In this penultimate article about teaching pronunciation, we look at another suprasegmental pronunciation system which works across stretches of speech. Sentence stress refers to the patterns of strong and weak syllables as they are pronounced across longer sequences of words, in phrases, clauses and sentences.
Sentence stress is an under-taught feature of pronunciation, despite the fact that it causes a lot of issues for speakers of other (especially syllable-timed) languages. It is one of the biggest issues in understanding and being understood in English, as the speed at which English is spoken in authentic settings means that many vowel sounds are reduced to almost inaudible sounds, and other sounds disappear altogether in order to maintain the rhythm and pace of a message. A good grasp of sentence stress patterns can therefore help learners with their speaking and listening skills.
Two key points about sentence stress
To understand sentence stress fully, we need to think about two things: firstly, which words in a sentence are likely to carry stress, and secondly, how is the ‘flow’ of a longer utterance maintained when it contains grammar, words with different numbers of syllables, and can be spoken at any speed.
Content words and structural items
To answer the first question, we need to think about which words in a sentence need to be understood in order to understand a spoken message - in other words, which words carry meaning. In a neutral sentence, meaning is almost totally carried by nouns (and pronouns), verbs, adjectives and adverbs (unless special emphasis is being given to another word in a sentence). It follows that meaningful ‘content’ words should be the main focus of comprehension, and therefore need to be processed most clearly. By contrast, other words (articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, etc.) can be said to be structural - they are the ‘glue’ which sticks together the meaning of a sentence and adds subtler detail to the nouns, verbs, etc.
Complex nouns, verbs and adjectives can often be split into their constituent parts: prefixes, stems and suffixes or endings. Of these, the word stem is the part which identifies the main meaning of the word, whereas prefixes, suffixes, etc. are more structural, adding detail to the meaning. For this reason, prefixes, suffixes and endings to content words are almost always unstressed, with the word stem carrying the stress for the word.
As we saw in the last article in this series, stress can only be carried by vowels, so because structural items in a sentence tend to carry less stress, their vowel sounds are often reduced to small, quick sounds such as schwa (/ə/) or schwi (/i/), as are the vowels appearing in prefixes and suffixes. This is an important point in light of the second point to be made:
Effort, rhythm and flow
To answer the question about ‘flow’ of language, we must think about the sheer amount of work which needs to be done to maintain the planning, structuring and pronunciation of a full, sentence-level utterance, and the effect of this on the qualities of English speech when words are produced together in chunks. As I’ve mentioned, rhythm and pace are important in English speaking. As a stress-timed language, English speech retains a mostly regular rhythm across chunks of talk which can run for several ‘beats’ before the rhythm is changed to accommodate new parts of a message. Rhythm has many implications on the stress patterns that are produced when we speak, as meaningful nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. do not occur at regular intervals in messages, and do not contain the same number of syllables. This means that a regular rhythm must be created from quite irregularly-structured syllables.
Think about the following example sentence:
‘When I was younger, we’d play outside all the time.’
This sentence contains five main content words (‘I’, the subject; ‘younger’, an adjective; ‘play’, a verb; ‘outside’, an adverb and ‘time’, a noun). The other words represent structural aspects such as a time marker ‘when’, a ‘be’ auxiliary and the modal ‘would’, here reduced to ‘d. Of the content words, remembering that only one syllable can carry main stress in any word, we can say that the stressed syllables of this sentence are ‘I’, ‘young’, ‘play’, ‘side’, ‘time’ (remembering again that there are several possible ways of stressing this sentence, and I am presenting a neutral version with no special added emphasis for any reason):
‘When I was younger, we’d play outside all the time.’
Notice that although the rhythm of the stressed syllables is relatively regular, there are different numbers of unstressed syllables which appear between the stressed ones. This means that when the sentence is spoken, we must speed up and slow down to maintain the even pace of the utterance. The single unstressed ‘was’, for example, must take the same length of time to produce as do the two syllables ‘er’ and ‘we’d’. In order to accommodate this speeding up and slowing down, the effort of producing certain syllables needs to be reduced (less effortful production meaning the possibility of quicker pronunciation). If I transcribe the utterance below, think about where the ‘lazy’, or less effortful schwa (/ə/) and schwi (/i/) sounds occur:
This demonstrates a very good reason why we should be introducing schwa as a phoneme for focus from an early stage of English study. It also shows the value of modelling and teaching natural-speed utterances, whether teaching words, phrases or drilling sentences, no matter whether these are grammar or vocabulary focused, modelling rhythmic utterances containing the weak sounds and ‘lazy’ pronunciations is essential for students to understand natural-speed speech, and be understood when speaking at length.
Teaching idea: predicting schwas
Being the most common phoneme in the English language, schwa is essential for students to get their brains (and mouths) around.Working with the placement of schwa helps to highlight the types of words an syllables where it appears.
First, present the pattern of content words and structural items, as described above, and for practice, design a sentence with several weak forms to analyse, such as:
I’m going to go to the pool for a swim. Do you want to come along?
Ask students to identify the content and structure words, and then predict which sounds will reduce to schwa, based on the speed of their pronunciation at natural speed. They should identify the small grammatical items such as ‘for’, ‘to’, ‘the’, etc. as being structural and therefore weakened. This leads to some nice rhythmic drilling and speedy pronunciation with schwas to develop an understanding of the relationship between stress, rhythm and pace.
Finally, as students to design their own sentences with a specific number of schwas to test that they can differentiate this important sound in their own language.
Teaching idea: nonsense drills
A good way of highlighting any feature of pronunciation is to remove meaning entirely and start working with nonsense! By removing meaning from the equation, learners can focus on the pure sounds being practised, and the shape and feel of the phonemes as they speak them out. It can be embarrassing at first, but once you understand the serious benefit of this kind of ‘mouth gym’ exercise used early in a class, you will see results later in the lesson as learners integrate the ‘nonsense’ sounds into their language more effectively.
A couple of nonsense drills related to sentence stress, to introduce rhythm and weak sounds are:
BA-bu-bu-BA-bu-bu-BA-bu-bu-BA (where ‘BA’ is pronounced strongly, and ‘bu’ is pronounced with a schwa). This gets students flipping between strong, effortful sounds and weak forms. As further practice, mix up the vowel sounds, as in:
BOO-bu-bu-BEE-bu-bu-BER-bu-bu-BAH, again showing that weak syllables are often produced with strings of schwa sounds.
For extra challenge, and practice of rhythm and pace, insert different numbers of weak syllables between the strong sounds:
BAH-bu-bu-BAH-bu-BAH-bu-bu-BAH-bu-bu-bu-BAH, and ask students to maintain a steady rhythm by speeding up and slowing down the ‘weakened’ syllables.
After a few rounds of this, students (and you yourself) will probably complain that their mouths are aching. This is a good thing as it shows they are working with muscles that they do not normally use, and are therefore building their ‘English mouths’. This is exactly where the ‘mouth gym’ idea comes from, and just like in a real gym, the more they work at it, the stronger their pronunciation will become.
Tom Garside is a teacher, trainer and staff developer with a specialism in phonology and pronunciation teaching. He is the 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.
If you missed the earlier articles in this series, go to the Language Point Blog to find them. Enjoy…