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Using colour and hand signals to licence learners to drive their own connected speech

Man holding thumbs upIn this guest post, Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge ESOL Oral Examiner, shares his tips for using colours and hand signals to help learners grasp pronunciation.

To teach or not to teach pronunciation? That’s the question. As paradoxical as this question may be, the answer for it should be simple: pronunciation is communication, and thus, worthy of attention in the language classroom. As an advocate for the teaching of connected speech, I am always looking for ways of raising my learners’ awareness of this productive capacity of spoken language.

In this post, I would like to share a colour-coding system I have been using with my learners to help them focus on prosodic features such as stress, elision, assimilation, linking and intonation. I have called it, Traffic Lights.

The rationale

Traffic lights are useful signals, so I thought they would be a helpful aid to guide my learners in their journey of discovery about connected speech. The Traffic Lights system is also supported by hand gestures such as finger clicking, hand waves, hand strokes and finger to thumb movements, which I believe help learners to relax rather than worrying too much about trying to work out what is happening in the mouth in order to allow themselves to enjoy the pronunciation practice via a more active and kinaesthetic approach.

Understandably, articulation exercises tend to focus too much on the ear and the mouth at times. However, for many learners this experience is rather daunting and unpleasant. By giving them an opportunity to visualise and cognitively shift the focus of the brain away from these body ‘instruments’, they stand a better chance of visualising and thus becoming more attune to natural speech. While observing my learners in action in the classroom, I have noticed some clear improvement in their ability to speak more intelligibly, even though their initial reactions to the approach being reserved.

The preparation

At the beginning of your course, introduce the learners to the systems. For this, the learners will need to have a four-colour pen and a copy of the Traffic Lights card below (which I like to laminate for them).

Traffic lights

Ask the learners to attach this card to their file, as they will need to refer to it on a regular basis during the course.

The application

Start by showing the learners some functional language for introductions of your choice. Here are some common get-to-know-each other questions:


First, get the learners to use the red ink in their pen to mark the STRESS in the language above e.g.


Encourage the learners to analyse this language in pairs or small groups.  Monitor and assist where necessary.

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Shadowing: a useful technique for autonomous practice of listening and speaking

Teen boy wearing headphonesIn this post, Arizio Sweeting, a Cambridge ESOL Oral Examiner, shares a simple learner training approach to listening and pronunciation development using a shadowing technique.

Start by selecting a short audio text for your learners to work with. You will find a wide range of Creative Commons audio materials which can be downloaded as an MP3 file for educational purposes at www.elllo.org. The following transcript accompanies an audio text about Australia and is a good example in terms of its delivery, content and length:

The Australian flag has the Union Jack in the top left-hand corner. The rest of the flag is dark blue and then it has six white stars on it. I think they represent six different states in Australia, but I’m not really sure. My favourite city in Australia is Sydney. I lived there for about 6 months and it’s a really lively city. There are lots of young people and lots of things to do. There are also lots of tourist sites to visit, for example, the Sydney Opera House. Most people when they think about Australia, they think about the Outback. Very few people in Australia live in the Outback really, which is why it is so empty. There are huge empty spaces, like deserts, sometimes, where you can go for hours without seeing even one other person. When I was in the Outback, the most amazing sight I saw was Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it’s called now, which is its Aboriginal name. So Uluru is the biggest rock in the world, and it really is amazing when you travel through the Outback and then suddenly, out of nowhere, you see a huge rock that looks like a mountain. It’s an amazing sight, one of the best I saw in Australia.

Downloaded from www.elllo.org on 14/01/13

Analyse the vocabulary in the transcript to identify which items you would need to clarify for your learners. For instance, the words in bold would be items I would clarify if I was using this audio material with a group of pre-intermediate learners, for example. I have chosen these words not for their linguistic complexity but for the fact that they may be too cultural for some learners. Prepare copies of the transcript for the class.

Get the learners to put the MP3 file onto a USB or iPod. Before the shadowing practice, encourage the learners to listen to the audio text as many times as possible to become familiar with the speaker’s pronunciation. Prompt the learners to listen to the audio text on the bus, train or when walking to school. Instruct them to also focus on particular nuances of the speaker’s speech, such as the way the person pronounces certain individual sounds, the rhythm and the pace of the person’s voice, and so on.

Allow the learners at least two days of listening practice before you take them to a computer lab for shadowing practice. If possible, conduct some whole-class discussion about the audio text and what the learners can or can’t hear.

In the computer lab, demonstrate to them how the technique works. To do this, play the audio text in segments and simultaneously repeat what the speaker says trying to copy the person’s pronunciation with as much precision as possible. It is important that the learners notice that the technique is not a listen-and-repeat exercise. Allow the learners time for individual practice, but make sure they have small breaks during the process so that learners don’t lose motivation or get too tired.

Finally, when the learners feel that their pronunciation matches the audio text naturally, get them to record themselves using an audio-recording editor, such as Audacity, which can be downloaded for free at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/.

During the practice, get the learners to focus on the segments of the audio text which they are having problems with until they have fixed these problems. To do this, learners should listen back to the MP3 file as many times as necessary until they are satisfied with their pronunciation. Tell learners that they should continue the practice outside class for several weeks until they feel they have incorporated this pronunciation into their speech.

What do you think of this technique? Do you have any tips and tricks for teaching listening and pronunciation that you’d like to share?

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More voice-based activities to raise learners’ awareness of the power of their voice

Young woman covering her laughFollowing his first post on giving the learners a ‘pragmatic shock’, Arizio Sweeting returns with more voice-based activities to get your students speaking in English.

In this second voice based post, I would like to share with you two activities to help learners become more aware of the power of their voice.

I have called these activities: Intonation Gap and Voiceover, respectively.

The first activity, Intonation Gap, aims to encourage learners to notice what their voice sounds like when expressing emotions such as fear, shock, excitement, and so on in their speech.

The activity works like this:

  • Divide the class into two groups: A and B.
  • First, give the learners some nonsense sounds on the board e.g. piupiu, etc.
  • Tell the learners that they are going to ask a question using the nonsense sounds.
  • The questions must be short, preferably one-word questions e.g. piupiu? Demo what to do.
  • On the board, write up some adjectives such as afraid, surprised, angry, pleased, excited, questioning, etc.
  • Using the nonsense sounds, learners practise asking questions expressing the emotions on the adjectives on the board. If you have small mirror, give these to the learners so they can see the facial expressions or mouth articulations. The same procedure is repeated for answers.
  • Give each learner the name of a suburb. Alternatively, you could use shop names, street names etc.
  • Tell the learners to mingle and ask each other questions to find someone with the same information, trying to communicate the emotions that would go with the adjectives on the board. This time, they should use real words e.g. Marble Arch? And short answers such as Yes and No.
  • Learners should respond in the same way, paying close attention to the emotion being expressed before giving an answer.

The second activity is called Voiceover, and it is ideal for a class project. Personally, I have found this activity a great confidence builder as well as a challenger of misguided learner perceptions that a ‘beautiful voice’ is only that of a BBC announcer, for instance.

In fact, it has been a great help to show the learners that their voice can be as good as anyone else’s, given the proper work, of course.

This activity works like this:

  • Select a YouTube video with no voice over. Wildlife videos can be a good source of material.
  • Learners using iPhones, iPads and Android devices can access the videos on their gadgets.
  • Learners watch the video and identify the various themes on it e.g. love, bravery etc.
  • Select a song or poem which you think would go well with the video. If you decide to use this activity as a class project, give learners time to find their own poems or songs.
  • Learners watch the video and match the song or poem with the video. Encourage the learners to use their creativity as well and write new lines to go with the video.
  • Using speech symbols, learners study the poem or song, marking it with speech symbols and practise saying it on their own or mirroring each other’s mouths without making a sound.
  • Engage the learners into breathing exercises for relaxation and confidence.
  • Organise the learners into groups for them to narrate the videos in real time.

In summary, I hope you will find these activities of useful for helping your learners discover the power of their voice so that they can use it to do the work for their pronunciation development.

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Giving the learners a ‘pragmatic shock’ in the pronunciation classroom: a voice-based activity

Arizio Sweeting has taught and trained in Brazil, Macau, New Zealand and now Australia, where he works for the Institute of Continuing & TESOL Education at the University of Queensland (ICTE-UQ). Here he describes an activity that focuses on the use of students’ voices for delivering messages to others.

“Listen to me. Listen to me! I have a voice!” says Colin Firth as King George VI in the King’s Speech (2010). Like Firth’s character, language learners also have a voice and their voice is much more than sounds; it is also the representation of their personality. As Berry (2003) emphasises the ‘voice is …the outward expression of [the] inner self, a sort of channel from inside to outside, and is therefore a very particular expression of [one’s’] personality” (p. 6). Thus, it is time for the pronunciation classroom to start providing learners with more than traditional focus on phonemic symbols, charts, lists of minimal pairs and articulation diagrams, but with voice and pragmatic awareness practice such as in the activity I wish to suggest below.

It is called Say It Like You Mean It and it follows Copeman’s (2012) premise of ‘fake it till you make it’ (p. 22). In this activity, learners rehearse and focus on the use of their voice for delivering ‘difficult’ messages to others, such as telling someone that they have bad breath or that the colour of their shirt is ugly. An important consideration, however, is that the aim of this activity is not to encourage learner insensitivity, but to familiarise the learners with their ‘voice image’ i.e. the way their voice is perceived by others (Berry: 2003: 22). In general, the main objective of the activity is for learners to receive a ‘pragmatic shock’ which can trigger off self-awareness of ‘voice image’ and pragmatics.

In class, give the learners a message card each and get them to practise saying the message in their own minds without showing them to others. The learners then mingle and fire these messages to each other in conversations on a given topic e.g. their plans for the weekend.

Once this is done, conduct a class discussion on the learners’ reactions and try to covers the following points:

  • their thoughts and feelings about the experience
  • how their voice sounded when they delivered the messages
  • the words they used
  • the various reactions to the messages

After that, do some work on vocabulary and register by writing an example of a message up on the board e.g. You are a liar and get the learners to suggest improvements for it e.g. I hope you don’t mind me saying that, but I don’t think you’re telling me the truth. Focus the learners on pronunciation here too.

Now, get the learners with the same messages to work in groups and improve register. Give the learners time for rehearsal by getting them to practise in different corners of the classroom. Play some background music for relaxation.

Finally, the learners find new partners to make conversations and re-deliver the messages. Then, do a wrap-up discussion with the class on the second delivery and check if the learners have noticed any changes in communication.

As Thornbury (1993:127) points out by quoting Wilkins, ‘too many teachers have been trained to believe that pronunciation involves little more than a list of sounds… The practice of sounds in isolation is of limited value’ (Wilkins, 1972,1978: 59). Therefore, I hope this article can contribute with an example of a possible change of practice for the pronunciation classroom.


Copeman, P. 2012. ‘Performing English: Adapting actor voice training techniques for TESOL to improve pronunciation intelligibility’. English Australia Journal 27.2.
Berry, C. (2003) Your Voice and How to Use it. The Classic Guide to Speaking with Confidence. Virgin Books Ltd.
Thornbury, S. 1993. ‘Having a good jaw: voice-setting phonology’. ELT Journal 47.2 Oxford University Press.
Wilkins, D. 1972, 1978. Linguistics in Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

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