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                                         Some ideas for

Teaching unstress and simplifications in connected speech
                                        Adrian Underhill

1. What is stress made up of?
Write on the board some English words of three syllables: banana, cigarette, foreigner, engineer
Ask where is the stress? How do you put the stress there?
Identify the three acoustic variables of stress. Volume, Pitch, Length.
   1. Try each of these three, holding the other two constant. Reduce energy on unstressed
        syllables. Keep the stress on correct syllable.
   2. Try shifting stress along the word, putting it on incorrect syllables. Get it wrong in order
        to help to get it right! Use students sitting/standing to represent unstressed/stressed
        syllables, ie three students to represent a three syllable word.
   3. Notice also how the quality of vowel sounds changes with the stress shift. (cf “A Packet of
        potato crisps”)
   4. Notice how this makes up the “energy profile” of a word.
   5. Length is perhaps the most accessible of the three stress variables.,

2. What is unstress made of?
Take the same words. Stress all the syllables in the word. Then unstress all of them by removing
all three of the variables Volume, Pitch, Length. You get a sort of ‘robot talk’. Then put the stress
back on the correct syllables. Feel in your muscles and hear with your ears the location of the
stress syllable.

3. Take out the consonants and write up the vowels only.
    1. Try saying the word without any consonants, the vowels on their own, at the correct
       speed and with the correct stress and unstress.
    2. Of course it is unintelligible, but it gives a vivid impression of the energy profile of the
    3. Re-insert consonants to hear the word properly, and notice the energy profile of the word.

4. Stress V Syllable timing
Illustrate the idea of Syllable V Stress timed languages using these two sentences. How might
they sound if given a syllable timing or a stress timing delivery?
1. ‘Put it down’ 2. ‘Put it over here’

This is not a rule, and although disputed, it seems that practice of syllable timing does help
learners of English to unstress syllables, to de-energise them, to ‘swallow’ them. This is a useful
fluency practice. To insert more syllables you have to reduce energy, even mumble. The next
exercise illustrates this.
5. Initial practice can be rhythmical.
    1. Set up rhythm of 1. 2. 3. 4. The whole class counts 1 – 4 repeatedly
    2. Keep this going at the same speed, while inserting in the space between each number the
         following words:
              a. and
              b. and a
              c. and then a
              d. and then put a
              e. and then you put a
All of these additional words are unstressed. Practice each several times before going on to the
next insertion

6. Frequency of schwa
    1. Collect sentences from students, or from authentic texts. Write 2 or 3 on the board.
    2. Agree where the stresses may be placed, and practice just to get the feel.
    3. Now identify and count the occurrences of schwa in the sentence.
eg “I saw an advertisement for the Certificate on an educational website”
    4. Now say the stressed words alone, with the right timing, and gradually fit the unstressed
        words back in.

7.. Working with different degrees of reduction and assimilation.
    1. Say “What is the time” as /wosataim/ and ask students to come and write it on the board
       in normal spelling.
    2. Then write up the reduced phonetic spelling.
    3. Then say the sentence in other reduced ways eg /wosataim/ /staim/ wosthetaim/
       /wotsataim/ /wostaim/ and work with each until students can hear it an say it and write
       it on the board in phonetic spelling.
    4. Get sts to discriminate and identify which they are hearing and saying.

8.. The art of Simplification: essential to fluent listening and speaking
There are three core types of simplification:
- Reduction: weak forms, you and me V I wish you would tell me.
- Assimilation: - change due to influence of neighbouring sounds: in bed, good boy, good girl,
this shop, have to go:
- Elision: leading to dropping of sound: next please, old man

Simplifications are relatively ordered and predictable, and easy to practise.
Rhythm is quite easy to describe, and stress timing is also easy to practise.
Practice opportunities are everywhere in any spoken part of a lesson.

9.. To develop a feel for intonation speech needs to be well connected, and to make good
use of simplifications. A suggested order of activities:

Individual sounds
Joining sounds to make words
Distributing stress energy across syllables of words
Joining words to other words
Unstress (schwa) and stress. Foregrounding and backgrounding syllables
Simplifications (reductions/weak forms, assimilation (changing a sound), elision (dropping a
Choice of prominence
Tones and intonation
                                                                          AU 2012

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