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Pronunciation: Understanding Stress

  • Pronunciation: Understanding Stress

The following blog post was written by Dara MacKay, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. This blog is part of a three-part blog series that focuses on the teaching of pronunciation in the Youth in Transition program at the CEIIA.

At the beginning of the trimester, I had the pleasure of presenting with my esteemed colleagues Tanya Yaunish and Charlotte Beaubier about what we do to teach pronunciation in the Youth in Transition program. Following are some highlights from my portion of the presentation.

Word Stress

To begin with, it is important that students have a base understanding of syllables and vowel sounds, as well as a good idea of what the schwa sound is, before they can begin to understand stress. I like to start with basic understanding, for example:

  • One word has one dominant stress
  • Stress vowel sounds only
  • Teach the rules for:
  1. Stress on first syllable
  2. Stress on last syllable
  3. Stress on penultimate syllable
  4. Stress on ante-penultimate syllable
  5. Compound words

There are several activities that can be done to reinforce these concepts, aside from doing worksheets.  The thing I find most useful is oral practice, both making sure students can hear the stress and make it. Board races, stand up/sit down exercises, and paired oral practice are all useful tools. 

Sentence Stress

After word stress, I move on to sentence stress. It’s important for students to first understand the difference between content words and structure words. I do a great deal of building on this concept, so they can easily pick them out of a sentence. Some key points are:

  • Content words take stress because they carry meaning.
  • Remove structure words – meaning of sentence is still clear (I need to get a new car = need get car OR need new car).
  • Ensure learners can hear the stressed words in sentences prior to practicing.

My favourite activity to practice sentence stress is using the same sentence to create different meanings, based on which word is stressed. It always turns out to be a good time. Here are some ideas for practice.

  • Practice with sentences like this & identify difference in meaning for each example.
  1. I need to get a new car.
  2. I need to get a new car.
  3. I need to get a new car.
  4. I need to get a new car.
  • Have students listen to you and identify the stressed word. They can mark on a paper or stand up/raise hand when stressed word is heard.
  • Students practice in pairs putting stress/emphasis on content words in sentences.

The last thing I talked about was teaching stress-time.  This is probably my favourite thing to teach in pronunciation because it can be a lot of fun. After building understanding of word and sentence stress, this can be a fun way to finish the topic. This takes the sentence stress further, and shows when to hold certain syllables longer, when to reduce them, or when to even drop them completely. I like to give examples from poetry, as they are very explicit. Some activity ideas are:

  • Use sentences from sentence stress section to build on – have students clap a beat or time while saying different stressed words (I need to get a new car).
  • Use poetry like limericks, or something with an easy iambic pentameter, to emphasize the importance of timing and have some fun. 

Learn more about how to include pronunciation in your ELL classroom with our resource: Making it Clear: A Guide for Teaching Pronunciation.