The Rhythm of English and Its Impact on Instruction

reading Mar 31, 2021

Hi friends,

Have you thought about stressed and unstressed syllables in the English language?

Does it really matter if we teach this concept to struggling readers? 

The English language is a stress-timed language. When we speak or read fluently, there is a natural rhythm that occurs. This aids in comprehension, pronunciation, syntax, and expression. The stressed and unstressed syllables and words in English give it its rhythm. This musicality of English, the ups and downs, the connected speech, and the linking of words, which changes when placed in running speech, aids in our understanding and being understood. 

The Impact

Before my therapist training, I had never thought about the impact that stressed and unstressed syllables have on spelling, pronunciation, syntax, and meaning. I honestly didn't know that the English language is a stressed-time language or what that meant for instruction. Now, I clearly see that by explicitly teaching the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables to my students, it aids in their decoding, encoding, and comprehension.

A stress syllable is the part of the word that receives a stronger syllable mark. This is noted by the articulation of the word with the mouth open wider, the voice being louder, and the sound being held longer. When we stress a syllable or word, it is emphasized. 

Stressed and unstressed syllables can impact the vowel sounds. Look at the following word:

Banana: ba/nan/a

The stress is on the second syllable. The syllable "nan" is read with a short vowel sound following the closed syllable pattern, but it receives the stress of the word. The first and last syllables are open and unstressed. This shifts the vowel to a schwa sound of /u/. 

Look at where the syllable division occurs within the next words. Do you notice that the stressed and unstressed syllables shift the vowel sounds? 

Athena: A/the'/na

Addition: ad'/di/tion

Engineer': last syllable is stressed

English: first syllable is stressed

Photograph: first syllable is stressed

Stressed and unstressed syllables can shift pronunciation and meaning within words as well. Often the shift in the stressed syllable will change a word from a noun to a verb. 

Ways that we can teach stressed and unstressed syllables and the rhythm of the English language:

  1. Nursery Rhymes, Poems and Songs: Teaching and incorporating nursery rhymes, poems, and songs into our instruction provides opportunities for children to develop an ear for our language. Students will naturally begin to stress syllables and words in running speech, and we can use this to help them later when we are decoding new words.
  2. Cheers: Explicitly teaching what happens to our mouth and voice when we stress a syllable or word helps struggling readers directly link this learning to later lessons in decoding. Students can actively cheer through the alphabet or words and note how their mouth is opened wider, their voice is louder and higher, and they hold the sound longer. This is the stressed syllable/word.
  3. Call the Dog/Call Me Home for Dinner: To help children hear the stressed or unstressed syllables within words, we can pretend we are calling the dog or calling out to someone. When we do this sing-song call, we will hear where the stressed and unstressed syllables are within words. When I call my dog, Athena, the first syllable is unstressed, the middle syllable is stressed, and the final syllable is unstressed. This concept will come back up when you are teaching students about how vowel sounds shift based on the stressed or unstressed syllable. In "Athena", the first and last syllables are open, unstressed syllables, so the "a" is read as /u/, or the schwa sound. The middle syllable is the stressed syllable, so the vowel is open and stressed, therefore it is a long vowel sound.
  4. Humming the Word: Some students may benefit from humming the word to locate the stressed and unstressed syllable. This works the same way as "Call the Dog". Students will note that on the stressed syllable, the voice will become stronger. In the unstressed syllables, the voice is weaker. Humming works well for identifying the stress of words within phrases and sentences as well. 
  5. Explicitly teach stressed and unstressed syllables and have students code the stressed syllable with an accent mark. This coding is important for struggling readers and can be introduced as soon as you begin working with syllable division. I begin this concept when introducing the VC/CV syllable division. Even though the stressed syllable does not impact the vowel sound here, by coding this, we are laying the foundation for the vowel shifts later on as we move to open, stressed syllables (pronounced with the long vowel sound) and open, unstressed syllables (pronounced with the schwa sound).

Dyslexia is a language-based learning difference, so developing the ear for the rhythm in our language and noticing how that connects to spelling, reading, and meaning is something that needs to be explicitly taught and practiced. This week I am sharing a free activity for syllable division practice. Click here to sign up for The Dyslexia Classroom's community and get access to this freebie.

I hope this post will help you understand the importance and the impact of stressed and unstressed syllables. Comment with any questions you may have on this topic. I love to hear from you!

Have a great week!


The Dyslexia Classroom


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