The Internet TESL Journal

Testing Some Suprasegmental Features of English Speech

Mehmet Celik
mcelik [at]
CELIK, Mehmet. Hacettepe University (Ankara, Turkey)

Testing Listening Stress and Tones

Listening skills in English require an ability to identify stressed syllables, tonic stress in an utterance, and tones. While the testing of the identification of syllables can be done on individual and unrelated words, identification of tonic stress and tones are more appropriately tested on relatively well defined contexts.

Identifying Word Stress

Whether the testees have the ability to identify word stress can be tested by having them listen to tape-recorded list of words. The teacher can have the option of supplying testees with the written form of words. In either case, the test sheet can have squares to represent the number of syllables for the testee to place a tick in. It is best to begin with two syllable words.

In three or more syllable words, the testees below the intermediate level of proficiency may only be asked to identify the primary stress. The words selected for testing can be taken from everyday language.

Identifying Tonic Stress

The ability to identify tonic stress in an English utterance is quite important in order to grasp the true force of the message. Depending on where it occurs, the utterance reflects emphasis, contrast and opposition, and new information. Individual utterances are not good enough for testing purposes because they are not contextualised and sufficient to motivate the testees. Therefore, an appropriate context, e.g. a dialogue, should be drawn'.

First, the testees should be informed in advance of all the steps they are to follow in the test . The testees can first be given a dialogue, text, etc. to read. Second, they can be instructed to listen to it on a tape- or video-recorder. (In the absence of these facilities, teacher can act it out.) In this listening activity, the teacher has the option of letting the testees follow the written script they earlier read.

Third, the testees can be asked to identify the tonic stress in each utterance. This can be done in several ways: by underlining the word that has the tonic stress on the written dialogue or text, by writing the word in the absence of the written form, and so on.

Fourth, the testees can be asked to differentiate among the already identified tonic stresses in relation to tonic stress types: emphatic, contrastive, and so on. They may indicate each type of tonic stress respectively on a piece of paper by using certain notations such as using capital letters. For instance, T for unmarked tonic stress, E for emphatic stress, C for contrastive stress, and N for new information stress.

Identifying Tones

First, a dialogue or a text having different but preferably the most frequently occurring tones in daily conversations in English can be given to the testees to read, taking notice of the punctuation marks for each sentence. Second, they are asked to listen to it. Third, they should be informed that this time they have to assign a tone type to each utterance on a piece of paper by using appropriate arrows, by other simpler notations so that it will not take the testee to lose so much time in moving from one utterance to the next. Further, turn takings in dialogues may be indicated on the sheet using (A) for speaker A and (B) for speaker B, etc.


In testing listening skills, written tests can introduce the testee to the context of the test material, and as such it triggers a better performance by the testee on the actual listening performance. For listening testing, an audio tape (or video-tape if necessary for visual purposes) can be used. Where these facilities are not available, the tester himself/herself can read the test material. Appropriate notations, that is, ones that do not hinder the movement of the testee from one testing item to the next, should be devised. Rather than individual sentences or utterances, compact and meaningful contexts should be selected for testing listening skills communicatively.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 8, August 1999