We teach pron: Word Stress

Mark and I taught a lesson together recently to put some of our ideas into action. We will be reflecting on our experience in a series of blog posts and in our talk at IATEFL 2018! This lesson was with a group of B1 adult learners in UAB Idiomes in Barcelona. All the learners are Catalan and Spanish speakers. These languages are both syllable-timed in contrast to English, which is stress-timed.  They are using English File and this was only their third lesson together. At the start of the lesson, students were asked to recall the vocabulary from the last lesson and as they did this I noticed some errors with word stress. Some of them tended to give each syllable more or less equal prominence as they would in their L1, while others tended to overcompensate and put strong stress on the wrong syllable.  

We constantly discuss our approach to integrating pron into lessons when writing the blog, so while preparing these lessons one thing we wanted to highlight was ‘listen and repeat’ is not enough. The students need time to process the pron and they need a variety of activities to do this before they repeat. Instead of just drilling the correct pron (listen and repeat style), I decided to analyse and work with the errors. As we say in our commandments of phon, we need to react to the pron in a lesson and to work on one thing at a time. Also, in line with the pron cycle, I decided to start with a short noticing task and then work up to production. This would help the learners hear the pronunciation and analyse the word stress before they were expected to say it correctly.  I wrote this on the board:

Cabbage    oO   Oo  OO

I asked them which bubble pattern was correct by just saying da DA, DA da or DA DA. They didn’t respond right away, so I waited a few seconds, still nothing. To make the task more meaningful I said the word with the different stress patterns: caBBAGE, CAbbage CABBAGE, and asked which was correct. About 70% of them gave the correct answer, but not all were sure. (You can see this in the video clip).  We then did some choral drilling and I drew their attention to the length and volume of the strong, stressed and weak, unstressed vowels in both syllables. As it was a new group for me, I stuck to choral drilling. I then repeated the process with the other problem words, asking them to collaborate to make choices. I decided to make word stress a focus throughout the lesson while I was monitoring speaking tasks.  I did on-the-spot correction and then came back to it at the end of the lesson.

I think by giving the learners a choice at the start of the work on stress, I could see what they knew and what they could hear. As this was a new class I wanted to give them the chance to show their understanding before making any assumptions about their pronunciation. I was thinking maybe this was just a slip and they would know the correct pronunciation, once prompted. The fact that not all of them were sure when they heard the options showed us there is work to do here, so word stress goes on our list of pron priorities for this group. I think that focusing on one thing helped learners to perceive improvement and to self and peer monitor more effectively. They are not overwhelmed with too much to remember and focus on. It also makes it easier for us to evaluate development of language use within a lesson. Reflecting on the lesson afterwards we both noticed the students’ positive reaction to this pron focus and how it was staged.   

To follow on from such work when we hear errors in word stress we can do the following tasks:

1 Ask learners to look at other vocabulary from the lesson or homework and identify the number of syllables and mark the stress using bubbles or some other format. You can experiment with bubbles, underlining the stressed syllable, marking the stress as they do in dictionaries or some other method.

2 Ask learners to test each other by pointing to vocabulary in the course material which is not marked and asking their partner to say it with the correct stress. Mark and I did this in a subsequent lesson and it led to lots of great interaction between the learners – they were really engaged in listening for the correct pronunciation and producing the words accurately.

3 Asking them to peer or self assess by making it a focus in speaking activities. When learners move on to controlled or freer speaking activities this does not mean pron is forgotten. As well as focusing on the correct and accurate production of new language, we can ask them to self or peer monitor for the correct pronunciation of the language.

4 Ask learners to start noticing word stress more consistently when they come across a new word. As well as focusing on the meaning and the individual sounds, remind them to learn the correct stress, and make a note of it somewhere. This makes it a more integrated aspect of our teaching and their learning. As we say in our blog post – hand over the pron – the more we can prompt learners to take responsibility and purposefully notice pronunciation, the more efficiently they will learn it.

5 We can also pass on the pron by showing them some of the general rules of thumb of word stress. Such as two-syllable nouns tend to be stressed on the first syllable, affixes are rarely stressed, words which are both nouns and verbs are stressed in the following way: record (Oo noun) (oO verb) and most two-syllable verbs are stressed on the second syllable etc.

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  1. Pingback: Mark Teaches Connected Speech – Teach Pronunciation

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