Advice and suggestions on how to teach rhythm and stress to Chinese students.

I'm a TESOL student doing teaching practice with Chinese students at Wolverhampton University. I want to know how to help then specifically with rhythm and stress in order to help them more like native speakers and less 'staccato'.
Helen Petit

English and Chinese pronunciation are very different in lots of ways (for a summary, see Swan & Smith 1987) and the impression of staccato-ness arises from a combination of various factors, all of which require plenty of work. Things to work on include:

  • syllable structure
  • linking
  • vowel length
  • stress and unstress

It's a tough agenda, and all I can do here is give a few hints and examples which I hope will be of some use.

Syllable structure

In the speech of Chinese speakers, final plosives such as p, t, k tend to be glottalised and unreleased. This kind of pronunciation is actually used by a lot of English speakers at the ends of phrases, e.g. “I can't stop!”, “quite a lot”. But Chinese speakers also need to practise:

  • releasing these sounds in final position, in order to sound clearer - if listeners hear a clear 'p' at the end of 'stop' or a clear 't' at the end of 'lot' it gives them a better basis for identifying the word they've heard
  • and releasing them and linking them with following sounds inside a word or phrase like 'stopping' or 'stop it'.

A helpful technique here is to play with shifting the word boundaries, getting them to say:

'ping', then 'sto-ping', then 'stopping'
'pit', then 'sto-pit', then 'stop it' - and then perhaps 'sto-pi-tin-time', then 'stop it in time'

With long final consonants, which are also problematic, they can practise lengthening the sounds unnaturally as an intermediate step towards saying words, and then linking these words with others that follow:

lllll > stilllll > still > still here
fffff > grafffff > graph > a graph on this page

Generally, final consonants tend to be difficult because Chinese favours a consonant + vowel syllable structure. By the same token, clusters of consonants are difficult. In a word like 'dogs', which contains the cluster /gz/, learners tend to either to pronounce just the first consonant of the cluster, so that 'dogs' sounds like 'dog', or to add a schwa vowel in between the /g/ and the /z/, thereby converting 'dogs' into a two-syllable word. Clusters of more than two consonants, as in 'strong' or 'crisps' are even trickier. Here again, re-drawing word boundaries can help:

dog zone > dog's own > dogs
Chris Potter > crisp otter > crisp > crisp salad > crisps

But you'll also need to help with the transition between the consonants in the cluster; here it helps to isolate the cluster and extend one part of it:



At the same time, you need to pay attention generally to linking from consonant to vowel:

link_it_up ('lin-ki-tup')

and between vowels:

pay attention (payyyyattention)
new_and used (newwwanused)
where_are you?

Vowel length

Making a clear distinction between long and short vowels will help with intelligibility ('pull' or 'pool', 'bin' or been'? etc.) and will also contribute to a less staccato effect. Long vowels also provide the best framework for practising intonation patterns - e.g. 'Where have you been!?' - which are another aspect of English pronunciation that Chinese speakers (and not only them, of course!) find challenging.

Stress and unstress

English maximizes the distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables tend to be louder, longer and more clearly articulated, while unstressed ones tend to be shorter, compressed, and phonetically reduced, with sounds dropped and vowels reduced to schwa or the short 'i' sound.

One way to practise this distinction is to gradually build up a phrase, adding more and more syllables but keeping the stressed syllables clear, and keeping the time between them constant:

one two three four
one and two and three and four
one and a two and a three and a four
one and then a two and then a   three and then a four

In order to keep a constant rhythm going, it's a good idea for everyone to clap, or stamp their feet - or even march round the room as they speak. An additional and even surer way is to use a metronome to keep time - this also has the advantage that you can set it to a slow pace when you start to practice, and then gradually increase the speed to increase the level of challenge and make the results sound more natural. You can do the same kind of practice with more natural phrases:

  end   day
the end of the day
at the end of the day
at the end of a long day
at the ending of a long  
at the ending of another  

If you leave enough time between 'end' and 'day' to begin with, you should be able to squeeze all those intervening syllables into the same time.

In fact, you can devise such practice by selecting from any language that the learners are currently practising. But you can also use ready-made rhythmic material such as children's rhymes:

This little piggy went to market
This little piggy stayed home
This little piggy had roast beef
This little piggy had none

 Or verse written for children:

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother,
Though he was only three.
James James
Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he;
“You must never go down to the end of the town,
if you don't go down with me.


George Du

care of his

though he was only

said to his

"Mother" he
said, said
X "you must

never go
down to the
end of the
town if you
don't go
down with

(X represents a silent beat. This is the first verse of 'Disobedience' by A. A. Milne. On broader aspects of the value of using rhymes and verse - and much else besides - see Cook 2000.) Or even proper grown-up poetry:

I remember, I remember
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon
Nor brought too long a day;
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.  

(Thomas Hood 1799-1845)

The choice of material depends on the level and interests of the learners. You can also find rhythmic material especially written for learners of English - see, for example, Graham (1978, and other subsequent books) and Vaughan-Rees (1995).

Of course English isn't spoken with any such continuous regular rhythm, but practising in such a rigid framework forces learners to make adjustments in the direction of:

  • differentiating between stress and unstress
  • reducing unstressed syllables
  • linking

All this will help to make them sound less staccato, and to that extent more like native speakers. Of course, it's another question just how similar to native speakers they want or need to sound; this is something to discuss with them. But since your students are in an English-speaking environment, they should at the very least strive to be more intelligible, and more acceptable, to English-speakers.

You can of course find activities for practising sounds, clusters, linking, stress, weak forms, rhythm and intonation in materials such as Hancock (2003), Hewings (2005) and Underhill (2005). If you're working with advanced learners, I'd particularly recommend Brazil (1994) and Cauldwell (2002).


Brazil, D 1994 Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English (CUP)
Cauldwell, R 2002 Streaming Speech (
Cook, G 2000 Language Play, Language Learning (OUP)
Graham, C 1978 Jazz Chants (OUP)
Hancock, M 2003 English Pronunciation in Use (CUP)
Hewings, M 2005 Pronunciation Practice Activities (CUP)
Swan, M & Smith, B (eds.) 1987 Learner English
Underhill, A 2005 (2nd ed.) Sound Foundations (Macmillan)
Vaughan-Rees, M 1995 Rhymes and Rhythm (Macmillan)


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