top of page

What is Word Stress?

Wondering how to teach English pronunciation more effectively? Here are definitions, examples, techniques and activity ideas for the classroom that may boost your lessons and help your learners be more successful!

Word stress is the emphasis we place in a specific syllable of a word when pronouncing it. In English words that have more than one syllable, we usually don’t pronounce every syllable with the same weight, so each syllable in a word can be stressed or unstressed.

Stressed syllables are louder than the others - i.e. air comes out of our lungs with more power; but they might also be longer, or pronounced with higher or lower in pitch. Syllables that are not pronounced with such emphasis are usually referred to as unstressed syllables, and they are usually not pronounced as clearly as the others.

Some longer words may have more than one ‘strong syllables’, but one of them tends to stand out more than the other. They are referred to as primary and secondary stress, the former being the strongest.

Stress is usually represented in the phonemic chart and transcription by the symbol /ˈ/ placed before the stresses syllable. In words that have secondary stress, we include the symbol /ˌ/ before the appropriate syllable (e.g. everybody: /ˈev.riˌbɒd.i/).

Unlike sentence stress, that frequently changes position according to the speakers’ intention, word stress tends to be fairly invariable. As a result, even when we want to emphasise a word over all others in an utterance, we tend to stick to the usual word stress pattern, making the stressed syllable even longer, louder or more high-pitched.

Because of this relative invariability, mistakes in word stress may lead to more problems with intelligibility than other errors related to pronunciation, so it is crucial that students are made aware of how the word is usually pronounced. Luckily, the same regularity makes stress patterns fairly easy to teach, and it helps students recognise words with less effort.

Next time you’re teaching, consider using the tips below to include work on word stress in your lessons.

1) Draw students’ attention to word stress whenever you teach them a new word

Even though the English language does show some identifiable patterns and ‘rules’ when it comes to word stress, they tend to be rather abstract and might confuse rather than enlighten students. You may increase chances of internalisation of accurate pronunciation, however, if you deal with word stress as an essential characteristic of the new word when teaching it, just like meaning and spelling, for example.

Some patterns may be easier for students to cope with.

2) Make word stress visible

Not only can visual reference can be quite helpful to clarify the pronunciation of words, but it can also provide students with a model they can use to systematise or organise new vocabulary they learn in a more autonomous way.

Here are some examples of how you to illustrate word stress.

3) Correct mistakes in word stress often.

Given its generally invariable character, misplacing word stress may affect intelligibility (arguably, more so than mispronunciation of individual sounds in a word). Therefore, it is of really important that learners be not only taught, but also corrected when they misplace word stress.

Some useful techniques to correct mistakes related to word stress are:

  • Use one of the ways of recording stress above to draw students’ attention to the stress pattern and ask them to try it again.

  • Use different fingers to mark each syllable and point at the one that corresponds to the stressed one.

  • Say that the pronunciation of the word isn’t accurate and give the learner a second chance to get it right.

  • Tap on a surface or clap your hands in a way that illustrates the stress pattern (alternating stronger and weaker sounds).

  • Use drawings or different-sized objects to illustrate the appropriate stress patterns and ask the learner to try to produce it again.

4) Use playful activities to teach or practice pronunciation

Regardless of the age of the learner, activities that involve an element of fun can help lower learners' affective filter, or anxiety levels, and increase opportunities for internatlisation.

The domino game below was designed for a vocabulary lesson in which pre-intermediate learners are being exposed to new lexis to describe professions and revisiting some occupations they already know.

Stage 1 - Lead-in

Students get in pairs and brainstorm jobs that are common now that weren't common in the past.

Stage 2 - Language presentation and clarification

Meaning: Students analyse statements with the new lexis and match the highlighted words to definitions.


"I'm an intern now, but I want to keep working here after I graduate from Uni.

Definition: someone who is finishing their training for a job by getting practical experience.

Teacher than asks some CCQs to check students' understanding.

Pronunciation: Teacher distributes dominoes and ask students to try to get rid of their pieces just as they would when playing regular dominoes. Instead of numbers, however, they are to match words with similar stress patterns.

Stages 3 and 4 - After this stage, students take part in controlled and less-controlled practice.

CLICK HERE to download a free PDF version of the domino.

CLICK HERE to donwload a blank PDF version of the domino, so you can use it in your lessons on any topic.

I hope this post has been useful to you! Let us know how you teach word stress and if you tried sny new things after reading this.

You can reach us at or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @whatiselt.

Don't forget to subscribe to our Youtube channel!

See you next time!

  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Pinterest Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
bottom of page