Teach sentence stress with Bob and Julie

English is often termed a stress-timed language, which means that we pronounce content words (often nouns, adjectives and main verbs) more loudly and more slowly than grammar words like prepositions and articles. The beat or rhythm of the language is also determined by these stressed content words which means we ‘swallow’ the content words.

Syllable-timed languages, like Spanish, sound quite different because most syllables have the same length. Speakers of syllable-timed languages can sound quite monotonous to native speakers as we are accustomed to identifying meaning by listening out for stressed content words.

Think of it this way. Have you ever had a telephone conversation in which the other person is doing all the talking? You stop listening and hold the receiver or your mobile away from your ear, but you still get the gist of what the other person is saying. You hear the content words and follow what they are saying.

As English is a stress-timed language, it’s vital that we raise our students’ awareness of this phonological feature. One way to do this is as follows:

Find a photo of a man and a woman having a serious chat.

Who loves you baby?

Build up the context with a few questions:

Who are they?

What’s their relationship?

What are they talking about?

How does she feel about him? How does he feel about her?

Give the couple in the photo names, let’s say, Bob and Julie. Board the following dialogue:

Bob: I love you, Julie.

Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob.

Ask for a couple of volunteers and seat them at the front of the class. Ask them to perform the dialogue. You’ll get a round of laughs at this stage.

Then, underline a couple of words in the dialogue and ask the students to perform the dialogue again but this time ask them to stress the underlined words.

Bob: I love you, Julie.

Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob.

Ask the students if they can infer any extra information about the couple’s love life from this second performance.

Hopefully, the students will come up with comments like those below in blue.

Bob: I love you, Julie. (It’s you I love Julie. Not your sister/flatmate/my ex-girlfriend)

Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob. (I am in love Bob. Not with you though. I love your brother/flatmate/best friend/ Justin Bieber)

Underline a couple of different words in the dialogue.

Bob: love you, Julie. (I know we are supposed to be just good friends but I’m crazy about you Julie)

Julie: But, I don’t love you, Bob. (You’re one of my best friends Bob. You’re a great guy but you don’t float my boat / rock my world etc.)

Let the whole class join in now. Put them in pairs and get them stressing different words in the dialogue and ask them to infer extra information about Bob and Julie from the stressed content words.

By doing this simple activity, you can raise your learners’ awareness of which types of words are generally stressed and get them acting out dialogues and not merely reading them aloud.

Encouraging them to think about how stressed content words can help us identify the emotions and feelings of the speakers in dialogues should help improve their pronunciation and develop their listening skills – they will realise they don’t have to hear every single word to understand spoken language.