In my last blog, Still thinking about essential English pronunciation in 2019, I suggested that the one pronunciation challenge that united all students was sentence stress.
But without understanding how to create syllable stress, the speaker can’t create sentence stress.
We teachers have been trained to say “stress” is all about volume, length and pitch. But we need to watch out.
If someone were to ask me, “Are you going?” I could reply, “I can’t,” with the “can’t” rising or falling
Both might express the same regret or the simple statement that I’m not able to attend.
But in either version, the longer vowel and the louder volume indicate, unmistakably, that the focus is on the negative response.
Intonation (the movement of pitch up or down) does play a part. Pitch changes can be very effective. But they can be small, subtle and harder to hear.
So it’s important to concentrate on the length of the vowel and the volume of the entire syllable. These are consistent markers of stress, way easier to identify. They make the important sounds stand out.
And students need to remember which sounds are important.
That’s why I still love to use Judy Thompson’s Vowel Color Chart. I created a YouTube video about it sometime ago.
I called the episode, “An Easier Way to Learn English Vowels.” But now I think I should have called it, “An Easier Way to Learn English Word Stress.” And I always bring students/clients back to the Vowel Color Chart for reference. I’ll give you the link to my video at the end.
In a nutshell, vowel sounds are given specific colours. The system doesn’t bother to explain the way to shape the vowel sounds. It simply assumes that all speakers of English as an Additional Language are able to say the vowel sounds quite satisfactorily when they are contained within certain words. These words are the names of colours. The vowels become associated with these colours. And, by extension, the colour of the vowel of the stressed syllable in any given word determines the colour of the word.
Just by associating a colour with the most important word(s) in a sentence, the learner can remember which word(s) to stress. Colours “pop” out – just as volume and length “pop” out – differentiating … identifying … clarifying.
With the added dimension of colour, learners absorb the sensual aspect of the music of English, i.e., the appeal to all our senses: seeing the colour of the important syllable through the vowel sound it contains, hearing the accented syllable stand out, feeling the sound inside the mouth and connecting with the rhythm of the accented syllable and word in the body.
Teaching sounds with colours is potent. It can develop both speaking and listening skills. And, in some small measure, can be related to the power of the associations of synesthesia.
There’ve been many studies and articles written on the various forms of synesthesia, the feature that certain people have of instantly linking colours, words, tastes, sounds, numbers, etc. In a 2011 LiveScience blog (https://www.livescience.com/4633-people-common-letters-brighter-colors.html , the author Andrea Thompson pointed out just how dynamic those associations can be.
Though synesthesia sometimes makes life a bit uncomfortable, “most synesthetes think of their abilities as a gift and wouldn’t want to lose them.” Check out this more recent article from 2018. https://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/what-is-synesthesia-and-whats-it-like-to-have-it.
The first step in understanding sentence stress is being able to hear and feel that something different is happening. There’s an energy and excitement in that connection. The link makes the syllable memorable. Even when the syllable stress isn’t what’s expected, hearing the stress in the most important word in a sentence will catch the ear of the listener and guide them to the intention.
As your students become familiar with the vowel colour system, move on to having them listen to sentences to identify the words that seem to be most important. Write out the actual sentences. Have them identify the word(s) that stand out. Colour code important word(s). Make the colours vivid.
Then let them continue with the rhythm.
Have fun. Put each sentence into a rhythm that reflects the words that are stressed. And let those stressed words explode with colour. Then let them move with tthe colours and sounds. Maybe they’ll start with movements as small as a fingersnap, a head turn, the flick of a wrist. Maybe they’ll drum, clap, stomp their feet, pound their chairs, their desks, sway their arms. Have them imagine colours as dazzling as the costumes in the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro or Toronto’s Caribana Parade. Make the associations memorable!
The power of communication is first and foremost contained within the music of English – the rhythm – the dynamics. That’s important for every student, no matter where they come from, no matter how they pronounce any particular consonant or vowel.
Hearing, understanding and using sentence stress effectively can give them the confidence to speak up and speak out – to speak publicly. Understanding rhythm and dynamics can help them find passion in public speaking even as they continue to study the details of pronunciation.
And please don’t misunderstand.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work on vocal mechanics or minimal pairs to develop speaking/listening skills.
What I’m saying is “Don’t leave sentence stress to the end.”
Start it from the very beginning and make time for it in every class, whether your students come from one country or many countries. And use the Thompson Vowel Color Chart to help you.
You can read about Judy Thompson’s vowel system, watch my video, and find a link to the Vowel Color Chart in my 2017 blog An Easier Way to Learn English Vowels.
And if you have any comments or questions or experiences to share, I’d love to hear from you.