Stressing Out about Pronunciation

Okay . . . not that kind of stress

Say What?– Part Two of Pronunciation in EFL

First, let’s quickly recap Pronunciation Part One and then we’ll move on to all the good stuff in Part Two.

So, in the last post we talked about some critical things– “linking,” “reduction,” and how to use a good respelling system. To truly help your students with their pronunciation, you’ll need to grasp these ideas. I’d also like to remind you that if you didn’t have time to read the linked downloadable documents at the end of the last post, you should make time to do it soon.

Today, in Part Two, we’re going to round out the idea of teaching how people really sound when they speak English.

Stressing Out–Words and Sentences Need Some Stress

Different languages not only have different alphabets, grammar and accents, but they also lay different stress patterns on spoken sentences.  Your students may be able to nail tricky things like the past tense and the “th” sound, but can they stress their sentences like a native speaker?

In English, when we say a polysyllabic word—two syllables or more—we always stress one syllable above the others. This is so natural to us that it’s hard for some people to hear this stress unless they practice listening for it. If you aren’t sure how to identify stress in spoken English, perk your ears up for tone, length of time, and loudness.

Here are some examples:

Banana – to native speakers of English, this fruit sounds like buh NAEH nuh

Say it aloud and listen carefully—the second syllable is slightly higher in tone, lasts longer, and is pronounced as slightly louder.

But, if you’re teaching Thai students, for example, it’s more natural for them to say: buh naeh NUH

This is another reason that respelling words is important to help your students learn how to properly pronounce and stress words. You can rewrite the stressed syllable in capital letters.

Now, not only words but sentences have stress patterns that students will need to learn and when you use a respelling system it will help your class decipher these patterns as well.

Words that the language deems not as important often reduce in time, loudness and tone. While other words are more critical to meaning and therefore have more more stress-they are louder, longer, and have a higher tone.

But how do we know which words are important or not? The English language seldom has any rules that are ALWAYS true, but here is a rule of thumb to help you teach stress: Important words, or “Content Words”, are nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The rest of the sentence will be made up of less important words, or “Function Words.” These consist of pronouns, helping verbs, conjunctions, and prepositions.

To illustrate: “My name is Bob,” when written showing sentence stress: my NAME is BOB. The words “Name” and “Bob” are the most critical parts of the communication.

However, a word of caution. It’s possible to overdo word and sentence stress in the classroom.    Always remember that you need to speak naturally when teaching your students stress. Keep in mind you want your students to speak naturally too—and overstressing words and sentences can sound as bad as stressing them incorrectly.

Here’s an analogy that may help you organize your thinking about sentence stress: When you’re having a phone conversation on a mobile or cell phone, sometimes bad connections break off some of the words. But you don’t need to hear every word of the conversation—you can glean the meaning of the sentences by picking up the important words—precisely the words that are stressed in a sentence.

Teaching students how to stress individual words and groups of words takes time and practice. Again, though, this practice is worthwhile and your students will be much better English speakers because of it. If you make some mistakes along the way, it’s not the end of the world. Trying it out and working with it will develop your skills and your students’ skills and get you further down the road of being a great teacher.

To learn more, check out some of these great resources:

Word Stress – an excellent resource page at English Club.

Sentence Stress  yep, our friends at English Club again . . .

Kent University Phonetics Resource Page – this website is sometimes offline, if it doesn’t work, try it again later.

The British Council Pronunciation Page – many excellent articles on different pronunciation topics.

TED’s Tips™ #1: Don’t stop reading now—check out the links above and familiarize yourself with sentence and word stress

TED’s Tips™ #2: Practice makes perfect, so put all these ideas together, practice and then work with your students to TRULY help them improve their spoken English skills.