Sometimes ESL teachers and students just need to stress about stress.
Well, maybe not stress about it but at least pay some attention to it. However, stress isn’t something most teachers know how to talk about. That’s why sentence stress may not get all the classroom attention it deserves, and it takes some patience and planning on the teacher’s part to teach students how stress can change the meaning of English sentences. When you are ready to tackle stress in the classroom, here are some ideas to get you going.
HOWTO: 7 Tips for Teaching English Intonation
Intonation is not the most popular topic of instruction in ESL programs. Whether it’s because teachers have so much other material to cover or because students do not think it’s important, stress is often ignored. The first step to teaching your students correct and effective sentence stress is to bite the bullet and teach it in the first place.
Help your students understand that stressing different words in a sentence gives the sentence different meanings. You can do this by using a simple sentence and showing how stress can change the meaning. Start with the following sentence: You think I saw the monster. Discuss with your class what this sentence means. Then stress one word in the sentence at a time. As you do, talk about how the meaning of the sentence changed.
You think I saw the monster. (You are the one who thinks this is true.)
You think I saw the monster. (This is your belief, but you are not be correct in it.)
You think I saw the monster. (Maybe someone saw it, but it wasn’t me.)
You think I saw the monster. (I did something with the monster, but I may not have seen it.)
You think I saw the monster. (I saw something, but it may not have been the monster.)
With close examination, you and your students will find that the word which is stressed is the idea which is in question. By stressing a particular word, the speaker implies that part of the sentence isn’t or may not be true. Go back through the different examples of word stress and show your students how the stressed word is the idea in question.
Guess at it
Having your students practice sentence stress is the next step in perfecting its use. Have pairs take turns stressing each word in the example sentence. Each person should listen for the word his partner is stressing and then point to that word on a piece of paper. The speaker should then say whether their partner is correct.
Once every person in class has had a chance to practice stressing different words in the sentence, it’s time to see if they understand what it means. In the same pairs, have one person say the sentence stressing the word of her choice. Her partner must then give a reply that is appropriate based on the stressed word. For example, if the speaker says, “You think I saw the monster?” her partner might answer, “You didn’t see it? Then who did?” Pairs should continue until each person has had a chance to stress each word and give an appropriate response.
Listen to it
Using a short dialogue, have students listen for stressed words while reading a transcript of the dialogue. After listening to the dialogue once, have students listen again this time marking the words they think are stressed by the speaker. Give students a third listen to check their answers. Then have small groups of students work together to compare answers. If your groups find they disagree, give them another listen before pointing out which words the speaker is indeed stressing.
Have fun with it
What can a speaker communicate with only one word? More than you might think. To see, give each student in your class a card with one word on it. The words should be a random collection of familiar words. Then put your students in groups of three and give them a scenario. You are getting ready to take a vacation. It is one of the student’s birthdays. Someone in the classroom is a thief. The groups then have a conversation, but they are only allowed to use one word at a time, and it must be one of the words on the group’s cards. Students should use stress and intonation to communicate their meaning with one of the three words. This game is good practice as well as good fun for your students!
Teaching stress in English doesn’t have to be stressful.
With some patience and practice, your students can begin to understand the subtleties of English stress and start using it in their own speaking.
At what level of English studies do you tackle the topic of stress in English?