Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid by T.M.Juanda



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

Individual Sounds

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

Gilbert 2005)





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

Prosody Pyramid

This chapter presents various techniques for teaching the core elements of communication

in spoken English.


 Quality Repetition

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

(Kjellin 1999).


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



Example Exercises

1. Have students listen for the pauses in these

telephone numbers.

Australia 03-9568-0322

Canada 604-892-5808

Japan 03-3295-5875

Mexico 55-19-59-39

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.

a. 391-456-3304

b. 596-415-7892

c. 777-2340

d. 660-2555

(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.

Example Exercise

Have students practice linking with /s/ in the

following sentences.

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)


Focus Words

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.










Acton, W. 2002. Integrating verbal and nonverbal language enhances

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between native speaker judgments of nonnative pronunciation and

deviance in segmentals, prosody, and syllable structure. Language

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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

University Press.


David, D., L. Wade-Woolley, J. Kirby, & K. Smithrim. 2007. Rhythm and

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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.

























NIM: 140900371



















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