(First published in Modern English Teacher Volume 32 Issue 6)
Look at the phrases in the table below and try saying them to yourself. Do you find that the phrases on the left sound like the phrases on the right? I mean, not just similar, but identical? It seems incredible, but for many speakers of English, they can indeed be identical. They are what I call ‘phrasal homophones’.
|packs and bags
plants and berries
chops and potatoes
cooks and meals
sauce and pasta
drinks and milk
|pack some bags
plant some berries
chop some potatoes
cook some meals
saw some pasta
drink some milk
Writing listening activities from the audio script
The existence of phrasal homophones like the examples above shows us a couple of interesting things about listening in ELT. The first is this: if you base your listening activities on the audio script (as many course book authors do), you will miss something important. If you’re working from the audio script, you tend to notice the difficult vocabulary and structures and focus on these. However, difficulties are often caused by sections of the text which appear simple in the script, and we fail to focus on these. For instance, as the phrasal homophones demonstrate, in a spoken context some may be confused with and, despite appearing completely different in print.
Scripted versus authentic listening
The phrasal homophones in the table do not always sound identical. If the speaker is articulating carefully, they may sound different. For instance, speakers may pronounce the ‘d’ in and. This raises a second issue about listening in ELT: it’s often based on scripted audio. This is created by actors in a studio reading from a script, and in these circumstances, they tend to speak more clearly than they would normally. This is why Sheila Thorn argues so forcefully that we need to integrate authentic listening into the language classroom (Thorn, 2021). Learners need to have exposure to features of spoken English which are often absent in careful speech.
In writing, and and some look completely different. So how is it possible for them to sound the same in the phrasal homophones above? The explanation lies in a set of features of spoken English which are often referred to by the label ‘connected speech’. Here are some of those features which explain the examples in the table:
1 The words and and some are unstressed. As often happens in such cases, the vowel is reduced to the weak, neutral vowel known as schwa. So there’s no difference between the ‘a’ in and and the ‘o’ in some.
2 The ‘d’ in and is lost. This often happens, especially when there are consonants on either side of the ‘d’. It’s so common that it’s sometimes written that way, for example fish ‘n chips. This kind of change is known as elision.
3 With the ‘d’ cut, the ‘n’ is now the last sound in and. This ‘n’ often changes to an ‘m’ if the following word begins with ‘p’, ‘b’ or ‘m’. This kind of change is known as assimilation.
4 The ‘s’ at the end of the first word links to the ‘a’ of and. This is known as linking and it often happens when one word ends in a consonant and the next begins with a vowel.
Teaching pronunciation for listening
Connected speech is an aspect of spoken English which is often covered in pronunciation materials. We often think of pronunciation as something productive, relating to the speaking skill, but pronunciation is equally important receptively, for listening. In fact, there are some aspects of pronunciation which are much more important for listening than they are for speaking, and I think connected speech is an example of this. Your learners can speak perfectly clearly without the features outlined in 1-4 above. However, as listeners, they will not be able to avoid hearing them, and it’s best for them to be prepared. I’m suggesting that we need to teach pronunciation for listening, and that includes raising awareness of connected speech. In the remainder of this article, I will suggest two ways this may be achieved using fun activities based on phrasal homophones.
This activity is a dictation with a trick, which I’ve named ‘trictation’ (Hancock 2022). Read out a few of the phrases in the box below and give learners time to write down what they hear. It doesn’t matter if you say the phrase from Column A or Column B since they should sound the same anyway!
Now for the trick: Write up the phrases for the learners to check their answers – but only write the phrases from Column A. At this point, many in the class will look disappointed because they wrote the phrase in Column B. Finally, write up the answers in Column B too and explain that they are equally correct – that both phrases are pronounced the same.
At this stage, the learners will probably want to know how such different phrases can sound the same, and you can elicit or explain some of the features of connected speech outlined above, such as linking, vowel reduction, elision and assimilation. You don’t need to use this technical jargon, of course.
As a follow up, write some more of the phrases from Column A on the board and ask learners to guess what the sound-alike phrase in Column B could be.
Like the previous activity, this again is based on phrasal homophones and what they reveal about connected speech. In Trictation, the phrases in both the A and B columns make sense. In this activity, one of the phrases is nonsense. Learners have to work out what the intended phrase should be. The nonsense could be contextualised as what voice recognition software might write. For example, it hears cakes and biscuits, but misunderstands and writes cake some biscuits – which sounds identical, but doesn’t make sense.
1 Give out copies of the photocopiable activity Dictation bloopers or project it on a slide. Go through the example in number 1 and show how the wrong phrase and the corrected phrase sound the same.
Note that this example has all the same features of connected speech outlined above – schwa, elision, linking and assimilation, causing and and some to sound the same.
2 Ask the class to suggest what the correct versions of some of the other phrases are. They are in a grid rather than a list to suggest that learners can do them in any order. In that way, they can go straight for the ones they find easiest first.
3 After correcting each of the bloopers, encourage learners to explain how the mishearing happened if they can. This is to raise their awareness of connected speech. Features you may wish to focus on inclued vowel reduction, elision, linking and assimilation outlined above in the connected speech section. This activity also has two examples of ‘blending’, in 3 and 11. This is where the consonant at the end of one word blends together with the ‘y’ of your to make a different consonant. For example, paid your sounds like page or.
Note: Your learners may want to know why the ‘b’ of parrots’ beak sounds like the ‘p’ parrot speak. It’s because unvoiced consonants like ‘p’ or ‘t’ sound voiced like ‘b’ or ‘d’ when they come after ‘s’ at the beginning of a word. There are other examples of this in 4 and 12.
Hancock, M. (2022). PronPack: Connected Speech for Listeners. Hancock McDonald ELT
Thorn, S. (2021). Integrating Authentic Listening into the Language Classroom. Pavilion Publishing