Lesson 2.5 Sentence Stress and the Sound Spine

2.5.1  Sentence stress is the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables in a spoken sentence. It is a natural part of spoken English and students should be encouraged to use it when they speak English. English is a stress-timed language which is spoken with rhythm. This results from strong and weak stresses that are built into both individual words and sentences.

2.5.2  The strong stresses in a sentence usually fall on the content words, while the weak stresses usually fall on the function words. A syllable with a strong stress is spoken with more emphasis and volume.

2.5.3  Does sentence stress really matter? It’s a difficult area – why not just leave it out? It can be a difficult concept for students to understand – particularly if their first language is not stress-timed, but syllable-timed, i.e. in their first language all of the syllables in a sentence are spoken with more or less equal stress (e.g. French or Japanese). Native speakers of English speak quite naturally with sentence stress but if you asked one why they did this they would probably be unaware that they were even doing it, and be unable to explain the rules (unless they had specifically studied the subject). Nevertheless, it is an important aspect of spoken English because when a student doesn’t speak with sentence stress – or uses incorrect sentence stress – it can be hard to understand them, or difficult to listen to them – even when what they’re saying is grammatically correct and really interesting. This is a situation that can be quite frustrating for students.

2.5.4  Understanding sentence stress can also help students to get more out of listening to spoken English, because they can learn to listen for the most important keywords –  which have stress – rather than trying to catch every word.

The long-term goal for students is to train themselves to be able to listen to English and understand it mainly from the stressed vowel sounds and general grammatical context.

2.5.5  When studying sentence stress it is necessary to understand contractions. A contraction is when two words are joined together to make one word, e.g. He is  becomes  He’s  or  We are  becomes  We’re. When we speak these words are usually contracted because they are unstressed function words. By stressing them individually we draw attention to them, when they should be reduced, ‘behind’ the stressed content words. By reducing the number of function words, e.g. by using contractions, we make the content words – and their stressed vowel sounds – easier to hear.

2.5.6  The process for finding stress in a sentence is as follows. Note: at each stage students should practise saying the sentence out loud:


2.5.7  This sequence of vowel sounds on the stressed syllables in a sentence is called the sound spine. It’s called the sound spine because it is the ‘backbone’ of the sentence, holding everything else together. These five sounds are the most important sounds in this sentence and must be heard clearly:


They correspond to the main keywords in the sentence, which give the meaning:


We should always try to find and emphasise the sound spine in a sentence. Whatever other sounds are wrongly pronounced, the vowel sounds on the stressed syllables must be heard clearly and correctly. If one or more of these vowel sounds is wrongly pronounced, miscommunication can occur. The listener may say: ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Could you repeat it, please?’ Imagine the same sentence with the wrong sound spine:


I think you will agree with me that it is impossible to understand the original meaning of the sentence! Yet this is how some students speak, because they don’t know or understand the importance of the sound spine. This example is extreme because it involves five errors, but in fact, even one incorrect vowel sound on a content word could lead to your listener asking you to repeat what you just said, especially if it is the most important word:


‘What? What’s a troon?’


Ex. 2.5.1 Reading  Look at the words below and write them in two groups – content and function words:


Ex. 2.5.2 Writing  Underline the stressed syllable in each word and write the stressed vowel sound using Clear Alphabet. For example:

Ex.   roundabout (au)

  1. aeroplane
  2. airport
  3. boat
  4. canoe
  5. commuter
  6. driver
  7. engine
  8. fine
  9. flight
  10. garage
  11. journey
  12. motorway
  13. passenger
  14. petrol
  15. reservation
  16. bike
  17. runway
  18. station
  19. ticket
  20. tractor

Ex. 2.5.3 Writing  Write the contraction for each phrase:


Ex. 2.5.4 Writing  Read each sentence out loud and follow the process shown in 2.5.6:

  • Underline the content words
  • Mark each stressed syllable
  • Make any contractions
  • Find the vowel sound on each strong stress and write it with Clear Alphabet

Remember to read the sentences out loud at each step!

  1. I usually get the train at seven twenty-eight.
  1. Gemma is driving to the airport to pick up her grandmother.
  1. I flew from Heathrow to Copenhagen last night.
  1. Oliver was crossing the road by the museum.
  1. We have cancelled our flight because our daughter is ill.
  1. All passengers must show their passports and boarding passes at the gate.
  1. The next train to arrive at platform eight will be the nine forty-nine to Cardiff.
  2. If we cycle to work we will arrive quickly.

Ex. 2.5.5 Speaking & Listening  Read each sentence out loud:

  1. just the stressed words
  2. just the unstressed words

Which way is easier to understand? Why?

Ex. 2.5.6 Speaking & Listening  Read the sound spine for each sentence out loud a few times. See if your partner can identify which sentence it comes from, without telling them.

Ex. 2.5.7 Speaking & Listening  Here are some more activities for practising sentence stress:

  • The students mark words in a text that are content (stressed) and function (unstressed).
  • The teacher models the sentences and students repeat afterwards individually, in pairs, or as a group.
  • The students record themselves saying sentences with correct sentence stress, then listen back and check their work.
  • The teacher (or a partner for pair work) says a sentence and the listeners have to write only the content words or only the function words from it in the correct order.
  • The whole group (or pairs) have to recite sentences as somebody claps, with the strong stresses falling on each clap and the weak stresses falling in between.
  • The students have to make a sentence when they are given only the content words, or only the function words, and a given verb form.
  • The teacher writes the content words from one sentence on separate cards, and the students have to put them in order, then fill in the missing function words.
  • The students listen to songs, poems, or limericks and identify the content and function words; then practise repeating the lines with a partner or within the group.
  • The students have to recite all the stressed or unstressed words in a sentence from memory.
  • The students compile a list of content words and function words from a text, and put the words into groups according to their use, e.g. ‘noun’, ‘main verb’, ‘adjective’, ‘pronoun’, ‘conjunction’, ‘article’, etc.
  • Mumbling game: the students have to say a sentence, not omitting the function words completely, but mumbling them so that they are barely heard. This can demonstrate quite well how native speakers of English stress the content words – the words which have meaning – but glide over the function words as if they were of little or no importance. (Yet the function words are critically important, particularly in an English language examination situation, because they are the glue that holds the content words together.)