We all have our pet peeves as teachers. I have always dreaded international exam mock sessions, myself. I found those lessons to be endless, with my students filling in sheets and sheets of tasks piling up on my desk. Automatism in all its glory. (Mind you, I have tried for years to make exam preparation fun, significant, relevant, but when the moment for "exam rehearsal" came....it was just sheer torture for me).
Anyway. One day, some six years ago, while browsing through exam sheets, something really, really obvious hit me: there is so much work on pronunciation we can do with our Use of English paper! I just realised this was my big chance to mix my two greatest sources of "suffering", and overcome this annoying feeling: I decided I would take those word formation exercises (Part 3 of FCE 2015 exam, for instance) to introduce Word Stress to my students. Oh, yes, English word stress! *sigh*
In other words, when we teach affixation (one of the many features of vocabulary), we can introduce, we should introduce, some features of word stress. In particular, we may plunge into the stress-fixing, -neutral or -attracting features of English suffixes. Affixation is one of the many links between pronunciation and vocabulary teaching, as was made explicit in a few pronunciation teaching books, like the volume edited by Jones (2016), and the beloved manual by Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin (1996, 2010).
Important detour. A little bit of theory. Before we go any further, let's discuss one of the ways in which we can define levels of stress/unstress in words. Cruttenden (2014) and Ortiz Lira's "Word Stress and Sentence Accent" (1998) define four levels of prominence that we can represent through inerlinear "tadpole" notation:
|Levels of prominence. Based on Ortiz Lira (1998) and Cruttenden (2014)|
|Tadpole interlinear notation.|
(Note 1, elementary, Watson!: Stressed syllables are generally characterised by a change in pitch, and by generally being louder, and longer. These syllables obviously have a full and strong vowel.)
(Note 2: Ortiz Lira (1998) has done a great job of explaining the differences between three tricky terms: stress, accent, and prominence. It is interesting to note that both him and Cruttenden include in their description a level of unstressed syllables treated as "minor prominences" only because of their full vowel quality, but not fully "prominent" in other ways ...though perhaps quantity may also be of interest here....)
This "word stress mess" that English is subject to is, in part, a result of the several linguistic "invasions" that have shaped the English language through history. There are two main tendencies operating in English word stress, one towards early stress (Germanic, Anglo-Saxon) and one towards late stress (Romanic, Latin). These two forces are always in tension, and etymology does not always help. As a result of this, in English we have secondary, and even, tertiary stresses early in the word when the main or primary stress falls on the last two or three syllables of the word:
As you can see, there is also another important tendency in English to avoid "stress clash" and keep an alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables whenever possible. At times, as in "pronunciation" and "information", this alternation is pretty mathematical: 1234, 1234, but this is not always the case. (See Ortiz Lira 1998 for a comprehensive list of stress patterns in polysyllabic words). So English word stress is a mess, yes, but there are a few rules we can cling to.
Now, as it happens, we can, to a certain extent, predict word stress in derivations (note that inflected forms are not subject to changes in stress). We can divide suffixes into three groups:
So if we know the stress pattern in the root, we can have an idea as to where the primary and secondary stresses may fall once a certain suffix has been appended to the root by knowing the behaviour of the suffix and also considering the tendency for alternation. (For a extensive discussion of affixation and stress, check Cruttenden, 2014 and Teschner and Whitley, 2004, and one of the appendices in Ashton and Shepherd, 2012).
When we approach the teaching of word formation in the classroom, then, we should help our learners to become familiar with the rules associated to each suffix. What is more, we also need to aid them in creating a sort of "auditory template" for different word stress patterns. The last part of this post addresses this last point.
Around the same period of my "integration" discovery at secondary school, two of my colleagues were working in their Lab 3 courses with this great book series by the great Brita Haycraft, called English Aloud. Among many creative tasks, there are a few brilliant songs aimed at teaching word stress and suffixation, like the one I post below:
|From: Haycraft, B.(1992) English Aloud. Heinemann.|
You can see the that Haycraft has included a "shSHsh..." pattern in the song (which is a sort of Bossa Nova, in fact!) to illustrate the stress pattern at the end of -ATION words. You can build our own battery of "noises" to "musicalise" the pattern. You can tap your feet on the floor, nod your head, clap hands or snap fingers to mark the different levels of stress. You can train your learners to hear the "beats" in their minds, the sort of "ringing effect" that stress has in our heads.
You can also devise your own language, as Hancock (1996) has brilliantly done with his "DAda" language game (which we all love!).
You can also resort to other Total Physical Response (TPR) activities to represent levels of stress, in what I like to call the "Equalizer game":
- Make a row of chairs, one for each syllable in the words you are going to produce.
- Each student adopts the identity of a syllable, and stands in front of a chair.
- When you produce a polysyllabic word, students representing unstressed syllables should sit down, and those who are on "stressed" chairs, should stay up.
- Then each student produces the syllable that corresponds to them (and this makes a good opportunity to reflect on weak and strong syllables, by the way!)
- All students produce the word in unison.
This game can also be used for peer-assessment for both perception and production skills: you can ask a student to read out a word, and you can get the students by the chairs to represent the pattern produced by this student. The student's version can be compared to the teacher's, or to an audio version of the file, and corrected, if necessary.
Apart from representing the words you have uttered, you can work on melody-to-word perception by providing students with lists of words to be associated to certain patterns. You can hum or DAda word stress patterns for students to fill with actual words, so a possible task question could be:
Visual reinforcement and manipulation of objects tends to be very helpful as well to make these features "tangible". Many of you may be familiar with Judy Gilbert's "rubber band" technique to mark vowel length, which is useful to mark stress in some contexts (careful with pre-fortis clipping, though!). You can use the "tadpole" notation, or consider other ways of graphically illustrating stress patterns in words, such as plasticine balls or bars, or an abacus:
Finally, there are many songs in English that exploit rhyme with different suffixes, and you can also use them to teach word stress, since they can contribute to the building of auditory memory or images of these patterns. One of the most entertaining songs I have found is "When you are Old", by Tom Lehrer, very useful to discuss -ity endings:
These are some basic ideas to integrate the teaching of word stress to the introduction of word formation patterns in the English lesson. I hardly need to stress the importance of word stress, but if you need convincing, Gilbert (2008) has included this wonderful quote in her booklet on her Prosody Pyramid approach:
The stress pattern of a polysyllabic word is a very important identifying feature of the word . . . We store words under stress patterns . . . And we find it difficult to interpret an utterance in which a word is pronounced with the wrong stress pattern – we begin to “look up” possible words under this wrong stress pattern. (Brown 1990:51 as cited in Gilbert 2008)
Checking a word formation activity from an international exam mock in your class may turn out to be a fantastic opportunity to do pronunciation work, so I hope you, like me, will find a way out of boredom or fear by trying these tasks with your students!.
A Note on References: If you wish to learn more about the books I have referred to, click on all the authors' names on this post. The only material I do not have a link to is:
Ortiz Lira, Héctor (1998). Word Stress and Sentence Accent. Monografías Temáticas No. 16. Universidad Metropolitana de Ciencias de la Educación. Santiago de Chile.