7 Excellent Exercises to Improve ESL Intonation and Stress

7 Excellent Exercises to Improve ESL Intonation and Stress

Claudia Pesce
by Claudia Pesce 381,031 views

You ask a student, “What did you do last weekend?” And the reply is, “I went to the park?”

No, your student is not hesitating about what he/she did. They are making an intonation mistake. Just like when they ask a question that sounds like a statement: “Did you correct our exams.” How about students who say hotel instead of hotel?

Intonation and stress mistakes are common, particularly when we have students who come from countries whose language is not stressed like English. But there’s no need to dwell on the differences between English and your students’ native language. Simply go over the common rules and characteristics of English pronunciation and give them plenty of exercises to practice stress and intonation. Here are some to get you started!

Try These 7 Excellent Exercises to Improve ESL Intonation and Stress

  1. 1

    Word Stress

    Placing stress on the wrong syllable is a pretty common pronunciation mistake among ESL students. Try giving them this exercise. Prepare a chart as a hand out or make one on the board depending on whether you want to work with your students individually or as a group. The chart should have three columns if you’re working with three-syllable words. At the top of each, write the numbers 1, 2, and 3 to represent each syllable, but in each column one of the numbers should be underlined to show the syllable that is stressed.

    1 – 2 – 3 1 – 2 – 3 1 – 2 – 3

    Give your class a list of three-syllable words (telephone, magazine, religion, etc…) and ask them to place each in the corresponding column.

    1 – 2 – 3 1 – 2 – 3 1 – 2 – 3
    telephone religion  


  2. 2

    Word Stress – Cuisenaire Rods

    This is probably the ideal way to teach children about word stress. Cuisenaire Rods come in different lengths; each rod can be used to represent a syllable. Use the longer rods to represent the stressed syllable. Hand out several rods to each group of students and call out words they must represent, one rod for each syllable. To reinforce what they’ve learned, ask them to write down each word and underline the stressed syllable.

  3. 3

    Sentence Stress

    Try this matching exercise to practice sentence stress. On one side of the worksheet write several sentences of varying length. On the other side, the sentences represented by a series of numbers; underline the number for the word that is stressed. For example:

    I bought my sister a present. => 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6
    Mike didn’t break the window. => 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5

    Mix up the order in which the sentences appear on the left side. Say each sentence out loud, emphasizing the stressed word. Students must then match each sentence with its representation in numbers.

  4. 4

    Sentence Stress – Cuisenaire Rods

    Just as you use Cuisenaire Rods to practice word stress, you can use them to teach sentence stress. This time each rod represents a word. Divide your class into groups and hand out several rods to each. Make sure the rods are of equal length except for one which should be longer. Say a sentence out loud and show them which word is stressed by representing it with the longer rod. Next, say another sentence and have students show which word is stressed: I didn’t buy a car. Say the same sentence but shift the stress to another word: I didn’t buy a car. Discuss with your class how the stress affects the meaning of the sentence. Have them copy each sentence and underline the stressed word.

  5. 5

    Sentence Stress – Focusing on Context

    Give your students a series of sentences to read. This time you will not be saying them out loud. They must figure out which word is stressed based purely on the context. For instance:

    I was so angry at John. He forgot to call me on my birthday. He said he had remembered, but that it was too late to call.

    There may be more than one correct answer; differences in which words students choose to stress may be a good lead in for a discussion.

  6. 6

    Rising or Falling?

    Give your students a series of questions they must evaluate. Tell them that they must indicate whether each has a rising or falling intonation.

    Did you remember to buy the milk? (rising)
    Where did you buy that? (falling)

    See if students can see a pattern (yes/no questions have rising intonation; wh- questions have falling intonation).

  7. 7

    Intonation and Feelings

    For students to convey the right intonation, they must first understand it. Try an exercise in which students can see that the intonation, not the words, is what conveys real meaning. Make this a multiple choice exercise. For each question, write a short sentence or phrase. Below it write several options students may choose from.

    I have something to tell you.
    How does the speaker feel?

    1. happy and excited
    2. sad and worried
    3. nervous and worried

    Now, read each sentence/phrase out loud. Make sure you convey the right feeling. For instance, say, “I have something to tell you” in a way that conveys that it is a serious matter that worries you, and you’re nervous talking about it. Students listen to each one and circle the right feelings.

Practicing intonation will help students not only communicate more effectively, it will also help them understand situations better.

Practice intonation with your class, and there won’t be any misunderstandings about what they really mean.


How do you practice stress and intonation in class? Share below!

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