The top-down approach: American English pronunciation - Quick Reference

The top-down approach: American English pronunciation - Quick Reference

People learn pronunciation best in whole fixed phrases, like the lyrics of a song.  Learning the whole phrase rather than the individual words imprints the rhythm, melody, and linking of a phrase.

Judy B. Gilbert
Ations by Shel Silverstein

You can study English reading, writing and grammar for many years, but when you begin to talk with English speakers from other countries, especially fluent speakers talking together informally, you may be surprised to find that spoken English is very different from written English.

Here are some important features of spoken English that make it easier to say and understand:

Word Stress
Thought Groups
Intonation (Pitch Pattern)
Connected Speech

Word Stress

Every word has one most important syllable that is "stressed" more than the others.


Thought Groups

Sentences are divided into groups of words that "go together."  We pause (stop for a short time) between groups.  The pitch stays up between thought groups (to show that more is coming), and usually goes down to show the end of a sentence (except Yes/No questions).

English words are difficult / because the pronunciation / is sometimes different from the spelling.

Intonation (The "music" of English)

A "pitch" change, and a long, clear vowel tell us which is the most important ("focus") word in a Thought Group. These signals happen in the stressed syllable of the focus word.

English words are DIFFICULT / because the PRONUNCIATION / is sometimes different from the SPELLING.


English has an alternating rhythm, and stressed syllables are the "beats."

If we underSTAND each other, that's communiCAtion. What DIFFerence does it make?


We make the important syllables and words more important by reducing the others, and making them less important.

In the less important syllables the vowel sound is usually a "schwa" /ǝ/ as in "uh-oh!"  /ǝ-oh/

pizza  /piz-zǝ/   another /ǝn-other/   tomato /tǝ-ma-to/   above /ǝ-bove/

Contractions are another example of reduction. Two syllables are reduced to one syllable: 

I am contraction isI'm
I have contraction is I've
I would contraction is I'd
you are contraction is you're
she is contraction is she's
we are contraction is we're

Connected Speech

In English we do not say each word separately like they are written, we "link" words together so they are smoother and easier to pronounce in a phrase or sentence.

This is Anna. connected speech is ThisssizzAnna.
The books are on the table. connected speech is The booksssare on the table.
Have a good time. connected speech is Havvvuh goodtime.
What's his address? connected speech isWhatsiz address.
much of a chance connected speech is muchuva chance
once in a while connected speech is one-sinnuh while

Mark the  /thought groups/ and then the focus word in each thought group.

Mark the intonation (where the pitch goes up) by putting an arrow pointing up on the stressed syllable in each focus word.

  1. I'll wait in his office until he gets back from lunch.
  2. She rang the bell twice, but no one answered the door.
  3. It is the job of a good speaker to tell his listener what is important.
  4. I can't open the door because I lost my key this morning.

Adapted from:
Chun, Dorothy M. (2002) Discourse Intonation in L2.
Gilbert, Judy B. (2005) Clear Speech.
Goodwin, Janet (2001) "Teaching Pronunciation." Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, Third Edition. Marianne Celce-Murcia, Ed.