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A language learner needs to engage with a word many times, preferably in

different ways, in order to really learn it - identifying and practising word

stress can provide one or two of those engagements.

 Why word stress is important

 What word stress is

 Some 'rules' of word stress

 How I help my students

 In the classroom

 Conclusion

Why word stress is important

Mistakes in word stress are a common cause of misunderstanding in English. Here are
the reasons why:

 Stressing the wrong syllable in a word can make the word very difficult to hear and
understand; for example, try saying the following words:
oO Oo
b'tell hottle

And now in a sentence:
"I carried the b'tell to the hottle."

Now reverse the stress patterns for the two words and you should be able to make
sense of the sentence!
"I carried the bottle to the hotel."

 Stressing a word differently can change the meaning or type of the word:
"They will desert* the desert** by tomorrow."

oO Oo
desert* desert**

Think about the grammatical difference between desert* and desert**.
I will look at this in more detail later.

 Even if the speaker can be understood, mistakes with word stress can make the listener
feel irritated, or perhaps even amused, and could prevent good communication from
taking place.

These three reasons tell me that word stress is an important part of the English
language, and it is something I should help my students with.

What word stress is

When we stress syllables in words, we use a combination of different features.
Experiment now with the word 'computer'. Say it out loud. Listen to yourself. The
second syllable of the three is stressed. What are you doing so that the listener can
hear that stress?

 A stressed syllable combines five features:

o It is l-o-n-g-e-r - com p-u-ter
o It is LOUDER - comPUTer
o It has a change in pitch from the syllables coming before and afterwards. The pitch
of a stressed syllable is usually higher.
o It is said more clearly -The vowel sound is purer. Compare the first and last vowel
sounds with the stressed sound.
o It uses larger facial movements - Look in the mirror when you say the word. Look
at your jaw and lips in particular.

It is equally important to remember that the unstressed syllables of a word have the
opposite features of a stressed syllable!

Some 'rules' of word stress

There are patterns in word stress in English but, as a rule (!), it is dangerous to say
there are fixed rules. Exceptions can usually be found.

 Here are some general tendencies for word stress in English:

Word Type of word Tendency Exceptions

apple stress on the first syllable

two-syllable nouns and hotel
table Oo
adjectives lagoon
happy apple

the noun has stress on the first syllable

suspect words which can be used as
"You are the suspect!" respect
import both
the verb has stress on the second syllable witness
insult nouns and verbs
"I suspect you."
fairly equally balanced but with stronger
compound nouns on the first part

How I help my students

Students can be alarmed when they meet words which are similar but have different
stress patterns:
O o o O oo O o o oooOo

equal equality equalise equalisation

A useful thing you can do is to help students see connections with other word families.
Patterns can usually be found, for example:

O o final o O oo finality O o o finalise o o o O o finalisation

neutral neutrality neutralise neutralisation

There are some recognised differences in word stress which depend on the variety of
English being used, for example:

o o O o Caribbean aluminium (British English) o O o o Caribbean aluminum (American English)

These differences are noted in good learner dictionaries. If words like these come up in
class, point them out to students. Ask if there are similar cases of differences in word
stress in their own language - this will heighten awareness and interest.

In the classroom

 Raise awareness & build confidence

You can use the same questions with your students that I have used in this article.
These will help to raise the students' awareness of word stress and its importance.
Some learners love to learn about the 'technical' side of language, while others like to
'feel' or 'see' the language more, hearing the music of word stress or seeing the shapes
of the words. Try to use a variety of approaches: helping students to engage with
English in different ways will help them in their goal to become more proficient users of
the language. Build students' confidence by drawing their attention to the tendencies
and patterns in word stress that do exist.

 Mark the stress

Use a clear easy-to-see way of marking stress on the board and on handouts for
students. I use the big circle - small circle (O o) method. It is very easy to see and has
the added advantage of identifying the number of syllables in the word, as well as the
stressed syllable.

Students also need to be aware of the way dictionaries usually mark stress - with a
mark before the stressed syllable, e.g. 'apple. By knowing this, students will be able to
check word stress independently.

 Cuisenaire rods
These different sized, small coloured blocks are great for helping students to 'see' the
word stress. The students build the words using different blocks to represent stressed
and unstressed syllables. (Children's small building blocks are a good substitute!)

 Integrate word stress into your lessons

You don't need to teach separate lessons on word stress. Instead, you can integrate it
into your normal lessons. The ideal time to focus students' attention on it is when
introducing vocabulary. Meaning and spelling are usually clarified for students but the
sound and stress of the word can all too often be forgotten.

Quickly and simply elicit the stress pattern of the word from the students (as you would
the meaning) and mark it on the board. Drill it too!

Students can use stress patterns as another way to organise and sort their vocabulary.
For example, in their vocabulary books they can have a section for nouns with the
pattern O o, and then a section for the pattern o O. Three syllable words can be sorted
into O o o (Saturday, hospital) and o O o (computer, unhappy).

Remember what I noted before: The more times students mentally engage with new
vocabulary, the more they are likely to actually learn it. Engaging students through
word stress helps to reinforce the learning of the words.

 Troubleshooting
Initially, many students (and teachers!) find it difficult to hear word stress. A useful
strategy is to focus on one word putting the stress on its different syllables in turn. For

o o 0 computer 0 o o computer o 0 o computer

 Say the word in the different ways for the students, really exaggerating the stressed
syllable and compressing the unstressed ones. Ask the students which version of the
word sounds 'the best' or 'the most natural'.

By hearing the word stressed incorrectly, students can more easily pick out the correct

A personalised and effective way of getting students to hear the importance of correct
word stress is by using people's names as examples. I introduce word stress with my
o "How many parts/syllables are there in my name?"
o "Which is the strongest - the first or second?"
o "Is it Emma or Emma?"

Then you can question students about their own names - this will give them a
personalised connection to the issue of word stress, with a word they will never forget!

Any work on aspects of pronunciation can take a long time to show improvements and
be challenging for both the students and the teacher, but working on word stress can
be fun and over time will help your students to be better understood and more
confident speakers.

Further reading
Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill
Pronunciation by Dalton and Seidlholfer
How to Teach Pronunciation by Gerald Kelly
Teaching English Pronunciation by Joanne Kenworthy

Emma Pathare, Teacher, Trainer, Dubai

To communicate clearly when you are speaking in English, it’s important to stress the
correct syllables in each word. This is called word stress, which means pronouncing one
syllable of a multisyllabic word with greater emphasis (stress) than the other syllables in
the word. Here are four general rules to keep in mind about word stress as you practice

1. Stress the first syllable of:

o Most two-syllable nouns (examples: CLImate, KNOWledge)
o Most two-syllable adjectives (examples: FLIPpant, SPAcious)
2. Stress the last syllable of:
o Most two-syllable verbs (examples: reQUIRE, deCIDE)
3. Stress the second-to-last syllable of:
o Words that end in -ic (examples: ecSTATic, geoGRAPHic)
o Words ending in -sion and -tion (examples: exTENsion, retriBUtion)
4. Stress the third-from-last syllable of:
o Words that end in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy (examples: deMOCracy, unCERtainty,
geOGraphy, radiOLogy)
o Words that end in -al (examples: exCEPtional, CRItical)

Keep these simple rules in mind and you will soon find your pronunciation getting better
and better!

Look up academic terms in American English and hear them pronounced with
the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary.

Word Stress
When a word has more than one syllable, not all syllables are pronounced with the same
degree of force. The syllable which is pronounced with greater force is called the stressed
syllable. You can also call it the accented syllable. "Accent" in this case means

When speaking, it is important to put the stress on the correct syllable.

Otherwise, it would sound unnatural, and might even be difficult to understand!

Watch the following video for a full explanation and demonstration of word stress:

Here are some examples of the word stress of some common words (the stress part
is bold):

water: wa ter

people: peo ple

television: tel e vi sion

together: to geth er

potato: po ta to

before: be fore

begin: be gin
Now, have you read all the explanations and watched the video? Very good!

Click Here for the American Accent Audio Course.

You are almost ready to move on to the next lesson, but before that, make sure you know
the answers to the following questions:

1. What is a syllable?

2. What is a stresses syllable/accented syllable?

3. How can you know where to put the stress for each word while speaking?

Have you answered the questions? Awesome!

Word Stress Quiz

You can do this quiz online or print it on paper. It tests your understanding of
the word stress pages. For each question, the correct choice is the one in
which the stressed syllable is capitalized, as in voCABulary.

1. Can you pass me a plastic knife?


2. I want to be a photographer.


3. Which photograph do you like best?


4. He was born in China.

5. Whose computer is this?


6. I can't decide which book to borrow.


7. Couldn't you understand what she was saying?


8. Voting in elections is your most important duty.


9. We had a really interesting conversation.


10. How do you pronounce this word?


Where is the stress in each of these words? Decide which syllable.

Example: comPUter - 2nd syllable.

1. reception



2. comparison





3. potato




4. bedroom



5. fourteen


6. forty



7. delicious




8. playful