Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Stress in the Classroom


For all teachers, stress can play an important role in the classroom.  It can raises students’ awareness, improves confidence for learners as well as develops appropriate receptive skills.  By now, you probably have assumed that I am not really suggesting about the stress levels of a particular teacher or student but I am focusing on the stress, intonation and rhythm of language.  I was lucky enough to lead a seminar discussion on this particular topic and have uploaded my presentation to scribd.  The aim of my particular seminar discussion was; How important is it to teach intonation, rhythm and stress? (What problems do learners typically encounter?)  The presentation is available to view below:

Language Description & Analysis – Week 3 Seminar Discussion

Initially, I focused on intonation in the classroom and during my reading and research I found that intonation ‘is about how we say things, rather than what we say’ (TeachingEnglish).  Thornbury suggested that intonation is ‘the music of speech’ (2006) and, with a teaching perspective, an ‘attempt to explain intonation is likely to fall on deaf ears’ (Thornbury, 2006).  Perhaps a ‘rule of thumb’ approach is more appropriate for raising awareness with intonation in the classroom.  Nonetheless, a thought a about a fun and awareness-raising intonation activity could include the following:

Say it with Feeling

  1. Write up the following sentences on the board;
    • It’s raining!
    • I can’t believe it!
    • What are you doing?
  2. Then on the other side, write some adjectives related to feelings (happy, angry, bored, shocked, etc).
  3. Call a student to the front of the class and ask them to secretly choose one sentence and one feeling, the other students have to guess which feeling the student chose.
  4. Repeat this process once students have understood the process of intonation to express happiness, anger, shock, etc.

 We are all aware that as educators, we could highlight the intonation in sentences/questions but my only objection to this could be that is students’ could acquire intonation through exposure rather than being too prescriptive in teaching and aiming to conform students to more acceptable communication.  This would encourage students to become more autonomous learners and aware of not only what is mentioned, but how it is also mentioned.

The next part of my seminar discussion led on to rhythm and the suitability within the classroom to teach it.  There was not much reading material related to rhythm and so I had to resort to Twitter and TeachingEnglish.  I found it correlated with sentence stress, connective speech and intonation.  So much so I tried to relate the rhythmic language of Tongue Twisters to this part of the discussion.  I introduced the class to a famous tongue twister with the use of wordle:

The tongue twister is; “If two witches were watching two watches, which witch would watch which watch?”  Quite a mouthful really.  Anyhow, my belief is that the natural rhythm of tongue twisters could be implemented to assist with rhythm-based language awareness.  Furthermore, students would become more confident speakers if they are able to sound quite fluent when communicating and maintaining their communicative rhythm.  Other activities that could facilitate the use of rhythm could be the use of getting students to sing in sentences, but having not had much experience of teaching stress I would be appreciated of further comment from other educators on how to teach rhythm.

Finally, we looked at the element of stress in the classroom.  There was some debate about Scrivener’s comment that ‘vowel sounds are typically weak and unstressed’ (Learning Teaching, 2005) as all students had arrived from a lecture where we were introduced to allophones.  For those of you that are interested, allophones is a particular phoneme pronounced in a different way; a Scottish may say the word “bath” differently to someone from London.  It is these different ways of saying the same phoneme when they are referred to allophones.  Nonetheless, it is widely recognised that incorrect usage of word stress is a common cause of misunderstanding in English (please refer to page 7 in my presentation for an example).  We also looked at some popular methods of raising awareness of stress; these included marking and highlighting stress (page 7), showing the differences in meaining for particular words that are stressed (page 8) as well as arranging stress patterns (page 9).  Now if you can spot the error on page 8, well done; I created the presentation over the course of the weekend and my only excuse is that my eyes were tired and I didn’t pick up the error until it was displayed from the OHP for all fellow students to see.  Anyhow, the main emphasis was there to generate discussion among fellow students.

I ended the discussion on further ideas; such as including the paralinguistic nature of language during an task-based activity (such as booking an appointment on the phone), so students could be introduced to word and sentence stress when looking at new vocabulary, reviewing the intonation and rhythm which could be prompted by student generated sentences.  The first presentation was useful on a personal level as I had to research a topic often overlooked by many EFL Teachers.  I hoped that the class led the presentation (rather than the other way round) and most fellow students participated in the discussions.  Some of the debatable statements that were included did help get students involved.  I am really keen to develop my own teaching including the topic that I presented.  I am quick to mention that I have often had a relaxed opinion of fluency and pronunciation, hoping that students would be able to acquire receptively.  However, the debate for next time is whether we should focus on Received Pronunciation or World English.


  1. Very interesting post, Martin. I love the tongue twister! I had never heard that one before. I sometimes use “Peter Piper” which I can say really quickly – the students love it!

    I, like you, probably don't spend enough time on intonation in the classroom, and it is actually a very important part of speaking a language. I do find however, that students often imitate sample sentences well, but do not go on to use the same intonation patterns in their own speech. Do you have any ideas about how to “ingrain” intonation patterns so that they are used automatically? Is it just a matter of time (and exposure)?

    I shall be adding your blog to my google reader 🙂

  2. Martin,

    Very interesting post; glad to know what 'Allo 'Allophones are! One year of my students all have 'Scottish' vowels.

    Think intonation/stress crucial to delivering intent. Very hard to achieve in once a week classes here in Japan. L1 the absolute opposite. One way I did get the message across was not saying anything – grunting, basically, but with varied emotions. Unconfident students unwilling to make 'mistakes' suddenly found a voice in their throats: OK they were probably doing Japanese instead, but it beat the offside trap here which is a flat back four ie deadpan katakana-ese.

    Try adverbs as well?

    Power to yr studies!


  3. I think intonation/stress/rhythm all go hand-in-hand and thank you Michelle and Jim for your insightful comments.

    I will be looking at pronunciation in the coming weeks which will be linked with Underhill's workshop at the BELTE 2010.

    Keep your eyes peeled for new posts.

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