Vol. 14, Issue 2, December 2013

Clearly Speaking

by Joyce Mandell

Sentence Stress: Content Words, Function Words and Focus Words

Students who come from languages that are syllable-timed (Japanese, French, etc.) have difficulty in understanding that English rhythm is based on stresses rather than the number of syllables. We would define syllable-timed languages as those languages that give equal time to all the syllables in the sentence.In contrast, English has a characteristic regular alternation of stresses that creates its rhythm. This concept can be easily shown in a visual manner by creating what I call a Human Sentence. Here’s how it goes.

First, teach the concept of content versus function words. North American English speakers put emphasison the verbs, adjectives, adverbs, negatives, etc. and put little stress on the function words (the articles, prepositions, pronouns, etc.) Then, write a sentence that includes content and function words, such as “I’m going to the airport with my sister”.

Take three pieces of colored paper, three different sizes. Put all the content words on a large size paper, the function words on a small size paper, and the final word in the phrase on the largest size paper (the focus word in the sentence, usually the last content word in the phrase). Then, give the papers to a group of 8 students (each one will get a word) and they will sort out the order of the sentence in front of the class. Once they get the correct order, each of them will say their part of the sentence, squeezing in the function words between the content words. So all eight students will hold their paper up and create the “Human Sentence,” saying their part in order “I’m GOING to the AIRPORT with my SISTER”. The students in their seats can easily see which words are stressed and which are squeezed together to keep the rhythm.

Then you can give out three sizes of paper and have groups of students make their own sentences with content and function words to create their own “Human Sentence”. When they have created a sentence, they can put all the words on the appropriate sized paper, come up in front of the room and recite their sentence with the correct stress pattern. Direct the students who are the “content words” to say their part stronger, higher in pitch and longer than the students who are the “function words”. Have the final content word in the sentence be the focus word, which gets the strongest stress.

Of course, stress rules in English are not as simple as this exercise, but it is a good way to visually show that all the words in an utterance are not of equal value. It also heightens the students’ awareness of how the stress system works and helps them to predict stress more accurately.

Joyce Mandell has been teaching speech and pronunciation skills to non-native speakers for over 15 years, working in a variety of educational and business settings. She is an adjunct at Baruch College in both Continuing and Professional Studies and the Communication Studies Department, where she teaches public speaking. She also works individually with business professionals.

To contact Joyce about this column, send an email to dialogue@nystesol.org

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