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Stress, Rhythm, Intonation - Teaching Notes

In 26 years of teaching English as a Second Language I have found that stress, rhythm and intonation have almost never been taught in any conscious or systematic way to the students who come into my classes. This is an indictment of teacher ignorance. No single factor is more important to being understood and socially accepted than having control of "the music of a language".

In general, only certain kinds of students benefit from being told ABOUT a language in any abstract way (e.g. complex grammar rules etc), especially since few teachers have an insightful knowlege of linguistics themselves (regardless of what their qualifications claim...). However I have found that almost all students welcome a simplified explanation of STRESS TIMING in English, as opposed to more marked SYLLABLE TIMING in languages like Chinese, Korean and French. They are also intrigued to be given at least some frequent and controlled practice in speaking fast and rhythmically, as native speakers do, as against the stilted monotones typical in classrooms everywhere.

Teacher Attitudes

Perhaps true to the "classroom talk" environments they have created, I have found that many native English speaking teachers themselves (let alone native speakers of another language who happen to teach English) are extremely resistant to teaching natural speech rythms.

After some years of teaching in non-native English speaking environments, some become so accustomed to slow, classroom baby-talk that their daily speech rhythms, although clear, no longer reflect the norm of their home country speech communities.

Often, they are also quite naive about the ellipsis (omission of sounds -- phonemes, syllables or whole words), and liason (running of words together) which occur in free conversation. Some heatedly deny speaking anything but dictionary English. With that kind of guidance the students are doubly handicapped!

Reading Aloud

Reading is a large topic which I will not deal with in depth here. However, the special skill of reading aloud needs a note in any discussion of classroom oral language. Students should never be permitted to read aloud while looking at a page. That is almost guaranteed to lock them into a word-plus-word monotone. The trick is to look down, remember a few words, look up, and THEN speak; (this also happens to be an effective method of memorizing material). The best way to encourage skilled reading aloud is to have students reading dialogues in pairs, and requiring them to LOOK AT their partner while speaking].


Almost any teaching material can be adapted to learning supra-segmental phonology (= the fancy name for stress, intonation and rythm). One of the few really useful books I have found which is purpose-built for teaching students (and teachers!) this stuff is W. Stannard-Allan, "Living English Speech", published Longman 1954; ISBN 0 582 52361 3 (... yes 1954. They did speak English then, and I think it may still be in print, after many impressions).

A technical note on Syllable Timing Vs Stress Timing:  Some recent research has challenged the long-held theory that the world's languages are spread along a simple scale from syllable timing to stress timing. It seems that at each extreme people can clearly distinguish a difference in rythmic patterns - for example, English as "stress timed" and Chinese as "syllable timed" (but see this example of Chinese prosody) - but that a large number of the world's languages cannot be judged so simply. Some of these researchers believe that actual timing might not be the important difference. For example, it might be that some languages like English simply allow fast speech to crush syllables together (e.g. what do you => /wodaya/ => /woja/ ) whereas this might be less accepted in some other languages. More investigation is needed on this subject. In the meantime, at least the old explanation alerts teachers and students to compare the rhythmic patterns of their speech to native speakers. If you would like to study this further, here is a technical reference:

Arvaniti, Amalia (2009) Rhythm, Timing and The Timing of Rhythm. Phonetica. 2009 April; 66(1-2): 46–63. Online at


" Stress, Rhythm & Intonation - Teaching Notes" copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved

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