Teaching Suprasegmentals in the ESL Classroom: Stress, Rhythm, and Intonation

By
January 7, 2023
teaching suprasegmentals in the esl classroom

Suprasegmentals refer to speech features such as tone, rhythm, or loudness – basically anything that isn’t a standalone sound. They signal grammatical differences, emotions, and continuity that a native speaker will automatically pick up on. It is incredibly important for ESL students to grasp suprasegmental features both in theory and in practice. Below, we’ll demonstrate how you can master teaching suprasegmentals in the ESL classroom and dive into three critical suprasegmentals in the English language: stress, rhythm, and intonation.

Master the art of pronunciation instruction in your classroom with the Micro-credential course in Teaching English Pronunciation.

What are the suprasegmental aspects of pronunciation?

Stress

Stress is the way a word or syllable is emphasized while being spoken aloud. It can change the entire meaning of a word or phrase and often helps communicate emotion as well. English is unique in that it uses a high number of stress tones that are unmarked in written form. Take Spanish, for example, which uses accent marks to indicate which part of a word is meant to be stressed when spoken. These cues don’t exist in the English language, creating a challenge for new students to learn patterns of speaking multisyllabic words.

There are three types of stress in English:

  • Word Stress: Emphasizing a single word most often communicates importance; it identifies the main subject being spoken about.
  • Syllable Stress: This generally clarifies, rather than identifies, a subject.
  • Sentence stress: This is a great way to communicate the emotion behind a conversation. Excitement, incredulity, or anger, are all communicated through stress placed on a specific sentence. For example: “I was next in line and he cut in front of me. Can you believe that?” As a native speaker, you most likely read that with emphasis on the “Can you believe that?” phrase, adding a stronger focus, and intrinsically knowing that the stress meant it was expressing emotion rather than asking a question literally.

Learn the ins and outs of teaching English pronunciation.

Rhythm

Often what comes to mind when one hears the word rhythm is music. In ESL, it’s an apt comparison! Rhythm constitutes the rate of speaking – when one takes breaths or breaks or injects facial expressions or hand movements. Rhythm includes stressing certain syllables, stressing various words, and relaying patterns in phrases that come together to form a cohesive thought. Each of these elements builds upon the other. Rhythm in speaking is a dance, and being able to teach students the steps to this dance is something that separates good English teachers from great English teachers in the ESL classroom.

For a reminder of the main features of pronunciation, download the following infographic, from the Bridge Micro-credential course in Teaching English Pronunciation:

Intonation

Used to express attitude, seriousness, or humor, intonation is Pronunciation 2.0! Once your students have mastered the textbook way to speak a word, it’s time for them to learn how to really say the word. What volume, strength, and tone of voice would best relay the underlying purpose of what is being said? Intonation deepens communication and understanding, providing a means for the listener to truly grasp what is important to the speaker.

Intonation is used to emphasize and express attitude, emotion, or the focus of the sentence being spoken. Finding true connections in communication relies heavily on intonation. Applying the proper intonation can communicate the true meaning behind words – even if the words aren’t being pronounced exactly right. In beginner English, intonation is used to simply communicate the reason for speaking. As students advance, intonation is used to signal how ideas are related to each other throughout the dialogue.

  • Pro Tip: Introducing critical thinking skills into your lessons will help students figure out when and how to apply linguistic rules. Speaking a new language is so much more than memorizing vocab!
ESL classroom lesson
Having students repeat words and phrases aloud will build confidence and help you determine where additional practice may be needed.

Why are suprasegmentals important in English pronunciation?

To break it down simply, native speakers listen to ideas, not to sounds. Meaning is grasped in verbal communication through patterns as much as through individual words and cues. Suprasegmental sounds group communication into coherent messages that can be interpreted quickly by the listener. These patterns of speaking are critical to conversational listening. Without them, verbal communication would take forever!

English is especially notorious for heavy reliance on suprasegmental emphasis to communicate context and meaning. Stress, rhythm, and intonation are three frequently used suprasegmentals in conversational English. Comprehension is more than simply hearing a sound – it’s the whole message being said.

Teaching pronunciation is a multi-faceted aspect of learning a foreign language, often viewed as simply teaching students how to sound out words. But, pronunciation is so much more than that! Teaching suprasegmentals in the ESL classroom often means teaching the sound-spelling-usage relationship for any new vocabulary, from single words to entire phrases. This trifold approach begins slowly but eventually becomes second nature. Consider how many steps we automatically go through to write or speak a phrase:

  1. First, phonetics helps a student sound out a word, making sure that the correct lip and tongue placement is being used.
  2. Next, spelling will identify the root word or action being described.
  3. Finally, the usage puts both into context, providing a clearly articulated message.

The goal of teaching suprasegmental features of pronunciation is to help students connect all three elements in their speaking, making sure that the full breadth of their sentences is being expressed.

BridgeUniverse Expert Series webinars often feature topics related to pronunciation, as well as other ELT themes like teaching grammar, teaching Business English, or promoting collaboration in the ESL classroom. Tune in live or access a growing library of ELT webinars here!

Teaching stress to ESL students

Stress can be a tricky suprasegmental to catch on to, especially when it is mistaken for the rate of speaking or volume. Here are some ideas for ways to teach stress in the ESL classroom.

Rubber bands

Use rubber bands to practice elongating syllables to learn patterns in speaking vocabulary words. This simple approach uses a mind-body connection to help activate both muscle memory and neuron-firing while speaking. For long words and drawn-out syllables, the rubber band is stretched during speaking, and tension is slowly released on the non-stressed syllables. This exercise can be fun for both younger and older students and is a great way to demonstrate phrase patterns as well.

Find out how to teach pronuciation using the IPA chart.

Teaching in an ESL classroom
Writing words and phrases down can help create visual cues and develop strong listening skills.

Annotation

Play with capitalization, circling, and underlining to really drive home the subtle differences in the way words and sounds are stressed in speech. As always, striving to create multiple connections in memory and learning, such as through the use of visual and hearing aids, will assist in the learning process exponentially.

Songs

Use songs to demonstrate the fixed patterns in English. Counting syllables will help demonstrate that stress is placed in the same places in a given phrase, regardless of the length or speed of the speech being spoken.

See all the ways you can use songs in the ESL classroom.

Teaching rhythm to ESL students

As mentioned before, rhythm is the cadence kept while speaking a language. More than a rate of speaking, rhythm is sound and pause patterns that coalesce into a comprehensive message. Here are some great ways to help students find their rhythm while speaking.

Write it out

Try using colored markers or chalk to visually demonstrate lifts, pauses, and pentameter. This method helps create a visual cue for changes that may be hard for the ear to pick up. Get students involved by assigning them a color to use and let them mark up the sentence written on the board! Use dots for stressed syllables, lines for drawn-out sounds, upward arrows when the tone lifts, and downward arrows for when the tone drops.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

There’s nothing better for memory and developing verbal skills than repetition while teaching suprasegmentals in the ESL classroom. Incorporate poems, songs, and phrases that are fun and engaging, and use vocabulary that your students may be having trouble with. A great activity to use in the classroom is to give an example word and have students write out as many rhyming words as possible. Let the class compose a poem or song that demonstrates verbal rhythm. Any content that utilizes repetition will help with memory and pattern recognition as students learn additional vocabulary.

Clapping to identify rate and rhythm

Using the mind-body connection for learning can be applied in so many ways. Clapping to demonstrate emphasis and rhythm is a great way to help students learn pacing and stress together. An example would be using a nursery rhyme, like “Hey, Diddle, Diddle,” that’s easy to break down into suprasegmental pieces. Students repeat with emphasis: “HEY diddle diddle/the CAT and the fiddle/the COW jumped over the MOON.” Clap with each emphasized word or whenever the pace changes, like in “…jumped over the moon.” This exercise will demonstrate that rhythm does not equate to speed.

These 5 online tools make teaching English pronunciation fun and simple.

Teaching intonation to ESL students

Let’s continue using the music comparison! If stress is the beat and rhythm is the cadence, then intonation is the melody. Sure and swift, intonation incorporates pitch, volume, and emotion to tie the three major elements of speech together. Here are some fun and interesting intonation activities for teaching English.

Hear and feel

Students will need to choose an emotion that they will be attempting to express for this exercise. Give the class a couple of phrases to say and encourage them to speak as naturally as possible. The goal is to have their classmates guess the emotion they’re trying to communicate. Remember that in English, word choice is not nearly as important as intonation in many cases!

Suprasegmental listening activity in an ESL classroom
Group speaking activities are a great way to practice suprasegmentals and develop strong listening skills.

Incorporate improv

Play some improv games in class! Instruct students to pair up and pretend they’re speaking to each other in various contexts. For example, one pair could be an employee speaking to a supervisor; another group could be friends who are seeing each other for the first time in months. The purpose of the game is to show how intonation shifts depending on situational context.

Tie it all together

This exercise combines all of the lessons on suprasegmentals we’ve discussed so far. You speak a phrase or two aloud and have your students identify what was out of place (the stress, rhythm, or intonation). This is a bit more advanced, so it may be challenging for younger learners. The purpose of this exercise is to help students combine what they know about stress, rhythm, and intonation all at once.

Students can memorize all the vocabulary in the English language, but without contextual speaking skills to back it up, the deeper meaning of their conversations will be lost. Teaching suprasegmentals is a critical component to developing strong speaking and listening skills in ESL learners of all ages.

Learn the anatomy behind phonetics, explore the IPA, and get ideas for activities in the Micro-credential course in Teaching English Pronunciation.