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5 Ways to Teach Stress and Intonation

Maureen St. George

Speaking may be the hardest part of English to master, but there’s a smaller skill hidden inside speaking that’s even more elusive: correct stress and intonation. Even advanced students may affect a flat delivery, especially when tired. Although it may be difficult to both teach and learn, these skills are vital for good conversation and possibly getting one’s point across. Repetition is key here, and luckily, there are just as many games and closed exercises to do to make the learning experience fun.


Get the Class Speaking
To get students’ voices warmed up, start by writing the sentence “I didn’t steal your blue wallet” on the board and ask a few students to read it aloud. From there, practice saying the sentence with a distinct stress on a different word each time; see if students can tell which word is being stressed, and how that affects the overall meaning. Encouraging students to put some emotion behind the delivery (rather than just saying one word louder than the rest) will get good laughs from the rest of the class and help everyone loosen up.

Worksheet Activities
For a closed exercise, have a worksheet of sentences ready for each student. The teacher’s copy should have a word from each sentence underlined, and the teacher must read each sentence out loud with appropriate stress. Students will underline the stressed word or syllable, and after the teacher is done reading, the students can take turns reading the sentences aloud. In addition to stress, this exercise can also be done where students fill in the correct punctuation. For example, if one question is just the word “coffee,” students can write in a question mark if the teacher’s voice goes up, a period if not, or an exclamation point if the teacher puts excitement behind the word. For additional practice, the teacher can have one or two more sheets ready with new phrases and have a few volunteers take his/her place to do the same practice. Afterwards, the class can come together to ask questions or practice a bit more if warranted.

Telephone Conversations
For a quick game, it’s time to go back to elementary school and play telephone. Students can sit in a circle on the floor or bring their desks into a circle. The teacher will start by whispering a word or phrase with a certain stress to the first student, and so on until the last student says it aloud, and all can hear how the phrases changed (or didn’t) on its journey around the circle. Depending on how it goes, the teacher can do it again with a longer phrase or even a whole sentence or question.

Encouraging students to put some emotion behind the delivery (rather than just saying one word louder than the rest) will get good laughs from the rest of the class and help everyone loosen up.

If some students are struggling, it’s time to get them in touch with their emotions. Simply asking them how they feel about their boss/parents/colleagues is enough to elicit a laugh, eye roll or another reaction. Have them think of one complaint (or compliment, but complaints are usually more expansive), and then it’s time to one-up each other. Have them deliver their line with emphasis. If one says, “My boss makes me work overtime every single Friday!” the next students can reply, “Your boss sounds bad, but mine makes me clean the bathroom!” and so on. Students will more than likely take this exercise and run with it, so the teacher may need to think about how much leeway to give.

Role Play
Finally, it’s time for a role-play. The dialogue can expand from the “I didn’t steal your blue wallet” sentence above, or teachers can give a different dialogue to each pair. Teachers can also assign emotions to each student to have them put as much emphasis behind their lines as possible. This exercise is bound to get loud and rowdy, but it’s a great way for students to find their voice. Some may ham it up and exaggerate, but that’s okay. It’s unlikely they’ll push it that far in the real world, and the teacher can always gently guide students the middle ground if needed.

These are just some activities to help you with the topic of intonation and stress. What are some of your favorite ways to teach stress and intonation?

About the author

Maureen is a US-born, Hong Kong-based freelance editor and writer who has taught ESL all over the world. Traveling is her main hobby, and there's nothing she enjoys more than having a carefully planned trip go completely awry.