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Pronunciation Warm-up: Useless and Useful Activities

Guest post by Elena Mutonono
Even if you have taught English for a short period of time, you must be familiar with the concept of “warm-ups” at the beginning of each lesson. Generally, a warm-up would have something to do with pronunciation, and very little to do with real-life language learning. So we would rattle off tongue twisters or do some rhymes and songs and then move on to the actual content of the lesson.

 As a student and then a teacher myself, I felt like these pronunciation warm-ups were a waste of time. Just think of it: you spend 5-10 minutes of your lesson drilling your students with “I thought a thought, but the thought I thought wasn’t the thought I thought I thought….” Everybody is having a great time and nobody can actually roll the tongue twister of their tongue, and then 10 minutes later you start the actual lesson, and people are still pronouncing their -th- sounds the way they please. So, what was the point?
 If you have wondered this yourself or tried to challenge the traditional pronunciation warm-ups, this post is for you. Here I will give you a real-life alternative to useless and time-consuming tongue twisters and show you how you can transform your boring 10-minute warm-ups into language-changing and eye-opening activities that will help your students sound more natural and improve their listening.
What makes one’s speech more natural in English?
I’ve asked native speakers this question, and they cannot really give a definitive answer (unless they’re accent trainers themselves). What they can tell you is when you don’t sound natural. Here’re some of their comments:
  • “The speech sounds choppy.”
  • “They pronounce every single word.”
  • “Their stresses are off, and that makes the speech sound like a robot.
  • “Their intonation is flat.”
  • “Some of their sounds are pronounced differently.”
 Please pay attention to the fact that 90% of pronunciation training efforts at English schools and Universities around the world is in fact on sound clarity. A great number of pronunciation textbooks focus just on how you should pronounce /i/ vs. /i:/ and others. While these are definitely important, not all students find this helpful, as sound drills contribute little or almost nothing to help the students with their fluency, native-like accuracy and listening comprehension. Plus, not all native speakers feel particularly disturbed by the clarity of your sounds (unless, of course, you can’t say “sheet” or “beach” correctly).
 While sounds do need to be given enough attention, I wouldn’t necessarily give them priority, not to a great extent anyway. Instead, I would start with linking. 
What is linking?
Linking is the joining of words together in spoken English in such a way that the spaces between the words that we find in written language, disappear in spoken English. I must add that “spoken” English isn’t only the language that we use to talk to friends. Spoken English is the language you use to communicate orally, so you use linking whether you’re presenting a case in court or talking to your friends about the latest movie you’ve seen. Spoken language, just like written, can be formal and informal, but linking has to do with spoken English in general, both formal andinformal.
 Linking is an essential concept of natural English speech that is very rarely taught at schools. Even if it’s taught, the concept is delivered as “knowledge,” and very few teachers know how to transfer the knowledge into a skill.
Why is linking so difficult for students (and even teachers)?
Most non-native teachers are unfamiliar with linking. They may speak well, but not know that in spoken English there’re no spaces between words, and all words are linked. When the teachers don’t have a basic understanding of that concept, they don’t teach it. Students remain unaware of what makes English natural, and since they mainly use textbooks to improve their speaking, they inevitably speak the way English is written – stressing every word, putting “spaces” between words and pronouncing each word in the same fashion. 
4 Types of Links
I will use Michael Vaughan-Rees’s explanation of the 4 links, from his book “Rhymes and Rhythm” (this is, by the way, the only book of rhymes that I would highly recommend).
The first type of a link is the consonant link (except “r”, see #4). If the first word ends in a consonant, and the second starts with a vowel, the consonant links to the next word. Well, easier said than done. Let’s look at the example:
one apple should be pronounced as /wʌ ˈnæpl/.
The second link type is the w-link. When the first word ends in a o/u vowel, and the next starts with another vowel.
two apples = /tuːˈwæplz/
The third link type is the j-link (j as a transcription sign, sounds like the initial sound in your). When the word ends in i:, and the next one starts with another vowel.
three apples = /θriːˈjæplz/
The fourth link type is the r-link. Essentially it’s the same as 4, and in American English you would probably merge 4 with 1. But in British English these are separate items because the -r sound in one word is generally silent (as in tour), and the next one starts with a vowel. That’s when the silent British -r is actually pronounced:
four apples = /fɔː ˈræplz/
You would probably think: these 4 links are so easy. It’s true, and I’m sure your students will think the same way. Wait until they actually start reading (as pronunciation training in adult learning settings includes a lot of reading) – that’s when they will start noticing linking (and you’ll have to help them).
4 Types of Links: a Demo
Before we go into the ways that you can help students develop this linking skill, here’s a short recording of me reading a simple sentence the way your students will most likely read it (I read it with the Russian accent because it’s my mother tongue and I worked with Russian-speaking students for years), and the way native speakers will read it. In bold are the links.
The tour of London is a must for anybody traveling to England.
How can you teach links?
Teaching linking (like anything else for that matter) starts with recognition. Students don’t immediately pick up linking after an initial introduction. Maybe 1% will, but generally the concept will go over the students’ heads. That’s when you should follow up Michael Vaughan-Rees’s “1-2-3-4 apples” rules with a dictation.
  1. Dictate a sentence (choose any sentence/phrase from the 25 phrases for linking practice).
  2. Have students write it up on the board/in their notebooks.
  3. Have students read it as best they can (most likely at this point they’ll lose some links).
  4. Ask questions like, “Where is the consonant link in this sentence? Where’s the w-link? Is there a j-link?”
  5. After all the links are highlighted, ask them to re-read the sentence (most likely some links will be lost again).
  6. At this point you need to re-write the sentence with the links (see below) and have them read it a few times – to themselves, then in pairs to each other.
  7. Practice a few more sentences in this way.
  8. Put students into groups and have them practice 3-5 sentences on their own.
 Here’s how you would re-write the above sentence:
The tou Rof Londo Ni Za must fo Ranybody traveling to WEngland.
Obviously, this strategy will take you a bit longer than 10 minutes, but you can break it into several short warm-ups.
Lesson 1: Explanation of 4 links and recognition game (give your students phrases from the dictation book and ask them to find the link)
Lesson 2: Put a few phrases on the board and ask students to read them and link them (when they can’t link, re-write the sentence the way I did above).
Lesson 3: Dictate a sentence the way it would sound in real English. Ask students to write it down and read it back to you the same way they heard it (i.e. with links).
In the following lessons, you can use dictations and reading to polish up the skills. From the time students begin learning to link, you can correct them while they speak as well.
Teaching linking will give a different dynamic to your pronunciation warm-ups. The students will see a big difference in how linking training will affect their speaking and also listening skills, and they’ll be able to use these rules in their own speaking, almost immediately.



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