Teaching Segmentals and Suprasegmentals

Michael Farquharson

This paper will focus on teaching activities for first year university students. The first section will deal with teaching /l/ and /r/ and the second section will deal with teaching information focus and rhythm. Our Japanese students have great difficulty with these areas because they are so intrinsically different from their own sound system. In Japan /l/ and /r/ are not distinguishable from one another and our students have a terrible time trying to produce these sounds as well as hearing them as distinct sounds. The second area that will be explored will be the teaching of rhythm and information focus in the classroom. Our Japanese students have trouble in this area too, because Japanese is a syllable-timed language and English is a stress-timed language. Here we will be looking at simple information focus and stress patterns in English sentences when reporting information.
One of the first things I like to do when introducing /l / and /r/ is to tell a few interesting and funny stories about mistakes in the pronunciation of /l/ and /r/. Depending upon the level and the situation, I might tell the class about an engineer from a major car company. He was my student in a company English conversation class. He had to go to Australia because of a problem with a brake shaft that was corroding. He went to a meeting with his Australian counterparts and gave his presentation on the problem. In the middle of his presentation, with one mistake in the articulation of /l/ and /r/ he became an overnight success as a comedian. He had tried to tell his counterparts about the severe problems that a rusty shaft could cause. Well there is no need to discuss here what happened in the meeting but I'm sure our own imaginations can take it from here.

The second anecdote that I might tell to all levels of students would be about my mother and her first visit to Japan. My mother does not like to fly and is usually quite nervous before the plane takes off. As my mother was boarding the plane a very polite flight attendant wished her a very nice flight except she was wished a nice fright.

Many Japanese speakers make mistakes with /l/ and /r/ and though classroom practice with minimal pairs and with communicative exercises might not dramatically reduce mistakes, the students can be made aware of the differences. It is hoped that though the teachers may or may not see great advances in this area of pronunciation they should not ignore the trouble spot. Helping the students recognize the differences and giving them practice may help them understand why an English speaker may not have understood what they were trying to communicate. With this understanding the students can then try again or try to find another way to explain, thus taking another step on the road of international communication in English.

To begin the lesson, I describe the differences between the production of /l/ and /r/. I like to exaggerate the articulation of these sounds. I usually get the students to put their hands on their cheeks and to pull their cheeks back for the production of /l/ and to bring them forward in the production of /r/. I then begin with minimal pairs. One of the pairs I use is for mother, I hope that the next time she comes to Japan she will have a good flight.

Table 1: Minimal pairs with /l/ & /r/.

With the minimal pairs, I have the students just listen to me. I recite the words and point to the word as I'm saying it. I then get the students to try, again, using their hands on their cheeks. This exercise should not take that long. The important thing to remember is that your students' pronunciation may improve during the production of minimal pairs but this may not translate to real world improvements. This is not something that can be corrected in one or two lessons but must be given attention to over the entire course. By identifying pronunciation problems we can, hopefully, give students an awareness of areas where communication breakdowns may occur. And if communication breakdown does occur, the students can then go back and try to correct their pronunciation or to try to communicate the idea in another manner. Patience and a deep understanding of the different sound systems go a long way in the class. After minimal pairs the next thing I try to do is to set up role playing practices using the target language with the target pronunciation practices for there is no reason why they cannot be incorporated into the same lesson.
With the target sound production in mind, I might use giving and receiving directions as the communicative exercise. Here I get the students to help make a map on the board, putting in the building names and the shops, signal lights and street names. After the map is complete, I go through the communicative exercise with the students and then get them to practice the sentence patterns with me. I usually demonstrate with one or two students before pairing them off and getting them to do the exercise on their own.

  • A: Excuse me, where is the Marine Tower?
  • B: Go up two blocks and turn right at the light.
  • A: Turn at the light?
  • B: Turn right at the light, two blocks up. You can see the tower on the left.
  • A: Thanks.

With a larger city map that you and your students make on the board, you can then get them to ask and give directions on there own. It can be fun to have the students sit back to back and give directions to their partners just to see where they end up.
There is a lot of evidence to show that no matter how we teach pronunciation in the classroom, our students will get very little out of the exercise. Some people have even suggested that pronunciation should not be taught in the class at all. These people are perhaps in the minority but maybe we should touch upon the issue briefly here.

As educators, we have a duty to give our students the best possible lessons that we can. Though beginning students may not be able to retain the target patterns taught for any great length of time, they have a great desire to speak with little or no accent. The students perceive a need for the practice and want the practice. Pronunciation practice can be a tool to make the students feel good about their studies if they can reproduce a sound in isolation. In a conversation though, with the use of suprasegmentals, these same students might have great difficulty getting themselves understood. In isolation though the students might find success and therefore be a little more motivated to continue with their studies.

Information focus

In the second part of this paper, I will be dealing with teaching information focus and stress patterns found in sentences dealing with reporting information. I have found that using the telegram activity is a good way to help the students realize the importance of some words over others (content words vs. function words). I first put a sentence up on the board perhaps something like this:

There is a sale at Sogo in Yokohama on Sunday.

Having done this, I ask the students then try to pick out the key words in the sentence and to make a telegram giving the essential information to a friend. I tell them that there is only one telegram office in town, that every word costs 2,000 yen, and that the number of letters doesn't matter. I then put up three or four more sentences following the basic pattern as the sentence above and have the students make their telegrams. After they have completed this task, I get them to use the school calendar and to report what the school activities are over the school year. These types of sentences can help all levels of students from the beginner to the more advanced.

The beginner student can find success in being able to communicate with only the content words i.e.: sale Sogo Yokohama Sunday. The more advanced the student is, the more complex you can make the study. From the above sentence patterns, we can then move on to thought groups or to stress patterns in a sentence. As the content words in English receive more stress than do function words, this not only helps the students to communicate better but it also helps them with listening comprehension. If they can catch the stressed words in a sentence then they can start selective listening.

Now that the students can find the content words in a sentence, it is time to use the words in sentences. Here I like to focus on thought groups with the strong stress falling on the last content word within one thought group. I also like to have my students pause after each stress and to try to help them with the rhythm of English.

E.g.: There is a sale at Sogo in Yokohama on Sunday.

I might also clap out the stresses for the students to help them realize that only the content words in these sentences receive stress. From here I like to move to Dr. Suess for help in teaching the stress patterns in English. I have my students pretend that they are children and I get them to read The Cat in the hat (1957).

Dr. Suess can be a lot of fun for the students and it can be very helpful in teaching stress patterns to your students. I might read the story to the students and then get them to repeat certain passages from the story. Page 18 is a page that the students should be told to read aloud. Here the teacher can clap out the stressed words as the student reads.

"I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And the little toy man!"

Have the students read certain passages into a cassette paying attention to the word stress and the rhythm. With the cassette the students can then listen to their production and compare it to the teachers. Teaching stress patterns of English is an important part of the students' total English course of study. English is not just reading or just speaking or listening, it is all of the above and should be taught in a holistic manner taking in as many of the different aspects as your time allows.
Time is a very big factor in deciding what to teach to your students. I have fourteen lessons a term in which, not only do I have finish the curriculum, but I have to test the students as well. Deciding which lessons to focus on is one of the hardest things I have to do. Though evidence indicates that teaching pronunciation in the class does not result in any significant changes in the students' pronunciation, I believe that it can't just be ignored. There are so many interconnecting pieces to English and though the students' pronunciation may not change, their ability to understand what is spoken might improve. We could spend a lot of the term on just focussing on the stress patterns and on reporting information.


  • Suess, Dr. (1957) The Cat in the hat. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.