Monday, December 7, 2009

The Ryhthm of English Grammar

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

   Student: I can go.
   Listener: You can’t go?
   Student: Yes, I CAN go.

The frustration experienced by students when they believe they are speaking clearly and grammatically correctly, but they are still misunderstood, is palpable in this kind of conversation. However, there are some simple, low-cost ways of helping students avoid this kind of frustrating exchange.

All Words Are Not Created Equal

As I said in a previous blog, English is a stress-timed language. This means that not all syllables in English are said with equal stress. Some words convey important information. These content words are stressed; we say them longer, louder and higher than the other words in the sentence. The function words (I call them garbage grammar words, just to make the students laugh) are unstressed. They are said more quietly and weakly. There is a comprehensive list of these words in Melody Noll’s fantastic book, American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections (2007). (If you are not teaching in the USA, don’t be scared off by the word American in the title; her tips work for all kinds of English pronunciation!)

Main verbs are usually stressed because they tend to give essential information. However, auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs, are usually not stressed, unless they are negative. Hence, the conversation above occurs frequently. Students whose first language is syllable-timed want to pronounce each word clearly when they speak English, but native English speakers’ ears are trained to only listen to key words. Conversely, when a native speaker says something like,

     “By 3:00, I will have been studying for more than 6 hours, so I’ll be ready for a break.”

The student hears,

     “… I’lluhbin studying …”,

which sounds unlike any vocabulary word the student has ever studied.

So, What Does This Mean For Grammar Teachers?

It is not enough for us to simply teach the structure of the language. We also need to make sure that students can actually use the language successfully in a conversation. One important part of this is being familiar with the role stress plays at the sentence level. We need to make sure that when we cover target structures in our classes, we also prepare students for the stress or lack of stress they will hear and be expected to use in the world outside the grammar class. 

The Glorious Elastic Band – Part Two

As I mentioned, a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog extolling the virtues of the elastic band, as it is particularly helpful when introducing students to the pronunciation of regular verbs in the simple past tense. However, its usefulness does not end there. In fact, elastic bands can also help students master the pronunciation of the perfect and progressive tenses as well as modal verbs like can. I give an elastic band to each student in the class and then we read sample sentences. We pull hard on the elastic band when we say the stressed words and relax it when we say the unstressed words. This helps students to really feel the difference between the two kinds of words. 

A Round of Applause

Another wonderful strategy for helping students to internalize the rules of sentence stress is clapping. Meyers and Holt (2001) demonstrates this technique clearly in their videos. On the board or using a PowerPoint presentation, I write the key words of a sentence. For example, for a sentence like, “I haven’t been able to wash my hair.” I would write the words haven’t, able, wash, and hair on the board. Then, students and I chant the words and clap in rhythm several times until the students are repeating and clapping in unison. Once the students have the hang of that, I add in the other words, writing them in a small script and crowding them between the main content words. The students then read the entire sentence while clapping, but they should not change the rhythm of their original clapping. In other words, students accelerate through the unstressed words to fit them in between the stressed words and claps. This activity is a lot of fun and efficiently reminds students of the importance of speeding up on the unstressed words and slowing down on the stressed words.

Incorporating pronunciation into grammar lessons needn’t be stressful (pardon the pun) for teachers or students. Some simple strategies for helping students feel the rhythm of English can make all the difference. There is no reason to neglect this important part of the process. After all, most students aren’t studying English just so they can fill in blanks on worksheets. They want to USE English easily to communicate. Not being aware of the norms of sentence stress can hinder them in their goal. However, students most likely won’t master the skill overnight. Applying English stress to their speech will take months or even years of conscious effort. Our job, it seems to me, is to show them the path and help them along.

Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001). Pronunciation for success. Weston: Aspen Productions.

Noll, M. (2007). American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections. Oakland, CA: The Ameritalk Press.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
December 7, 2009 at 10:07 am

Very interesting!

I wonder where the "pun" lies in:

"Incorporating pronunciation into grammar lessons needn’t be stressful (pardon the pun) for teachers or students."

Comment from
December 7, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Hi Ismael,

The pun lies in the use of the word "stress," which has several meanings. See meanings #2 and #6 on The Free Online Dictionary f

Comment from ismael Tohari
December 7, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Thanks a lot.

Comment from leigh
February 10, 2018 at 7:05 pm

Spot on professor!

Students also seem to enjoy making paper-made kazoos to practice and internalize the use of accurate stress and intonation.

Comment from Tamara Jones
February 12, 2018 at 10:16 am

Nice idea! Here is a video, if you want your students to make kazoos:

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