"Get" What You Hear. Say What You Mean.

"Get" What You Hear. Say What You Mean.

How to Teach (Yourself & Others): “Beyond the Basics” Features of Clear Speech

Depending on its meaning focus, timing, pausing, and intonation, this 7-word sentence can have at least 14 different meanings. Can you explain them before looking at the “Interpretations” below?

7 (seven) words that become 7 (seven) sentences

Of course, perfect articulation (of vowel and consonant sounds in initial, medial, and final word positions, with correct syllable stress in a regular rhythm) will make the words of spoken English easier for listeners to distinguish. Even so, it’s not all there is. For real communication to happen, meaning (for all intents and purposes) needs to be apparent. 

Constructive verbal interaction and progress occur most consistently when speakers say what they mean and mean what they say. Of course, listeners need the ability to receive and interpret that meaning correctly, too. Beyond the basics, attention to these four advanced features of speech—Meaning Focus, Timing, Pausing, Intonation—will help to ensure everyone’s success:  
Want to review previous fundamentals before moving forward? Take a look back at the last three blog posts:

So what’s useful to ask and answer about additional features of clear understanding and expression? After each of these four questions are explanations with links to detailed pedagogy and effective pronunciation practice.

What are the Four “Higher-Level” Features of Clear, Expressive Speech? Meaningful communication depends not only on verbal clarity but also on accurate reception (comprehension) of the advanced features of clear expression—meaning focus, timing, pausing, intonation. Understand and develop your ability to optimize their use by perusing Accent Activities Introduction: Accent Acquisition Principle = the “Step System of American English.”

  • What’s the Importance of Phrase & Sentence “Meaning Focal Points?” Often overlooked in accent instruction, it’s the stressed syllable of the most important word in an utterance that can make or break effective, productive communication, defined as the expression and acknowledgement of what’s significant to both speakers and listeners. Want to make sure you’re “getting there” in your attempts to receive and express your own version of what’s true and important? Then recognize and focus on phrase or sentence meaning focus. Here, in Accent Activities Part One: Accent Acquisition Principle = Phrase & Sentence Meaning Focus, are both pedagogy and practice.
  • What Are the Principles of Pausing in Thought Groups? In long sentences and connected speech, fluent speakers express ideas in thought groups of words that belong together in meaning. Each of these includes a focal point, ends in falling intonation, and should be followed by a (very short) pause. For detailed analysis of “How Timing (Pausing in the Rhythm) Can Make a Difference,” take a look at It’s Time for Timing: Thought Groups & Pausing—in Part Four of Accent Activities. Learn from the analysis and enjoy the colorful practice activities. 
  • What’s the Significance of Rising, Falling, & Other Intonation Patterns? A dictionary definition of intonation is “the way the speaking voice rises and falls to convey meaning.” In other words, tone of voice or inflection shouldn’t be used to deceive or harm people but to inform and clarify meaning.
Falling intonation is most common in statements and wh-questions, while rising intonation is the main marker for yes-no questions. (It also functions in checking comprehension.) Then there’s rising-falling intonation in alternative questions designed to elicit choice. For details of some of the system with plenty of examples and exercises, see The Question of Questions: Rising (Jump Up, Step or Glide Up) Intonation in Part Five of Accent Activities.
4 Basic Features of Clear Speech in Accent Acquisition for pronouncing American English  Rule 3 Jump up principle: put "Meaning Focus on Function Words to speak with an American English Accent  Rhythm/Thought Groups & Pausing for American English pronunciation  Timing and pausing of speech to improve understanding of American English   

So there you have it. In addition to the sound clarity, syllable stress, and rhythm that contribute to an effective, efficient way of speaking, you and those you teach can strive to communicate better with meaning focal points, timing and pausing, and expressive intonation.

Is there anything else to consider in perfecting our accents? Well, fluent English speakers not only make liberal use of reduced forms but also link final sounds of words to initial sounds in what follows. Mastering these principles may or may not enhance the clarity of speech but it may add to the comfort value of familiar accent—or the ambiguity of rapid speech.

Whether or not you (or your learners) choose to reduce syllables and/or link sounds, recognition of these features will aid comprehension. These are detailed in The Missing Links: Sound Linking in Rhythm Groups in Part Six of Accent Activities. In fact, all of the features mentioned in this article are either introduced or well covered in a variety of Authors & Editors Products, including but not limited to:

        Pronunciation of American English for teaching learners of Speaking at Beginners' Level
          Pronunciation Practice for Speaking American English        Pronunciation to Acquire an American English Accent    

And for lots of pleasant and hopefully helpful practice in applying the pronunciation features that matter, take another good look at these Oral-Skills products:


Learning to Speak American English by answering Open-Ended Questions             Learning American English by TALKING ABOUT ANYTHING

For monthly email newsletters with free tips, tools, and resources for English language teachers and learners, sign up here!

About Work/Life English
For over 35 years, Work/Life English has been dedicated to improving the lives of native and non-native English language learners. We offer a comprehensive range of fun, effective English language improvement lessons, strategies, and activities to help adult education ESL educators successfully engage their English language students and improve their English competencies, leading to a host of positive effects in students’ professional and personal lives. Better English, Better Life. For more information, visit www.worklifeenglish.com.
Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.