Pronunciation Matters: Sentence Stress

Nothing teaches a language teacher better than their own foreign language learning experience.

The class is over.

Time to call a taxi.

Dobar dan. Kafe Bahus…Hvala.


– Yes, Marko?

– You sound like Google Translate!

Like Google Translate? A language teacher in me does a quick check – grammar (tick), vocabulary (tick), pronunciation (tick) – anything missing?

* * *

Sentence stress (*contrastive stress) is often overlooked in coursebooks because it is a common feature of languages. In the article Why Teaching Word Stress in Spoken English is Important, Brita Haycraft calls it ‘common sense’ (read more here We know at once which words are important in a particular context because it’s common sense. Google Translate or any text-to-speech app cannot make a clear distinction between important words and words that are not essential to intelligibility. In contrast, a language learner knows which words carry the meaning, yet they often overly focus on grammar and break down a sentence stressing all the words, making sure all the nuts and bolts of the language are there – I-WOULD-LIKE-TO-BUY- A-HAMBURGER.

So, the good news is we know it all already. All we should do is to stress the words that matter. However, refocusing from grammar to meaning never happens in the twinkling of an eye; it requires consistent practice.

How do you practice ‘common sense’?

Here are a few activities on contrastive stress that may be used with general or business English classes.

Who ate the cookies?

Ask your students to look at the image and read out loud the sentence “I never said I ate your cookies”. Which words are stressed (if any)? Ask them about the meaning they imply. Go through all the possible options.

A New Design

I never said I ate your cookies

I never said I ate your cookies.

I never said I ate your cookies.

I never said I ate your cookies.

I never said I ate your cookies.

I never said I ate your cookies.

I never said I ate your cookies.


(Note: there may be more than seven meanings if we stress more than one word)

Insert a word

Get students to insert the word “only” anywhere in a sentence. E.g.

She told him that she loved him. 

Get students to read out their sentences (sentence stress will be on the word following “only”) and consider how the placement of “only” changes the meaning of the sentence.

Similarly, you can get students to insert the word “just” in a sentence.

Ask a question

Pair up students. Pick any two sentences (e.g. from the students’ textbook) and get the students to write as many questions as possible with one false fact in each question. In turns, students ask and answer their questions stressing the right words (you can also use this opportunity and introduce more ‘diplomatic’ ways of saying ‘no’).


Adele, who made over £30 million from her latest album, is Britain’s richest ever female musician.

Did Adele make over £50 million from her latest album?

– Not exactly, she made over £30 million from her latest album.

Is Paloma Faith Britain’s richest ever female musician?

– Not really, Adele‘s Britain’s richest ever female musician.

Describe a picture

Pair up students. Ask them to pick any image (e.g. in the course book, from albums in their cell phones, etc.) (Students A) and show it to their partners (Students B) for 20 seconds. Students B should try to remember as many details as possible. Students A should ask Student B 10 questions about the image.

– What is the man in the car wearing?

– He’s wearing a blue shirt.

– Not really, he’s wearing a green shirt. 

Alternatively, get students stand back to back and describe what their partner is wearing. Remind students to emphasize the right words when correcting their partners.

Just do it!

Ask students to read the following text and stress the words they believe are important to motivate them.

Do it, just do it! Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday you said tomorrow. So just do it! Make your dreams come true. Just do it. Some people dream of success while you’re going to wake up and work hard at it. Nothing is impossible… you should get to the point where anyone else would quit and you’re not going to stop there. No! What are you waiting for? Do it! Just do it! Yes, you can! Just do it! If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.

Now play the video

Get your students to write and give a similar motivational speech e.g. to do homework (this was a hit with my teenage students).

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You’ve probably already watched the superb Hamlet skit at Shakespeare Live on how to perform the iconic To Be or Not To Be soliloquy. So, is it to BE or not to be? Or to be or not to BE? The video bellow, no doubt, provides excellent material for showing the importance of sentence stress.

Check out these great activities to teach sentence stress here

Happy teaching!

Image credit: César Rincón,, Creative Commons (note: modified; the text “I never said I ate your cookies” added)


  1. Nice ideas! I used the Book of Pronunciation (Marks and Bowen) during my Dip course, it was full of great stuff like this. I thoroughly recommend it!

    • Thanks, Pete! Always helpful! Talking about help, I’m trying to find some easy sure-fire cooperative learning (teaming) techniques to get every student in a team to contribute and stay on task. Something like numbered heads together or team jigsaw. The context is a bit of a challenge – an average group is about 40 students, rather small classrooms (not really much space for moving around). Your recommendation would be highly appreciated:)

      • Hey! Actually, I did something in class during our ‘summer school’ last week which was like a team jigsaw for retelling a story. I’d never seen it before but it was part of the pre-made materials we were given and it worked a treat. I was going to blog about it this week. Might not be what you’re looking for though (or you might already know the activity!). Anyhow, I’ll search through some of the books at work and see if I can find any good suggestions for you.

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