English UK 2012 Teachers’ Conference #2: teaching unstress (Adrian Underhill)

Lingua Franca crAt a packed session, Adrian Underhill remarked that a common problem students have with pronouncing English is not stressing syllables but rather unstressing them.

A good way to start raising awareness of the effect of different word stress patterns is to show what happens to the pronunciation of the word ‘important’ if it is stressed on the first, second or third syllable. Student need to notice how the unstressed syllables sound.

Syllable stress is acoustically marked by volume, pitch and length. Unstressing syllables is consequently about removing the ‘markers’ and often adjusting the vowel sound to something neutral such as the schwa sound or a weak /I/ sound (sometimes called the ‘schwi’). Try saying:

‘important   im’portant   impor’tant

(the first one should sound like ‘impotent’!)

or switching the stress on the word ‘packet’

Stress shifting takes a little practice because it can sound so strange and habits die hard!

I recently noticed this example from a blog: showing how 5 words would have pretty much the same pronunciation if the stress is on the first syllable (it doesn’t matter that only one word is real):

momint   moment   momant   momunt   momont

Adrian pointed out that since so many vowels are unstressed, English speakers often mumble and that students need to know what’s going on in order to understand what they are hearing.

One activity you can do is to take or write out a sentence and ask your student to mark where the reduced vowels are. Students are usually amazed at how many there are. Pronouns and prepositions are often ‘reduced’ so do remember to include those too  and you could also work on word linking e.g.

‘Your present cost a lot of money from what I understand’

I should note that explaining English pronunciation in detail can be a challenge as you’ll find differences of opinion amongst the ‘experts’ and even dictionaries give different transcriptions, not to mention the issue of regional and national accents. However the key idea that unstressed or neutral sounds are vital to understanding and producing spoken English is extremely helpful.

You can visit Adrian’s blog here : adrianpronchart.wordpress.com


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One Response to English UK 2012 Teachers’ Conference #2: teaching unstress (Adrian Underhill)


  1. KelvinFowler says:

    Lynne B commented on 18/02/2013

    “I like Jazz Chants and so do my students. They’re good fun, especially for those who like drama, teach pronunciation and stress patterns by stealth and repetition and they follow a simple storyline. They’re a great adjunct to any pronunication course.”

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