Stress can sometimes be a good thing


Stress can be a tough topic for any foreign language learner, especially if their native language doesn’t work in the same way as their second language. For example, in Hungarian the first syllable of a word is always stressed. Not so easy for Russian though, which has hardly any hard and fast rules about where to place stress in a word, and in which, to make things even more difficult, the exact same words can mean two completely different things depending on where you place the stress: мука = torture; мука = flour. That is quite a difference! But while stress can certainly be stressful, it’s worth focusing on with your students to make sure that they’re understood by native speakers and to improve how fluent they sound.

Fortunately, stress in English isn’t quite as difficult as in Russian, as at least most of the words where the stress is placed differently are somehow related, for example the pattern between verbs and nouns: present (verb) and present (noun) or conflict (verb) and conflict (noun). But word stress can still be a tough topic for students: just take the photograph – photography – photographer – photographic series of words! You can find an overview of the basic rules of English word stress here  and a collection of jazz chants from Miles Craven to work on word stress here .You can also use the Word and Phrase Search in the Macmillan English Campus, typing in “word stress” for a range of interactive activities to get your students practising and getting used to word stress in English.

However, prosodic stress or stress within a whole sentence is also important in English, unlike languages such as French which has no prosodic stress. Let’s take the following sentence:

“I never said she stole my money”

The sentence above can mean quite a few different things  depending on which word the speaker stresses. If the stress is on the ‘I’, it suggests that the speaker didn’t say she stole their money, but someone did. If the stress goes on the ‘money’, it suggests that the speaker means she stole something else. Each word can be stressed to uncover a new meaning of the sentence. Why not use this sentence in class: write it up on the board and reading out the meaning you want to uncover (in the second column below) and asking them to underline the relevant stressed word, or, even better, to speak it out loud:

I didn’t say she stole my money – Someone else said she stole the money
I didn’t say she stole my money – I definitely didn’t say this
I didn’t say she stole my money – I only suggested that she stole my money
I didn’t say she stole my money – I said someone stole my money, but not her
I didn’t say she stole my money – I considered it borrowed, not stolen
I didn’t say she stole my money – I said she stole some money, but maybe not mine
I didn’t say she stole my money – She stole something, but maybe not money

Then ask your students to come up with their own sentences, and write down the true meanings depending on where the stress is: they can then ask their fellow students to repeat the task, showing where the stress should be based on the meaning. You can also search the English Campus for “sentence stress” and give them some interactive exercises to complete for homework.

You could use the voice recorder in the free Onestopenglish app to record your students’ voices and play it back: play it multiple times and compare their attempts with your own voice to demonstrate the difference between correct and incorrect stress. This would work with either word stress or sentence stress so is really adaptable, no matter what topic you’re looking at.



  • Nice article. please write more articles for English learners.

    Posted by Ahamed Zahran on September 22nd 2012
  • Hi Ahamed,
    Thanks for your feedback – I’m glad you liked the article and agree with me that stress doesn’t always have to be stressful! 🙂
    It’s also great to hear that you’d like more articles that could be used with students, and this is something we’ll definitely keep in mind for future postings.
    I hope you continue to enjoy reading blendedmec.

    Posted by Becca Evans on September 24th 2012

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