How to teach pronunciation 5: Understanding and teaching word stress

In the next three articles in this series about pronunciation teaching, we will look at a tricky area of phonology which is often overlooked for the individual sounds of English: the features of stress and intonation. This article will consider how we can understand and teach word stress, then next week we will expand this into working with sentence stress, and finally, we will consider intonation as a complex, yet essential feature of our learners’ speaking.

English learners often spend a lot of time developing

their production of the vowel and consonant sounds

which make up their speech, but without work on

stress and intonation, the overall sound of their

language may continue to cause issues for listeners.

Stress and intonation operate at a higher level than

individual phonemes, but have a strong effect on the

sounds of vowels, and can even alter the meaning of a message if used inaccurately. First, let’s define what we mean by stress and intonation, and then we will look at some ways of teaching these important features effectively.


What is word stress?


Word stress is the most commonly taught item in this area. It can be defined as the way in which syllables in words are pronounced with different levels of ‘force’. A couple of important rules to remember about word stress are:


1) Only one syllable in a word can carry the main stress (though others may be pronounced with slightly less force as secondary stress)

2) Stress only affects the pronunciation of vowel sounds. The vowel is the heart of a syllable, and carries the stress therefore there is no such thing as a stressed consonant.

3) Stress affects the way in which vowels are pronounced. Most vowels have ‘full’ and ‘reduced’ or ‘weak’ forms, depending on whether they are stressed in a word or not. A weak form is where a vowel is pronounced as a schwa (/ə/).

4) Schwa is never stressed, therefore can never appear in a strong syllable.

5) long vowels and diphthongs can never appear in weak syllables - they are already strong and effortful to pronounce, so must be in strong or neutrally-stressed syllables

With these rules in mind, your teaching of stress on words and sentences can be much more precise, and your learners can think about these rules as they practice their speaking.


A note of caution:


when working with individual words and highlighting their pronunciation to learners, it is very easy to over-stress and over-pronounce the sounds you are working with. This can lead to misunderstandings, as words spoken in isolation often sound very different when spoken in longer stretches of speech. When you model a word for students, model it with natural pace, rhythm, and the weakened forms that you would expect it to contain in normal speech. There is no value to overdoing things in the classroom, when this simply doesn’t happen in natural speech outside your classes.


Teaching idea: stress dictation


A good way for students to practice their application of word stress is to have them participate in a dictation exercise, led first by you, then with each other (peer dictation). A good way to start off is by getting students listening and noticing stress. For this, hand out sets of three or four large and three or four small tokens, game pieces or lego bricks to use as stress markers. Instruct the students that the large tokens represent strong syllables, and the smaller tokens represent weak syllables. Dictate a list of words that you have been studying to the class and have them show you the stress pattern of each word by ‘building’ the stress of the word with the blocks in front of them. Do this in pairs first, so that students can advise each other, then individually so that everyone engages with the words you dictate.


As a second step, have the students dictate some other words to each other (preferably ones they have studied recently, to recycle them and aid retention). Here, the dictation becomes a productive and receptive activity, as the speaker must pronounce the word accurately, and the listener hear it correctly. If the listener builds the stress of the word incorrectly, or not as expected by the speaker, there will be some negotiation of pronunciation which continues until either the speaker pronounces the word correctly, or the listener identifies the stress correctly. A lot of peer learning happens during this type of task, as students drill each other and help each other to meet at the correct spoken / heard forms for each word. A great activity.


Teaching idea: predict the pronunciation


Working with schwa and weak forms is a great way to introduce some language systems into pronunciation work. Schwa is a very common (the most common, in fact) phoneme, and operates in quite a predictable way, based on the morphology of words (the structure of prefixes, suffixes and other spelling features). For example, the suffix -ation is always stressed on the ‘a’ and always contains a schwa in the ‘tion’ syllable, so the pronunciation of any word which ends in ‘ation’, ‘ition’, ‘otion’, ‘ution’, ‘ision’, ‘osion’, etc. can be predicted from this common feature.


Teach this rule, and then use high level words that your learners have never encountered to apply the pattern. Using words like ‘extrusion’, ‘attrition’ and ‘gradation’ can focus students on the pure sound of the word, showing that pronunciation can be systematic and predictable. The same patterns can be found in other suffixes such as ‘-icity’, ‘-ography’ and others.


All in all, it is important to work with word stress as a pattern to be applied more broadly, rather than simply looking at words one by one as they are learnt. Return to words that you taught recently, and revisit them in terms of their pronunciation - what stress patterns, or strong and weak forms do they have in common, and can they be grouped for some useful work with their pronunciation? Teach the systems and patterns that you notice, and apply these to the words that you plan to teach in the future, or even other words which you won’t. Working with the sounds of language doesn’t mean focusing on meaning at all cost. It’s a question of getting your students to wrap their mouths around the challenging set of English sounds successfully, building to an easier flow of speech when they come to talk independently of your classroom activities.


Next week, we will consider how stress can be applied to longer phrases, clauses and sentences as we speak in longer utterances, and how this can be practised with learners to generate a more natural speaking style.


Tom Garside is a teacher, trainer and staff developer with a specialism in pronunciation teaching. He is author of the successful e-resource for teachers TESOL: A Gateway Guide, and the physical resource pack for pronunciation teaching: Pronunciation Card Games, which brings a game-based element to this important area of study by using phoneme cards to help students take hold of their own pronunciation and develop awareness of the sound changes in the English language as it is spoken authentically.


Contact tom.garside@languagepointtraining to organise a training event at your centre, or

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