“What Do You Want to Do?” Key Phrases for ESL Pronunciation

“What Do You Want to Do?” Key Phrases for ESL Pronunciation

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 22,812 views

Typically, ESL pronunciation instruction has focused on the word and even the phoneme (individual speech sound) level.

Students are given long lists of words to practice pronunciation, often the words divided up by similarity in pronunciation: “speech” “reach” and “leach” might all be in one column, especially to contrast with the similar-sounding but different “rich,” “hitch,” pitch,” etc. This can be a good strategy for those students who have difficulty distinguishing these two phonemes, or speech sounds, helping them differentiate by contrast the two sounds, analyzing their different production, and so forth. There are also several problems with the strategy, however.

One problem with focusing excessively on speech sounds in isolation is it is unauthentic: we usually don’t go around using one word, in isolation. The approach of teaching and analyzing single words for pronunciation also ignores that the pronunciation of a word is affected by surrounding words: taking the word “speech,” for example, the pronunciation of the word in phrases like “giving a speech” is different than when the word is pronounced in isolation, going from “speech” to “uhspeech” because the “a” is connected to “speech” in the flow of conversation. In a related concern, it is unmotivating to students to spend excessive time pronouncing single words or lists of related words, reducing class practice to something they will almost never do outside of the classroom.

A better approach would be to teach, rather than a series of isolated words, key phrases. Much of language occurs in groups of several words, connected in meaning, grammar, and punctuation. In addition, many phrases language students can take out of the classroom and use tomorrow.

Check Out These 10 Key Phrases for Teaching Pronunciation

  1. 1

    How’s It Going? / How Are You?

    These phrases are used as simple greetings; often the greeting is simply returned with “fine” or “Fine, and you?” Often these greetings are said in passing; it is not expected that the parties will stop and engage in a lengthy discussion of how they are.

  2. 2

    Are You Busy? / Got a Minute?

    These phrases single the desire to open a conversation on a topic, that the speaker has something specific she wants to discuss to listener. It’s usually not an invitation to just trade pleasantries or make general comments on the weather but rather to address a specific concern, such as money owed or making arrangements for joint childcare or transportation.

  3. 3

    What I Want to Say Is-- / The Thing Is--

    These phrases are often used to signal the arrival of the main point, often after talking around it for some time, perhaps because the main point has been unclear even to the speaker or because it is uncomfortable to discuss for some reason, such as lack of intimacy between the speaker and listener. One neighbor might use it with another, for example, after knocking on his door and trading pleasantries for some time before getting to his unpleasant point, “What I really want to say is your cats always come over to my yard, and they really make a mess--” Because this phrase usually signals the arrival of the main point, it will often special stress and emphasis, coming out slightly louder than the surrounding language.

  4. 4

    Well, It’s Getting Late-- / I Should Be Going

    These phrases while not meaning “goodbye,” usually just precede “goodbye” and signal a desire to draw the conversation to a close. Not picking up on the desire to end the discussion might result in impatience or annoyance on the part of the speaker, demonstrating the importance of understanding the pragmatics, or actual usage, of these phrases. To avoid such confusion, often the phrases are drawn out, to give the listener time to understand and react, “Well--it’s getting late--”

  5. 5

    See You Soon / Let’s Get Together Soon

    These phrases are both ways of taking leave of each other, of “good-bye.” Speakers of American English rarely say “good-bye” but use some phrase such as “See you soon” and “it’s been good talking with you.” Often the speaker speeds up her rate of speech with these phrases, pronouncing “Let’s get together” more rapidly than preceding speech, again to signal the completion and finality.

Use These Methods to Teach Key Phrases and their Pronunciation

  1. 1

    Teach the Context

    Critical to use of key phrases is their context. Phrases, like all of language, are connected to context, not used in isolation. As seen above, phrases usually have a specific function, such as introducing a topic or drawing a discussion to a close. Therefore, “Are you busy?” or “Got a minute?” is probably not going to be asked of a neighbor who is clearly on her way to work in the morning and doesn’t have time but rather in a situation such as spotting a coworker in the break room.

  2. 2

    Teach the Meaning

    Heavily related to the context is the meaning of the phrase, usage. There is usually a more pragmatic use of a phrase rather than the more literal, which should be taught. Often pointed out as an example of language in use that is not literal is that in American English “How are you?” is not literally an inquiry into an individual’s health (unless coming from one’s doctor); it is a greeting, and the correct response, a return of the greeting, is “Fine, and you?”

  3. 3

    Teach the Pronunciation in Connected Speech

    Teach the way we actually say something, not the “proper” way someone says we are supposed to say. Most of these phrases are “frozen,” or “semi-frozen” in that they are always in that form and are unchanged in grammar, meaning, or pronunciation. Therefore, just as the words have a single connected meaning, they also have a single pronunciation, all of the words connected, and often pronounced as a single word. For example, “How’s it going?” is often pronounced as one word: “Howzitgoing?”

  4. 4

    Stress of Key Phrases

    Stress and emphasis is in indicated in sentences by making the stressed word louder and longer: “I SAID I was coming,” for example, with sentence stress on “said” indicates the speaker’s emphasis on the point that he has already mentioned this. Similarly, key phrases, as words, will also receive special stress: “What I want to say is--” will usually come out louder than surrounding speech, for example, to signal the arrival of the main point.

  5. 5

    Intonation of Key Phrases

    Also important to remember is that phrases often retain the intonation of their literal, not figurative, meaning. That is, although “How are you?” is not really a question, usually, but a greeting, the intonation still usually takes the form of an information question, with rising and falling pitch are the next to last syllable, “are.”

Teaching key phrases is not easy, from deciding what phrases to teach to how to teach them.

However, learning key phrases yields large benefits in understanding how the language is used in actual production, in its usage and pronunciation, and teaching them is worth the effort.

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