Pronunciation Camp 3: Intonational Chunks and Fluency

This is the third part of my series of posts on the pronunciation course that I taught over the summer. You can read Part 1: Models & Goals and Vowels here, and Part 2: Segmental Consonants here.

As I mentioned in my preview post, my university wasn’t quite as keen as I was on having a pronunciation camp, doubting the saleability of such an endeavour. In order to make it a bit more appealing, we threw in a fluency aspect as well. I had at first thought about conveniently ignoring this side of the course, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to include it. For one, the ability to make sounds and words is a key part of fluency, and two, supra-segmental aspects go hand in hand with fluency, and you can’t often can’t work on one without automatically working on the other.

It’s my view that it is impossible to achieve fluency without repetition. I’m not necessarily talking about drilling here, though it plays a big part, but also repetition of tasks and situations. The big problem is of course, how to get a lot of repetitions of something without it becoming monotonous. Examining my own Korean skills (always a great source of inspiration for my teaching), I noticed that in daily pleasantries I am much, much more fluent than any other area, mostly due to doing these every day – and because they’re real interactions, they’re not even boring. Too often English lessons don’t leave time for students to chat about the small things using language that they already know, but perhaps don’t use that often because they have limited opportunity outside the classroom. In other words, we’re too focused on learning and not enough on practising.

On my course, I reserved the first 20 minutes or so of each lesson for what we called “small-talk time”. Most days we took a different conversation starter, and looked at the pronunciation, especially the intonation, but also anything that we had looked at on the course so far. As I said, fluency and supra-segmental features are closely related – you can’t teach sentence stress and thought grouping if the sentence is riddled with hesitations – and so teaching them together seems to make sense.  Every morning, I would choose a conversation starting chuck (eg. “That’s a nice _____!”), drill it, and then have the students try to draw the intonation contours in their notebooks. They’d then hold them up and try to choose whose was most accurate. The best contour was then transferred to paper and stuck on the wall each day, leaving us with something that looked like the below.

I deliberately tried to steer away from teaching rules for intonation, with the exception of rising intonation for yes/no questions and falling for Wh- questions, as I wanted students to absorb it more than think about it. It’s my view that just constructing sentences uses almost all of a lower level students cognitive resources, and I don’t want to further overload them. The lines on the pictures were just there as a reminder for students. As evidence for this being a successful approach, I’d like to show you here some of my students’ own creations, if you can look past the somewhat unusual nature of these conversation starters, you’ll see that the intonation lines are pretty spot on, as was the pronunciation when they said them out loud.

At first getting students (and teachers!) to recognize intonation is tricky. It’s probably something that no-one has ever focused on with them before. The first thing to do is get the students to reproduce it accurately, and they can do this without being explicitly instructed. My aim was not only to teach the intonation though, but to make students think about it, and perhaps help them to figure it out if they need to in the future, hence the diagramming. So, once they can produce it accurately, how can students be helped to represent it visually? Firstly, I think that intonation can generally be felt in the throat – vocal cords seem to vibrate in different places according to the pitch. Getting students to track this with their hands, by moving them up and down according to where they think the sound is coming from, helped them to visualize the intonation (this seemed to work for me and my students, and I’m interested to know if it does for anyone else). Another more technical method is to use a sound analysis program like UCL’s WASP which draws the intonation for you. This can also provide great fun for students trying to match the teacher’s model. However you find it out, it seemed to me that drawing the intonation helped students to realize what they were doing/had to do, and also reminded them of the intonation when they hadn’t heard or used the phrase for a while.

Once we’d figured out and diagrammed the intonation, it was practice time. I would generally walk students through the first couple of exchanges of a conversation, and then let them try it for themselves. When working on something new, I’d start by keeping the exchanges very short, shouting “Change partners!” every 30 seconds or so, but gradually lengthening the times to allow more complex conversations, and also allow students to use previous days conversation starters. I also found it was important to some days not teach anything new, but just to allow students to have twenty minutes of simple conversations using the things that they had already learnt. This also gave me an excellent change to circulate, tackle individual problems and join in some conversations to try to make them more challenging, or just provide an expert speaker model.

Of course, even this can get boring after a while, and it’s handy to have a couple of different activities up your sleeve to keep things interesting. One of the ones I used was based on an article by Gatbonton and Segalowitz (that I found through an excellent post and discussion about automaticity on Scott Thornbury’s blog) which talked about creative fluency activities – activities that require multiple repetitions of language but with some kind of customization. They key point is that, in order to be interesting, these activities need a communicative purpose. One great way to do this is for that purpose to be predicting the majority view of a group.

One Monday morning, we looked at the chunk “Did you _______ this weekend?” along with it’s rhythm and intonation. I then asked each student to supply an answer to the question that they thought some, but not all, of the class would also have done. I wrote these answers on the board and then selected the five that I thought would be closest together in terms of how many people did them the previous weekend. I then asked students to secretly mark which ones they had done in their books. I then drilled the five questions they would need (eg. “Did you eat chicken this weekend?”) until everyone had the pronunciation down. They then had a set time (three minutes worked well) in which to mingle and ask as many people the questions as possible. Once they had finished, they made a prediction about which activity was most popular, and we checked the results. Those who predicted correctly won a candy.

Although this activity takes a while to set up first time, for a relatively low amount of speaking, it’s eminently repeatable, and can be customized for many different chunks of language. As Scott says in the post linked above, these activities are great for the end of lessons when you have some time left over.

In the feedback from the camp, the small talk, conversation and intonation teaching was by far the most popular element of my course. I’m going to to a much more detailed feedback post in the future, but for now I’d recommend doing this to anyone. In fact, it’s going to become a part of my general English class this semester. Putting phrases on the wall really works well, as it gives the students something to start their own conversations with – sometimes just saying “OK! Free talking!” can be intimidating in terms of where to start, but this meant students could get straight into conversations. The intonation too seemed to sink in much better for the repetition than it ever would have otherwise.

Again, it’s time to finish another overly long post. I hope you enjoyed it. I think I have at least 2 more of these in me, so please come back soon if you’re after more, or leave me an encouraging comment below.




Gatbonton, E. and Segalowitz, N. (1988) ‘Creative automatization: Principles for promoting fluency within a communicative framework’, TESOL Quarterly22, 3.


4 responses to “Pronunciation Camp 3: Intonational Chunks and Fluency

  1. Pingback: Pronunciation Camp 4 – Habits: Revealing, Correcting, Practising and Linking | The Breathy Vowel

  2. Dominic Xavier Farrington

    Enjoyed the post, I love the idea of putting up conversation starters with sentence intonation on the wall – I’ll be doing it this weekend if you don’t mind me co-opting your idea. While learning Chinese it was explained to me that when using a rising intonation your vocal cords go from tight to loose, the opposite for a falling intonation, and for a rise/fall tight to loose and then back to tight again. I imagine it’s applicable to English as well.

    • Hi Dominic,

      Thanks very much for the comment. Of course you’re welcome to co-opt it. That’s mostly the point of sharing things here. I’m glad it’s useful, and I’m keen to hear how it goes.

      I’d never heard of the vocal cords thing, but will add it to my box of teaching tricks. Cheers!


  3. Pingback: Winter Pronunciation Camp* Reflections Week 2 (Part 1) | The Breathy Vowel

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