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Methodology: stress patterns in English

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced

An article discussing English stress pattern rules and how to teach them.


I am really struggling to find information about stress patterns in English. I have a student who wants rules about where to put the stress in words. Are there rules and how do I find a way of teaching her?
Nina Jawitz

This is a huge area. However, there are some fairly regular patterns and these might help your student. The following general “rules” may be of some use but bear in mind that there will often be exceptions!

  1. With verbs of two syllables, if the second syllable of the verb contains a long vowel or a diphthong, or if it ends with more than one consonant, the second syllable is stressed.

    Examples: apply, attract, complete, arrive, resist
  2. With verbs of two syllables, if the final syllable contains a short vowel and one (or no) final consonant, the first syllable is stressed.

    Examples: enter, open, equal, borrow, profit

    Exceptions to this rule include admit and permit (verb).

  3. There are some suffixes (or word endings) that usually carry stress. Words with these endings usually carry stress on the last syllable:

    -ain entertain
    -ee refugee
    -eer mountaineer
    -ese Portuguese
    -ette cigarette (NB American English would stress the first syllable)
    -esque picturesque


  4. The main or primary stress usually falls on the syllable before these endings:

    -ion decision, application
    -ious / -eous contentious, courageous
    -ity simplicity
    -ive extensive
    -graphy photography, biography
    -meter biology
    -logy thermometer


  5. In compound words or words made up of two elements, there are again some general patterns.
  • If the first part of the word is broadly speaking a noun, then the first element will normally carry more stress:

    typewriter, car ferry, suitcase, tea cup
  • If the first part is broadly speaking an adjective, then the second element will carry more stress

    loudspeaker, bad-tempered, black market, young learner

As far as a 'way of teaching' is concerned, perhaps the most effective method is to raise awareness of the issue of word stress and to encourage good learning habits. Get students used to the idea of marking or highlighting the stress when they note down items of vocabulary in their note-books. Make them aware of the symbols used by dictionaries to indicate primary and secondary word stress. Draw their attention to the patterns exemplified above and compare these with the stress patterns in their own language, highlighting similarities and differences.

To practise word stress, sorting words into groups according to their word stress can be an effective activity. If you have the luxury of your own classroom, wall posters with lists of words following particular patterns can be used and new words added to these lists when they arise. Some teachers have found it helpful to group these under the names of countries which exemplify patterns and act as a kind of mnemonic. For example, Venezuela has the pattern:

 . . * .

Examples of words following this pattern are entertainment, overwhelming and constitution.

 

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