How to practise word stress

Alex Case
Stimulating classroom activities for words stressed on different syllables

Teaching how to distinguish stress patterns like “DEsert” and “deSSERT” can lead to better speaking and listening more quickly than most other pronunciation points. The rules/ patterns are too many and complicated for almost all classes, so the kind of intensive practice given here is very important.

In addition to the games below, it is fun and useful for the teacher and students to use their body and voice with techniques like:

  • tapping out the rhythm
  • using big and small gestures
  • humming quietly and loudly

Word stress list dictations

Students listen to a list of words and try to work out what they all have in common, e.g. that are all stressed on the final syllable or that they all have schwa in the unstressed syllable. I tend to start with totally unrelated similarities like personality words from a recent textbook unit, link to pronunciation with numbers of syllables in common, move onto the same stress pattern, then do some more specific patterns like “ending in -ee and stressed on that syllable”.

Word stress minimal pairs simplest responses

Collect words with similar pronunciation but different stress like “fifTEEN”/ “FIFty”, “PERsonal” and “persoNNEL”, and “a DEcrease”/ “to deCREASE” and put them into A and B columns. Students listen to one of the words and race to show which they think they have heard by holding up their “A” card or “B” card, aiming at those letters on the board, etc.

Word stress pelmanism

Make a pack of cards with words with a few different stress patterns, and/ or pictures of those things. Students spread the cards across the table, then take turns trying to find two words with the same stress pattern (“TAble” and “PASSword”, etc). This pairs game can be played with the cards face up or cards face down (for more fun and more challenge).

Students can also work together to put the cards into columns by their word stress patterns.

Word stress snap

The same pelmanism cards described above can be used to play the faster card game Snap, in which students take turns turning one card from their pack face up and race to shout out “Snap” whenever their two most recent cards match by stress pattern.

Word stress mazes

Choose ten to twenty words with the same number of syllables and same stress pattern and put them in a wiggly line from the top-left corner to the bottom right corner of a table. Fill the other squares with words with different stress patterns. Students try to find a route through the maze following only words of one kind, e.g. following “PARTner”, “FAther” and “PARTly”, while avoiding words stressed on different syllables.

Word stress brainstorming races

Students race to think of as many words as they can to match “Ooo”, “Foods which are stressed on the second syllable”, etc.

Word stress communication games

Word stress storytelling

Students put cards with the symbols “oOo”, “Oo”, etc down as they use words with those stress patterns to continue a story such as a fairy tale.

Word stress bluffing game

Students take a card with a stress pattern at random, then must make a personal statement with a matching word as quickly as they can, using their imagination if they can’t think of anything true. Their partner then guesses if it is true or not.

To make it more challenging and therefore make lying more common, they could do the same with two different stress patterns to put in one sentence and/ or choose the subject area to talk about as well as the stress pattern (“Ooo related to your weekends”, etc).

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Written by Alex Case for
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers

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