On March 15, 2019, Paul Quaintance, one of our pedagogy specialists, presented a teaching tip at TESOL, titled “Sequencing, Practicing, and Assessing Prosodic Features.” TESOL is the largest international professional association that advances the quality of English language teaching.

One of Paul’s primary focuses at the ELI has been on teaching English pronunciation. During his time in the classroom, he discovered a useful context for helping ELI students control some fundamental prosodic features of English, including rising intonation, falling intonation, and the prominence of syllables in strings of words. He found that the way we say the same person’s name in different contexts provides a useful contrast in which to observe and practice these features. Specifically, he saw in the Theme/Rheme alternation a framework in which to think about delivering a name and having the listener understand it.

Theme: what is being talked about in a sentence.

Rheme: what is being said about the topic.

Often, the theme is old or contextual information, and the rheme new information. In oral discourse, when a full name (first, (middle), last) is presented as new information, North Americans may give prominence to the stressed syllables of each name and apply intonation features as one would with items in a list. On the other hand, when the same name is presented in the theme or as contextual information, the stressed syllable of the last name might only be prominent, and the names can be connected into a single item.

Paul discussed how awareness of the Theme/Rheme framework helps his students anticipate their listeners’ tacit expectations regarding stress and intonation.

He also emphasized how using authentic, culturally relevant materials deepens his students’ engagement with pronunciation.

For example, he has his students do two exercises: 1) reading dialogue aloud from The Flick by Annie Baker, a funny contemporary play that is full of names presented as both new and old information, and 2) a Smart Museum of Art project, in which students explore the work of different artists and share their discoveries in class presentations, keeping in mind how the position of the artist’s name within the Theme/Rheme framework affects its pronunciation.

The TESOL attendees at Paul’s teaching tip appreciated his insights and asked great questions at the end.

Denise Slavinski, the ELI Operations Manager, and Christine Fiorite, an ELI instructor, were also present at TESOL to support Paul’s work.

Great job, Paul!