Students commonly have two problems with thought grouping when speaking an L2:
- Pausing too often or at inappropriate times, or,
- Not pausing often enough.
When students pause too often, it’s usually a result of needing extra time to think of how to say whatever it is they want to say next. Unfortunately, overly-frequent pausing can quickly become a serious problem because it breaks apart speech into illogical groups. This will increase the cognitive load of the listener, which will distract them from understanding the content of the speaker’s message. Even though listeners can adjust to these disfluencies rather well, it can become a tiring process after a while. More troubling is that the extra burden placed on the listener can be re-focused back to the speaker in the form of negative assessments of their politeness or intelligence. Therefore, lack of fluency due to poor pausing is a pronunciation issue important to address as soon as possible.
When student do not pause often enough, it’s typically a response to the first trouble. That is, students know that pausing too often can break apart their speech in unwanted ways, and so will only pause when absolutely necessary to take a breath. What students needed to understand is that pausing is also a powerful tool for helping listeners distinguish ideas. When speakers rarely pause, listeners must figure out for themselves which ideas connect. This can result not only in listeners struggling to understand what a speaker is trying to say, but also in integrating new information with existing knowledge.
To help, teachers can use written punctuation as a reflection of intonational patterns, which often make finding thoughts groups easier. For example, the period found at the end of a sentence typically signals a falling intonation. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, it is far more useful to follow the .
When teaching pronunciation, it is often more beneficial to teach a rule which 90% of spoken language follows, then to focus on a rule that only governs 10% of spoken language use.