Stress and intonation come so naturally to native speakers, sometimes we forget the importance of devising its structured practice with natural examples.
In order to gain fluency though, students need guidance and continual explanation of stress and intonation. Put your personality into teaching stress and intonation, and the results you hear will make you a believer.
How to Teach Intonation & Stress
Stressed and Unstressed Words
To begin teaching how stress works in English, you must first define common stressed and unstressed patterns. With this you must also explain the difference in speech patterns of a stressed syllable versus an unstressed syllable. First off, stressed syllables are louder and longer, and are the focus of the meaning we are trying to convey. Stressed syllables commonly occur in content words which are the meat of any sentence. They are nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Structure words, or the little words in sentences, are commonly unstressed syllables. These are articles, prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions. You can easily show this first with simple sentences, and eventually moving on to more complex sentences and conversations. When teaching how to stress words, show students that content words have one main stress.
Show student how the pitch or intonation rises with the stress. Once students gain the concept of stressing individual words in sentences, begin teaching the different ways stress influences meaning. It can be very interesting just taking one or two sentences per day and changing the stress on each content word to change the meaning. You can even do this coupled with whatever grammar point you are focusing on.
For example, if you are teaching a lesson on adjectives, you could do some stress examples to show emphasis, contrast or contradiction. Utilize adjectives to make your point. For example take the sentence
I want a shiny, blue, new car. The meaning can change depending on what word is given the main stress. Have students practice changing the stress from word to word and discuss how the meaning changes.
Another significant way to practice stress is to use Jazz Chants or have students clap, stomp, or bang to express where the stress lives. This works particularly well with young students, but adults will also have fun clapping or stomping their way to stress understanding.
Rhythm and Reduction
Often when students are studying English, one problem they encounter is not being able to understand native speakers with constant complaints that Americans speak too fast. One of the main issues here is reduction. To become fluent students need to practice pronunciation that includes reduction. Reduction is simply when speakers use reduced forms of words or phrases. This occurs when native speakers omit sounds or run them together. There are a lot of examples of these in every dialect and accent of English.
Some common examples of reduction are:
Gimme that instead of give me that
I dunno instead of I don't know
gotta instead of got to (which is a reduction of have to)
wanna instead of want to or would like to
and the ever common shoulda, coulda, woulda for should have, could have or would have
It's important that students learn to determine when they hear reductions so that their fluency is not compromised. It is a fact that native speakers just do not speak perfectly and anyone studying English must learn that rhythm and stress go hand in hand for true understanding. To practice rhythm and reduction, you could invite another teacher into your classroom. The two of you could then perform some role plays for the class. Focus on reductions and give students particular tasks for each conversation. You may just want them to determine the gist of what the role play was about, or you could have them jot down reductions as they hear them and then define them. You could also use listening exercises like songs or video clips to perform some of the same tasks.
How Intonation Changes Meaning
Intonation is the subtle shift of patterns of stress in language. The improper use of intonation can cause confusion and can also change the meaning of words or phrases. To start out, teach the intonation for basic types of English sentences. You may want to begin with statements, yes/no questions and wh-questions. Another popular one to focus on intonation is tag questions where you can really drive home the meaning shifts with different intonations. Using the board, draw arrows to show the direction of the pitch for intonation. You could also say sentences or questions aloud while drawing the shape of the intonation in the air with your hand. Have students write intonation arrows for the meaning they would like to convey. You can utilize worksheets or have students generate sentences on the spot. It can also be effective to have them practice aloud using their hands to draw out the intonation in the air. One other common way to diagram intonation or stress is to use a staircase-like drawing on the board to demonstrate where the voice goes up and where it should go down. For example, Susie is happy, isn't she? Use the staircase drawing to change the intonation from IS to HAPPY to SUZIE.
Pronunciation has so many elements, it is essential that students are exposed to natural language as often as possible.
Fluency in English cannot happen unless students practice stress and intonation with frequency at every level. Be sure to clue them in to shifting meaning, and challenge them to hear what is really being said.