Stress and rhythm part 1 – Syllable division and word stress


Many students think that learning English is about learning grammar,consonants, vowels, and vocabulary. These form the basic foundation of a language, however, if you want to be understood when speaking American English, and if you want to understand native speakers, it is essential that you improve your stress and rhythm.


The first thing to think about, what are syllables? If you don’t know what syllables are?Let’s take a look at the four words

  • fast
  • person
  • beautiful
  • information

How many syllables do these words have?

  • Fast has one syllable: fast
  • Person has two syllables: per-son
  • Beautiful has three syllables: beau-ti-ful
  • Information has four syllables: in-for-ma-tion

Let’s practice together. Look at four more words:

  • breakfast
  • banana
  • tomorrow
  • university

How many syllables do these words have?

Breakfast has two syllables: break-fast

Banana has three syllables: ba-na-na

Tomorrow has three syllables: to-mor-row

University has five syllables: u-ni-ver-si-ty

But the big question is “How do you know the number of syllables does a word have?”  The clue is to count vowel sounds.

Let me show you something. Here are some words to help explain how we count syllables. To count to syllables, we’re gonna count vowel sounds.

  • Job: In this first word, “Job”. There’s one vowel sound “a” and the phonetic transcription. So one vowel sound, one syllable.
  • Steamboat: How many vowel sounds “I and ou” , So we have 2 syllables.
  • River: How many vowel sounds? “I and Uh” : 2 vowel sounds, to syllables.

Different : In very slow, careful speech, especially a formal speech, you may get this pronunciation  /ˈdɪf.ɚ.ənt/, but often in fast speech, you lose the middle sound and you get / ˈdɪf.rənt/.

Let’s take a look at some more examples:

  • Restaurant: If you look in a dictionary, you may get this pronunciation /ˈres.tə.rɑːnt/ (3 syllables) , but when you speak at natural speech, you might get this pronunciation /ˈrest.rɑːnt/(2 syllables).
  • Chocolate: You may guess “It has 3 syllables”, but actually it has 2 syllables and it’s pronounced /ˈtʃɑːk.lət/.

That being said, the number of syllables a word has can change depends a lot on how fast or slow you speak (just in some particular cases).

Let’s practice more to really understand the syllables.

  • e l e p h a n t
    • e l / e / p h a n t – 3 syllables
  • z e b r a
    • z e / b r a – 2 syllables
  • l i o n
    • l i / o n – 2 syllables
  • w o l f
    • w o l f – 1 syllables
  • m o n k e y
    • m o n / k e y – 2 syllables
  • s n a k e
    • s n a k e – 1 syllables
  • k a n g a r o o
    • k a n / g a / r o o – 3 syllables

“A syllable is a group of one or more sounds” Why do you have to know about SYLLABLES. It’s going to help you say words more accurately and more correctly.


What is stress? Think about the word bananaBanana has three syllables. Do we pronounce all the syllables the same: bah-nah-nah? No, we don’t—one syllable is stronger: bah-NAH-nah. This is stress. You’re going to stress part of a word and to do that we need to do 3 basic things. We’re gonna make the stressed part longer, louder and higher in pitch.


Let’s take a look at the word “ABOUT”


When we say the word “About”, I want the second part “bout”  to be louder, longer and higher in pitch and the first part “A” to be weaker, shorter and lower. By the way “ A” is the schwa sound and it’s never stressed.  Let’s try that. Our voice will be louder, longer and higher in the second part and be weaker, shorter and lower in the first part.

If a word has one syllable, you don’t need to think about stress. But, if a word has two syllables or more, one syllable is always stressed—it has a strong, clear pronunciation.Let’s practice. Listen to these words, and try to find the stressed syllable.

  • fast
  • person
  • beautiful
  • information
  • university

Can you hear the stress? Go back and listen again if you need to. If you’re ready, let’s look at the answers.

Person has two syllables. The stress is on ‘per’ — ‘PER-son’

Beautiful has three syllables. The stress is on ‘beau’ — ‘BEAU-ti-ful’

Information has four syllables. The stress is on ‘ma’ — ‘in-for-MA-tion’

University has five syllables. The stress is on ‘ver’ — ‘u-ni-VER-si-ty’

Fast only has one syllable, so it doesn’t have stress.

Why is word stress so important? 

Stress is very important when you speak. If you don’t pronounce the stress, or if you pronounce it incorrectly, it will be difficult for people to understand you.

If you see a word, can you know where the stress is? Not always, but sometimes you can. Look at some rules on stress:

  • Nouns/adjectives with two syllables usually have the stress on the first syllable: PER-son, BREAK-fast, MIN-ute
  • Verbs with two syllables usually have the stress the stress on the second syllable: for-GET, be-GIN, de-CIDE
  • Words with three syllables usually have the stress on the first syllable: IN-tres-ting, BEAU-ti-ful, AN-y-one
  • Words with four or more syllables always have the stress in the middle of the word, not on the 1st or last syllable.

Of course, these rules don’t always work, but they can help you with many words.

Unfortunately for learners of English, to answer the question “where’s the stress?” there are rules, a lot of rules, but there are many and a lot of exceptions.

For example: how can you stress this word “record”?

  • Record (the first syllable – a verb) vs record (the second syllable – a noun)
  • Refuse/rɪˈfjuːz/ (the second syllable – a verb “to say that you won’t do or not accept something) vs Refuse /ˈref.juːs/( the first syllable – a noun “ unwanted waste material, especially material that is regularly thrown away from a house, factory,etc.



Sometimes, stress changes in word families. For example: photograph /ˈfoʊ.t̬oʊ.ɡræf/. The stressed syllable is the first, but photographer /fəˈtɑː.ɡrə.fɚ/ now it’s the second. The stress changes. That’s why rules aren’t working.


As far as I know, If you want to know where to put stress, dictionary is always our best friend and of course  much more of a natural way is listen to English as much as possible every day.

How many stresses do you know in English? and how to say words with stressed syllables?

In English, actually there are three stresses:The primary stress, the secondary stress and the weak stress (often the schwa (ə)). Generally speaking, there are 2 stresses: the primary stress and the weak stress in words. Let’s take a look at the phonetic transcription of the word conversation /ˌkɑːn.vɚˈseɪ.ʃən/



As you know, the primary stress is always pronounced louder, longer and higher in pitch. That’s going to contrast with the secondary stress, which is weaker,shorter and lower in pitch and of course the schwa is never stressed. In other words, the schwa is always unstressed (The schwa is the most important and common sound in spoken English). That often happens with the words that have many syllables.

As I explained, a word usually has 2 stress(the primary stress and weak stress). Let’s take a look at the word nation /ˈneɪ.ʃən/.


Here’re some useful links for learners of English and teachers:

Word stress – Jo Gakonga (She is an expert at English pronunciation teaching and training)

Word stress- Jade (She’s an introvert and a really good English teacher with British accent)

One of the most amazing websites for you to improve your listening skills and stress as well.


Some ideas to teach word stress which is known as the golden key to speaking and understanding English

  • Clap hands
  •  Tap the table
  •  Tap table with fingers

In order to practice word stress, you may want to clap your hands or tap table with your fingers on the stressed syllable. It’s going to help your students raise awareness of pronouncing the stressed syllable.

Some activities

  • You break class into pairs, you’re going to show a list of words on the screen or board. One student is looking at the board and the other turns back to the board. The student looking at the board says words with unstressed syllable and his parter will have to correct him.
  • You, teacher is going to stress words incorrectly and your students will have a chance to correct you. The aim is always to help them raise awareness of pronouncing the stressed syllable.

That’s it. It’s pretty much of a long post. Hope you liked it and had tons of fun learning English.



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