Friday, July 1, 2011

ESL Pronunciation Tip: Syllable Stress and the Schwa

The following is an activity that can be used to teach students about syllable stress and the schwa. (More comprehensive information on word stress predictability can be accessed from a previous blog post here.)

• Stress is the volume and pitch a speaker gives to a sound, syllable, or word while speaking.
• Every multi-syllabic word (a word with more than one syllable) has one syllable that is emphasized more than the others.
• All English vowels in unstressed syllables can take the schwa sound. The schwa has the sound of short u (example: pencil) or short i (example: leverage). We show that a vowel has a schwa sound with an upside down e.
• Learning syllable stress will help you improve your pronunciation.

• Following is a list of general rules for syllable stress. Even though there are many exceptions in English, it is helpful to use these general rules as guidelines when you come across a word you don’t know. Try to predict what the syllable stress will be for the new words you learn. If you need to, you can use a dictionary to check the syllable stress.
• There are no rules to help you decide if a vowel says the schwa sound. One helpful thing to remember is that the schwa sound is usually in an unstressed syllable (examples: open; human; pencil). Also, usually the vowel a at the beginning or end of a word says the schwa sound (examples: sofa; agenda; America; away).

General Rules for Syllable Stress
Two-syllable words:Use the parts of speech as a guide:
Most nouns and adjectives receive stress on the first syllable.
     Examples: mother, table, garden, happy, easy, famous

Some verbs and prepositions receive stress on the second syllable.
     Examples: arrive, explain, begin, between, below, across

NOTE: Most two-syllable words receive stress on the first syllable. In general, stress the first syllable of two syllable words.

Three-syllable words:
Use word endings as a guide:
The primary stress does not change in a word when the endings -er, -or, or -ly are added.
     Examples: perform/performer, translate/translator, rapid/rapidly

In words ending in a consonant + y, the first syllable receives primary stress.
     Examples: history, faculty, energy

Word with suffixes:
Use the suffix as a guide:
Generally, the primary stress is on the syllable that comes just before the suffix.
     Examples: -ion: nation, suggestion, onion, opinion, decision, occasion
                      -ic: metric, plastic, academic, artistic, problematic, magnetic
                      -ment: assignment, department, apartment, agreement

Compound Nouns:
The first part of a compound noun receives stress.
     Examples: hallway, pancakes, sidewalk, birthday, paycheck, newspaper

Proper Nouns:
The second part of two-word proper nouns receives stress.
     Examples: North America, Red Sea, Cook Islands, New York

Numbers in multiples of 10 receive stress on the first syllable.
     Examples: twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty

Compound Verbs:
Usually, the second or last syllable of compound verbs receives stress.
     Examples: outdone, outsmart, overlook, overcome, outrun, outdo

• Look at these words. Decide where the syllable stress will be in each word. Circle the syllable that receives the stronger stress.
          si-lent        com-mit-ment        preg-nan-cy        a-cross

• Look at these words again. Decide which syllable has the schwa sound. Put a schwa mark above the vowel that has the schwa sound.
          si-lent        com-mit-ment        preg-nan-cy        a-cross

(Adapted from the English Language Enhancement, a resource published by Reading Horizons. Used with permission.)

For additional ESL teaching tips:
Click here to read about the pronunciation of -ed.
Click here to read about pronouncing plurals.
Click here to read about voiced and voiceless sounds.
Click here to read about rising and falling intonation in questions.
Click here to read about adding the suffixes -ing, -ed, -er, and -est.
Click here to read about teaching common suffixes. 
Click here to read about teaching common prefixes. 
Click here to read about decoding multi-syllabic words. 
Click here to read about spelling words that end in S, F, and Z.
Click here to read about other sounds for c and g.


  1. Thank you for posting this note. It helped me a great deal.

    1. You're welcome, Ernie. I'm glad you found it helpful!


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