“Stress” is part of the rhythm of a language, the pattern of stressed or emphasized syllables and unstressed syllables of which English sentences are made up. Appropriate sentence stress is important for native-like or even comprehensible speech: if the stress pattern is incorrect, then listener comprehension will suffer.
Many ESL students lack an understanding of English sentence stress, however, often giving each syllable equal length, resulting in monotonous and difficult to understand speech.
What are Methods to Teach Native- Like Sentence Stress?
Start by Discussing Stress
Read a sentence aloud from the textbook without stressing content or main idea words. Ask students if they think it sounds right. They will probably say no. Then read the same sentence with the correct stress pattern. Ask them what they think now. This will raise their consciousness about stress.
Stress in English interacts with syllables: that is, syllables alternate between stressed and unstressed within a sentence. Select a sentence from a dialogue in your textbook and model “beating out” the syllables on the desk. Have students do the same. Have them count the syllables in the sentence.
Elaborate on Stress
Explain the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables. Explain the stressed syllables are louder and longer. Stressed syllables tend to occur in content words such as nouns and verbs; structure words such as articles and prepositions are usually unstressed.
Model stressed and unstressed syllables by selecting a sentence from your book and writing it on the board, marking the stressed syllables with a dash or a dot. Then read the sentence aloud, emphasizing the stressed syllables. Have students practice with you.
Explain that most unstressed syllables in English are reduced and pronounced as a “schwa.” Teach the schwa sound (the “uh” sound as is the second syllable of “station”). Modeling the expressions “Uh-huh” (for “yes”) and “huh-uh” (for “no”) is a humorous way to teach this sound. The American English greeting “How are you doing?” for example is really pronounced /how’r yuh doin’/ --the structure words “are” and “you” get reduced to schwa.
Practice Sentence Stress
Practice the sample sentences on the board again, emphasizing the stress pattern, making the stressed syllables louder and longer and reducing the unstressed syllables. Ask students about the content and structure words and which are stressed and unstressed.
Have students on their own pull sentences from the same dialogue in their books and mark the stress patterns.
Students can then compare their markings with a partner.
Practice in Pairs
Practice the dialogue in pairs, focusing on the stress patterns.
More Advanced Activities
Teach specialized use of stress and how meaning can shift based on the stress pattern and what the speaker wants to emphasize. “I love my sister,” “I love my sister,” “I love my sister” and “I love my sister” all carry different meanings.
Give out a dialogue with the content words deleted. Have students listen to a recording of the dialogue for the content words and fill them in. They can then practice the dialogues in pairs.
An alternative to this, for more advanced students, is to have them predict the content words that belong in the blank spaces. Have them fill in the dialogues, check them against the tape, and then students can practice.
Play “telegrams”: explain a telegram was something like a precursor to a text message—a message in which all the structure words or were deleted: “Mom sick. Come home.” Give out a page of “telegrams.” Have students add the structure words and practice reading with appropriate sentence stress.
The above activities can also be done with popular songs. Play the song and hand out the lyrics, with content words or structure words deleted. Have students listen to the song and fill in the words.
Poetry is also a great way to practice sentence stress as poetry is actually based on regular stress, or meter, patterns. Teach students a simple poem, such as Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Have them practice reciting it. They may try writing their own similar poems after, imitating Frost’s style and stress/meter patterns.
Humor is often based on the stress pattern, or “delivery” as comedians call it. Tell a well-known joke and show how the humor is affected by the way the speaker uses stress by delivering it first with the correct stress and then without.
Give out index cards with content words students are currently learning written on them. Have students line the cards up into “sentences,” adding structure words as necessary, and mark the correct stress pattern then practice saying the sentences.
Do a “drawing” activity by handing out a dialogue and having students “map” the stress of each sentence in the dialogue over the sentence, with high peaks representing stressed syllables and dips unstressed.
Have students bring in idioms that they’ve heard or want to learn about and go over the stress patterns.
Frequently revisit the principles of sentence stress, taking time regularly to model the stress patterns of sentences selected from dialogues.
Add to students’ existing knowledge base by teaching stress related to different types of sentences, such as information (“Wh-“) questions and “yes/no” questions.
Participating in a variety of related activities will result in a higher likelihood that students will internalize the principles of sentence stress in English.
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