Vol. 10, Issue 3, March 2010

Pronunciation Corner
Joyce Mandell

Joyce Mandell

As we all know, pronunciation training has come a long way from the days of intense focus just on segmentals (the ship/sheep syndrome).   Many other features of clear speech contribute much more to comfortable intelligibility in spoken English.  Even when pronunciation is close to target, many students (especially the advanced ones I work with in MBA programs and in corporate environments) still sound “off” or hard to understand due to the rhythm of their speech.  I love rhythm work because it is all about music and feeling; it gets students away from the grueling task of trying to produce a target sound and more into a global sense of what the music of English should sound like.  I call this exercise “I’ve Got Rhythm.”  The objective is to focus attention on pacing, rhythm and alternating stress patterns of English.  It also increases competence in oral and rhythmic mimicry. 

Begin with the whole group reciting the alphabet in unison.  Establish a strong, clear beat with a tambourine or other type of rhythm instrument.  Then, start playing around with the phrasing, just like a jazz singer does with the lyrics of a song.  Phrase the letters in different rhythm groups, first with three letters and then five letters.  Change the stress pattern each time, giving various letters a strong or weak stress, and have learners chant in unison after you.  Tell them to exaggerate moving their bodies to the beat of the strong syllable.  For example, you may start with the following: 

Leader says a b C d e (so the rhythm pattern is lala LA lala) and group members all repeat it several times.  Then switch to F G h i J (which sounds like La La lala La). 

Make sure you coach the students to practice the pitch jump as well as the increase in length and intensity on the stressed letter because many language groups have a very hard time with the pitch jumps on stressed syllables.  Go through the whole alphabet this way, having group members replicate your rhythm and vocal pattern as they punch out the stressed letters.  This exercise is both energizing and fun.  It reminds students that one quality of a good speaker of English is the ability to mimic well, so encourage them to imitate your rhythm patterns as closely as possible. 


Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to the non-native speaker for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings.  She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking.  She also works individually with business professionals.

Feel free to contact her with questions or suggestions at dialogue@nystesol.org.