Using the Prosody Pyramid
Teaching pronunciation involves a variety of challenges. To begin with, teachers
often find that they do not have enough time in class to give proper attention
to this aspect of English instruction. When they do find the time to address pronunciation,
the instruction often amounts to the presentation and practice of a
series of tedious and seemingly unrelated topics. Drilling sounds over and over
again (e.g., minimal pair work) often leads to discouraging results, and discouraged
students and teachers end up wanting to avoid pronunciation altogether.
There are also psychological factors that affect the learning of pronunciation
in ways that are not so true of studying grammar or vocabulary. For one
thing, the most basic elements of speaking are deeply personal. Our sense of
self and community are bound up in the speech-rhythms of our first language
(L1). These rhythms were learned in the first year of life and are deeply rooted
in the minds of students. Therefore, it is common for students to feel uneasy
when they hear themselves speak with the rhythm of a second language (L2).
They find that they “sound foreign” to themselves, and this is troubling for
them. Although the uneasiness is usually unconscious, it can be a major barrier
to improved intelligibility in the L2.
The Functions of Prosody
Communication in spoken English is organized by “musical signals.” There
are two aspects to these signals – rhythm and melody – and the combination of
these two aspects may be called prosody. Often, the term prosody is used to mean
rhythm alone, while the term intonation is used to refer specifically to melody
(or pitch patterns).
All languages have some way to highlight the most important piece of information
in an utterance. Efficient listening comprehension, therefore, depends on the ability
to “read” melodic cues in order to sort out these aspects of the incoming language. But in spoken English, the “road signs” are prosodic!
Consider the following example sentences.
a. Jane said, “Is that Mister Fogg?”
b. Jane said, “Is that mist or fog?”
Question: What was Jane talking about?
(Gilbert 2005, 136)
In sentence (a), Jane is asking about a person. In sentence (b), she is asking
about something altogether different, the weather.
Children learn the rhythm of their L1 very early in life. By the time they reach
the age of one, that rhythm is deeply familiar to them, and they will unconsciously
apply it to any L2 that they learn (Aoyama et al. 2007). The basic unit of English rhythm is the syllable. A syllable is most
simply explained as something with a vowel sound at its center. And while the
number of syllables in a word is usually obvious to a native speaker of English,
learners accustomed to different phonological rules may not hear the syllable
divisions in the same way. Notice in the picture of a school bus in Malaysia below that the
English word school has been re-syllabified to fit the Bahasa Malaysia language
(sekolah), which does not allow a final /l/ sound.
Figure 1: School Bus in Bahasa Malaysia language
Without a sufficient, threshold-level mastery of the English prosodic system,
learners’ intelligibility and listening comprehension will not advance, no matter
how much effort is made drilling individual sounds.
The Prosody Pyramid
The English prosodic system can be illustrated visually with a pyramid shape.
We will call it the Prosody Pyramid. The base of the system is the thought group.
This is a group of words that may be a short sentence, a clause, or a phrase
within a longer sentence (Chafe 1970, Bolinger 1989, Brown 1990, Cauldwell
1992). In the
sections that follow, we will consider each level of the Prosody Pyramid in turn
and explain how each level relates to the others.
The Thought Group
Perhaps the most important way that English speakers help their listeners to
follow their meaning is by grouping words so that they can be more easily
processed. The stream of talk in English does not flow smoothly; it is composed
of a series of brief spurts. In written English, punctuation is used to help readers separate
thought groups. For instance, in the following example a comma and a period
are used to mark the end of each thought group.
Danny arrived late, so he missed half the movie.
The Focus Word
Every English thought group has a focus word. This is the most important
word in the group. It is the word that the speaker wants the listener to notice
most, and it is therefore emphasized.
Figure 3: Illustrates emphasizing a focus word (from Gilbert 2005, 44)
Stress and the Peak Syllable
Every English multi-syllabic word has a syllable that receives the main stress. This
is part of each word’s signature, so to speak. But in the focus word, this stressed
syllable gets special attention, because it represents the peak of information in
the thought group. It is the most important syllable within the most important
word, and, therefore, the sounds in the peak syllable must be heard clearly.
Brown expresses the importance of recognizing English word stress
patterns this way:
It is essential in English to learn to pay attention to the stressed
syllable of a word, since this is the best and most stable feature of the
word’s profile, and to those words in the stream of speech which are
[emphasized], since these mark the richest information-bearing units.
Listeners who fail to distinguish these are likely to flounder. They are
likely to lose even more information if they do not know how to identify
information peaks and how to use the information encoded in this
distribution. (1990, 151)
The Prosody Pyramid and
Vowel Sounds in the Peak Syllable
The vowel sounds in a peak syllable are crucial. Other parts of the thought
group can (and should) be muffled, but the vowel sound at the center of the
peak syllable needs to be extra long and extra clear. Part of achieving the necessary clarity of this vowel involves pronouncing
it with the correct sound. But pronouncing vowels with the correct sound
is often difficult for learners.
Alphabet Vowel Sounds
It is probably most practical to teach the alphabet vowel sounds first, since they
are a natural part of teaching the names of the alphabet letters.
Figure 6: Illustrates tongue and mouth shifts for vowel sounds (from
Figure 7: Illustrates stop and continuant sounds (Gilbert 2005, 77, 78)
We began this booklet by noting that traditional pronunciation training usually
focuses on minimal-pair drilling of vowel and consonant sounds, concentrating
on individual sounds that are hard for students to hear or produce, in the hopes
of achieving “mastery of the English sound system.”
Ideas for Implementing the
This chapter presents various techniques for teaching the core elements of communication
in spoken English.
We have already seen that each level of the Prosody Pyramid depends on the
other levels. Since these levels are interdependent and occur at the same time,
teachers may wonder how they can teach all the levels simultaneously.
Owning the Template
When students can access a model from their own memory, they have internalized
the model, or taken ownership of the model and, therefore, have an instant
resource to analyze various aspects of pronunciation.
Analyzing the Template
After the template sentence has been rehearsed chorally in these different ways,
it can be used to analyze some specific core element of the template sentence.
1. Memory and attention are intrinsically rhythmic
processes (Di Matteo et al. 1997).
2. Rehearsal of a motor act activates neuronal pathways,
classically expressed as “the neurons that fire together,
wire together” (Hebb 1949).
3. Learners who hear the external model many times
and then hear their own correct speech through bone
conduction, build internal audiomotor images of the
correct model. This is because hearing is central to the
control and monitoring of speech (Greenberg 1995).
4. Chorally supported practice helps convert a short-term
memory into a “procedural” (permanent) memory
Figure 8: Reasons for repetition
Specific Suggestions for Analyzing the Template
What follows are specific methods and techniques for teaching elements of
English pronunciation once students have been exposed to a template
1. Have students listen for the pauses in these
New Zealand 9-377-3800
United Kingdom 01223-325-847
United States 212-924-3900
(from Gilbert 2001)
2. Have students listen to and repeat the following phone
numbers with appropriate pauses and pitch drops.
(from Gilbert 2001)
3. Have students work in pairs. Student A reads one of
the phone numbers in the preceeding examples, and
Student B writes down the number using dashes and
parentheses to group the numbers.
Linking Within Thought Groups
Any final sound can be practiced in a new way through linking words together.
Have students practice linking with /s/ in the
1. The boats entered the water.
2. The coats all need to be cleaned.
3. She has less of everything.
4. Is the boss in the office?
5. The nights are long here.
(from Gilbert 2005, 82)
Second language learners do not hear intonation very well. When they listen to
speech, they are powerfully distracted from paying attention to pitch changes
because they are struggling to understand sounds, vocabulary, and grammar.
Many other exercises and techniques could be used to teach each of these
pronunciation elements. Those presented here are meant to be suggestive.
For more exercises and further details about teaching the elements of English
prosody, refer to the Clear Speech Teacher’s Resource Book. The main idea is to
use as many visual, kinesthetic, and auditory tools as you can, and to encourage
the most realistic interactive use possible of the components of the Prosody
Pyramid. All these parts of pronunciation work together to make a speaker
comfortably intelligible. Students who gain confidence through practice with
“listener-friendly pronunciation” will find English an easier pathway to whatever
goals they want to achieve with the language.
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pronunciation. TESOL Post Convention Institute.
Anderson-Hsieh, J., R. Johnson & K. Koehler, 1992. The relationship
between native speaker judgments of nonnative pronunciation and
deviance in segmentals, prosody, and syllable structure. Language
Learning 49:4, 529–555.
Aoyama, K. & S. Guion. 2007. Prosody in second language acquisition:
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eds. Language experience in second language speech learning. In honor of
James Emil Flege, John Benjamins: 281–297.
Bolinger, D. 1989. Intonation and its uses: Melody in grammar and discourse.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Crystal, D. 1969. Prosodic systems and intonation in English. Cambridge
David, D., L. Wade-Woolley, J. Kirby, & K. Smithrim. 2007. Rhythm and
reading development in school-age children: A longitudinal study. Journal
of Research in Learning to Read 30 (2):169–183.
Ohala, J. & J. Gilbert. 1979. Listener’s ability to identify languages by their
prosody. In Problèmes de Prosodie, Studia Phonetica 18. Didier.
Kondo, Y. 2001. Prosody-based approach to English pronunciation teaching.
Tsuda Review, No. 46 November: 165–190.
JUDUL : TEACHING PRONOUNCIATION
USING THE PROSODY PIRAMID
JUMLAH KATA : 800+