Teaching pronunciation is
never easy and all too often feels like a chore, both to the teacher and the
learner. This book presents pronunciation here largely through the medium of
poetry, making the material easy to repeat and as it follows the natural rhythms
of spoken English. It gives teachers and students alike an entertaining way of
Review from Modern English Teacher 22(4)
When I first started teaching in the 1990s, there was a hot title called Rhymes and Rhythm in the teachers’ room. Too hot in fact because it went missing, no doubt ending up in someone’s rucksack (to this day, I maintain my innocence). Such was the uproar that even our skinflint boss begrudgingly agreed to get a replacement copy. However, our triumph was short-lived because the boss had to break the news that Rhymes and Rhythm was out of print. Amazingly, it has taken fifteen years for Rhymes and Rhythm to make a comeback, albeit with a new publisher. Even more surprisingly, in all those intervening years no pronunciation book has come close to recreating the distinctive approach which makes Rhymes and Rhythm so engaging and effective.
The subtitle for Rhymes and Rhythm is A poem-based course for English pronunciation. Poem actually covers a wide variety of genres, from limericks to raps, the common feature being that they all feature a strong rhythm, to be understood as a product of stress-timing and euphony. To illustrate, here are the first two lines from a poem on p.17.
I’m going to Brighton to buy some bananas
I’m going to Perth to provide some pyjamas
Emboldened are the main stresses and you can see that there is a regular beat of four per line. There is end rhyme and alliteration, /b/ in the first line and its unvoiced equivalent /p/ in the second. The sentence structure is parallel with a main clause ‘m going to and a to-infinitive adverbial. The result of all this is rhythm. Every utterance demonstrates a rhythm of sorts but poetry accentuates it and as such is a powerful model for teaching. (By the way, my favourite line in this poem is, ‘I’m going to Stockport to stand on the steeple’, maybe since I suspect the staunch folk of Stockport wouldn’t savour such sacrilege.)
The book is organised into four parts, progressing from the syllable (Part I), to words and phrases (Part II), to connected speech (Part III) to a compendium of text types which puts everything together (Part IV). There is no place for the kind of work on individual sounds that characterises the bulk of published pronunciation material. The change in focus is welcome because suprasegmentals, pronunciation beyond the phoneme, are under-addressed in teaching. Judy Gilbert (forthcoming) collects a great deal of evidence to suggest that what goes on in connected speech is at least as important to communication as the correct articulation of sounds. The problem is that the citation forms of words often change when they go together. An example from Chapter 9, Assimilation, is how /n/ can become /m/ before bilabials, so ‘ten people’ becomes /tempi:ptl/ and ‘ten moons’ becomes /temu:nz/ – note the elision of a second consecutive /m/ sound. Learners will not be prepared for this if they are fixated on citation forms. In what Richard Caldwell (2013) calls the 'mess' of authentic speech, the same word can have multiple soundshapes.
The methodology is different too. The blurb on the back of the book has a quotation beginning, “Pronunciation is woefully neglected …” This is not quite fair. Coursebooks almost always have pronunciation sections, typically squeezed into a corner of a main spread, and there are lots of bespoke titles to supplement with. However, in my experience the pronunciation tasks tend to be rather academic, you need to know IPA for a start, and heavily dependent on a listen and repeat strategy which assumes that practice makes perfect. Rhymes and Rhythm does have lots of focus on form activities but it is not at all crusty in tone. It is all about the music of the language, following, appreciating and above all enjoying the beat. You don’t need to know anything about pronunciation to use the book, either as a teacher or a learner, and at its most basic level you can just listen to the sound and join in. Rhymes and Rhythm could be used as a systematic pronunciation course, and the accompanying CD-ROM gives ample advice on this as well as visuals, but I suspect most people will just dip in, going wherever their mood takes them.
On that note, my favourite piece is Artful Arthur, an alliterative A-Z of colourful characters and their wacky preoccupations, all said to a funky backtrack:
Little Lola lapped up a litre of lemon juice.
Merry Michael munched a milligram of mince.
Naughty Norma gnawed a knob of nutty nougat.
The last line is said in a fittingly devilish voice. There is a lot of advanced-level vocabulary in this poem – each piece is helpfully signposted according to lexical challenge – so the accompanying vocabulary exercises are essential. Vocabulary notes and exercises crop up regularly and in fact Rhymes and Rhythm could be treated as a vocabulary resource book with the pronunciation approached from that angle. The point is made, for example with Silly Similes, that often you can do the poem without worrying about the vocabulary, ‘just let the words roll over you (ibid.).’ As the teacher/learner, that is your call but in these days of quick and easy electronic dictionary access, looking up the odd word wouldn’t disturb the task too much.
If you are a lucky owner of the previous edition of Rhymes and Rhythm (lifted from a teachers’ room?) it will definitely be worth upgrading. The tracks have been re-recorded with a lovely range of voices and really groovy sounds – check out the gentle rap of Down the Diner and the shanty style of Cash Flow Problems. If you’re new to Rhymes and Rhythm, it will completely dispel your notions of pronunciation as drilling and boring. Get this book and the opportunities for meaningful pronunciation work are endless. Just don’t steal mine."
Cauldwell, R. (2013) Integrating listening and pronunciation. Speak Out! 48: pp.24-25
Gilbert, J. Myth: intonation is hard to teach. In Myths of teaching pronunciation. University of Michigan Press