Teaching Connected Speech to Improve Learners’ Listening – Part 1

Connected speech has many elements. I’m assuming you are at least a little familiar with these features. If you’ve never heard of terms like linking, assimilation and elision, Rachael Roberts has a great blog post which introduces the main players in connected speech.

Perhaps you’re wondering what’s the point. Are these words just jargon to learn for the Delta exam? Is there any application to the classroom? Well, of course students don’t really need to learn terminology like elision, but connected speech is most definitely relevant to the classroom. Did the title of this article give it away? 😉

Why learners need to learn about connected speech

They don’t necessarily need to start speaking like that themselves. But if they are not aware of the changes that occur in fast, natural speech then chances are that learners’ listening ability is going to suffer.

The stream of speech

Natural, fast speech is “full of simplifications and reductions” (Hancock 2013) in terms of pronunciation. Phonemes can change or disappear in connected speech because doing this makes speech faster and easier for us. Even the position of words in the sentence can change how they sound, and they can sound really rather different. Unrecognisable even, to someone who’s not aware of these changes.

As expert listeners ourselves, we are used to decoding the “stream of speech” we hear. We map the reductions and simplifications we hear to words and phrases we know, filling in gaps that weren’t even there. We hear traces of a sound and think we’ve heard the whole thing (Cauldwell 2013). And we do it automatically.

But most of our learners don’t. Is that surprising? Chances are, changes in fast, natural speech are different in their own language. Chances are, they haven’t listened to enough English to be anywhere near an L1 style of acquisition. Chances are, they’re pronouncing English clearly themselves: “What are you going to do?” instead of “What’re ya gonna do?”. Chances are, no-one’s ever taught them about these changes.

No wonder they can’t understand. 🙁

There are many features of connected speech. Where to start?

Now, that doesn’t mean you should go into class tomorrow and spend the whole lesson teaching learners about all the features connected speech. It may well overwhelm them (or you, or both).

I’ve been doing this for three years now and I go through the features one or two at a time (as per Kenworthy 1987) as they naturally relate to something in class. I focus on the ones that get students the most mileage. As a result, I rarely teach some of the features like intrusion.

So, which features of connected speech get students the most mileage? Which do they really need to know, asap?

Starting with the schwa

Student love for the schwa

It’s no secret both I and my students are familiar with the schwa*. This is generally the first element of connected speech I teach my students.

Not only is it more straightforward than some other elements of connected speech, many of the other features (like linking and assimilation) will often include a schwa. For example, in fast speech a lot of often has linking and two schwas: /ə lɒ təv/.

The schwa comes up all the time, so you can introduce it in pretty much any lesson. Often the first time occurrence of the schwa I draw attention to is prepositions like of or to. I don’t phonemically transcribe the whole word, but I do usually board the /ə/ phoneme.

After eliciting the weak forms of some other prepositions (eg. from), I then elicit other function words like auxiliary verbs. Depending on their background, many students will have had some exposure to the schwa. If not, I still get them to produce it. Eg. “How do you think we say was /wɒz/?” (wəz)

Secondly, assimilation

Once students are used to the schwa (and sometimes they’re familiar with the sound before I start teaching them, so this can be in the same lesson), I often move on to assimilation. This is not always the second feature I teach, but lately it has been.

I start with reductions that happen in very common question forms that students are going to hear all the time. If you want to be precise, I’m talking about coalescent assimilation here. But we can just call it assimilation.

For the last two groups I introduced it with, these were the two questions I used and the context they came up in to show you how you can link it in with a lesson.

Do you like…?
/duː juː/ becomes /ʤə/ (or a softer /djə/ which isn’t technically assimilation)

While teaching in the UK this summer, my high pre-intermediate students were going to go out and survey local people. The students were a little nervous about starting conversations with locals so we spent part of the lesson preparing for this, including practising the pronunciation in order to build their confidence.

One of the questions was “Do you like living here?”. I seized it as a chance to introduce students to assimilation. It blew their minds. They laughed a few times as they practised trying to say it in the classroom. This is good, we’re not aiming for perfection! Make practising connected speech light-hearted.

I don’t know how they pronounced the “do you” question out in public, but it doesn’t really matter. The point of teaching connected speech is more for listening, so they can understand when other people are using it.

What’re you gonna do this weekend?
reduced to /wɒʧə gənə duː/ (or /gʌnə/)

I wanted to make small talk with my low pre-intermediate students during the Delta, particularly as I often taught on a Thursday or Friday. This question was problematic – they didn’t understand me unless I slowed my speech right down.

One day I was only scheduled to teach them for 30 minutes. Hello, assimilation! We spent the whole time practising this structure, focusing on both pronunciation and grammatical accuracy and finishing off with some small talk (eg. “What’re you gonna do for Christmas?”).

And then what?

It’s important not to focus on connected speech in one lesson and then never speak of it again. Exploit the schwa and assimilation when they come up in following lessons, keep raising students’ awareness of these features of connected speech and encourage them to notice them for themselves.

  • Recycle the questions that you used to introduce assimilation. This was the main reason I chose “What’re you gonna do this weekend?” – for the small talk which could be included at the beginning or end of lessons!
  • Draw attention to schwas and assimilation that come up in class. Over the course of 3-4 lessons my pre-int students became reasonably familiar with this kind of assimilation.
  • Exploit the listenings you do in class. After comprehension work, you could exploit the audio and/or the transcript. Encourage learners to notice schwas and/or assimilation. Remember to only focus on one or two features of connected speech at a time (Kenworthy 1987). The lower the level, the more likely I’m just going to focus on one feature at any one time.

Predict the pronunciation

  • When presenting new language, elicit from students where they expect schwas and assimilation.
  • You could exploit written language – from instructions on the page in a textbook to an excerpt from a reading. Get students to tell you what schwas or assimilation they’d expect.

Elisabeth, I still have questions

You may have some questions about the above. I’ve tried to anticipate some of them here, but let me know if you have any more! I love questions (no joke).

Q. But you’re teaching connected speech to low levels!

A. Yes. In my opinion, the sooner the better. For adult learners, I would introduce the schwa in one of my first lessons at any level, beginner to advanced. Assimilation I’d teach from false beginner to advanced. I teach quite a lot of Elementary classes and I always introduce these two features early on. Even my Primary YL students know about the schwa sound!

At the moment I’m coaching a C2 level learner who’s not satisfied with their listening ability. Cauldwell at IATEFL 2017 also mentioned a student who passed CPE but had accepted they ‘couldn’t understand native speakers’. This saddens me. I’d like for my students to develop their listening throughout their learning journey so they don’t end up in that position!

Q. But why teach students to pronounce connected speech if they don’t need to start speaking like that?

Cauldwell (2013) says students can “improve their decoding skills by repeating, changing, manipulating and interacting in a variety of ways with the sound substance”. Basically by playing around with the sound changes themselves, they become better able to ‘decode’ or understand these changes when they hear them.

For example, if you tell students “going to” is pronounced gonna, they’ll probably accept it but may well forget it. If you spend 10 minutes getting students to practice saying gonna in a variety of sentences, they may have forgotten it by the next lesson. They probably won’t start using gonna themselves. But they’re probably more likely to recall it the next time they hear gonna. That’s what we’re aiming for – students hearing gonna and understanding.

Q. Any other tips for starting out?

A. Particularly for teaching low levels, I like to joke that we’re lazy and we like to shorten things. I then gesture with my hands to indicate shorten. Then, when practising, if learners are producing the long, “clear speech” form, I use the gesture to encourage them to self-correct to the messy connected speech version.

Students do sometimes ask me why we use connected speech. I usually simplify it to ‘because it’s easier for us to pronounce’. They can look a bit doubtful at this point, so if you’re aware of any connected speech in their L1, it can help to refer to it. I usually then reassure them again they don’t have to speak like that, but native speakers do so they’ve got to be aware.

Over to you: Do you teach connected speech to improve your students’ listening? Where do you start? If you don’t teach connected speech, do you have any questions that I haven’t covered above?

* I’m starting to fall out of love with the schwa. It’s an ongoing process, but I’m sure we’ll still be friends at the end of it.

Further Reading

When /tə/ isn’t /tə/

schwa is good
Student love for the schwa

to – one of those words that, most of the time, is unstressed and uses the schwa /ə/, right?

That’s what I thought until one of my Delta Module 2 input sessions this week when my mind was thoroughly blown. It turns out it’s dependent on what comes next.

Let’s take an example with telling the time, as last year both me and my Primary students had fun when drilling weak forms.

  1. It’s ten to two.
  2. It’s ten to eight.

In the first example, all is as expected: to is unstressed /tə/.

But in the second example other phonological rules come into play, don’t they? Schwa /ə/ is a vowel and is followed by eight which starts with the diphthong /eɪ/.

What happens with two consecutive vowels in connected speech? Why I’m glad you asked – what we get is an intrusive /j/, /r/ or /w/ depending on the sounds involved. Here it’s /w/.

In #2, I think the schwa is still there (though I am no phonology expert and could be wrong). I think that most of the time, there is still the intrusive /w/ which means it comes out as /təweɪt/. Most of the time. I’ve been saying it to myself and sometimes I’ve not heard or felt my mouth move to the /w/ position at all. But in another example such as to eat /təwiːt/, the /ə/ and /w/ are clearly there to my ear (and pronounced differently to tweet /twiːt/).

So, what does this mean for the classroom? The way we drill the sentence (or phrase) changes. It’s not quite as simple as /tə/ + /eɪt/. We naturally introduce the /w/ when speaking at full speed, but is it always there when drilling? I’m not sure. I think it’s entirely possible I’ve oversimplified it when teaching.

Going forward, I’ll be watching out for this!

Over to you: Have you thought about this aspect of the schwa before? What have you learned or been surprised by in your teaching of phonology?

Success of the week: Addressing emerging learning

As I’m preparing myself for a Diploma level TEFL course, one of my areas of teaching to work on is trying to maximise “emerging learning” as it happens in my classrooms. 

I included this in my CAM Action Plan written at the start of the course. So far I’ve become more aware of instances where I’ve been developing this learning as things come up in lessons. I’ve been reassured that it was sometimes happening. However, I’m also now more aware of these opportunities and actively thinking “here’s some learning or language that could be exploited” and jumping the on chance. Or at least trying to.

And then last week I had a lesson where I feel like I nailed it.

I was teaching a motivated and mature intermediate-level Lower Secondary class and actually I was teaching the reading lesson my colleague and I had prepared for our CAM Module 5 Assignment.

Emerging learning #1: Pronunciation

The students in this class have been with me for a while and as such are quite aware of the schwa, /ə/.

schwa is good
 Presented to me after a breaktime. Let’s make that very aware.

Somehow the word perfume was mentioned, which sounds similar in their native language with an ‘a’ kind of sound where the English /ɜː/ appears. As I highlighted the sound of the English word perfume, a student piped up “it’s /ə/ again”!

Time to introduce a new phoneme! We listened to the difference between /ə/ and /ɜː/ and elicited a few words that contained the latter sound before drilling perfume again and carrying on with the lesson.

Emerging learning #2: Vocabulary

Do you board new vocabulary during your lessons? Whether that’s target language of just random vocabulary​ that comes up in the lesson?

I’ve done this at times, particularly when I was teaching Academic English. Even more so when I was in one of the classrooms with a 4m long whiteboard (I think it was longer but let’s be conservative in our estimate). 

Not the best photo but you get some idea of the size of the board. I miss these boards.

If I’m perfectly honest, it never quite made it to habit status. And since moving to a centre with IWBs and precious little non-interactive whiteboard space, I’ve not been doing it of late.

However, I’m turning over a new leaf and trying to remember to do this with my Intermediate classes. To take it a step further I’m going to try my best to leave a little time at the end of my lessons for a recap. (For some reason though I started doing this with adults last summer, I never integrated it into YL classes. What an oversight!

Emerging learning #3: use of they

The final instance where the lesson plan was paused was when the students kept on calling the writer ‘he’. It was irritating on a personal level, and then I started to wonder why the students were using that pronoun and were they even aware of it. 

Trying to be as impartial as I could, I asked students if they knew the writer was male. To my surprise, they not only checked the page we were on, but decided to look for the gender of the course book authors. Even then, one student pointed out they might not have written it. 

From there I was able to introduce the idea of they as a neutral singular pronoun. I think this is fairly standard, while it may not be universal (yet), and is what I use, and have used in class, probably without students being aware.  I also added a personal anecdote that some of my IH CAM materials have used “she” to refer to the teacher, which I personally find more unnatural than they

The students seemed to follow the logic but found it a bit strange to try and use it. And try they did, but he kept slipping out. Perhaps this is also in part because their native language is gendered (ie. all nouns have genders). But English isn’t, and the language is becoming more and more neutral, even in the US

While my students may continue to use he (or she) in these situations, at least they’re more aware. And I’m still going to call them out on it.

I’m pleased with how the learning in this lesson went, and I walked away with a great feeling. However I’m aware that it’s a work in progress and this was just one lesson. With time and effort I’ll get better at recognising and seizing these opportunities and hopefully get this feeling more often.

At the same time I’m aware that the things that come up might sometimes be better noted down and worked on in a subsequent lesson. I do have some very chatty classes that could easily end up going off on a tangent which hijacks the lesson. 

Over to you: Do you address these things as they come up? Do you make a note of them and come back to them in another lesson? Alternatively, what went really well in one of your lessons last week? Share a success!