Last week, we described a key aspect of English pronunciation: Rhythm. Knowing which words are stressed and which are unstressed is critical to making your spoken English more native-like and easy to understand.

Another important element of clear English pronunciation is thought groups. We don’t speak English by just saying one word after another. We speak in groups of words — thought groups — with short but important pauses in between. Just like punctuation makes written English easier to read, thought groups make spoken English easier to understand.

For example, read this sentence out loud, pausing at each slash mark:

Last / night, / I / went / to / the / grocery / store / to / buy / milk / and / bread, / but / I / left / my / wallet / at / my / apartment.

It sounds awkward, doesn’t it? Now read the same sentence with fewer pauses:

Last night, / I went / to the grocery store / to buy milk and bread, / but I left my wallet / at my apartment.

The second sentence is divided into thought groups. Thought groups can be short sentences, phrases, clauses, interjections or expressions. Notice how the sentence above has a thought group division at each comma. Each prepositional phrase is also its own thought group.

One way to practice thought groups is by looking at the transcript of a speech, movie, or TV show. Listen as you mark the thought groups, and practice reading aloud with short pauses to mark the same thought groups. Try practicing with this speech from Michelle Obama. The beginning on the transcript (from The Washington Post) is included below; click here for the complete transcript.

Thank you all. Thank you so much. You know, it’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be president.

Remember how I told you about his character and convictions, his decency and his grace, the traits that we’ve seen every day that he’s served our country in the White House?

I also told you about our daughters, how they are the heart of our hearts, the center of our world. And during our time in the White House, we’ve had the joy of watching them grow from bubbly little girls into poised young women, a journey that started soon after we arrived in Washington.