Do Your ESL Students Make These Stress and Intonation Mistakes?

Do Your ESL Students Make These Stress and Intonation Mistakes?

Do you have ESL students who do the robot? No, I don’t mean the dance. I mean speak in a monotone, with no color, no feeling. It doesn’t mean that they don’t feel the language. They probably just don’t know how to use stress and intonation to convey intention and meaning.

Most of the time, students who have trouble using the right stress and intonation speak native languages with very different rules. English is a stressed language, and this means that more attention should be paid to where you put the stress in a word or sentence, rather than the number of syllables. Check out these very common stress and intonation mistakes and what you can do to help your ESL students kick the robot to the curb.

Most Common Mistakes: Stress

  1. 1

    Stress on the Wrong Syllable

    The student says hó-tel instead of ho-tél. This type of mistake may lead to misunderstandings, and the speaker’s meaning or intention may not be at all clear. An added complication is that there are plenty of words that have a different meaning when they are stressed differently. This is case of ré-bel and re-bél. Or désert and dessért. Finally, if there are too many mistakes with word stress, the listener may become impatient or confused, and this is not good for communication.

  2. 2

    Stress on the Wrong Word

    Just like placing the stress on the wrong syllable within a word, placing stress on the wrong word in a sentence may lead to confusion or the speaker’s inability to convey exactly what he/she means. Let’s see an example.

    A sentence like, “John got a new job” can be stressed in different ways (stress can be placed on John, new or job), all of which convey different meanings. If you ask students, “Who got a new job?” they should respond placing the stress on John. But if you ask them, “What did John get?” they should place the stress on job.

How You Can Help

  • Draw your students’ attention to the matter of stress. Explain that English is a stressed language and that word and/or sentence stress is important to convey the right meaning. Use clapping or tapping to indicate where the stress goes.
  • Go over some basic rules of word stress. For example, when the same word can be both a noun and a verb (rebel, insult, suspect), explain that the first syllable is stressed in the noun and the second syllable is stressed in the verb.
  • Indicate stress visually. You can mark the stress the way dictionaries do (/hoʊˈtɛl/ for hotel), use bigger or smaller circles as seen above (ho-tél) or use Cuisenaire rods. These are also useful to show where the stress goes in a sentence.
  • Contrast. If it’s hard for students to hear the right word stress, say it different ways – put the stress in different syllables so they can hear the difference and hear the right stress.
  • Be sure to contrast the difference between placing stress on different words: I want to learn English vs. I want to learn English. Can your students tell the difference in meaning?

Most Common Mistakes: Intonation

  1. 3

    No Rising Pitch

    This is the intonation mistake I encounter most often. Yes/No questions typically have a rising pitch towards the end, and lots of students end their sentences flat so they don’t sound like questions at all: Do you like chocolate. They sound like statements. Students often have more trouble imitating the rising than the falling intonation.

  2. 4

    Use the wrong pitch

    Students often don’t use the right pitch to convey feelings. A single word like really can express completely different feelings: “Really” said with a falling intonation expresses disbelief, while “Really?” with a rising pitch expresses surprise.

How You Can Help

  • Exaggerate. Even though it may not sound “natural”, it’s the best way to get the point across and students have a better chance of hearing the differences. Make the rising pitch as high as you can, and the flat intonation sound monotone. Make sure your face also shows the right feeling.
  • Go over patterns, such as:
    1. Yes/No questions have the rising pitch towards the end.
    2. Questions that begin with wh-words have a falling intonation.
    3. Statements have a falling intonation.
    4. Question tags may have either depending on the intention of the speaker. Questions tags that are comments or observations have a falling intonation while questions tags used to check information or express uncertainty have a rising intonation.
    5. Use rising intonation to express surprise.
    6. Use falling intonation to express sarcasm or disbelief.

In the ESL classroom, showing is better than telling.

Skip the explanations regarding theory or linguistics. Show them how to place stress to convey meaning. Exaggerate surprise or looks of disbelief so students get the full effect of the intonation. Stick to it and give it time. Soon enough you won’t have any more robots in your class!

Do you encounter these stress and intonation mistakes in your ESL class? How do you help your students overcome these difficulties?

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