The Internet TESL Journal

Suprasegmentals: Pronunciation Practice for Your EFL Classroom

Joshua Cohen
cohenjoshua2000  (at)
(Osaka, Japan)


Studying English as a second or foreign language can be a challenging effort for students whose goal is effective communication. The grammar rules of English don't always make sense, spelling can be difficult and at the discourse level, the nuances of rhythm, sentence stress and intonation are incredibly complex and difficult to master. One reason for the students' difficulty is the sound system of English. In many settings, areas like pragmatics and pronunciation get passed over for vocabulary and grammar. This is often due to lack of time or syllabus demands. Fortunately, this is changing. English teachers across the world have begun devoting more and more class time to discourse-level communication.

One area of English pronunciation that is worth focusing on is the stress-timed quality of English. The amount of time it takes to say a sentence depends on the number of syllables that receive stress in the sentence - not the total number of syllables. The diagram below is a good example of how stress timing affects English. Notice how each sentence takes approximately the same time to say:

        HORSES                          EAT                 GRASS.
The  HORSES                          EAT                 GRASS.
The  HORSES                          EAT          the   GRASS.
The  HORSES will                    EAT          the   GRASS.
The  HORSES will have            EATen       the   GRASS.
The  HORSES might have been EATing      the   GRASS.
Many begining learners focus on reading and pronouncing each word correctly and fully. By assigning equal weight to each syllable, they give their speech a choppy-sounding, unnatural rhythm that can affect their comprehensibility. Therefore, focusing students' attention on the stress-timed factor of English may assist them in sounding more natural and fluid in their speech.

In English, there are two types of words: content words and function words. Content words are principle words that express meaning. They include nouns, main verbs, adjectives, question words, demonstratives and adverbs; and they all receive stress. Function words are those words that have little or no meaning themselves but help express grammatical relationships. These words include articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, and pronouns.

Warm Up

Main Task

Again, pair students and hand out the sentence worksheets (see appendix, worksheet 2.) Ask students to look over the example sentences and underline the words that receive stress on the worksheet.


The above activities are an excellent way to practice word suprasegmentals while at the same time gently introducing the concept of (vowel, word) reduction. Because of its significance in English, teaching suprasegmental aspects to students is quintessential to their comprehension and their comprehensibility. The exercises above were designed to raise the students' awareness of these elements (through listening exercises,) and offer an opportunity to practice and reproduce them as discourse structures. Remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step! 


Content /Function Worksheet 1

1.    birds    (c)               6. just                    11. doctor                16. he

2.    as        (f)                7. quickly              12. next to                 17. in order to

3.    many   (f)                8. worms               13. however              18. slam dunk

4.    went                       9. the                     14. activity                19. Cambridge University

5.    with                        10. mustard            15. eat                      20. in front of

Content/Function Example Sentences Worksheet 2

  1. The cat chased the mouse across the street.
  2. I'd like fries with that, please.
  3. Could you tell me the quickest way from here to London station?
  4. France is bracing for fresh mass protests over a controversial new labor law.
  5. Of course, Olivia is not at all sleepy.

Nonsense Sentences (and Models) Worksheet 3

1. a.  Kai dupe chu me lo runt, Sprunt

1. b. Model:  I'll meet you at the bank, Frank.

2. a. la rove dirk um tink.

2. b. Model: The X marks the spot.

3. a. don me wanana fil yo zeeking to la pillypolally.

3. b. Model: It was another day of losing for the 76ers.  

4. a. Boa my wee jah bloppy-go.

4. b. Model: Six times seven is 42.

5. a. Germ twa lee bosen ra choley.

5. b. Model: "John," said the teacher, "is lazy."


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 11, November 2007