Things to teach about sentence stress and rhythm
…and how to do it
1. The important words for meaning are stressed
An easy way of demonstrating this is to give the students just the stressed words from a sentence and then just the unstressed words, and then ask them to see which version is easier to more or less understand the meaning of. For example, for the sentence “Students who don’t do their homework don’t pass tests” you get “Students don’t homework don’t tests” and “who do their pass”- neither of them is grammatically correct or unambiguous in meaning, but the one with just the unstressed words could mean anything. Students can then analyse other sentences for which words are most important to understand the meaning and listen to check whether those are stressed or not. This is especially important for listening comprehension, where listening for the stressed words (which is easier than listening for everything or the unstressed words) can help them pick out the important information from a recording without having to understand every word.
2. Content words and grammar words
Another way of students doing the analysis above is to analyse the parts of speech and mark the stress on the nouns, main verbs, adjectives etc (content words) and not on the prepositions, auxiliary verbs etc (grammar words). They can then listen to the real sentence and check the sentence stress.
A very clear and even entertaining part of sentence stress is when it is used for saying the opposite of what you just heard, e.g. “I heard you have 10 brothers”. “10 brothers? Are you crazy? I have ten COUSINS!” There are many fun practice activities for this, e.g. giving one student the false sentence and the other the true one. The person with the incorrect sentence has to listen carefully to the stress in the correction in order to work out which bit they should change to guess the right answer, e.g. “I heard that the Eiffel Tower is three hundred and thirty three feet tall.” “It isn’t 333 FEET tall…” “I guess the Eiffel Tower is FOUR hundred and thirty three feet tall then” “Listen carefully. It isn’t 433 FEET tall.” “Ah. Is it 333 METERS tall?” “Yes, that’s right”
4. New information
A more general way of looking at the rules of sentence stress that includes contradictions is that the main stressed word or words in a sentence are often the information that is new, e.g. if I say “I heard that Walter went to PARIS with Jane” I think that the person listening didn’t know or would be more interested in the place, whereas if I say “I heard that Walter went to Paris with JANE” the new information is the lack of the presence of his wife. The natural gossipy reaction is to say “Paris?? Really? I thought he was just going camping in Bognor. How come he never spent that much money when he was going out with me?” or “Jane?? Why would he go with her? She isn’t even pretty!”, and students can be asked to listen to their partner’s sentences (which have the stresses marked on them) and to try to respond with suitable similar sentences.
5. Shifting stress
A similar way of analysing sentence stress is to get students to analyse how the stress moving in the sentence changes the meaning, e.g. the difference between “I’m terribly sorry” and “I’m TERribly sorry”.
6. Sentence stress and contractions
One aspect of the point described above that is well worth covering in most classes is the difference between “I’m a boy” and “I AM a boy” – a very substantial difference in this case! Having this pointed out can help make students see that using contractions in speech is not an added extra or even, as some traditional teachers would have it, a sign of sloppy speech, but something that has a real communicative purpose. The (oversimplified) rule I usually give them is that they should use contractions when speaking, unless they want to stress their meaning in sentences such as “I DON’T love him” (because you are being teased).
7. Weak forms
The opposite way of approaching the same analysis is to teach students the two different (stressed and unstressed) pronunciations of words like “for”, “at” and “can”, so that they know when they sound like “fer”, “ut” and “cn” the stress must be on other words in the sentence. This can also help them hear the difference between the words that are theoretically homophones but are usually used in the unstressed form in the one case and don’t have an unstressed form in the other, such as “to”/ “too” and “can (try)”/ “can’t (try)”.
8. Schwa never stressed
A more general way of analysing the language as described above is to tell students that the schwa sound (the last sound in “computer”) is never stressed, and so if they hear a one syllable word with the schwa sound in it (as in the unstressed forms of “from” or “to”), they know that it isn’t where the beat falls in the sentence.
9. Regular beat
Although there are seemingly endless debates on whether English really has an equal amount of time between stressed syllables, for classroom purposes we can say for sure that getting students to practice saying an English sentence as they tap a pencil on the table in time with the stressed syllables is both a kinaesthetic way to practice something that more analytical students often find easier and something that works for most people. The same thing can be illustrated by students chopping down on one open palm with other, by the teacher “conducting” the students when they do activities like Shadow Reading, etc. By no means all natural conversations are in reality so regular in beat, but it should be possible to make up one that is in order to illustrate the point, or nursery rhymes and other poems and songs can be used.
10. Stress timed and syllable timed
The same debates as mentioned above exists on whether languages really can be divided into stress and syllable timed ones, but again we can at least say without any doubt that for teaching purposes this is a useful concept. For example, Brazilian Portuguese is traditionally put into the syllable timed category of ratatat ratatat ratatat languages along with Italian, whereas in Portugal the rhythm is more like the daDA dadiDAdaDAdadidadiDA rap-like rhythm of English, and this is reflected in the greater problems Brazilian students have with listening comprehension and pronunciation in English. This is also one of the reasons some people find Indian English especially difficult to understand, as unlike most varieties of English it can be classified as syllable timed. A fun activity for students, especially ones dealing with particular nationalities on the phone, can be to read descriptions of languages that they don’t know and listen to short extracts of students speaking their own language or English with a lot of L1 interference and identify each one.
11. Squashing sounds up
A factor associated with the idea of stress timed languages is that between the regular beat of stressed syllables in the sentence there might sometimes be just one syllable but sometimes three or more. If the rhythm is indeed something you can follow on a metronome, those greater number of unstressed syllables obviously need to be squashed up to take the same amount of time as when there is just one syllable (or even just a pause) between stressed syllables. This task can be broken up to make it easier by practicing the squashed up unstressed syllables said as quickly as possible first, e.g. “yer” and “onterther” in “Wouldn’t you go onto the beach?”, and then adding the stressed sounds in between.
12. Intonation and sentence stress
Although the simplest and most used way of showing intonation of sentences such as the difference between Y/N questions and Wh- questions is to draw a squiggly line like a wave over the top of the whole sentence, in fact the intonation changes are focused around the main stress in the sentence. This can be clearly illustrated when showing our shock and incredulity when pronouncing “He shot a SPARROW with a shotgun??” Other feelings students can express and have fun with in the same way include irritation, impatience, delight and sarcasm.
13. Marking stress
The important things about marking stress are that even sentence stress is concentrated on one syllable rather than a whole word, and so should be drawn over the correct syllable in the stressed word.
14. Stressed equals both louder and longer
This can be introduced when showing that a schwa sound cannot be extended (showing length) or by putting an open hand palm down higher and lower as you speak (showing loudness).
15. Stress and gestures
As well as tapping your finger, pencil or whole hand as suggested above, you can also open your fingers up wide with your palm towards the class (like when you illustrate an explosion or fireworks) to show a main stress and do a smaller version of the same thing (similar to showing a hand puppet opening and closing its mouth) to show the words with less stresses.