Clear Speech from the Start

Title: Clear Speech from the Start
Student’s Book and Audio CD
Author: Judy B. Gilbert
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Reviewed by: Kaithe Greene
Review date: February 2006

This book describes itself as “Basic Pronunciation and Listening Comprehension in North American English” and that’s pretty much what it is and does.

Clear Speech from the StartI admit I was initially put off by the ‘North American English’ bit of the subtitle, but having survived the tax systems of several different countries I’m not easily deterred, and pressed on to be pleasantly surprised. I’m also aware that whilst here in Europe we may encourage students towards British English pronunciation, this isn’t the case elsewhere, so I decided to suspend prejudice and dig deeper. I’m glad I did because I discovered Judy’s range of visual imagery for communicating the concepts of different sounds, including a variety of lines, enlarged or reduced letters, and drawings of different mouth positions and movements. She explains the importance of this in her ‘Letter to the Teacher’ - beginners don't have sufficient vocabulary to understand verbal explanations at a time when they need correct pronunciation as a foundation for further learning. It is easier to learn correctly in the beginning than to unlearn bad pronunciation later on.

There’s an interesting selection of advice and information in the appendices, and some great drawings and photos of the mouth and tongue which my adult students enjoyed immensely. Besides the entertainment value, these are very useful when used with a handbag mirror!

The appendices dealing with ‘The Two Vowel Rule’, ‘The One Vowel Rule’, and ‘The letters –y and –w as vowels’ are interesting, apply to American English rather than British English, and are possibly a rather complicated analysis of something that is essentially a practical skill. My teenage students rebelled against yet another delivery of rules that have too many exceptions to reasonably be called ‘rules’.

Initially, I had some difficulty persuading the CD to play on my laptop, but then discovered that it would play if played through Windows Media Player. However, I never managed to persuade it to play on my bog standard, not at all state of any art, supermarket-purchased radio cassette CD player – I also took it to school and had no more luck there.

Another problem for me was that I didn’t have the Teachers’ Resource Book, which, the back cover of the Student’s Book assures me, contains ‘teaching suggestions and extra examples, creative ideas for classroom presentation, answer keys and audio scripts’ amongst other things. Experience has shown that when presented with unfamiliar classroom material a short time invested in browsing the teacher’s book usually pays huge dividends in terms of reducing lesson preparation time. I also usually find it saves time if I can peruse the audio script – a luxury denied me in this case. As this book contains an approach to teaching pronunciation which varies from traditional uses of the widely accepted International Phonetic Alphabet I would definitely recommend having the teacher’s book, in the hope of making better use of the material available.

One thing I found confusing was the printed symbol beside some of the exercises. It looked like a pair of headphones, which I took to indicate a connection with tracks on the CD. This is not the case, and I was unable to find any explanation in the book.

Having said that, I went on to enjoy listening to the CD, which gave me several new ideas for pronunciation practise, and made me think about ways to integrate some of the work in this book into my classroom activities. In my teaching context, integration and adaptation are necessary because I use course books which include use of the IPA. I wouldn’t want to confuse students with the different terminology used in Clear Speech, or the introduction of the ‘schwa’ symbol to apparently denote any weak vowel sound in unit 6 of this book.

I had very little difficulty with the North American pronunciation, and the words that I did struggle with were, of course, single decontextualised words which I would have recognised in normal conversational use – an interesting little insight for students doing pronunciation work.

In short, I think this book has lots of potential, although you may need to be discerning and creative in your use of it if accent and international variations in pronunciation are important in your teaching context. I suspect and hope the teacher’s book would make a very valuable contribution to lesson planning. ESL Reviews & ArticlesKaithe Greene, MA in Education & Applied Linguistics and grandmother – teaching EFL with IH Torres Vedras most of the time and doting in Hounslow, UK at every possible opportunity.