Using Poems to Practise Pronunciation

Levels: upper-intermediate to advanced.
Ages: older teens; adults.
Type: focussing on pronunciation through a recorded poem and work with the Sound Foundations phonetic chart.
Skills: listening; pronunciation (phonemes and sentence stress).
Language focus: vocabulary from the poem; metaphor.

Preparation: familiarise yourself with the YouTube lessons below before the lesson;
record a copy of this poem by Thom Gunn.

Note: This is a great way to practise pronunciation of individual phonemes (especially monophthongs) and sentence stress; it requires a bit of preparation before you first use it: however, this will more than pay off as you will have a valuable extra tool to your teaching repertoire. It owes a lot to Adrian Underhill – and, in this instance, Thom Gunn.

I combined this lesson with an introduction to the Sound Foundations phonetic chart, following the lesson given by Adrian Underhill below. You can find the very same lessons on YouTube, courtesy of macmillanELT.

The first video is here, and there are three more you should look at:

Procedure:

Once you have introduced the phonetic chart (see the YouTube videos above for ideas on this), and students have all had practise making the various sounds, it is time to introduce the poem. I use Considering the Snail, because it (a) is short; (b) has a surface simplicity; (c) contains many pure vowel sounds; and (d) is vivid, and therefore memorable.

The first time I play this recording of the poem, I ask students just to listen, then to write down the words they can remember from the poem and share their initial impressions of the poem in groups of three.

On a second listening, I ask students to write any more words they hear from the poem as they listen, and then in different groups of three, compare what they have written and see how much of the poem they can reconstruct.

I now ask students to recall the poet’s voice and ask them how it sounds: what qualities does this bring to the poem?

Next, I distribute complete copies of the poem to the students (see below) and invite feedback: are there any surprising words or collocations – anything the students didn’t expect to see there? What could this poem be “about”? What does the poet mean by “slow passion”? and so on.

Then, I play the poem one more time, this time asking students to mouth along silently with the poet as he reads aloud. We do this a couple more times, then voice the poem with the poet. What sounds did the students make? What sounds were they expecting to make? Did they hear any major differences between their voices and the voice of the poet?

Finally, I board the website where you can find the poem, and many others – http://www.poetryarchive.org/ – and invite students to practice their pronunciation on their own by visiting the site, experimenting with some other short poems, mouthing silently and then reading aloud with the poet.

The Poem:

Considering the Snail

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.

Thom Gunn
From Collected Poems (Faber, 1994), copyrighted.

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