Intonation Sensation: An Activity to Teach Sentence Stress

English speakers use intonation to express meaning, which other languages don’t necessarily do. In some languages, intonation is applied at the sentence level. Intonation may be linked to the meaning of the word. But English speakers use intonation to indicate their attitude and emphasize what’s important and what isn’t. One feature of English that is far from universal is the way we emphasize words in a sentence, so it’s important to teach sentence stress whenever we do pronunciation work.

What is sentence stress?

Don’t be fooled by the name. Sentence stress is how we emphasize vocally particular words in our sentences. We can do this by saying the stressed word louder than other words, pausing before and after the stressed word, using our facial expressions when we say the word, or holding the word for longer, or even changing our tone. We use it to indicate which word or words are the most important, which word we want the listener to pay attention to. For a more detailed explanation and example sentences, check out this post by ESL Library.

Students who speak languages that don’t use sentence stress have to learn to listen for it, and also hopefully employ it. As I’ve said many times, these kinds of prosodic features are far more important to comprehension than accent! Misunderstanding or misusing sentence stress can have serious impacts on communication, as the activity below demonstrates.

The quick and easy activity below comes from the drama textbook Rising Water by Alice Savage, which includes a short play for students. To teach sentence stress, it’s helpful to draw awareness to it first!  Students can listen to the audio recording of the play to hear where those actors chose to put their word emphasis, and decide why the actor made those choices. But any video of proficient English speakers speaking fluently and freely will work. Have students listen for the words that stand out and then think about why the speaker emphasized those particular words.

How to Teach Sentence Stress

  1. Find a sentence where the meaning can change depending on the word being stressed. Note that usually content words are stressed, but this isn’t always true! You can pull these sentences from a play or reading you are working on! Example sentences could be:
    • At least my life isn’t boring.
    • What are you doing here?
    • I thought you said you would help me do the cleaning.
    • What did the doctor say on the phone?
  2. Demonstrate how putting the emphasis on different words in a sentence changes the meaning. You can read the sentence below with the indicated emphasis and elicit the meaning, or explain as needed.
    • At least MY life isn’t boring. = Your life is boring.
    • At least my LIFE isn’t boring. = Something else, such as my work, is boring.
    • At least my life isn’t BORING. = My life may have problems in other areas.
  3. For more advanced students, you can have them imagine the scene in which this line is being said. What are the emotions? What is the larger idea the speaker is trying to convey? Here’s each line put into a context to give an idea what the speaker may be thinking.
    • You can criticize me for my risky choices all you want. At least MY life isn’t boring. I have fun. I have friends. You just go to work and go home and waste your day being boring!
    • At least my LIFE isn’t boring. I hate my job. I’m not close to my family. I have one thing going for me, this one habit which I enjoy, even though it may be a bit dangerous.
    • Ok, maybe my habits cause me some serious problems, but At least my life isn’t BORING. I have fun and that’s what’s really important to me.
  4. Hand out a list of sentences that can be emphasized in different places. You may want to take this from a text or script you are working with or see above for some suggestions. Students could also elicit examples.
  5. Put students in pairs. Partner A says the first sentence, picking a word to emphasize. Partner B says where they think the sentence stress fell and what they think it means.
  6. Students take turns reading and listening until they have done all the sentences. Then switch.
  7. To extend, students can discuss what situation they think the speaker is in and create longer scenes or role plays using the lines they practiced. If you’re doing a play, they can mark words they want to emphasize.

Let me know how this activity goes in the classroom. And share any ideas you may have to teach sentence stress in the classroom!

More resources to practice intonation and sentence stress

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