When a little stress is a good thing…
How do students of English learn to speak like native speakers? Everyone knows that pronunciation is important, but some people forget about sentence stress and intonation. The cadence and rhythm of a language are important for fluency and clarity. Languages of the world vary greatly in word and sentence stress—many languages stress content words (e.g., most European languages) while others are tonal (e.g., Thai) or have little to no word stress (e.g., Japanese). Practicing sentence stress in English helps students speak more quickly and naturally. Fortunately for teachers, students usually enjoy activities like the one in the worksheet below! After one of our subscribers asked us for resources on sentence stress this week, I thought I'd share some tips and a worksheet that you can use in class.
Sentence stress occurs when we say certain words more loudly and with more emphasis than others. In English, we stress content words because they are essential to the meaning of the sentence. In general, shorter words or words that are clear from the context don't get stressed.
Content words include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Negative words such as not or never also get stressed because they affect the meaning of the sentence. Modals, too, can change the meaning of a sentence. Here is a list of words to stress in an English sentence:
- nouns (people, places, things)
- verbs (actions, states)
- adjectives (words that modify nouns)
- adverbs (words that modify verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, or entire sentences)
- negative words (not, never, neither, etc.)
- modals (should, could, might, etc., but not will or can)
- yes, no, and auxiliary verbs in short answers (e.g., Yes, she does.)
- quantifiers (some, many, no, all, one, two, three, etc.)
- Wh-Question words (what, where, when, why, how, etc.—note that what is often unstressed when speaking quickly because it's so common)
Not to Stress
Some words don't carry a lot of importance in an English sentence. Short words such as articles, prepositions, and conjunctions don't take stress. Pronouns don't usually get stressed either because the context often makes it clear who we're talking about. The Be verb and all auxiliary verbs don't carry much meaning—only the main verb does. Here is a list of words that shouldn't be stressed in an English sentence:
- articles (a, an, the)
- prepositions (to, in, at, on, for, from, etc.)
- conjunctions (and, or, so, but, etc.)
- personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, etc.)
- possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, etc.)
- Be verb (am, is, are, was, were, etc.)
- auxiliary verbs (be, have, do in two-part verbs or questions)
- the modals will and be going to (because they're common, and the future tense is often clear from context)
- the modal can (because it's so common)
Model the following examples for your students and have them repeat after you. The words (or syllables when the word has more than one) that should be stressed are in bold.
- The kids are at the park.
- Do you have any brothers or sisters?
- Why aren't you doing your homework?
- He bought a red car for his daughter.
- I am Brazilian.
- We are not familiar with this new computer program.
- The athlete ran quickly and won the competition.
- She does not know the answer.
- I don't know the answer, either.
- We aren't sure.
- I've never heard of that before, but it makes sense.
- They'll ask the teacher for help.
- Some people prefer Macs, but many others prefer PCs.
- She is going to study tonight.
- I can speak French.
- I can't speak Japanese.
- Yes, I can. / No, I can't.
When practicing sentence stress, whether in the examples above, the worksheet below, or your own activity, encourage reductions such as wanna, gonna, whaddaya, etc. These reductions will make it easier for your students to speak more quickly and will help them recognize when native speakers use these reduced forms. Plus, they're fun to say!
- boys, playing, video game
- computer, broken
- Where, going, after, class
- doesn't, like, cake
- writing, test, long, time
- prefer, coffee, tea
- doing, tonight (optional: What /encourage reduced pronunciation of Whaddaya)
- brother, wants, buy, red, car (demonstrate wanna for the subjects I, you, we, they and plural count nouns)
- come, party (encourage reduced pronunciation of gonna)
- said, has, dog, not, cat
Stay tuned! I'm planning on blogging about word/syllable stress and intonation in the near future.
Here's hoping your students don't get too stressed!