Helping students improve their pronunciation and intonation will lead to an overall improvement of their speaking fluency. As all these elements improve, a student’s accent is minimized and the obstacles they find when trying to make themselves understood are diminished.
This article will focus on the three areas that are important when helping students improve their oral delivery of the language: word stress, intonation and general fluency.
Teaching Word Stress
In many languages, word stress is dictated by the number of syllables or the use of particular vowels in a syllable. Some languages don’t have stress patterns at all and all the syllables in a word have the same emphasis. In English, word stress follows different rules and this often poses a big challenge for ESL students.
It is important to teach these rules specifically in order to give students some guidelines within a language that can be so inconsistent in its spelling and pronunciation. For example, once students learn that most two-syllable nouns and adjectives are stressed on the first syllable, whereas most two-syllable verbs are stressed on the last syllable, they cannot only pronounce the words correctly, but also identify the parts of speech being used by someone who is talking to them.
Once students have learned to identify syllables in words, a common Physical Response activity is to clap each syllable and clap and stomp at the same time for the stressed syllable.
For longer words that have three or more syllables students can present in groups to the rest of the class. Each student says a syllable and the student in charge of the stressed syllable says it louder or jumps as they say it. Then the whole group repeats the word with the correct stress.
These activities can be used to contrast verbs and nouns that are the same word but have a different stress pattern. It can be visually clear as well as entertaining.
Just like with stress, intonation in English is very different than in other languages. If students are not taught intonation patterns and how to produce them, they could pronounce individual words perfectly, but still have trouble making themselves understood.
Making intonation patterns visually identifiable with arrows is a great way to help students practice. Physical Response activities can also help them remember that yes/no questions should have rising intonation; for example, the teacher can ask students to stand up when they say the end of the question. In the same manner, they could be told to sit down when they reply with new information given that informative statements should have falling intonation.
One of the most difficult tasks a teacher has is to help students develop fluency in the language they are learning.
First, fluency does improve with time and practice and all students should be made aware of this. Second, fluency depends not only on the pronunciation, stress and intonation of the person’s speech, but also on how much grammar and vocabulary they know since these kinds of mistakes could hinder communication. The more confident a student is in the language, the more fluently they will speak.
Something that teachers can do with students of all levels is work with storytelling. A rehearsed story – or presentation – will help improve a student’s oral fluency.
It is important to bear in mind that an English Language Learner’s accent does not have to be eliminated for them to be able to communicate in English. Students learn the language for different reasons and if communication is what they seek, only basic speaking exercises are needed. However, there are times when students want more than to just be understood. Sometimes students request accent reduction and even accent elimination activities if their future career involves public speaking in English. Depending on the auditory ability of the student, this can be carried out with commitment and practice.
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