonation reinforces grammar.
For example;
- wh-questions: fall
- conditional sentences: rise on the first clause & a fall on the second
- imperatives: fall
- yes/no questions: rise-fall

The Attitudinal function - intonation carries the emotions of the speaker.
For example;
- expressing surprise: rise
- sarcasm: rise-fall
- politeness: rise ('the polite rise')
- doubt: fall-rise

The Discoursal function - if we are talking about something we think the listener already knows about or has experience of then we rise or fall-rise – known as referring tones. If we think it is new for the listener we fall – known as the proclaiming tone.
See the following past Tips for more on this function:
Toning It Down
You don't say!

So what do we do with all of this?
We can highlight the different areas for our students, making them aware that there is a system at work, & we can also integrate these ideas into our day-to-day teaching.

The first can be done through activities to highlight the different functions. For example, students could listen to a series of questions & decide what the movement is on all of the wh- questions & the movement on the polar questions - a guided problem solving awareness activity.

Integrating intonation can come at many stages in a lesson. In the planning we work out the stresses & tonal movement so that in the presentation stage we can clearly model the new language, drill it & then offer a comprehensive board stage for the students to copy down.

It is important to take intonation seriously. Begin with tone units & the main stresses, the telegram words, & then move onto introducing different aspects of tonal movement.

Also see the Tip about integrating phonology:

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Content listening

This week we revisit & expand the area of tone units. Initially for our students, pronunciation is all about listening & comprehension. Our students want to understand everything, thinking that if they miss something they won't understand the message. As with reading, they don't transfer their mother tongue skills. To show them that native speakers don't hear everything, try out the following awareness activities:

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!

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. You have the same words, but said in different groups, you have different results.

So how it is interpreted depends how the utterance is separated into chunks. The speaker chooses when to pause to make the message clearer for the listener.

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.

To get hold of 'Speaking Clearly' - P.Rogerson & J.Gilbert (CUP):

A procedure through listening/viewing:
1. Begin with a video with the sound turned off & the students try to work out what is happening from the situation & the body language - choose a fairly obvious scene.
2. Make telegram dialogues for the students to listen to. They will immediately see that not all is necessary to understand the message. The students then have their own one-word conversations.
3. Play a dialogue above their level & simply ask for the general idea. In the feedback discuss whether it is necessary to get more information in some situations. And in which situations is detailed listening vital.
4. Continue incorporating extensive gist tasks into the listening skills work you do in class. This will build up confidence & make listening an enjoyable activity in class.
5. Along the way, introduce the tone unit idea above - from 'Speaking Clearly' or your own tape. And then introduce the idea of the tonic syllable - the last major stressed syllable in the tone unit, where the tone changes - & secondary stresses. These are the words that are used in the telegram activity. These are the words that are used in the telegram activity. If you look at the dialogue above you will see the stresses in bold.
More on tonic syllables & secondary stress in a future Tip.

If our students are aware of what is involved in the process of listening, they'll be much more efficient listeners. And of course the same goes for all the other skills as well.

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spirit level

Lower levels

I've received a few emails recently looking for materials for lower levels, & in particular beginners. It's true there is little for these levels & we shall endeavor to put up some low level plans. We've had a few past Tips dealing with beginners:

Writing for beginners
The honeymoon is over!
Unlocking beginners

When watching low level lessons I often find myself wondering what it is that makes an effective lesson at this level. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Relevance - choose the language & topics carefully & help them to make progress quickly. This means looking very critically at the coursebook & dumping stuff they're not going to need - all that bedroom vocab for adults! And choose relevant grammar - get onto the past simple fairly soon as with this they can talk about themselves, rather than simply describing their daily routines with the present simple or describing situations with the present continuous. Some coursebooks come round to introducing can/can't after several months! Take control the coursebook rather than the other way round.
2. Pitch - this means anticipating accurately the difficulties the students are going to have with the language & skills work you look at. Put yourself in their shoes.
3. Number of activities - don't overdo it so that you're cramming in activities at the expense of completing them properly. And on the other hand don't spend too long so that you end up doing only one or two activities in the lesson.
4. Variety of activity - variety is the spice of life so get creative & get out of the ruts, the similar procedures you follow.
5. Signposting & continuity - the lessons shouldn't be one-offs, students should be able to see the links - your timetable fit. During the lessons be clear about starting & finishing stages so all can see what's happening.
6. Classroom management - this has got to be as clear as possible. All you ask the students to do hinges around this. Clear instructions are vital. If you have a complicated task to set up, write the instructions out. If your classroom management is confused the students will be dissatisfied.
7. Authenticity & teacher talk - just because the students are low level doesn't mean they need to be talked to as if they are children. Certainly grade your language but try to speak as naturally as possible.
8. Use visual aids to convey meaning. Don't rely on using the students' mother tongue, try to use English as much as possible.
9. Organise their learning - talk to them about efficient ways such as having a vocab notebook, which dictionary & grammar books to buy, where to look on the internet etc.

You could say the same for all levels but these are particularly important for low levels. This is just looking at a lesson but don't forget the slightly longer term motivational problems. See the Tip 'The honeymoon is over!':

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