Recently I had an exchange with Michael Frost (participant on the Oxford Diploma course) triggered by his question “At what level do you think it becomes possible for learners to consciously improve their awareness and use of sentence stress? For example, when teaching meetings language, I sometimes try to teach my adult Chinese BE learners to say, ‘What do YOU think?’ rather than ‘What do you THINK?’ when bringing someone into the discussion. I find that if they are Pre-Intermediate or higher they can self-correct or produce the taught stress pattern after I have pointed it out a few times, but if they are Elementary level it seems that they still need to focus on what words they need to produce and so are unable to incorporate any aspect of stress control. Do you have any advice for teaching sentence stress to lower level learners? Thanks!

My response to Michael was as follows: “…The way I see sentence stress is that it revolves around prominence, that is the meaning that the speaker wants to attribute to the chosen words by the distribution of energy (especially but not only through volume and length of syllables). Thus prominence (or sentence stress) is chosen by the speaker according to their intended meaning, and is central to intonation since a significant portion of the tone movement is carried out or initiated on the prominent syllable.
Word stress on the other hand is dictated by the language rather than chosen by the speaker, which is why it can be confidently (though not infallibly) predicted in dictionaries.
For learners to have a real chance of manipulating prominence or sentence stress (chosen by the speaker) they need to begin with word stress (chosen by the language). And one of the keys to the  English word stress system in practice is that it is not so much about stress as about unstress, the absence of length, pitch and volume markers, especially through vowel reduction (such as the use of schwa … whose German/Hebrew root means “neutral… empty”).

So I try to help my learners to use stress by helping them to hear, articulate and understand unstress in all its forms. In working with word stress you lay the foundations for energising syllables and de-energising other syllables to build the energy distribution, or profile, of each word. And this practice needs to begin right at the beginning with every item of vocabulary encountered, especially words of two or more syllables. The stress pattern is part of the acoustic, muscular and physical identity of a word, and is needed at the point of contact with a new word, not as a later repair or upgrade.

It is entirely likely that Elementary students will be more preoccupied with the form of the language, including the form of the chosen words and the articulation of the required and fixed word stress. And only as they become able to operate word stress and unstress at will does it become possible for them to use prominence, or sentence stress, to convey their own chosen and felt meanings. It is important to see that in helping our students to learn to manipulate wordstress we are also helping our students to master the physical aspects producing prominence, or sentence stress.

Maybe I didn’t really answer Michael’s question. But he makes the interesting observation that learners while preoccupied with getting the right words in the right order are less able to attend to the delivery of their meaning exactly as they want it, using the system of the new language. And my point is .go with that, because the attention to the physical manipulation of word stress now will facilitate production of sentence stress later. I’m sure others will have views on this from their experience.

My next post will probably return to the series: The Story of Sounds, with Episode 11 ….