Say it to hear it: pronunciation to benefit listening skills

Mark presenting at IATEFL

First published: IATEFL 2022 Conference Selections

Pronunciation for receptive purposes

We often think of pronunciation in terms of productive skills, but it’s equally important for receptive ones. Indeed, I would argue that some aspects of pronunciation learning are primarily for the benefit of listening – connected speech in particular. This point is made very clearly if you consider the pairs of sentences below:

            A                                             B

Give him a hug.                      Give them a hug.

Done as a favour.                   Done us a favour.      

Get a receipt.                          Get her a seat.

Gave them an aim.                  Gave her my name.

Speakers may pronounce A and B exactly the same. This is because in connected speech, features such as elision, linking and weak forms can obscure the differences. Obviously, we don’t necessarily want our learners to do this in their own speech – it’s usually better to pronounce clearly! However, as listeners, they have no choice – they’re bound to hear this kind of connected speech, and we need to prepare them for it.

Raising awareness of connected speech with micro-listening

One approach to preparing learners for real connected speech is to focus in detail on very short segments of audio – what John Field calls micro-listening. You can do this by choosing short segments of any audio text which you’re using, but an easy alternative is to use the online tool YouGlish. Type in any chunk you’re interested in and this search engine will find it for you across a whole corpus of online video material. For example, I typed in Give them a. YouGlish then searched and found the phrase in thousands of videos, and played them with a few words before and a few words after my chosen phrase. In this way, my class could hear it in many different contexts, with different speeds, voices and accents. In most of them, the class could hear how the pronoun them was reduced in connected speech, for example to ‘em, and how it was linked up to its neighbouring words.

Integrating connected speech with grammar

A focus on connected speech is important, but it can feel rather random and difficult to integrate with other aspects of a course. One idea would be to integrate it into your grammar syllabus. For instance, if you are teaching a structures such as Give them a hug (that is, ditransitive verb phrases), you can focus on object pronouns in connected speech. Most grammar structures have strings of words including function words like pronouns, articles, auxiliaries and so on – and these are exactly the kinds of words which are most affected by the features of connected speech. This is the approach I took in my book PronPack: Connected Speech for Listeners.

Saying it to hear it

Alongside micro-listening, another approach to raising awareness of connected speech involves learners actually producing it themselves. Although the procedure is productive, the objective is receptive – actually hearing yourself produce this kind of speech is one of the best ways of becoming fully familiar with how it sounds. Any kind of drill which includes examples of connected speech can be used in this approach, but one which is very easy to set up is what I call the counting drill. Here’s an example for object pronouns after ditransitive verbs. You read each line out and the class repeats:

Give ‘em a ONE, Give ‘em a TWO, Give ‘em a THREE, Give ‘em a FOUR

Send ‘er a ONE, Send ‘er a TWO, Send ‘er a THREE, Send ‘er a FOUR

Buy ‘im a ONE, Buy ‘im a TWO, Buy ‘im a THREE, Buy ‘im a FOUR

The idea is that the numbers are so predictable, the learners can focus their attention on the bits which come before and how they are connected up.

Use earworms

Another kind of drill I would recommend for a connected speech focus is a short and simple text, preferably with a bit of rhythm and rhyme. The word-play helps to make the sound of the text ‘stick in the head’ – the earworm effect. Again, you can say the text line by line getting the learners to repeat. Here’s an example, focusing on the same grammar point as the counting chant. The bold shows the stress.

Give ‘em a hug

Give ‘em your love

Send ‘er a gift

Give ‘im a lift

Make ‘er a cake

Give ‘im a break

Send us a link

Buy us a drink

Send ‘em a text

Give ‘em my best

Gimme a call

And love to you all!

A recorded version of this talk can be viewed here:



Field, J. (2008). Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press

Hancock, M. (2022). Pronpack: Connected Speech for Listeners. Hancock McDonald ELT

IATEFL 2023 Conference Presentation

TITLE: Spoken word recognition for listeners
DAY: Tuesday 18 April 2023
TIME: 14:50-15:20
LENGTH: 30 mins
ROOM: Queen’s Suite 7 – Harrogate Convention Centre

Knowing a word is one thing; recognising it in the continuous stream of speech is something else. How do listeners accomplish this, and how can we help our learners to achieve the same? In this presentation, we will look at research into spoken word recognition and try out some classroom activities for developing this key aspect of the listening skill.