Posts Tagged ‘pronunciation’


I’ve posted quite a few listening lessons on this blog, and up to now they were all worksheets meant to be used by a teacher in class. This time I’m sharing an online self-study lesson, for B1 level and higher, that allows learners to explore the features of connected speech and train listening decoding at their own pace. The lesson is based on a snippet from an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, an American journalist, at Toronto Public Library.


The web tool that I used to build this lesson is still in a bit of experimental stage (e.g. unfortunately right now you can’t save or print out your answers, and there might be other minor snags). Still, I hope that it will be useful for learners who need to train themselves to understand fast authentic speech.

If you try the lesson, I’d be very grateful for your feedback.


Abstract This workshop takes a fun look at accents and a serious look at speaking skills. How do actors find the ‘key’ to a new accent? How far does speaking another language involve playing a role? And can’t pronunciation be just a bit more fun? We’ll explore these questions, experiment with classroom activities – and learn how to impersonate the Queen.

Learning a language is learning to speak a language and speaking a language is a physical thing. If there’s anxiety, you get frozen – and learners start speak with frozen expressions. Let’s get learners to ‘let it go’ – get them to play with pronunciation – for this workshop, with the title!

Say the title of the the workshop

  • as if it were the most serious and intelligent thing you’ve ever heard // in pairs –
    Comment: You might want to struck your chin there. Your own chin! 
  • you’re at a party. Imagine that you’re telling to someone at this party what the title of the talk is.
    Comment: This time I want to hear some noise!
  • in the strongest L1 accent you can think of
    Comment: Helps students to think about identity and what they bring into the classroom. 
  • a nice exercise for a multinational classroom: You’re at a bus stop. Buses are late. It’s starting to rain. Speak in your L1 – how would people in your L1 behave? What would be the body language?
    There were some people looking at their watches; some people were tapping on their watches; some groups cursing, animated Maltese with a fight breaking out and an English person doing very little indeed. Luke Meddings thinks that English is a ‘hands in a pocket’ language and a rain face. Play with this stuff in class and exaggerate. Get students to be even a bit more hunched when they take on the English identity. 

How do actors get into the skin of famous people? 

Try to impersonate the queen! Physical tricks: teeth (impersonating the queen, keep your teeth together). What can she actually say? What would be the register?
Try to impersonate the Beatless! (You’ll need chewing gum for John Lennon.

Tip: check youtube for recordings of actors impersonating people.

One-sentence summary: Get to play with language, try things out, relish language – this is not about the result, this is about the process.


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

Abstract. In this talk, I will argue that there is still a need for closer links between phonological research and pronunciation teaching and that an understanding of key issues and relevant research can help teachers prioritise pronunciation content and select relevant teaching approaches. To illustrate, I will revisit some well-established notions in pronunciation
teaching, such as drilling, dictation and stress-timing.

Key areas

  • Drilling
  • Minimal pairs
  • Stress timing
  • Intonation and yes/no questions


Types: discrimintation / oral production (listen and repeat),
Sources: printed materials, online apps (‘Sounds’ App created by Adrian Underhill; Pronunciation Power App, Sounds of Speech – university of Iowa – allows to hear minimal sounds – decontextualized – and see lip movement

Benefits and dangers:

🙂 – immediate feedback, develop ‘muscle memory’ (Underhill), develop confidence because they’re so controlled; focus on form  – removes the necessity to think about meaning, freez
😦 – boring or meaningless if decontextialized, exasperating / too difficult

Implications? Don’t decontextualize too much and make sure they’re not too difficult.

Good example: Jazz chants (not boring, memorable, not too decontextualized, the context is not distracting)

Minimal pairs

words that are distinguished by one phoneme (thin/tin)

How to use: to diagnose what problems students have with sounds; listening practice; speaking production practice

In this case /θ/ causes miscommunication. Or does it?

Which minimal pairs to focus on? In other words, when can they lead to misunderstanding?

  • In most cases they are different parts of speech: thy/thigh; sink/think/ sit/seat; fill/feel; through/true
  • Also, different frequencies (Levis and Cortes 2008:1997)
    think 133 / sink 0 – different frequency => less likely
    three 68 / tree 14 / free 13; leave 12 / live 14; peel 0 /pill 1
  • And they’re not equally likely in context ‘Look out for that sheep/ship??’
    ‘What lovely cheeks??/chicks.
    He’s going to live??/leave
    Throw out that bean??/bin.

Implication? Minimal pairs need to be same word class, frequency and imaginable in the same context. 

Stress vs syllable timed rhythm.
In theory: there are different types of language. English is rhythmical, French is less.
Problem: research hasn’t been able to prove it. No variation between Eng and Fr in terms of syllable length.
So we do feel there’s something specific about English in terms of stress, but there’s no binary contrast between languages.
Contexts: political speech, sermons, poetry – more rhythm; everyday speech – less so.
In English the important feature is the distance between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables. 


Common misconception: yes/no – falling intonation, wh-questions – rising intonation.
Research: we can both falling and rising intonation on all types of questions – despite what textbooks tell us.

Importance of communicative intention. Tones in themselves don’t carry meaning but they help signal meaning. Falling tones in question that the speaker is ‘finding out’. rising tone indicates that the speaking is ‘making sure (Brazil; Cauldwell).

Rogerson, Gilbert (1990) Speaking Clearly, Cambridge.

To teach or not to teach?

  • teachable
  • focus on typically English features (e.g. rising intonation in ‘yes’)
  • meaning is in context, not tone
  • no clear-cut relation between grammar and intonation.


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

This is part of a series of posts on teaching listening comprehension. In the previous post I outlined the procedure that I’ve been using in my listening lessons.

I ‘landed’ on this procedure back in March when, halfway through another listening course, which I was really struggling with, I came to class with an authentic interview, a transcript and only a vague  idea for how I wanted to work with them. There was only one student in class, I supported him as best I could and at the end of the class he said he felt that he’d achieved great progress over those 90 minutes. So I reused the procedure again and again and eventually ended up using it as the basis for a whole new listening course (which I’ve really enjoyed teaching, as the students’ progress and the feedback I’ve been getting are just great).

Here’s that initial lesson that worked – I’ve taught it 3 more times since then. The lesson is based around this video:

Levels: B2/C1 (B1+ students who feel the need to understand Australian accent will cope with this lesson too)

Length: 90 minutes

Lesson type: listening

Materials: Worksheet

In this post you’ll find

  • an outline of the features of connected speech which make this video challenging for language learners, along with
  • suggestions for how to explain these features to your learners
  • a listening lesson plan. In this lesson the students will get a chance to notice these features of connected speech and get used to the way they ‘distort’ some high-frequency words
  • the accompanying  worksheet

Features of connected speech

This section outlines the most prominent features of connected speech in this speaker’s accent (all audio samples exemplifying the feature come from the video). As I said above, I’ve taught this lesson four times, at a variety of levels, and I’ve invariably found that these were the features that consistently make it difficult even for C1 students to catch some very high frequency words and expressions (e.g. ‘like’ or ‘and then’).

  1. Elision and glottal stops (tha’ for ‘that’, u’ for ‘up’, las for ‘last’, etc)
  2. ‘weak’ form of ‘was’: /wz/
  3. shortened adverbs: (ash  for actually, orignlly  for originally, etc)
  4. frequent chunks (was like, and then, sort of, etc)
  5. ‘Tongue gymnastics’  (s + j gets replaced with sh + j; z + j, with zh + j)

1. Elision and glottal stops

NB If for some reason the audio samples here are not displayed, you’ll find all of them on my audioboo page.

p/k/t /d (so-called plosive consonants) disappearing or getting almost inaudible at the end of words: qui[te], u[p], li[ke], las[t], jus[t], etc

The following extract from the video contains quite a few examples of this feature:

0:16 As part of the tour grou[p] you go along an[d] they offer you extra
0:19 activities a[t] each differen[t] location.
0:20 Tha[t] was one tha[t] popp ed_up an[d]_I though[t], “Why no[t]?”

Here you can listen to individual words in isolation:

tour group

an[d]_they offer you


a[t] each differen[t] location

tha[t] (in ‘that was one’)


ed_up (in ‘popped up’)


tha[t] was one tha[t] popped_u[p]



Why not?

an[d]_I_thought[t] why_no[t]

Explaining this feature to students:

I ask the students to pronounce the word ‘that’, and then say it again but not release the air at the end. Then they repeat the same with ‘up’ and with ‘like’.

2.  ‘weak’ form of ‘was’ : /wz/

originally I was

3. Adverbs

Some frequently used adverbs get shortened: ash (actually), orignlly (originally), etc

originally I was

and actually looked over the edge

Listen to ‘actually’ in isolation:

4. Frequent chunks

Highly frequent chunks pronounced as one word, very fast and somewhat differently from their dictionary form:

  • I was like‘ for reporting thoughts pronounced ‘uwzli[ke]’;
  • and then‘ (pronounced ‘[a]nthen’)
  • ‘soft of’

He’s like, ‘Right, have you got any last words?’

I was like, ‘Bubbles are going this way, follow the bubbles.’

I was like, ‘Who would be calling me from Canberra?’

and then (when you)

you sort of

your brain sort of flicks

5.  Tongue gymnastics (juncture)

When followed by /j/, /s/ and /z/ can be replaced with sh and zh: this year -> thish year; cause you -> cauzh you, etc

as_you go off

cause you’re going really quickly

As_you run out of oxygen

Explaining this feature to the students:

I ask the students to say ‘as’ and ask them where their tongue touches the roof at ‘s’ (near the teeth)I demonstrate the position of the tongue with my hands, like this:

2014-01-07 21.32.27

After that, I ask them to say ‘you’ and ask them where the tongue touches the roof at ‘y’ (closer to the throat). I demonstrate the position of the tongue with my hands and then show with my hands the transition from s to y, which looks like a jump – like some kind of ‘gymnastics’. I say that it’s difficult to do this sort of gymnastics when you’re speaking fast and demonstrate with my hands the ‘midway’ position of the tongue, where zh and sh are pronounced.

503840111_e3b8a10f17_z (1)

Lesson plan


  • if you want to play the video on your computer, you’ll need to download tbe video and the subtitles from youtube and install Aegisub
  • you don’t need to read anything other then this post to teach this lesson, but if you need support downloading the video, using the interactive transcript on youtube and/or Aegisub, or if you’d like to adapt this procedure to use it with a different video, check out this post in which I explain in detail how to do this

Procedure (task numbers refer to the corresponding tasks in the worksheet):

Stage:  Warm-up (Task 1)

Tell the students that they’re going to work on their listening skills in this lesson and that they’re going to watch an interview with a student. Ask them to brainstorm the topics she might talk about (my students normally suggest: studying, parties, relationships, travel, etc).

Stage: pre-teaching vocabulary (Tasks 2 – 4)

Project the following word cloud or refer the students to Task 2 in the worksheet; tell the students that this word cloud was produced from the transcript of the interview and that the words that were used more times are bigger. Ask the students to look at the word cloud and guess which of the topics they’d predicted will come up in the interview. Reply to any queries about vocabulary.

  • Vocabulary that is very useful for understanding the interview and so worth clarifying (Task 3): cord (a thick rope); be stuck (can’t be moved); snap (break into pieces); yank on something (pull something sharply); bubbles


Stage: Gist & initial diagnostics (~10 minutes) (Task 5)

With stronger groups (B1+ and higher), I play the video twice: first time without showing the video; the second time, with the video.

The students watch the interview and discuss in pairs what they caught. I listen in and then conduct brief feedback (3 mins), establishing the main facts and the main points the students are still uncertain about, but without spending too much time, without correcting anything the students have misheard or letting the students listen for the second time. I also ask the students how challenging they found the speaker (all my students, even those ad Advanced level, found this speaker very challenging).

Stage: Transcribing & diagnostics (~25 minutes) (Task 6)

The following several stages are done without the projector – the students won’t need the video, which would only be distracting.

  • Students listen to the first part of the interview line by line, filling in gaps in the transcript
  • At the end of the stage, the students listen to the part that they have just transcribed again, just to overview what they’ve done and experience understanding the speaker. This ministage takes little time but it’s crucial for the students’ motivation and sense of progress.

Use either Aegisub or the interactive transcript on youtube to replay the lines.

Aegisub (

Aegisub (

Youtube interactive transcript

Youtube interactive transcript

Varying the level of challenge

The worksheet for lower level students (B1/B1+) indicates where and how many words are missing, whereas the worksheet for more advanced students (B2/B2+) does not. C1 students can be asked to transcribe the extract without the support of a gapped text.

The task for B1/B1+ students The task for B2/C1 students The transcript
0:02I’d __________ finished uni. 0:02I’d finished uni. 0:02I’d just finished uni.
0:03__________ I __________ __________  __________ going to Europe __________ __________  I remembered __________ __________ __________ cold over there so decided 0:03I going to Europe I remembered cold over there so decided 0:03Originally I was looking at going to Europe and then I remembered that it’s actually cold over there so I decided
0:07__________ __________ somewhere __________ __________ __________. I started off in Egypt – so I spent two weeks 0:07somewhere. I started off in Egypt – so I spent two weeks 0:07I’d head somewhere a bit warmer. I started off in Egypt – so I spent two weeks

Giving feedback

The goals of this stage are

  • for the teacher to identify what features of connected speech really do pose difficulty for the students in the group and to collect some highly frequently used words that students in the group fail to catch
  • for the students to (a) discover that some very high frequency English words are difficult to catch (b) to hear how these words are really pronounced in fast speech and gain an insight into why this happens

Therefore, it’s very important to

  • make sure that everyone in the groups says what they caught and not just the strongest listeners in the group. I normally remind the students that we’re diagnosing their listening difficulties at this stage and insist that I want to board every single version of what’s in the gap
  • whenever the students fail to catch some words/chunks that are distorted due to the features of connected speech outlined above, play the line again, elicit how these words/chunks sound, explain why the word undergoes those changes
  • to help the students to make sense of various features of connected speech, set aside a section of the board to build up a list of words that get distorted in a similar way . Halfway through this stage my board looks something like this:

NB Don’t forget to play this part of the video again before going on to the next stage (Task 7)! 

Stage:  Intensive training with specific words and expressions (20 minutes) (Task 8)

Say that you’re going to play more examples of the problematic expressions collected on the board.

Here are the features of connected speech and corresponding examples that I focus on working on this video (play only examples that come up after 0:49, because the earlier examples will have come up during the transcription stage):

  •  glottal stop/elision
    Word/expression: just (pronounced ‘js’) – 3 lines; that (pronounced ‘tha[t]’); what; out (often pronounced ‘ut’); it (this one is very challenging so only do it with a strong group
  • weak ‘was’ + chunks
    was like (after that I also play a few examples of ‘like’ without ‘was’); I was
  • frequent chunks
    and then
  • reduced adverbs
  • /z/ sound replaced with zh:
    as you, cause you (3 samples)

Work with each feature of connected speech in the following way:

  • pick a word/chunk that exemplifies the feature – ideally it should be one of the words collected at the previous stage (e.g. to focus on the weak was, you could choose was like)
  • direct the group to this word on the board
  • ask the class to remind him/her what the expression should sound like in fast speech (/wzlaɪ’/)
  • ask them to listen to just one line that contains this word/chunk and catch just that word/expression (‘listen and catch just /wzlaɪ’/). Use the interactive transcript feature on youtube or Aegisub if you’re playing the video locally to find and play the relevant lines (again, see this post if you’re not sure how to do that).
  • those students who have caught it, should try and catch the words around the expression (do board the task!)

Each time, I play the line two or three times, making sure that everyone in the group has caught the expression. If someone says they haven’t, I normally

  • react to that enthusiastically (Cool, that’s the reply I was expecting!) to encourage weaker students to signal their difficulties
  • help the students who haven’t caught the expression by, e.g., playing the line again, stopping it right before the word, saying it the way the speaker is going to say it and then playing the word (alternatively, you can play the word in isolation – again, see below for details how to do that

After that, I encourage the stronger students to supply what’s around the expression (sometimes new features of connected speech get identify and immediately make it to the corresponding part of the boards).

Stage: Transcribing (Task 9)

Do one more short transcribing task to allow the students to use the skills trained in the previous stage.

StageListening line by line, listening for the meaning – 15 minutes (Task 10)

Ask the students to cover the transcript (I hand out colour paper :)). The students practice listening to a sentence or more from the text once and trying to understand the meaning. Stress that their task here is not to transcribe word for word / remember the sentence verbatim but to catch the meaning.

The students listen to the sentence once and, in pairs, discuss what they caught (I usually assign them letters – student A and student B – and ask them to take turns to report what they’ve heard, to encourage weaker students to pull their weight). Through that the students scaffold each other and you get a chance to assess how much they understood.

No feedback is necessary here – after the students have talked about what they caught for 20 seconds or so, tell them that they are about to hear the sentence again. Ask them not to discuss it this time (although in my experience some pairs will) but instead to read the line right after they’ve heard it, underlining everything they didn’t catch.

After that, ask them to play the line again in their head (Prepare to listen to it again and understand it without looking at the text). Before playing one more time, remind the students that you want them to listen without reading.

Repeat with the next line. If the students find the task too easy, play longer stretches (two lines, then three lines at a time).

Stage: Watching the same extract again (Task 11) 

This stage is pretty straightforward: switch the projector on and let the students watch the entire extract again – having worked with the video, they will understand more or less every word.

Stage: Revision – 5 minutes (Task 12)

Ask the students to mentally go through what they did in the lesson, what features of connected speech they’d focused on and what else they learnt (any new insight into what makes listening difficult? new vocabulary? strategies for developing listening skills?); encourage them to remember specific examples; having thought for a minute, the students share in pairs.


If you use these materials, please let me know how it went! As always, I’ll also be very grateful to hear any suggestions how to improve this lesson.


Wondering what to read next? Check out this list of links to youtube channels in a variety of genres that have subtitled videos – you can use any of those videos to give listening lessons similar to the one described in this post, with minimal preparation (I recommend using interviews and not films or other video types, though). By the way, I’m still looking for more youtube channels to add to my list, so if you know of some channels that have subtitled videos, please do share!

Another one in a series of fluency-related posts – more links here: contents.

One of the most widely known classroom activities that target fluency is Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 technique: students tell the same story (or do the same task) under progressively stricter time constraints. The idea is that students are pushed to perform faster and are forced to restructure the ‘routines’ they use, and so the ‘formulation’ phase of speech production speeds up.

With my B1-C2 level students I use a slightly more complex procedure. Students find interesting articles online in order to share them in class, but instead of just reading and retelling them them to their classmates using more or less what linguistic resources they currently have, they actively mine text for collocations. This tweak to the activity seems to tie in nicely with a lot of insight into fluency described in the previous post. A variation of this technique which I think really does help to teach functional language at lower levels/to students preparing for exams such as IELTS is described here.

The full version involves some homework on the part of the students and takes around 80/90 minutes of classroom time, although there are some shorter alternatives that do not require homework.

Homework stage:

  • Students choose an article on the internet
  • They mine the text for sets of related expressions (big thanks for this technique to Mark Rooney and Ewan Dinwiddie, in whose Delta Module 2 lessons I first saw it) and organize these expressions into a mindmap. For example, in this online article on education, one predictably finds lots of expressions connected to studying (e.g. ‘grant you a college degree’, ‘take a year-long course’ and ‘broaden your knowledge’) and the internet (e.g. ‘without ever leaving your computer’, ‘bring free education to the masses via the internet’ and ‘available under open licences’), but on closer look lots of other related sets emerge, e.g. ‘quality’ (‘top-notch education’, ‘featured courses’, ‘which few you might want to steer clear of’), ‘quantity (‘it can get quite overwhelming’, ‘over 22 universities in the US alone’, ‘courses on tons of subjects’) and so on.

Classroom stage:

  • Students attempt to recreate their mindmap from memory (~10 minutes) and then look through their original mindmap and, ideally, through the text to see what’s missing (~5 minutes) – they won’t remember more than 30-40% at this stage, but this ‘test’ stage primes them to benefit more fully from revising the map
  • Students practice pronouncing expressions from their mindmaps as fast and fluently as they possibly can (this can be tied in with work on connected speech, e.g. they could be asked to look for instances of linking/weak forms and practice pronouncing those)/resolve any queries regarding pronunciation with the teacher’s help (3-5 mins); I also share this resource that automatically transcribes lists of expressions, so that students can check pronunciation at home
  • In pairs, they retell their article to a partner trying to use the expressions from their mindmaps – there’s always some discussion going on, but this is primarily a monologue (6.5 minutes/each monologue for average-length articles)
  • They look at their mindmaps to see what they forgot to mention/what expressions they didn’t use and why (5 minutes)
  • In new pairs, they retell their article (5.5 minutes/monologue)
  • Having briefly looked at their mindmaps again, in new pairs they retell their articles in 4.5 minutes

For this activity students are normally seated in two circles facing each other (so at each stage those sitting in the inner circle move to the next partner). By the end of the activity those students who sit in the same circle haven’t heard each other’s stories, so they can pair up with someone from the other circle and share what they’ve heard/what they liked the most or found the most surprising (this normally takes another 10 minutes or so).

Here are a few mindmaps produced by my students. What I’ve been noticing is that over time students start producing much better quality maps in terms of expressions they notice.





In my experience, for the activity to be a success, the following factors/steps are quite essential:

  • [a shorter version] start with shorter texts or integrate this with jigsaw reading (lists of places to go to/things to do/films to see etc lend themselves to this, e.g. in a recent class, my B1 students read one tip each from 10 Things to Do in New York City, shared these tips mindmapping between changing the partners and in the end decided which of those they’d like to do the most).
  • [introducing the activity: a lesson plan] try the whole procedure out in class, training the students in sub-steps: first introduce the idea that texts contain sets of related expressions and give them practice in identifying these; then give them practice creating mindmaps; then run the whole activity (mining the text for expressions + minmapping + recreating the mindmap + retelling the text) on the same text together – I’ve used coursebooks texts and also the first two paragraphs in this text, which was more than enough material for a ninety-minute class of B2 students.
    I usually try to first draw the group’s attention to the fact that they don’t remember the expressions from the text; to do that, I ask them to close the text and shout out words and expressions that were there; I board their suggestions and then I ask them what sets of related expressions they see – this helps to introduce the idea of lexical sets and a mind mapping; I draw the draft mindmap and ask students to copy it and to complete it with more expressions from the text. Here’s the draft mindmap we created for the text on education linked to in the previous paragraph:
    After that, the students finished their mindmaps – an average one looked something like that:
    online courses final
    Having done that, they recreated them and retold the text to each other, I then split them into groups: these groups read different paragraphs from the text, repeated the cycle of mining for vocabulary/mindmapping/recreating the mindmap etc helping each other, and then they retold these paragraphs to people from another group
  • [collocations – NOT unknown vocabulary] This activity works great with collocations, but only as long as they don’t contain completely unknown words. If they do, I’d suggest using the keyword technique to learn them first.
  • [safety net] I haven’t needed this yet because my students normally do find and read the articles, but probably it’s a good idea to keep a few interesting print-outs to hand. In that case students who come unprepared can read an article to share while those who did prepare are reproducing their maps; I also ask my students to share the links to the articles they’ve found, as well as photos oftheir maps, in a dedicated thread on a class blog – so I know whether they’ve prepared or not
  • [making the activity methodologically meaningful for students] It’s important to let the student know the rationale behind the activity and explain that they need to speak faster and faster – otherwise they will just skip some parts
  • model the activity: tell the students a story based on an article, encourage them to ask questions/interact with me/clarify unknown vocabulary; share sources (e.g.,, for longer articles and lifehacker.com and for shorter/more fun articles and lists)
  • [personal experience] it was very important for me to try out the entire activity on my own first, so that I knew of the likely difficulties and was able to reassure those students who thought it was impossible to recreate the maps; it is impossible to remember more than 30-40% on the first try, but after a couple of retellings it becomes pretty easy. What I did was pretty extreme, as I tried the activity with a 3-page article from New Yorker on a ramble through the city, and although there was no real plot in the article and although there were over 60 collocations on my map, third time I tried I could retell it using a significant proportion of collocations
  • [catering for tastes] some students don’t like mind-mapping – it’s ok to be flexible, as expressions can be organized into short lists, for instance
  • [revision] encourage the students to revise their mindmaps for a few days and store them safely/upload them to a group blog

Some of the articles my students have brought to class (might be useful to get the process started):
3D printers get cheaper, faster – and more mainstream

Apple iPod creator launches intelligent smoke alarm

Dark energy A problem of cosmic proportions

‘My iPad has Netflix, Spotify, Twitter – everything’: why tablets are killing PCs

Why Do Our Best Ideas Come to Us in the Shower?

Brain-to-brain communication is not a conversation killer

Shodan: The scariest search engine on the Internet

Male brain versus female brain: How do they differ?

A few words on why I think this activity makes sense in view of fluency research

In my previous post I wrote a lengthy overview of what factors are known to influence fluency and how these are mapped to the stages an utterance undergoes before being said. To sum it up  very briefly, one needs to

  • conceptualize/macro-plan: come up with what to say and how to structure it
  • formulate: micro-plan the utterance, retrieve vocabulary in chunks (as opposed to individual words), automatize grammatical processing
  • pronounce chunks fluently
  • monitor after saying the utterance

A regular 4-3-2 activity supplemented with mind-mapping

  • promotes out-of-class reading and gives the students practice in discussing some general interest stories, which might conceivably help with coming up what to say
  • encourages students to notice vocabulary in texts, write it down, and test themselves,  and provides students with a cognitively engaging exercise of identifying lexical sets present in the text (I personally don’t feel bored after a whole hour of doing that), all of which improves retention; promotes learning vocabulary in chunks, which leads to fluency gains
  • helps students to automatize grammatical processing through pushing them to perform faster and faster
  • encourages them to pronounce chunks naturally through the pronunciation practice stage, which improves perceived fluency

In the next post I describe how I use this activity with lower levels to help them with functional language used in social encounters.

A few interesting references
To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test – on the effect recalling and subsequently re-reading a text has on retention
Nation, P. Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines  – Learning vocabulary in lexical sets (e.g. ‘apple, pear, plum’) is counter-productive, learning thematically related words (e.g. ‘frog, pond, green, slimy, hop, croak’) produces the best results.

This is the second post in a series of posts on fluency: it’s about key insights from literature into what factors contribute to (or detract from) fluency; I illustrate most points on a number of real life examples that I used with my students in awareness raising tasks.

I wrote about what motivated me to start ‘digging’ in the first post here – I’ll also add there  the links to the remaining (more practical) posts when they appear.


Working on Fluency. Part 1: the theory

Fluency: what are we talking about?

Fluency is ‘the [person’s] capacity to produce language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.’ (Skehan, 1996, cited in Thornbury, 2000). It can actually be objectively measured with a number of variables, such as speech rate (the number of syllables per second – including pause time) and the mean ‘length of run’ (the number of syllables between pauses).  However, there’s also perceived fluency (that is, whether the listener considers the speaker to be fluent), which is of course subjective and much less clear-cut, but nevertheless there has been some research into what features of speech influence the listener’s perception of fluency.

There’s also another important aspect of speech, suggested by Michael McCarthy, who calls it ‘confluence’. Confluence concerns the way the speaker maintains (or fails to maintain) the flow of conversation, linking what they say to what the previous speaker said.

Understanding fluency through understanding what we do when we speak

In order to understand where fluency can ‘break down’, its useful to look at a ‘break down’ of the skill of speaking. Here is a model of speech production proposed by Levelt (1989), according to which an utterance goes through the following stages:

1. Conceptualisation (aka macroplanning: taking decisions what to say, which communicative intentions are to be realized)
2. Formulation (micro-planning at the level of an utterance) Retrieving vocabulary and grammaring it up.
3. Articulation, which is pronouncing the utterance
4. Monitoring. Checking that what you said conveys what you meant, with a reasonable degree of precision, and repairing the utterance if need be.

There are two fundamentally different ‘resources’ that we draw upon to carry out the stages outlined above. We draw on our knowledge (e.g. the knowledge of the way conversation is structured in L2 culture, or the knowledge of lexical items) and automatic routines(which include ‘grammaring’ the lexis up and using our speech organs to pronounce the sounds). We draw upon different types of memory, located in different parts of the brain (called ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ memory) and employ fundamentally different processing (‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ processing).  This distinction is important because it provides insight into the limitations of the human brain that are directly related to fluency. By way of a grossly oversimplified summary, in order to formulate an utterance, we use working memory for planning as well as storing lexis; we can only store ~7 items retrieved from explicit memory in the working memory at a time, while grammatical processing does not take up working memory unless one consciously recalls and applies a rule.  The distinction is also important because explicit and implicit processing is developed/automatised in different ways, and thus they call for different treatment in class (see this book for a fascinating summary of recent research; there’s more on explicit and implicit memory/processing in the books referenced in this post).

Getting closer to a fluent speaker’s performance

Stage of of speech production: Conceptualisation

  1. A fluent speaker…
    knows about the socio-cultural conventions for how conversations and monologues of different types are structured, e.g. uses scripts  and the structure of genres. For instance, when we walk into a restaurant, we know what we’re likely to say/what the waiter is likely to say and in what order this will be said – and this might be different in different cultures. In Russia we do not make small talk while buying groceries, so a Russian English language learner might be startled and might fail to respond altogether, let alone fluently, to an amiable English groceries seller.
  2. Implications for learners & teaching I haven’t learnt much on macro-planning yet, but clearly it’s useful to raise learners’ awareness of genre structures and give them a chance to refer to the structure as during planning stages of speaking activities.I also recently came across this presentation by Barry Tomalin: What do you say after “Hello”? Successful networking techniques. His ideas sound absolutely brilliant, I really want to try his framework with students to add some ‘meat’ to classes on ‘socializing’, but haven’t yet.

Stage of speech production: Formulation

  1. A fluent speaker…
    for efficient planning: uses spoken structures, which are much ‘looser’ than written grammar, stringing together a sequence or relatively independent clauses, or using ‘frames’ with slots
    for efficient vocabulary processing: stores in memory and retrieves lexis in chunks (formulaic speech units), which allows them to operate more than 7 words at a time (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992, cited in Wool, 2012)
    …formulates thoughts with varying degree with precision, sometimes resorting to very vague language
    for efficient grammatical processing
    …uses proceduralized routines, in contrast to consciously applying ‘rules’Here’s an example from a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling in which some of these features are evident: there are lots of short clauses linked together by conjunctions (and, but) and sentence adverbs/fluency markers (well/obviously); there are some sentence frames (conditional clauses, as well as relative clauses); there are lots of collocations (e.g. ‘a flash of clairvoyance‘) and some vague expressions (like)
    Winfrey: So, didn’t you know?
    Rowling: No.
    Winfrey: Wasn’t there part of you –
    Rowling: Part of me –
    Winfrey: Subconsciously, that knew? Yes.
    Rowling: I + I remember once + and it was like + it was likewell, like + I’m going to call it clash + a flash of clairvoyance now. + Obviously if [it hadn’t come true] it would just be some crazy thought + I had . But I do remember one day+writing Philosopher’s StoneI was walking away from the café + where I’d been working on +
    Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone + which became Sorcerer’s Stone.
    Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly.+ So that’s the first novel. + And I had this moment where + I suddenly thought + It was like another voice speaking to me + and the voice said + “the difficult thing is going to get published. + If [it gets published] [it will be huge.]”
    Winfrey: Wow.
    Rowling: And [that is] + exactly what it was.
    ==================================================The complete 40-minute interview is available here:

    Implications for learners/teaching

  1. Planning. I believe that one important step is for students to become tolerant of spoken grammar and, instead of trying to produce syntactically complex structures characteristic of written language, analyze real speech for typical patterns of reasoning/’frameworks’ and practice using these simple frameworks to structure their own short utterances. For example, when practicing discussions/decision making, a typical argument might be broken down into ‘suggestion + reinforcement (state why suggestion is advantageous) + summary, e.g. I suggest you + (use skype) // which will (save you a lot of money) /make it (easier) (for you) to //so you’ll be able to…).When I was teaching IELTS students, it helped a lot to categorize the typical questions asked in the spoken part of the exam, provide students with a framework for each questions type and train them extensively in using this framework. Below is an example of materials I was using (adapted from Clark (2007)). It felt a bit like cheating at the time, but now I think that this might have mirrored the way skilled speakers micro-plan their utterances, as it allowed the students to plan at the level of a clause, moving ‘from column to column’ concentrating on producing one or two clauses at a time.
    Solutions: introductory sentence Introduce one option Explain what effect this solution would produce Link to another option
    Well I suppose there are a number of actions that could be taken.

    Well, I personally believe that there are [two] possible ways to tackle/address these problems.

    Well I think we could go about this in a number of ways.

    One way to …. would be

    An obvious measure/answer would be to
    One possibility/option is to

    By doing this, we would

    This would enable/help [us] to…

    As a result..

    This would have a huge impact on

    This would have a (profound) effect on

    Another solution would be to..

    A further step to [eliminating poverty sth] would be to

  2. Vocabulary. Noticing formulaic language is tricky because, at some level, it’s ‘obvious’: in contrast to individual ‘new words’, students often understand collocations and thus don’t identify them as ‘new’ language. Moreover, in my own experience this is almost impossible to do on first read/listen/watch: while your brain is totally engaged with meaning, it won’t notice anything that does not pose difficulty in that respect.When I asked my B2/C1 students to identify collocations in the following extract from the interview with JK Rowling, they
     tended to notice smaller chunks and ignore the ‘bigger’ picture (e.g. That was – That was easily the most frightening thing I’ve done in my life.) they identified the expression ‘in my life’ as a chunk, but didn’t notice the frame ‘That was [easily] the most [adj] thing I’ve [V3] in my life.);
    • also, their estimate was that they understood around 90% of these expressions and used around 10%.
  3. An awareness raising task
    Underline fixed expressions that contain the words in bold (suggested answers are in the third column):

    1 Rowling: Yeah, hugely. Hugely. But the odd thing is that that’s just life, isn’t it?  the odd thing is that…
    it’s just life
    2 The books wouldn’t be what they are if she hadn’t died. I mean her death is on virtually every other page of the Harry Potter books, you know?  wouldn’t be [] if
    virtually every // on every other page
    3 At least half of Harry’s journey is a journey to deal with death in its many forms, what it does to the living, what it means to die, what survives death – it’s there in every single volume of the books.  … in its many forms
    every single volume
    4 Rowling: A little. That was – That was easily the most frightening thing I’ve done in my life. Easily. It felt very exposing because this wasn’t me reading-out words that had already been approved. Do you know what I mean? I used to be borderline phobic about public speaking. [easily] the most [adj] thing I’ve [done/V3] in my life
    this wasn’t me v-ing
    public speaking
    5 Winfrey: Wow, really?
    6 Rowling: Yeah. Really. Like shaking so badly I couldn’t – I didn’t know what sentence I was on. So I’ve come a long way. I’m still not – public speaking I’ve got better at but there are things like having to give a speech on T.V. still scares me so much I can’t deal with that very easily.  I’ve come a long way
    I’ve got better at
    to give a speech on T.V.
    can’t deal with [that] [very easily]

    I’ve been trying to ensure students focus on collocations ever since I started teaching – more on that on the more ‘practical’ post on fluency – but some of the techniques that I personally obviously undersuse are:

    > Horizontal alternatives to vertical lists Providing collocations to all new vocabulary
    > Consistently training students to use collocations dictionaries and other lexical resources ( is a recent exciting addition to that list)

  4. Grammar It’s been suggested that in order to achieve automatization, students need to speak under time pressure, as only then are they forced to ‘restructure’ the procedures they currently employ by ‘assembling’ them into larger units. I try to use this insight by regularly giving the students the chance to repeat tasks under tighter time constraints, but one most important lesson I’ve learnt here is that it’s important to  take students on board – that is, make them aware of the rationale behind the activity, as otherwise they don’t see the point in making that extra effort,  cutting corners and meeting the tighter constraints simply by omitting part of the message.

Stage of of speech production: Articulation

  1. A fluent speaker..
    (a)  uses prominence to direct the listener to the words carrying meaning
    (b) chunks their utterance into units (pauses at clause boundaries and not inside clauses)
    (c) pronounces highly frequent chunks, including stretches of function words, such as ‘I’m in my’, fluently (This was what struck me most in all research into fluency – the observation that the listener’s perception of fluency hinges on how fast and naturally chunks are pronounced: ‘It can be stressed that it does not matter how slowly and carefully the rest of the utterance is, or needs to be, constructed. Provided the ‘chunk’ is said fast, the utterance will sound natural; the opposite, a fast message with a slow chunk, will sound completely unnatural and non-fluent.’ (O’Keefe et. al,. 2007)Awareness raising task
    I useed this video to raise awareness of various features of pronunciation (especially fast pronunciation of chunks)

    Students listened a number of times
     first time to respond to the message/understand the gist and talk about their experience with obsolete gadgets
     second time they were provided the gapped text in the first column below with ‘|’ marks showing pauses deleted and asked to mark the pauses; then they listened again and underlined stressed syllables
     then they listened one more time trying to complete the gaps (almost impossible), and one more time listening out specifically for speed (it’s only now that most students realize that the gaps are so difficult to fill not just because the words are ‘swallowed’ but that they’re specifically pronounced much faster than the rest of the utterance;
     they then practiced reading the passage: first time concentrating on the pauses, then on the pauses and stress and finally, having practiced the pronunciation of ‘fast’ chunks separately, all of it;
     finally, they discussed their favourite gadgets – the task was to talk but also to try stress the important words as they talk

    Louis C.K.: Ya, because | Everything is aMAzing right now | and NObody’s happy. | Like | in MY LIfetime | the CHANges _______ world _________ inCREdible. . Louis C.K.:  Ya, because | Everything is aMAzing right now | and NObody’s happy. | Like | in MY LIfetime | the CHANges in the world have been inCREdible. .  /ɪnðə/    /həvbɪn/
    _________ kid ________ ROtary PHOne. |We had a phone you had to STAND NEXT to | _________ DIal it, (yes) __________. |___________REalize how PRImitive, when i was a kid we had a ROtary PHOne. |We had a phone you had to STAND NEXT to | and you had to DIal it, (yes) you know |you know, you ever REalize how PRImitive, /wənʌwəzə//əntə/
    /jənə/  / jəve/ 
    ______ making SPARks _____ phone | and you actually would HATE people with ZEros ______ NUmbers’cause it was more (right) oh, __________ two zeros, | screw THAT guy, ____________, ugh… you’re making SPARks in a phone | and you actually would HATE people with ZEros in their NUmbers’cause it was more (right) oh, this guy’s got two zeros, | screw THAT guy, why do i wanna ugh… /jə     /inə//inðe//ðɪsɡaɪzgət//wʌɪdəʌwənə/
  2. Implications for learners & teaching(a) Learners need awareness raising activities in which they identify prominent syllables and practice highlighting prominent words in while engaging in a communicative task; I think that, as it often said about pronunciation activities, the best approach here is ‘little and often’.
    (b) I notice that my students often make in-clause pauses when they are searching for vocabulary; what they do is produce the ‘grammatical part of the clause’, which, having been drilled repeatedly, is the ‘easy’ bit,  and then drag out the final function word while formulating the rest of the clause (e.g. /I have tooo [pause] get up early/). So far I haven’t come up with any ways to address this (at least practicing the correct pronunciation of the structure doesn’t produce any visible effect, as the students revert to unnatural pronunciation as soon as they concentrate on the message).
    (c) Regarding chunks of function words, McCarthy suggests the students practice saying them over and over again  (He lists the following chunks as top priority chunks, as they are top 20 3-word chunks in Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English:I DON’T KNOW | A LOT OF | I MEAN I | I DON’T THINK | DO YOU THINK | DO YOU WANT | ONE OF THE | YOU HAVE TO | IT WAS A | YOU KNOW I | YOU WANT TO | YOU KNOW WHAT | DO YOU KNOW | A BIT OF | I THINK IT’S | BUT I MEAN | AND IT WAS | A COUPLE OF | YOU KNOW THE | WHAT DO YOU | AT THE MOMENT

    (McCarthy, 2006)

    Cauldwell(2013:315) lists another list of clusters of 3 and more words commonly squeezed together.

    > To help the students to produce these chunks with natural pronunciation, it might be useful to raise their awareness of features of connected speech and, in particular, the way diphthongs ‘lose’ weak vowels (/aɪ/ in ‘I’ll’ becoming /ʌ/, /əu/ becoming /ə/ in ‘you know’, etc)

    > I think it’s also paramount that students are made aware of the effect non-fluent pronunciation of chunks produces on the listener’s perception (at least if they do aim to sound fluent), and are consistently encouraged to practice fluent pronunciation whenever they study  functional language and formulaic expressions, either in class or on their own – at least my students normally try to shirk at this point of the lesson because they feel extremely self-conscious; in my experience, rationalizing the need for pronunciation work does help> Adrian Underhill repeatedly makes the point of the need for placing a physical demand on top or the cognitive demand  and challenging students to pronounce what they say with maximum fluency and connectedness possible (e.g. Underhill, 2013:215) and for me the way he demonstrates this is an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Stage of of speech production: Monitoring

  1. What do a fluent speakers do?

     monitor their message after it’s been formulated and uttered
     use spoken structures that are characteristic of spoken language and that mirror the way attention shifts e.g. those olives, how much are they? (the topic is identified first, then the question is added – cf how much are those olives?); my brother, his wife (cf ‘my brother’s wife)  they are nice, those olives (the sentence starts out with the speaker’s perspective, and then gets ‘clarified’ to include the listener). In the interview extract above, JK Rowling freely starts a sentence and then changes it mid-way:  I remember once + and it was like + it was like + welllike + I’m going to call it clash + a flash of clairvoyance now. Language learners, on the other hand, often feel that they have to speak in full, ‘correct’ sentences and attribute their failure to do this not to natural limitations of the human brain, but to their own lack of proficiency – in short, very often they have unrealistic expectations of what they are to produce.
     Uses a range of expressions to signal the need for extra interpretation on the part of the reader (e.g. ‘you know’/’do you know what I mean?’)
  2. Implications for learners / teaching
    For me as a non-native speaker insight into monitoring was the most revealing. I realized that I, in contrast to Levelt’s speech model, was vehemently trying to monitor utterances before uttering them, because I was never sure would be able to finish the sentence I’d started – a fear that, I suspect, was well-grounded, as my speech was lacking all the features of spoken language outlined above.  

Stage of speech production: linking to the previous speaker’s turn

  1. Fluent speakers…
     react to what the previous speaker said (‘yeah’/’no’/’exactly’/’it is!’)
    comment (‘we’ll need to …’/’which won’t be easy’)
    reformulate (‘Was it good?’ ‘Yeah, amazing!’)
    repeat (Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone which became Sorcerer’s Stone./ Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly.);  backchannel to show interest (mmm/really?)
     use discourse markers and sentence adverbs to start turns (‘well, basically’/’actually’/’so’/’right’).Awareness raising task (adapted from one of Michael McCarthy’s tasks in an IATEFL webinar)
    Again, the interview with JK Rowling mentioned above is a striking example of that – here’s a random sample. I asked students to underline look at the starts of turns and compare that to a transcript of A2 students speaking (I couldn’t produce a transcript of the students themselves due to time constraints, but it would’ve been better: record them doing a task, ask them to analyze turn beginnings in the interview, then listen to their recording to see what features are present.
    Winfrey: Are you in a place now where you can accept that you will always be rich?Rowling: No. Are you?Winfrey: Kind of. Getting there.Rowling: Really? I hope – I hope I – that sounds good.Winfrey: Unless I’m a complete fool.Rowling: But that’s it! Unless I’m a fool! And you know what? I’ve never been a fool with money so why worry? But I do. I think ‘God, if I blew this, how could I look everyone in the face?’Winfrey: But, you know psychologically it’s a difficult thing to come to terms with because it’s like saying – not allowing room for never say never.Rowling: Exactly.Winfrey: You know?Rowling: Exactly. And you feel – I feel – I don’t want to get complacent.Winfrey: Right.

    Rowling: I don’t want to take things for granted.

    Winfrey: Correct.

    Rowling: I just – I just – and after all. Well, you do know what, I’m talking absolutely rubbish, aren’t I? I’m talking rubbish. I mean really would have to be very stupid but, yeah, I do still worry.

    Winfrey: Really?

    Rowling: Yeah. Not all the time. I mean mostly I feel great.

    Winfrey: What do you actually think money has done for you? What does it do?

    Rowling: It frees you. That’s what it does. It frees you. That’s why it’s like a super power. You don’t – it frees you. I mean we don’t have to – the luxury of literally being able to sit down and say “where should we go for a holiday?” and not be, in any way, limited.

    Winfrey: I hear you don’t drive.

    Rowling: No, I don’t drive. No. Cars terrify me. I am really frightened of cars.

    Winfrey: So do you have a driver?

    Rowling: I – of – lately I have had a driver. Very lately.

    Winfrey: Is it true that you still take the bus? I read that you still take the bus.

    Rowling: Occasionally. Within the last year I have taken the bus. Definitely, yeah.

    Winfrey: Did you ever imagine your life being the way it is now?

    Rowling: No. Never. And I really, really mean never. It overshot the mark so ridiculously that I – I was so unprepared for it. This is a thing I think I’ve never really spoken about. I was a writer. I had no one near me professionally or personally who could in any way help me when I had questions like “what do you do when the press is searching your bins?” You know?

    Winfrey: Mhmm.

    Rowling: Really crazy stuff that happens. The stuff that makes you feel –

    Winfrey: But that doesn’t happen to most writers, you know?

    Rowling: Exactly. Exactly. So it took everyone around me totally by surprise.

    Winfrey: It’s not like if you’re an actress you could have expected that.

    Rowling: Of course! Of course. You know that if I’m wildly successful that stuff will happen. I’m not going to like it but that will happen. But as a writer there’s no way of thinking “if I’m wildly successful they will want long-lens photographs of me on the beach in my bikini. Never occurred to me in a million years.

    Winfrey: So you weren’t prepared for it.

    Rowling: Totally unprepared. And really running scared for a while.

  2. Implications for learners / teaching
    Again, based on my conversations with B2 learners, it is evident that they have skewed perception of this feature of speech: they felt that fluency markers are ‘rubbish words’/signs of inferior speakers; that adverbs like ‘absolutely’ and ‘exactly’ are too expressive; I personally also feel that we non-native speakers might be feeling the need to prove our linguistic ability by saying something new/driving the conversation forward. My point in that conversation was that if you don’t use those ‘small’ words, your speech does not sound ‘clean’ – it sounds non-native.

    An observations that I’ve made since I learnt about confluence is that I myself completely fail to notice these features, as well as expressions like ‘you know’ and ‘do you know what I mean’, unless I’m paying conscious attention. So reading the transcript of the interview with Rowling (or, more specifically, reading only the starts of turns) was incredibly revealing – even though I’d seen the interview, which suggests the need for explicit conscious raising activities.Another interesting fact is that film English is bad for exploring these features: at least in Friends, a well-known sitcom, these features are drastically underrepresented.

Personal conclusion Looking back up the changes my daily teaching underwent in light of the insights outlined above, I see that I’ve (1) started to use task repetition much more, making sure I inform the students of the rationale to persuade them to cooperate; (2) treat pronunciation of formulaic language much more consistently and (I hope) more persuasively, although prominence and appropriate pausing definitely deserve more attention; (3) see the need to increase learner autonomy in working with lexical resources, although I haven’t figured out how to do this in a systematic way (4) see the need to research typical ‘micro-frameworks’ to help learners with micro-planning. In the next couple of posts I’ll write about some other practical activities that target fluency.


Cauldwell, R. (2013) Phonology for Listening. Speech in Action

Clark, M (2007) IELTS Speaking

Levelt, W.J.M (1989) Speaking. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (2006) Explorations in Corpus Linguistics

Quaqlio, P. (2009) Television Dialogue: The sitcom Friends vs. natural conversation. Studies in Corpus Linguistics

Thornbury, S. (2000) Accuracy, fluency and complexity. English Teaching professional, 16 (available for download here).

Skehan, P (1996) ‘Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction’ in Willis, J and Willis, D (Eds) Challenge and change in language teaching  Heinemann

Underhill (2013) ‘The Inner Workbench: learning itself as a meaningful activity’ in Arnold, J and Murphey, T (Eds) Meaningful Action. Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Wray, A. (2005) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge University Press

More resources:
cognitive bases

McCarthy, M. (2009) Rethinking Spoken Fluency



Function words, such as pronouns, auxiliary verbs and conjunctions, can be frustratingly difficult for learners to make out in fast unscripted speech. Not only can diphthongs get reduced to monophongs (that  is, I can sound like u in ‘cup’) and not only can vowels get dropped (that is, ‘does‘ can sound like ‘dz’ and ‘any‘ like ‘ny‘), but whole high-frequency combinations of ‘grammar’ words can blend together. While some such blendings, e.g. ‘cou ja’ and ‘wou ja’ are well known and routinely taught, others go unnoticed and as a result can lead to listening difficulties. 

To make matters worse, in my experience as a language learner, massive exposure doesn’t always help, probably because it’s quite hard to guess what it is that you’ve missed. This might be because there’s not enough thinking time, the average function word being so short, or maybe because as soon as it becomes clear that you’ve missed a whole stretch of words, your mind reflexively focusses on the surrounding lexical words in an attempt to compensate. So, unless you stop the recording and replay it/look at the script (I’m too lazy to be bothered 🙂 ), you get no feedback and hence do not learn.

As a very concrete example, I’d watched a season after season of Jonathan Ross’s show without perceptible gains in comprehension, but as soon as I learnt a few (infinitely surprising) facts about connected speech, like

  • /aʊ/ may get reduced to /ʌ/
  •  /ɪ/ may get dropped at the beginning of a conditional clause (so ‘if I’ might sound like /fʌ/),
    I immediately started getting ‘aha’ moments listening to his speech (e.g. making out his extra short ‘out’s and ‘our’s).

There has recently been published a groundbreaking book called Listening in the Language Classroom by John Field on how to treat this and other aspects of listening systematically. Field starts out with a controversial claim that all traditional listening practice effectively tests listening rather than teaching it. He then goes on to give a comprehensive analysis of the sub-skills involved in listening, first dividing the skill into ‘decoding’ and ‘meaning building’ and then deconstructing these two processes into the constituent micro ‘building blocks’. For each of these ‘blocks’, he describes concrete, tangible learner problems and gives plenty of suggestions for classroom activities addressing each of those problems. This book was a revelation to me and I’m quite sure that Field’s ideas will be commonplace in language coursebooks in 10 years’ time, just as work on collocations has become commonplace over the past couple of decades.


One of the general guidelines that the author gives is providing students with regular short intensive decoding practice through gap-fills that focus on just one feature of connected speech (e.g. ‘t’/’d’ being reduced to a glottal stop at the ends of words). He doesn’t go into detail on why practice should be intensive and not distributed, but this is not the first time I’ve come across the idea that intensive practice in key to skill development, so I’m guessing this must be insight from  some theory or another (one of the disciplines John Field teaches is psycholinguistics).

So I’ve been looking for ways to provide students with such practice without spending hours editing audiofiles, and as it turns out there are quite a few videos produced by language teachers that are just perfect for this. I can’t imagine how much work went into this, but they produced compilations of 3 to 10 second extracts from films featuring a particular grammar structure. These videos have subtitles and could simply be shared with students via a group blog, but I’d suggest taking this one step further and creating gap-fill exercises, as this would expose the problem of decoding function words  much more effectively and target the students’ attention towards the problematic area. I feel that the video on ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ could be particularly valuable, as it really highlights the impact sentence stress has on meaning. I’m still looking for a nifty free tool to hide the subtitles.

Was/were: was/were

1. Spider-Man ________ hero.
2. ______ ready? ______ born ready.
3. A hundred years ago, ______ one and a half billion people on Earth.
4. Exactly! ______ a worker, but now _______  war hero!
5. Oh, right! _______ my sister.
6. But ______ young and proud!
7. Yesterday, _______ such an easy game to play.
8. _______ asleep!
9. ______ your mistake.
10. Ben, ______ born for this.
11. ‘I can’t believe it!’ ‘Oh Mike..’ ‘_______ on TV!’
12. ______ accident. A tragic accident.
13. My ________ born today.
14. _______ name?
15. A long time ago, when we first came here, ______ so different.
16. ______ as popular at university as ________ at school.
17. Your _________ fighter and a patriot.
18. ______ mine and ______ sweethearts.
19. ______ married to a beautiful woman who had family money.
20. Do you have any idea _______ behind this attack?
21. And yes, ______ little drunk.
22. ______ a mistake to bring Shreck here.
23. ______ best thing that ever happened to me.
24. That relationship ______ complete waste of time.
25. I never said ______ innocent.
26. His resignation ______ his confession.
27. Thanks, guys. Thanks for the party. _______ great. Really!
28. ___________ last night? I told you, ______ sick.
29. I knew ________ real.
30. For once, the gossips __________.
31. _________ a time ______ everything and nothing all in one.
32. ______ the star in the 1973 hit film Zanjeer?
33. __________ the last time _______ home? Two years, two hundred sixty four days and this morning.
34. ______ that? I didn’t say anything. Okay. Alright. Good night. Sleep well.
35. On Sunday you went home along. _______ tears in your eyes.
36. Edward Perriman Cole died in May. ______ Sunday afternoon and ________ cloud in the sky.
37. ______ on the floor. I didn’t know ______ state secret.

am/is/are 1

1. _______ you name? Leon.
2. _______ okay?
3. _______ still here!
4. _______ a good soldier.
5. _______ possible.
6. _______ Holly Hills.
7. _______ proud of you.
8. _______ machines! _______ cattle! _______ men!
9. _______ okay, _______ here.
10. _______ busy.
11. _______ careful. Even in defeat Saruman is dangerous.
12. Their secret _______ teamwork.
13. _______ my older brother.
14. _______ not human, _______
15. This house _______ hundred and fifty years old.
16. _______ serial killer.
17. _______ a problem, William. _______ solution..
18. Commodus _______ moral man.
19. The fate of Christopher Robin _______ our hands.
20. Oh my god! _______ miracle
21. _______ always on my mind.
22. _______ impossible. _______ in prison. _______ impossible.
23. _______ like you. _______ murderer.
24. But your business _______ a little dangerous.
25. The spirit of Troy _______ that sword.
26. _______ not different. _______
27. The cub _______ year old and still dependent on its mother.
28. _______ beautiful
29. _______ real?

am/is/are 2

1. ________ insane?
2. To them ________ just a freak, like me.
3. ________ the thief. ________ face familiar to you.
4. ________ challenge?
5. Uh, whose car ________ out front?
6. ________ mother alive?
7. ________ best part of my day.
8. ________ about you. ________ about us!
9. ________ sorry about your grandson.
10. ________ amasing.
11. The planet’s indisputable super-river ________ Amazon.
12. ________ pregnant!
13. Whose sword ________? Mine.
14. ________ very god, very loyal. ________, boys?
15. ________ an alient, ________ legal alien, ________ Englishman in New York.
16. ________ my classroom, boy!
17. ________ genius!
18. ________ father here?
19. ________ the last hope left.
20. ________ satisfied.
21. ________ sorry.
22. This Canadian bear ________ special.
24. ________ crazy, ________ crazy!
25. ________ nobody’s master, got it?
26. ________ sign fromApollo
27. ________ completely terrified.
28. ________ power, not love.
29. ________ here, ________ nothing I fear.
30. ________ unacceptable.
31. This guy ________ crazy.
32 My father ________ different than any other powerful man.
33. ________ good idea.
34. ________ here because ________ free. ________ here because ________ not free.

am/is/are 3

1. _______ profitable.
2. See, _______ monster!
3. _______ father.
4. Wow! _______ spaceship!
5. Ahh, change _______ good! Yeah, but _______ easy.
6. _______ most responsible man I’ve ever known.
7. Well, well, _______ historic day.
8. _______ good papa, Papa.
9. Lucy _______ very special person, very different from other people.
10. _______ perfect.
11. _______ happy for you. _______ honorable man.
12. Yes, _______ clumsy, _______?
13. Okay. _______ free to go.
14. Four weeks old and the cub _______ blind.
15. _______ real. _______ here.
16. _______ wrong with you.
17. _______ interesting. That ground _______ wet.
18. _______ disrespect, master. _______ truth.
19. Hi. _______ for me?
20. _______ beautiful writer.
21. _______ good to be home!
22. Life _______ bigger.
23. Robert _______ overprotective because _______ doctor.
24. The point _______ fear is natural.
25. _______ still alive.
26. Oow! _______ problem.
27. For some women, beauty _______ only talent.
28. _______ today?
29. _______ good news!
30. _______.
31. Christopher Robin! _______ there?
32. _______ about you.
33. _______ wrong with my future?
34. Because _______ special and unique!
35. Okay, look! _______ sorry! Alright?

present continuous in films

1. _______________ now?
2. Charlie _______________ on the wall. What? Charlie. ________________ on the wall.
3. Dexter, _______________ to me? Yes, _______________ .
4. _______________ you, _______ ? A little!
5. I know _______________. _______ breakfast?
6. Merlin, _______________ ? _______ for a book.
7. Carey, do you have a second? Sure, what’s up?
_______________ about me? _______________ about you? Are you Upriser 7? _______________ about? _______________ online about me.
8. I know _______________ . _______________ anything.
9. ______________________?
10. ______________________.
11. Yes… me. What? Cary? Kalinda? ________________? ________________? ________ omlette, what do you think? Where are you? I need some help. OK, now?
12. Hey guys, _______________? Chemistry.
13. ________________ at? You, Eli. ________________ at you.
14. Mum! Phineas and Ferb ________________ a title sequence!

future simple

1. ________ remember your name.
2. Oh, young master, one day ________ king.
3. ________ you my whole life.
4. ________ this house today.
5. ________ ask again.
6. Now, ________ ever fall in love with somebody else’s lover.
7. Please come home. If you come home, ________ protect you.
8. ________ see you again, Michael?
9. ________ join you? ________
10. The problem is that Portugal ________ more money.
11. ________ come back and free you, Mom. I promise.
11. ________ you what you want.
12. ________ not tell anyone.
13. ________ never be on the wrong side again.
14. And I know ________ no more tears in heaven.
15. Maybe ________ his mind. No, no, I don’t think so.
16. ________ never let anybody hurt you.
17. ________ easier than I thought.
18. ________ always be Spider-Man.
19. There ________ a war.
20. In time ________ to trust your feelings.
21. ________ you again, ________?
22. If you really love her, ________ her go.
23. ________ marry me?
24. ________ this.
25. So ________ try to come?
26. ________ trouble for you. I just want the truss.
27. Kludd, I promise ________ anyone what you’re doing.
28. ________ my best.

Can or Can’t?

1. ________ follow me?
2. Sorry, ________ answer!
3. ________ find all this in London?
4. Listen! ________ help you!
5. ________ breathe!
6. Lady Arwen, ________ delay.
7. Nothing ________ permanently.
8. ________ see me now.
9. ________ trust you?
10. ________ sleep.
11. ________ do for you?
12. ________ move! ________ talk! ________ walk!
13. ________ save hundreds of them.
14. ________ stay here.
15. ________ forget the day you left.
16. When ________ see you again?
17. ________ fly!
18. ________ believe it!
19. ________ survive without you!
20. I believe ________ fly!
21. Please forgive me, ________ stop loving you.
22. Its skin ________ change colour.
23. Oh my God ________ believe it!
24. Father , ________ win this war.
25. ________ see things before they happen.
26. This lake ________ be a dangerous place.
27. There’s nothing ________ do.
28. ________ describe.
29. ________ cook, ________?
30. ________ do it, Ned.
31. ________ be 4:30.
32. If there’s anything ________ do, please call.
33. ________ repeat the question?
34. ________ find food.
35. ________ do this my ourselves.
36. Because there’s nothing ________ do.
37. ________ go now?
38. ________ trust me.
39. ________ wake him up?
40. ________ see!
41. ________ ask you something? Yeah.
42. ________ lose them both.
42. ________ change the past!
43. ________ leave here!

why: (ALL question types)

1. Why, why _______________ lie to me?
2. But why _______________ do it?
3. Why _______________ here?
4. If you believe that, why _______________ come back?
5. Why _______________ look so impressed?
6. Why _______________ read so much?
7. Why _______________ that?
8. Why _______________ love me, Jenny?
9.Why _______________ be the first man in your family not to use that word?
10. Why _______________ trust you?
11.Why _______________ tell me?
12. Why _______________ suspect me?
13. Why _______________ talk it over?
14. Why _______________ spoil everything?
15. Why _______________ you’re here together?
16. Why _______________ ride to the aid of those who did not come to ours?
17. Why _______________ tell me what everyone else seems to know?
18. Why _______________ change your mind?
19. Why _______________ release me?
20. Lady, why _______________ so interested in what I read or what I do?
21. Why _______________ try again A little harder. How’s that?
22. Why _______________ just sit back and relax?
23. Why _______________ wake me, smee?
24. Why _______________ nice people choose the wrong people to date?
25. Why _______________ looking at me like that?
26. Why _______________ follow the simples orders?
27. Why _______________ going to Washington DC?
28. Uh, but I don’t know if I can. Why _______________?


Just the list of links:

am/is/are 1
am/is/are 2
am/is/are 3
am/is/are 4

present simple voscreen
songs with present simple

present continuous in films
simple continuous

past simple
songs with past simple

present perfect in films

past perfect in desperate housewives
in desperate housewives (careful!!! sex)

why: (ALL question types)


future simple
will and going to


0 and 1st conditional:

2nd conditional in films
all conditionals in films

modals in films
modal verbs of obligation in films

songs with superlatives
the passive in films
the passive with modals

Update. A year after writing this post, I came across a resource that allows you to search in movie subtitles and play the extracts, so now exercise of the type described in this post can be created ‘on the fly’: 

Update 2. Two more years on, together with my partner Kirill Sukhomlin we’ve created Tubequizard, a resource that allows to make interactive quizzes like the ones I wrote in this post, based on Youtube videos. Here’s an example quiz.


I’ve taught English for over 4 years now, and I’ve only recently worked up the courage to teach my students the phonemic chart. Here’s why I did that:

  • I wanted to enable my students to learn vocabulary autonomously. Some researchers, e.g. Paul Nation, argue that for high frequency words (top 1000/2000/3000 words) the best strategy is to learn them in a decontextualized way using translation and the keyword technique based on visual associations, and then get the feel for these words through exposure. I’ve experimented with the keyword technique learning German and it worked for me, so I decided to teach it to my students. However, it would be useless if they were unable to get the pronunciation right. While there are talking dictionaries online (e.g., in my my opinion there’s still a case for teaching the students the phonemic script. The main reason is that it might be tricky to actually hear the sounds if you’ve already got an idea of how the word should be pronounced. In my case this was actually ridiculous – I’m not a native speaker of English and I learnt that ‘chocolate’ and ‘different’ are not actually pronounced as /ˈtʃɒkələt/ and /ˈdɪfərənt/ from Cutting Edge coursebook while teaching an elementary group of students. Another example is the /eə/ diphthong in words like ‘pair’ and ‘where’, and the final syllable in ‘considered’. I remember the moment when I first saw the phonemic transcription of these words. That moment was a revelation. I’d always felt that I must be pronouncing them incorrectly, because they didn’t ‘feel right’ in the mouth. The most striking thing about seeing  the transcription was seeing the number of sounds. Before that, I’d always tried to say something like /peɪr/, /we/ and /kɔ:nsɪderet/, and when I heard them I didn’t notice the way there were pronounced – or maybe I did notice but didn’t trust my ear. Another important reason why it’s worth spending some time teaching the students the script is that most students won’t bother going to the talking dictionary so unless they have a record of how the words are pronounced will end up learning the wrong pronunciation. By the way, if you have a list of words for the students to memorize in an Excel file, it’s very easy to produce a list of phonemic transcriptions in a matter of seconds using this excellent resource:
  • With my B2 teenage learners, I needed them to learn the chart so that they could develop listening skills by learning the language to formulate what it is they’re hearing before looking at the transcript/subtitles, and in this way build up an understanding of their individual listening weaknesses – more about that in a separate post.

This was the why, and here’s the how.


Level: any, but with A1-A2 it helps if you speak the students’ L1
Length: 50-90 minutes (lower levels need more time to learn to pronounce the sounds)


  • A phonemic chart 
  • A set of 36 cards for each students (each A4 sheet can be cut into 16 biz card-sized cards)
  • A print-out of the table with associations (below) to remind you which associations to suggest to students
  • Optionally, a print-out of words written in the phonemic script for Stage 4
  • Optionally, texts written in the phonemic script for homework.

This procedure for memorizing the symbols was modified from the procedure I learnt in Advance club in St. Petersburg during a 2-day workshop on memory development. The trainer, an exceptionally inspirational educator Nickolay Yagodkin taught us to read the Korean alphabet in around 30 minutes using letter-word associations, and it was an incredibly joyful and gratifying experience.

Here are the key things to remember in this lesson

  • The focus of this post is helping the students learn the symbols. However, you’ll need to teach the students how to pronounce the sounds (especially the vowels) before teaching the symbols; I use the procedure from an amazing workshop by Adrian Underhill (see the video below)
  • it’s best not to assume that some consonant sounds, like /k/, are ‘trivial’ – the students will have all kinds of misconceptions about the phonemic chart, e.g. they will assume that there’s a /c/ sound in ‘cow’ or that /j/ sounds like the first sound in ‘jeans’. So it’s better to treat the whole chart in a systematic way and teach even those sounds that seem ‘obvious’; also, in some languages that use the Latin alphabet the letters are pronounced differently (e.g. ‘r’ is pronounced as /h/ in Portuguese).
  • to learn that many symbols in one go, it’s a good idea to use mnemonics
  • you’ll need to make sure that the students learn the symbols in batches of around 12 symbols. They will need the chance to revise each batch and then practice reading simple words for a bit before going on to the next batch. I personally start with vowels and then provide the students with lists of words to practice on, like /pʊl/ /pɔ:l/ /pɜ:l/, which I know they’ll be able to read even though we haven’t practiced these consonants yet. I’ve only got experience with Russian students, but it might be that the lists of ‘safe’ consonants may depend on the students’ L1. 

Here’s the procedure.

  • Stage 1. Teach the students to pronounce the vowels
    As I mentioned above, I use Adrian Underhill’s procedure. By the way, all videos of his workshops that I’ve seen online were remarkable and uplifting, and this one is no exception. Actually, it is such a treat that it’s worth watching even if you’re not going to teach anyone the phonemic chart. Do check it out.

    Some notes that I took of ideas I personally found particularly valuable:
    1. The vowel part of the phonemic chart is actually a picture of a human mouth: the number of the row shows how open the jaws are, the number of the column shows the position of the tongue + the shape of the lips
    2. Before watching this video, I used to explain how to produce the problematic sounds ‘from scratch’. However, it’s much easier to help a student who’s mispronouncing a sound if you can figure out how they should adjust the current position of their tongue/jaws/etc in their mouth. In order to do this, mimic the sound they’re producing, then pronounce the ‘right’ sound – play with the two sounds to figure out what the physical differences are
    3. In a similar manner, some troublesome sounds are easier to explain starting from an ‘easy’ sound that’s ‘close’ in the mouth (e.g. /r/ can be explained through /l/; /ŋ/ can be explained through /k/ – ask the students to pronounce /k/ and feel where the root of the mouth is; after that ask them to prepare the mouth to pronounce /k/ but pronounce /n/ – an ŋ will come out; /k/ is also useful when explaining the position of the tongue in /ɒ/ – get the s/s to practice with ‘cot’ and ‘cut’). But as I mentioned before, there’s much more in the video than these ideas, so do check it out.
    Another useful technique that I learnt from Anne Thompson, my Delta Module 2 tutor, is to use your hands to illustrate for the student how to adjust their articulators: show the roof of the mouth with you left hand and show them how to adjust their tongue with your right hand:


  • Stage 2. Teach the students the symbols using mnemonics.
    The idea is visualize each symbol as part of an image – a word that contains this symbol. For example, ʌ looks like an umbrella or a cup turned upside down.
    There are two important rules here.
    1. It’s vitally important that the students do visualize the association and not just try to memorize the associated word. This really is the key element of this technique, because there are much more neurons involved in visualization than in any other type of processing and thus it’s actually possible to memorize hundreds of images in one sitting. So while they won’t be able to remember 32 ‘symbol + word’ pairs  by the end of the lesson, the studnets will be able to remember 32 images containing the symbols – and thus, the symbols themselves.
    2. As you work on each symbol, the students put the symbol (and only the symbol) on one side of a small card and the word on the other side. ImageAsk the students not to draw their associations (and try not to draw anything on the board). Visual memory will kick in much more powerfully if the students visualize the images for themselves. Using L1 might be a good idea at this stage with lower levels, because there’s quite a lot of teacher talk involved, and using the students’ L1 you can encourage the students to add detail to the images (‘an old dusty bottle in a pirate’s chest’ will work much better than ‘a bottle’ here). I provide ideas for associations below – these are the words that we used with my groups, but actually it might be better to ask the class for the words – this will make sure that the vocabulary is right for their level. The only difficulty that might arise is that you might not be able to instantly come up with visual associations for each symbol, but if this happens you can always fall back one the ideas you prepared beforehand.
  • i: Imagine a piece of cheese with i:-shaped holes ɪ If you circle it, it becomes a pig’s snout
    ʊ Turn it upside down and it becomes two legs, each one with a foot u: A moon. The dots are two stars.
    e an egg ə this is a picture of a relaxed half-open mouth saying this sound!
    a flamingo
    ɜ: bird
    third (ɜ: looks like 3)
    ɔ: A very unhappy smiley face which is Lord of the rings who’s lost the ring.
    æ an apple ʌ An umbrella
    A cup
    ɑ: a tongue
    a bulging arm? 
    ɒ A hot frying pan
    p a pen
    a pillowa page in a booka price tag?
    b A bottle
    A bag
    t Complete it to an upside town number ‘2’
    time (two hands of a clock)
    to type (with a finger)
    a talon
    (with a spade)a dalek! 😀
    f Complete it to a 4
    The index finger
    v vote
    θ A thumb or a theatre (the rod is the stage)
    or this could be the picture of the mouth when it’s saying θ
    ð A pointing finger: ‘this’
    A leather bag
    m moustache
    n draw letter nine over it
    ŋ a long ‘n’ h A house (with a chimney)
    ʧ A chair turned upside down
    A chicken?
    ʤ A jar of jam (ʒ is the jar, and d is a spoon to eat it with)
    k Add an oval at the top and it becomes a key
    A cow (with horns)
    g  glasses
    s Complete it to a six
    A snake
    z Zorro
    a zip
    ʃ The heel of a shoe ʒ A television (TV-set) with an antenna
    l a leg r a piece of rope
    the stalk of a rose
    w a wave
    add a femail head -> a wife
    add two heads – twins
    or maybe windscreen wipers?
    j A bottle of jogurt (the dot is the cap)
  • Stage 3
    The students revise the 12 cards they’ve just written. They start with the words and try to remember the symbol. Having revised all 12 cards, they revise in the opposite direction: from the symbol to the word. Repeat this 3 times.
    Board words for the next stage while they’re revising (unless you’ve got print outs) – fast finishers can go on to stage 4.
  • Stage 4 – board or print out some transcriptions for the students to read, e.g.
    aɪ ɪər iːt et tiː tɔɪ eɪt ˈtuː ɪt teəz
    teɪk tʊk keɪk kʌt kʊk ˈkɪk tɪk keə kaʊ kiː kæt kɒt
    puːl pəʊl pɔːl piːl pɪl pæl paɪl peɪl pəʊl pɜːl
    [option 1] S/s read phonemic transcriptions individually while T circulates and helps. After that, in pairs, one student reads one word and the second guesses which one this was.
    [option 2] Work as a whole class. Each time, allow 5 seconds thinking time and then either signal with your hands that you want the whole group to pronounce the word or nominate someone.
  • Stage 5 – Repeat the procedure for another 12  sounds; provide more reading practice
    (This could be turned into a game: challenge the students to brainstorm words that contain 2-4 specific consonants (e.g. only p and l) and any vowels; each student writes down the phonemic transcriptions; after 5 minutes regroups the pairs – the students in each pair challenge each other to decipher the transcriptions).
  • Stage 6 – Repeat the procedure for the remaining symbols.
    For Homework:
  • Ask the students to revise the cards for four days. This won’t take them longer than 5 minutes a day, and yet this is essential because this is the way memory works. Quiz them in the next class.
  • If you have something like a group blog, you could share links to these resources:
    An interactive phonemic chart:
    Videos for each sound (the can look closely at the mouth + repeat words after the speaker)
  • Print out these texts written in the phonemic script for the students to practice.
  • Here are some more web resources that I found, but most of them were above the level of my false beginner students.
  • Also, you could organize a tongue twister competition using Voxopop is a free tool that allows you to create ‘discussion threads’ – students can record messages and add them to the thread. As the site shows the duration of each message, it’s easy to set a competition: the student with the shortest message that contains no mistakes is the winner!
    Here’s what a discussion looks like: Discussion » The story of three free fleas. And here are some tongue twisters to practice problematic sound pairs:

Please feel free to comment! All suggestions how to improve this lesson /ideas for additional games or activities for homework and links to resources are highly appreciated – as always.