Deliberate Practice 6: Stress

Language is stressful. Literally.

Aside from the obvious kind of stress that comes from learning to read and write or learning a new language, “stress” is an aspect of language itself.

Stress is also sometimes called emphasis—it refers to parts of a word or sentence that receive more weight, power, or heaviness. Sometimes this is the “louder” part of the word/phrase, sometimes it’s what the speaker wants to show is most important.

Every language uses stress differently. In some languages, stress doesn’t play a big role and doesn’t carry a lot of meaning. But in English, stress is incredibly important.

English is what’s known as a “stress-timed language”. This means that phrases and sentences are said in with a rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. Stressed syllables tend to be longer (meaning they literally take more time to say) and unstressed syllables are shorter. It creates a very rhythmic, musical feel.

Here’s an example. Say this sentence out loud:

I am going to the store today.

When I say this sentence, it might sound a bit like this:

I’am going t’th’store t’day.

I certainly have the ability to say every sound in every word evenly, but it would sound very robotic. Part of fluent English speech is following the muscial, rhythmic stress patterns and not emphasizing every word the same. Of course, different speakers have different stress patterns—these can be generalized across large populations of different varieties (American, British, Australian, Indian, etc.) and they can be more narrow (midwestern, east coast, southern). But in reality, every individual speaker will have slightly different ways of maneuvering through a sentence.

My guess is that you didn’t say the sentence with even, robotic intonation—you probably had some kind of musical, varied, stress pattern to the way you spoke.

Typically, we put emphasis on content words. These are words that carry the main part of the meaning; what we typically think of a “vocab words”. The little words in between are function words. They carry a lot of the important grammatical stuff and tend to be short and hard to define. (Try defining the word “to” without using the word “to”!)

When we have words with more than one syllable, like the word “today”, usually one of those syllables takes stress and the other shrinks a little bit. We don’t typically say TO-DAY (even though we can). We usually swallow the first part of the syllable and give more energy to the second part of the syllable: toDAY or t’DAY. You might even notice that there is barely a vowel sound in the first syllable at all!

That makes spelling a little tricky sometimes. How do we know what vowel to write when we sometimes don’t hear a vowel? Good question!

This is why English spelling is not black and white—we can’t fully, 100% depend on one spelling method. Using sound (phonics) is a strong foundation, giving us a great sound-to-letter connection. But when the sound doesn’t match the spelling, that’s when we have to switch to a different method.

So we usually think about it like this:

Step 1: Connect to sound. What phonics patterns do we know? What sound-to-letter connection can we use?

These are the first lessons we learn with strong literacy. It gets more complicated, but it starts with those basic lessons of sounding out words like c-a-t and d-o-g!

Step 2: Connect to meaning. What prefixes and suffixes do we know? What sounds do they make, especially when it’s unexpected?

English likes to use prefixes and suffixes, even when their sound and spelling don’t match. We don’t usually say “ite” at the end of “definite” - sounds more like “it”, right? But if we know i-t-e, then we can master the spelling!

Step 3: Connect to familiar patterns. What stable spelling patterns do we know?

Sometimes suffixes (or other parts of words) combine in reliable ways. “uous” happens at the end of a few words and tends to keep the same pronunciation. Same with “tion”, “sion”, and “iar”. If we can remember them, we can spell them!

Step 4: Connect to the visual. Does the word look right? Does it make sense as a whole piece?

Sometimes, after all the other steps, we have to double check with a quick glance. Was it i-e or e-i? Those rules still trip me up and I have to look at the word to know if I spelled it right!

Not every spelling question can be answered like this. Like I said, spelling isn’t black and white. It takes a little finesse, a little nuance, a little art. But having a system that is pretty reliable—something that can be taught and practiced—makes it a whole lot more managable.

When we layer stress on top of our spelling requirements, the system becomes even more necessary because we can’t connect to sound easily anymore. So we have to check our other steps.

When it comes to other languages, stress changes. As I said above, some languages use stress completely differently. In my Arabic learning adventures, I’ve discovered that stress functions fairly similarly in that language as it does in English. Words with more than one syllable have stressed and unstressed parts.

The trick is learning which one gets emphasized . . . and that is stressful!

~ Claire

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