As a teacher of TESOL, you should know what a syllable is. You should be able to identify the syllables in an utterance. Train yourself to identify and count the syllables in words, phrases, and sentences.
Remember that most words with two or more syllables have one stressed or strong syllable and one or two unstressed or weak syllables. Stress is not dependent upon the fixed place in the sentence. Stress can occur on any syllable. Generally speaking, only nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, demonstratives and interrogatives are stressed.
Often the vowel in the unstressed syllables is pronounced as / ∂ / or /I/. Notice the vowel in the beginning of the following words: Asia, apart, attack. All these words have / ∂ / in the beginning which is unstressed. Notice the first vowel in the word between, and the last vowel in the word wanted. The vowel used is /I/. In the words able, and table, the “a” is pronounced as /eI/. In vegetable and syllable, it is reduced to / ∂ /. In the word day, the “ay” is pronounced /eI/ but in the words Monday, and Tuesday, it is often reduced to /I/.
Note also that the vowels in many conjunctions and prepositions such as and, but, at, for, of are normally reduced unless the word is being specially stressed for meaning conveyed. It is stressed in the construction John and Mary, both of them.
Reducing vowels in this way is a feature of normal spoken English. It is, however, very difficult for the second/foreign language learner to master. You should use and demonstrate reduced vowels in your own speech in the classroom.
Discuss what is meant by stress with your students if their native language does not use stress. Whisper stressed words. This will show how the stressed syllables are more prominent than the others. Pronounce a few selected words, and ask students to underline stressed syllables. Prepare exercises to demonstrate how stress changes the meaning.
“Strong stresses are one of the distinguishing features of the English language; the important syllables in English are more prominent, the unimportant syllables less prominent than in most other languages. Stress then is the key to the pronunciation of an English word. If you stress the wrong syllable, it may be quite impossible for anyone listening to understand what you are trying to say . . . Persons who learn English as a second language often make the mistake of pronouncing unstressed vowels the way they are spelled . . . Unless you consult a pronouncing dictionary or a competent English-speaking person, there is no sure way of knowing whether the unaccented vowels of an unfamiliar word should be / ∂ / or /I/. Frequently it makes no difference . . . Unfortunately, there are no infallible rules for determining which syllable of a word should be stressed. Many times you will need to turn to the dictionary unless you hear the word spoken by someone familiar with it . . . ” Prator, Jr., and Robinett (1972).
When it comes to teaching stress in English, especially to adult learners, it is important that we combine modeling for production with auditory recognition and explanation of possible rules for the placement of the strong stress (primary accent). For this purpose, you may present several words of polysyllables and ask students to decide which syllable is stressed in each word thus presented. They will mark the primary accent on the vowel in the written word. This may be followed by an exercise in which the students will identify which of the syllables are unstressed in the words given.
Our goal is to increase the ability of the students to recognize and place stresses. To achieve this it is important that we give our students groups of graded lists of words, such as two syllabic, three syllabic, four syllabic, and five syllabic words. Perhaps each group may consist of five or six words, and the students will be asked to listen to the oral model provided and to mark the syllable or syllables which are stressed. The task may be made more complex by asking students to mark not only the stressed but also the unstressed vowels of the words.
Auditory recognition must be followed by oral production. Again, production of individual words must be followed by the production of phrases and sentences in that order.
Remember that English is a stress-timed language. This means that the length of time between stressed syllables is always about the same, and if there are several unstressed syllables they must be said more quickly. He wrote a letter. He wrote a long letter. He wrote a very long letter. In each of these sentences, the unstressed syllables (a, a long, a very long) take about the same amount of time to say. So, “a very long” has to be said more quickly.
Emphasize that this stress timing is a very important feature of spoken English. If students become accustomed to hearing English spoken with a natural rhythm in class, they will find it easier to understand real English when they hear it spoken outside the class.
You can use several devices to demonstrate visually where there should be stress and where it should be unstressed. This can be done by using your voice. Say the sentence, exaggerating the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables.
This can be done also by using gesture. Use your arms like a conductor of an orchestra, use a stronger gesture for the stressed syllable. Clapping or tapping on a desk more loudly for the stressed syllables, and less for the unstressed syllables is another technique you can adopt.
You can use the black board. You can circle the element in a word which is unstressed, and underline an element that is stressed. You can write the stressed syllable in heavier letters.
Prator, Jr., and Robinett (1972:28) suggest tackling the problem of acquiring a good English speech rhythm under five parts:
1. Giving proper emphasis to stressed syllables, and making these recur rather regularly within a thought group.
2. Weakening unstressed words and syllables, and obscuring the vowels in most of them.
3. Organizing words properly into thought groups by means of pauses.
4. Blending the final sound of each word and syllable with the itial sound of the one following within the same thought group.
5. Fitting the entire sentence into a normal intonation pattern.
Remember that content words are usually stressed in English. Content words fall under the following category: Nouns, verbs (with some exceptions), adjectives, adverbs, demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and interrogatives (who, when, why, etc.).
Remember that function words are usually unstressed. Function words which are usually unstressed include the following: Articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, of, in, etc.), personal pronouns (I, me, he, him, it, etc.), possessive adjectives (my, his, your, etc.), relative pronouns (who, that, which, etc.), common conjunctions (and, but, that, as, if, etc.), one used as a noun-substitute, and the verbs be, have, do, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, and must (Prator, Jr., and Robinett 1972:28-29).