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Pillars of pronunciation: approaching spoken English by Brita Haycraft

When teaching foreign learners to speak English, how come we neglect the backbone of a spoken language: sentence stress?

Initial help with spoken English

 Teaching students of different nationalities, we soon note that they have several problems in common when it comes to speaking, such as a disregard for stress and ‘unstress’, flat intonation, stopping and starting between words.  These problems face learners from day one, as they take part in conversations. They’d certainly benefit from some initial help saying the sentence which needn’t be too complex.

Sentence stress

Each sentence has one or more main points, as indicated by speakers’ stress.   Other languages do the same and learners, if asked, soon identify the important word or words in a sentence, and are able to say the sentence appropriately, when encouraged and praised for trying to do so – even if other pronunciation is imperfect.  It doesn’t take a minute to remind them and students enjoy working on speech features while completing grammar exercises.

The reason for stressing some words, or word, more than others is to signal their importance in the given context.  Why deprive learners of this simple but brilliant speech tool that they can all use straight away?

There is an underlying logic, noticeable in other  languages, too: “That’s TWO fifty,  not ONE fifty.”  “Son DOS cincuenta, no UNO cincuenta.“  “ZWEI Euro nicht EIN Euro.” It would be pointless and misleading to stress unimportant words.  English excels in the use of sentence stress, all the more audible due to its drastic reduction of ‘unstress’.

Focussing on sentence stress in the language classroom has many bonuses. Any nationality is able to apply it and no one feels a fool. Learners soon realise the point and are able to correct each other without the teacher. There’s no debate about it: a word is either stressed, or not. Marking the important words in sentences can be set as homework, as a clear context will determine the words to stress. Sentence stress works the same in all varieties of English. How expressive we could have been in Latin, or with German subordinate clauses, if we had been taught with a focus on sentence stress! There are other benefits. Comprehension practice will flourish if the listening students first write down the stressed word they hear. Grammar practice is given life. All the teacher needs to do is incorporate stress in the productive language practice.

I have found that an effective way of eliciting stress is to have students contradict a false question: e.g. “Is New Year on the 30th of December?”  “No, it’s on the 31st of December.” This goes down well in pair work.

You can practise all sorts of language items disguised as arguments.  As well as provoking the appropriate sentence stress, this protesting exercise works wonders for ‘unstress’ and linking words.


One of the features of spoken English that hits the language learner is its drastic contraction of unstressed syllables: it’s, could’ve, needn’t etc. French also contracts but only its unstressed e, not a,o,i and u. English axes mercilessly: I’d-v known; if the train-dstopped. At first, foreign learners think it might be careless speech but a recording will prove that even the Queen does it. For foreign learners to begin to dare to do likewise, they first need to plant the stresses in their utterance. Otherwise which words do they contract?  


Few if any languages are spoken in separate words but in chunks or flows, always with stress on main points. But foreign learners hesitate to link words in case they do it the wrong way or stumble upon a consonant cluster.  In my experience, anything to make learners say the sentence in one go is worth trying. Inserting links between words helps, as does writing words together phonemically. Practising protesting against false statements speeds up their speaking. Simply encouraging them to say it again faster also helps.


Our stressed word/words convey the meaning and our intonation shows our feelings: the more interested you are: the more your voice tends to move. The less it moves, the less interested you seem. Many learners’ main problem is flat intonation due to being too timid to speak aloud for fear of making grammar mistakes. This doesn’t help them in real life conversations or when asking for something. In my experience, a teacher’s praise for expressive speaking, even with faulty grammar, raises learners’ confidence and makes learning much more lively and effective.

English word pronunciation

The pronunciation of words like nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs is fixed and can be learnt by heart. Fortunately there are patterns to follow.

a) English vowel and consonant sounds

A learner’s very first problem with the English alphabet is the vowel-sounds. While Northern and Southern Europeans pronounce radio much the same, in English you say ‘ray-diow’.   All the world  says “ee-phone” , while  English alone goes ‘ai -phone’. Some consistency can be found in these groups: AHJK, BCDEGPTV, QUW, and I  R – the rest being more or less as in other languages.

Comparing international words in different languages can give an idea of speech peculiarities in those languages. If I was learning Russian, I’d practise saying ‘London’ or ‘Volga’ the Russian way just to experience their typical dark l and ‘o, for a start.

If any nationality, especially Italians, can imitate the English way of saying ‘Adagio ma non troppo’, they’ve definitely got a clue of some classical English vowel sounds. If students can speak their own language with an English or American accent, they are more willing to speak English the English way.  Such exercises could make pronunciation differences and symbols more learner-friendly.  I believe any encouragement and enjoyment is better than intimidating abstract descriptions. 

b) Word stress

The only almost predictable English speech feature is word stress. The rules are fairly clear and not too numerous. Basically, English tends to favour one-syllable words or stress on the first syllable in longer words. But despite French invading English, altering some of its old Germanic pronunciation, English has stuck with stressing the beginning of the word.  All Europe says ‘festiVAL’ but in English it’s ‘FESTival’. There are countless international long words stressed at the beginning by English speakers and maybe also Slovaks and Czechs, while the rest of the world stress the end. Eg ‘compliQUER, compliCAR, komplicIERen, kompliCEra’. In English ‘ COMplicate’. Foreign students can transfer thousands of their long words into English simply by re-positioning the stress.

To make them truly English, they often need to contract the unstressed syllables to

COMftbl, ORD-nry, STRAWdn-rly, thMOMete(r). Easier than for English speakers to extend to comforTABL, thermoMEter, with rolling -r!


To my mind, the best advice to learners is to stress the long (international) words according to their endings. The largest group of international words have word endings which require stress on the 3rd syllable from the end: biOLogy, –geOGgraphy, EDucate, ORganise, persoNALity, while another series of endings has the stress fall on the 2nd syllable from the end: appendiCItis, converSAtion, gymNAStics, deLIcious, thromBOsis.


If we had exams awarding points for a candidate’s meaningful sentence stress and expressive delivery, these easy language features would be practised more often and really help learners to communicate more effectively. One way of achieving this is by developing classroom tests that focus on pronunciation. Here’s a sample test I’ve been using:

~TEST YOUR SPOKEN ENGLISH ~    Part one.         Your name

Practise saying each example aloud to yourself before writing as instructed.

 1. Test your Sentence Stress :

         a. Mark the important words contrasted: 

             “This is one pound fifty, not two pounds fifty!”

              “This is my mother and that’s Penny’s mother. “

               “Do you want one or two sandwiches? “

         b.    Say the sentences aloud to your examiner.  

 Score: 3/3      Bonus points for each silent -r and expressive delivery


 2. Test your unstress 

 a. Tick the common pronunciation of unstressed some, ‘is’ and ‘are’ , and 

cross out -r:

          o    “ Some sugar, please.”    o “ Some more, please. “

          o    “ S-m sugar, please.”       o “ S-m more, please.

         o    Oh! There is only one biscuit left”.’               Hint: Don’t pronounce R.

         o    “ Oh! There’s only one biscuit left.”    

         o     “No. there are two! There were two on the table.”

         o     “No. there’re two! “

     b.   Say your ticked sentences aloud to your examiner.

  Score:  4/4 for correct quick pronunciation of unstressed words

               Bonus point for each silent -r  7/7: Double score for expressive delivery: 



 3. Test your use of Intonation

Exclaim spontaneously to your examiner:

          “Happy Birthday “   “How awful!”     “That’s wonderful!”

Ask this favour aloud with real interest of your examiner.

             “Could I possibly borrow your camera “  

 Score 4/4 for expressive delivery.   3/3 for silent -r.   TOTAL:


4. Test your past tense -ed                           

   a.      Cross out  e in these -ed past tense endings and draw the links as shown:  

 I looked_at_it. I opened it. And I showed it to the others. 

I remembered it. We discovered it in the cellar. “

   b.    Tell your examiner what happened, without stopping between words.

 Score:  5/5 for silent -e and audible -d,  5/5 for word-linking.  Bonus points for silent -r and expressive deliveryTOTAL:                       


  5 Test your plural -s and word-linking


      a. Draw the link between the plural -s and the next word:            

              “Please leave your coats, umbrellas and shoes in the entrance and   don’t put your cups and glasses on the floor. Thank you.”

      b.   Say this announcement, without stopping between words, to your examiner.

    Score:  6/6 for audible -s, 6/6 for linking -s  to next vowel . Bonus point for expressive delivery.






      6 Test your international words pronounced the English way:

Say these words aloud the English way. Compare with how you say them in your language:

                  club    bar   hall   bank   sport  bus   solo   iphone   pause  shop  park


 Score: 11 /11.   Bonus point for silent -r and good delivery TOTAL:


7 Test your English word stress

a)  Mark the English stress in these words:


        radio   photo   music   taxi   meter  theatre  climate  concert  circus  union, 

        fantastic    journalist  university  certificate  information, organise,   

 b)  Say the words aloud the English way to your examiner.

    Score:  17/17 for correct word stress.    Score 1 for each correct unstressed syllables.                                                                        

                     Bonus point for any silent -r  and for good delivery. TOTAL:


 8 Test your stress in true compound nouns                                  

a.  Mark the word that has the main stress


     birthday present,   bus ticket,  dining-room,  shopping bag,

    passport application,  post office,  laptop,  print-out,  car park.


b. Say the compound nouns aloud to your examiner.

 Score: 9 / 9 for correct compound stress. Bonus point for silent -r and good delivery. TOTAL:


    End of Test Your Spoken English ~



COPYRIGHT 17 SEPTEMBER 2010:  Brita Haycraft  & IH London.

Author’s Bio:
Brita Haycraft’s great interest is languages, and she is at home in several Germanic and Romance languages and makes sure they don’t rust on her. At IH London she gives monthly one-hour pronunciation workshops to some dozen or more students. Whatever their nationality or level of English, they all treat English pronunciation with the same guardedness. To make them bolder, she is currently experimenting with a Spoken English Test.

John and Brita Haycraft founded International House and Brita was head of speech training at IH London for many years.

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