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Adding "Stress" to Your Students' Oral Proficiency

This week I'm going to talk about a somewhat neglected aspect of conversation classroom teaching: intonation. It's neglected because there's not a whole lot of teaching material that deals with it and it seems that there are so many more important issues to tackle such as grammar and vocabulary. Intonation is interesting though because we do convey a lot of meaning through how much stress we place in a sentence and which word the stress is on.

Consider the following rejoinder:

                           I did not say you stole my red hat.

At the moment, nothing is particularly stressed. The meaning seems fairly obvious.

But what if some stress is placed on the first word, I

          I did not say you stole my red hat.

Then the meaning contains the idea that someone else said it, not me.

Accent the second and third word and you get another shade of meaning.

         I did not say you stole my red hat. (Strong anger and denial of the fact.)

         I did not say you stole my red hat.

         I did not say you stole my red hat.  (But I implied it that you did. Did you?)

         I did not say you stole my red hat   (I wasn't accusing you. I know it was someone else)

         I did not say you stole my red hat.  (I said you did something else with it, or maybe borrowed it.)

          I did not say you stole my red hat  (I meant that you stole someone else's red hat)

          I did not say you stole my red hat.  (I said that you stole my blue hat.)

I did not say that you stole my red hat. (I said that you stole my red bat. You misunderstood my pronunciation)


Analyzing this way, you can see how making students aware of accent and stress might be a useful and fairly interesting classroom activity. According to Fry, et al, (2000), the changes in meaning are due to what is called supersegmental phonemes. Phonemes are speech sounds and the supersegmental stress/inflection kind affect the meaning, sometimes greatly. It is not easy to learn these and must be directly taught or picked up naturally by the learner. But I have listened to many foreign advanced speakers of English who will always sound like foreigners because of this intonation problem of English. So I think it is worth spending some time with it in the classroom. With the right activity, intonation, although repetitious, can also be fun and interesting. The trick is creating some teaching material for it. Here is my attempt to make a lesson for the sentence:  I did not say you stole my red hat.


Level: As is, Low intermediate to Upper intermediate. You can modify it for beginners.

Lesson Outcome: Students will demonstrate a greater understanding by listening to the way stress and accent can affect the meaning in English and   by responding with appropriate emphasis to express subtle shades of meaning. .

  1. Introduce the concept as I did above


  1. Bring two red hats a blue hat and another red object to class. Make a little role play whereby you have a red hat, a blue hat and the other red object on your desk. Put the second red hat on another student's desk. You walk out of the room. Someone from the back of the room comes up and takes all four objects. You come back in the room.  Look surprised and upset that the three red objects and the blue object have disappeared.


  1. Now the students will demonstrate their understanding of intonation meaning.

            Students will use these two basic phrases to show their understanding and make the role             play work:

                (1) I didn't steal your red hat.

                (2) But you think . . .

The role play will proceed something like this: You look at a student near the front of the class and ask the question:

Teacher: OK. I need a red hat to begin this lesson: Where is it? The red hat!

S1: I didn't steal your red hat.

Now the teacher chooses which word to stress in the main response sentence, I did not say you stole my red hat. Then the student must listen to which word was stressed and attempts to respond with a sentence that shows the student understood the subtle meaning of the accented word. Continuing from the above example:

Teacher: I did not say you stole my red hat!

Student 1: But you think I did something with it, right?

Teacher: Well maybe you put it in the closet or desk or something.

Teacher: Where is it? The red hat I had on my desk!

S2:  I didn't steal your red hat!

Teacher: I did not say you stole the red hat.

S2: OK, not me but you think someone stole it.

Teacher: Well, it's not on the desk anymore. I put it there before.

Teacher:  OK . Where is it?

S3: I didn't steal your red hat.

Teacher:  I did not say you stole my red hat.

S3: But you think I stole your red (object), right?

Teacher: Well you are sitting right here. And now it's gone.

Teacher: OK. This is no joke! Where is the hat?

 S4: I didn't steal your red hat.

Teacher: I did not say you stole my red hat!

S4: But you think I stole my classmate's red hat, right?

Teacher: Well, It's gone and your sitting very close.


Teacher: Now I'm really getting angry! The hat please!

S5: I did not steal your red hat.

Teacher: I did not say you stole the red hat.

S5: Oh so you think I stole the blue hat.

Teacher: Well, you were the closest one to it.


Continue in that way until you have hit all the words with stress, given students a chance to respond appropriately and, of course, found the person who dared to steal your stuff. After they practice with the teacher, you can have them work in pairs or groups with other role plays. Some other creative possibilities for you to develop include:

A role play involving cheating: I did not cheat on the test today.

A role play about homework:  The teacher did not tell us to do the homework yesterday.

A Clintonesque role play: I did not (kiss) that woman!

A role play about being thrown out of class for misbehaving: I wasn't asked by the teacher to get out of  the classroom.

I have expanded this lesson into a lesson on rejoinders for getting angry and other ways of expressing strong emotion. Students like to feel they can express themselves emotionally when it is appropriate.

This lesson should get crazy and noisy and probably go way beyond the basic objective of the lesson and that's good. So I hope you and your students have a good time with this lesson.


Fry, Edward., et. al. (2000)  The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists,  Fourth Edition, Prentice Hall.