Putting some Bounce into Students' English: Word and Sentence Stress

Christopher Weaver

The Game of Basketball

You do not have to be a fan of basketball to appreciate the excitement of the game. Points are scored with a mixture of slam-dunks, jumpers and three pointers. Amongst all this action, there is the basic principle of dribbling. Without this skill, players cannot move on the court. English conversation is much the same. It is very fluid and dynamic. Questions are asked and answered. Statements are made and repeated. Yet, all these exchanges rely upon the suprasegmental feature of stress. The placement of stress can be considered as dribbling. Without its proper use, a speaker or a listener cannot easily communicate with someone else.
Teaching stress at the word or sentence level, however, is not a priority in most English classrooms. The reasons are numerous. Recent articles by Scovel (1981) and Long (1990) have cast serious doubt as to whether native-like pronunciation is an achievable classroom goal. Researchers like Oyama (1979 cited in Long, 1990) and Ueno (1994) have also found that pronunciation instruction does not make a significant impact upon students' speech. Rita Wong, among others, has successfully recast pronunciation instruction in terms of its communicative value. Students often do not realize their own intelligibility (Wong, 1984, p.6). Beyond a certain point, students cannot advance further without due attention to their pronunciation (Celce-Murcia, 1987, p. 5). To help students past this point, they must be shown the relationship between stress usage and understandable communication. Successful instruction equally relies upon presenting and practicing this relationship in a systematic manner. The final challenge is whether instruction focusing on stress will be retained and used outside of the classroom.

This paper will explore how the communicative effects of stress can be promoted with Japanese students studying English. Four sample activities based upon the Chicago Bulls will bridge the gap between theoretical implications and classroom instruction. This paper will close by arguing that instruction in stress usage is a worthy investment of time even though the payback may not be realized immediately. Effective teachers, like great coaches, can create champions through informed, communicative, and systematic instruction.

The Starting Line-Up

A championship team like the Chicago Bulls is a collection of complementary elements. One player's weaknesses are made up by another's strengths. English syllables share this relationship of strengths and weaknesses. Certain syllables are stressed compared to others. Their raised pitch, clear vowels and longer length distinguish stressed syllables. These features are essential for word recognition. Brazil observed that native English speakers perceived stress even in its absence (1980 cited in Clennell, 1986, p.91). Incorrect placement of word stress by Indian English speakers led native listeners to hear "yesterday" as "study" (Wong, 1987, p.230). Related research has also found that word stress may be the means by which English speakers categorize their vocabulary memory (Clennell, 1986, p.92). Hearing the wrong stress pattern would send a listener searching in the wrong category. Correct word stress plays an essential part in understanding and being understood.
Japanese students often do not realize the difference between stressed and reduced syllables in English. In its absence, they use Japanese stress patterns when speaking English (Pennington, 1987, p.10). This has some serious implications considering the significant differences between English and Japanese syllables and stress patterns. Japanese has predominately open syllables which are equally stressed. This is in sharp contrast to the variety of syllable types and stress patterns found in English (Avery & Ehrlich, 1992, p.53). This distinction, however, is somewhat blurred by the large number of English loan words in Japanese. The sheer volume of these words, Pennington argues, exerts a tremendous pressure on students to continue pronouncing English using Japanese phonology.

The distinction between Japanese and English stress patterns needs to be brought to students attention. The pronunciation of someone's name is an excellent place to start. Surely, everyone would agree on how to say the name of a famous basketball player like Michael Jordan. This is the logic behind the "Starting Line-Up" activity. Students first hear a tape recording of the starting line up of the Chicago Bulls. Most students are familiar with players like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. Less known are Phil Jackson, the coach, Steve Ker, and Luc Longley. Nevertheless, Japanese students will pronounce all these names using Japanese phonemes and stress patterns. Michael Jordan \ two stressed syllables in English - becomes Ma-i-ke-ru Jo“ -da-n \ six equally stressed syllables and one lengthened one. Upon hearing an English pronunciation, students marvel at how short and punchy the names sound. They are much like someone seeing a slam-dunk for the first time: impressed, yet with no idea how to slam-dunk themselves.

Keeping with the basketball theme, Avery and Ehrlich's stress marks can be replaced by miniature basketballs. Michael Jordan's name becomes,

Michael Jordan

Stressed syllables are said louder and longer. Much like the noise of a basketball striking the floor. Students are encouraged to place the basketballs (stress marks) over the names of the other Chicago Bulls. Correctly identifying word stress will naturally lead students to isochronic foot rules. Regardless of the number of syllables in the players' names, first and last names are always said in two rhythmic bursts. Asking students to bounce a ball as they say the players' names only heightens their awareness. Lower level students can let the ball bounce high into the air allowing extra time to say the player's name. Higher level students are encouraged to dribble quickly and rhythmically as they read out the starting line-up.

Instructors must remember that placement of stress is only half the equation. Showing how other syllables are reduced is equally important. Vowel reduction is a significant and troubling element of unstressed syllables. Japanese students' knowledge of English is heavily dependent upon written text. Written forms, however, provide few clues to what syllables are unstressed (Clennell, 1986, p.95). This fact is only complicated by Japanese students' use of the accuracy strategy (Pennington, 1987, p.8). With the goal of accuracy in mind, students will often pronounce words accordingly to their spelling. However, this bottom-up perspective does not represent the pronunciation used in conversational speech. Often vowels in unstressed syllables will be reduced to a schwa. Most students are unfamiliar with this commonly occurring reduced mid-central vowel. Having students mark reduced vowels in basketball player names with the schwa mark reinforces the idea that not all syllables are equally stressed in English. Michael Jordan now becomes,

« ______«

Michael Jordan

The whole class can be split into groups and involved in consolidating their new knowledge about stressed and unstressed syllables. Six students come into the class bouncing a ball as they introduce themselves as one of the Chicago Bulls. The rest of the class waves their arms to mark word stress in the players' name. This exchange might look like this:

A: Hello, I'm Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.

B: We love you Michael Jordan.

The above two-line dialogue makes this activity meaning-focused. Students are primarily concerned with either introducing themselves or reacting to the presence of a superstar. The form-focus concern of correctly placing word stress becomes secondary to the activity. The instructor can monitor students' performance by simply taking note of when students either bounce the ball or raise their hands. This practice activity alludes to the roles played by stress in indicating information focus and maintaining rhythm. These two features are developed more in latter activities, but exposure now creates better understanding later.

By successfully completing the Starting Line-Up activity, students start to realize that English is governed by distinctive stress patterns. At the word level, this pattern is created by the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables. This awareness is essential for improved speaking and listening in English.

After Game Interview

The Chicago Bulls pull it off again. Michael Jordan sinks the winning basket as the buzzer sounds. News reporters surround Phil Jackson asking for his insights on the game. This interview demonstrates how tonic stress moves through a fluid conversation. Let's look at the first two questions of the interview.

did you like in tonight's game?

Michael Jordan made that great 3 point shot.

do you think Michael plays his best?

He always wants to score in the fourth quarter.

Stress falls upon the information that is required of the wh-question asked. In the first question, the choice of "who" rather than "what" should cue students to stress Michael Jordan as opposed to his winning basket. Surprising most Japanese students, Jordan's name does not receive tonic stress in the following response. The choice now lies between his desire to score and the fourth quarter. Students soon appreciate the dynamic nature of sentence stress. The word that receives stress may change from sentence to sentence. Remarkably, anticipating its place remains the same. Students just need to determine what information is essential for conveying meaning. Without this skill they will have a hard time deciding what Chicago Bull should be featured in tomorrow's sports page.

Fan Support

The Chicago Bulls have won five NBA championships over the past sevens years. It's not hard to be a fan. Overhearing two fans talk illustrates how stress helps define the rhythm of English conversation. Lenneberg describes rhythm as "an organizing principle for the time of articulations and as a grid against which we match our perceptions" (1975 cited in Wong, 1985, p.229). English is a stress-timed language. The time it takes to make an utterance depends upon the number of stressed syllables. In contrast, timing in Japanese is dependent upon the number of syllables in the sentence. Consequently, Japanese is known as a syllable-timed language. This mismatch between the expectations of a native English listener and the use of Japanese syllable timing in student speech can interfere with communication.
The classic exercise, which increases the number of syllables without changing the time taken to say it, is only the first step towards stress-timed awareness. Japanese students soon realize that some words are sandwiched together in order to allow stressed syllables to occur at regular intervals (Avery & Ehrlich, 1992, p.64). How words are deemed reducible remains a mystery for most students. This is where Japanese can contribute to one's understanding of stress timing. In English, content words usually maintain their pronunciation prominence at the expense of surrounding function words. Most Japanese students do not know to distinguish content and function words. Knowledge of kanji and katakana makes this discrimination much clearer. If the word can be represented by either of these writing systems, it is most likely a content word. Function words and word stems (i.e. verb tenses) are represented by hiragana. Using this system, Japanese students can determine that stress will fall on "what", "think", "game", and "tonight" in the first line of fan's conversation.


A: What did you think about the game tonight?

From here, students need to practice sandwiching function and unimportant words together. "What did you" can be practiced as one utterance using palatalization. Presenting other linking and assimilation possibilities would further enrich Japanese students understanding of reduction.

Being a Fan

Being a Bulls' fan is not as simple as knowing a few player names. Die-hard fans can spit out basketball statistics without missing a sip of beer. Teaching stress usage faces the same daunting task. Taylor's non-native English instructors had difficulty incorporating stress-rhythm into their speech regardless of the rhythm of their native speech (Taylor, 1981 cited in Wong, 1985, p.233). Pennington's studies, in contrast, provide some hope. Intermediate students used stress timing. Advance students used it to highlight information focus (Pennington, 1987, p.10).
Pennington offers an interesting suggestion that the use of stress might be considered from the perspective of processing information. Learning is a complex of skills that initially require conscious attention. As learning progresses, these skills become routine and are performed unconsciously. Brown calls this development the principle of automaticity. The learner shifts from focusing on stress to the meaningful purpose that stress usage serves (Brown, 1994, p.17). Ellis also argues that initial instruction develops an explicit knowledge of stress usage. Students would then be able to perceive and produce stress patterns in controlled speech. The ability to utilize stress fluently develops, as it becomes implicit (Ellis, 1993 cited in Nation, 1998, p.2).

Automatic or implicit knowledge of stress is accomplished with a mixture of form and meaning-focused activities. Form-focus, however, does not directly contribute to implicit knowledge. It may serve as a consciousness raising effect if students become aware of the gap between their knowledge and a native English speaker's use of stress (Nation, 1998, p.2). Comparing syllable-timed and stressed-timed pronunciations of basketball players' names makes a considerable impression upon Japanese students. This awareness can even be heightened with a ball bouncing to isochronic foot rules. The common features that Japanese and English content words share often helps students to reduce function words around more important content words. Two of the four activities accompanying this paper have a form-focus element. The hope is to increase students' performance when dealing with meaning focused activities. Meaning focused activities play a larger role in building up an implicit knowledge of stress usage.

All starts by bouncing a ball

Michael Jordan did not become a superstar in a day. His amazing abilities are a product of raw talent being continuously trained and tested. Phil Jackson plays a significant role in Jordan's continued success. Interaction between students, their instructors and the materials shares a similar relationship. Each is interdependent upon each other for success. Students' imaginations must be captured by an interesting concept. Comparing basketball to stress usage does just that. Instructors must provide a logical and systematic approach when teaching stress usage. Materials must be designed not only to develop explicit knowledge, but also implicit knowledge of stress usage.
The ideas presented in this paper are the commencement of a long and slow journey towards implicit knowledge of stress usage. There might not be any immediate differences in students' productive skills. An awareness of stress, however, may reorganize the way students think about speaking and listening to English (Pennington, p.11). Each activity attempts to integrate the recognition of stress in a meaning-focused situation. Students focus on using stress to convey meaning. As they become competent, the learning goal should shift towards developing automaticity. These activities should be repeated when explicit knowledge of stress is about to be forgotten. Students must be encouraged to use what they already know from past exposures. Give them less and less time to complete the activity. This combination of repetition, recall, and time-enhanced performance will eventually lead students to perceptive and productive use of stress in unrehearsed conversations.

Providing a new way to look at pronunciation can make a difference. Rita Wong and others have changed perceptions about the importance of communicative pronunciation instruction. Yet there is still much to be done. Instructors need more training that is supported by interesting and communicative classroom activities. I hope that this paper has made a step in this direction. Or, maybe even a bounce!


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