Pronunciation - Practicing Stress and Intonation in ESL Class

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I am often surprised at how focusing on the "stress - timed" quality of English helps students improve their pronunciation skills. Students often focus on pronouncing each word correctly and therefore tend to pronounce in an unnatural manner. By focusing on the stress-timed factor in English—the fact that only main words such as proper nouns, principle verbs, adjectives and adverbs receive the "stress"—students soon begin sounding much more "authentic" as the cadence of the language begins to ring true. The following lesson focuses on raising awareness of this issue and includes practice exercises.

Aim: Improving pronunciation by focusing on the stress - time nature of spoken English

Activities: Awareness raising followed by practical application exercises including function or content word recognition exercise, sentence stress analysis for spoken practice

Level: Intermediate to upper intermediate depending on student needs and awareness - recommended for upper-level students who have a high level of understanding but are having problems with fluency in communication caused by pronunciation problems.

Lesson Outline

  • Begin awareness raising activities by reading an example sentence aloud to the students (example: The boys didn't have time to finish their homework before the lesson began.) Read the sentence the first time pronouncing each word carefully. Read the sentence a second time in natural speech.
  • Ask students which reading seemed more natural and why it seemed more natural.
  • Using the ideas students come up with, explain the idea of English being a "stress - timed" language. If the students speak a syllabic language (such as Italian or Spanish), point out the difference between their own native language and English (theirs being syllabic, English stress - timed). Just this awareness raising can make a dramatic difference in such students abilities.
  • Talk about the differences between stressed words and non-stressed words (i.e. principle verbs are stressed, auxiliary verbs are not).
  • Write the following two sentences on the board: The beautiful Mountain appeared transfixed in the distance. / He can come on Sundays as long as he doesn't have to do any homework in the evening.
  • Underline the stressed words in both sentences. Ask students to try reading aloud. Point out how each sentence seems to be approximately the same length in "stress - time".
  • Help students improve their recognition of content words with the function or content word recognition exercise. Students must decide if words are function or content words.
  • Ask students to look through the example sentences and underline the words that should be stressed in the worksheet.
  • Circulate about the room asking students to read the sentences aloud once they have decided which words should receive stresses.
  • Review activity as a class - ask students to first read any given sentence with each word pronounced followed by the "stress - timed" version. Expect a surprise at the quick improvement students make in pronunciation (I am every time I do this exercise)!!
  • This exercise on using a focus word to help with pronunciation can further help students.

Content Words - Stressed in Pronunciation

Nouns e.g. kitchen, Peter
(most) principle verbs e.g. visit, construct
Adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting
Adverbs e.g. often, carefully

Function Words - Not Stressed in Pronunciation

Determiners e.g. the, a, some, a few
Auxiliary verbs e.g. don't, am, can, were
Prepositions e.g. before, next to, opposite
Conjunctions e.g. but, while, as
Pronouns e.g. they, she, us

Content or Function Quiz?

Write down 'C' for content and 'F' for function. When you have finished click on the arrow to see if you have answered correctly.

Example: magazine (C) as (F) many (F)

next to
in order to
in front of

Identification and Practice

Mark the stressed words in the following sentences. After you have found the stressed words, practice reading the sentences aloud.

  • John is coming over tonight. We are going to work on our homework together.
  • Ecstasy is an extremely dangerous drug.
  • We should have visited some more castles while we were traveling through the back roads of France.
  • Jack bought a new car last Friday.
  • They are looking forward to your visiting them next January.
  • Exciting discoveries lie in Tom's future.
  • Would you like to come over and play a game of chess?
  • They have been having to work hard these last few months on their challenging experiment.
  • Shakespeare wrote passionate, moving poetry.
  • As you might have expected, he has just thought of a new approach to the problem.