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3 Levels Of Syllable Stress In English

Oct 31, 2019
Lesson 12

There are 3 levels of stress in English: primary, secondary, and completely unstressed syllables.

Some syllables are louder and longer, some syllables are shorter and quieter, and some syllables are in-between.

Every syllable contains a vowel and the American pronunciation of vowels requires a change in pitch. The amount that the pitch changes also varies with the syllable stress.

It’s the contrast between all these different levels of loudness, duration, and pitch that creates the rhythm of English.

And that’s what we are learning about in this week’s lesson. Watching the video lesson will allow you to hear the differences and get a better understanding of how to teach this concept to your students.

I usually teach The 3 Levels Of Syllable Stress as Part 2 of Rhythm.  You can learn how I teach Part 1 in this lesson.   Click here to watch.

The 3 Levels Of Syllable Stress In English 

1.  Primary Stress:  The syllable with the Primary Stress is the loudest and longest syllable in a word. It has a very noticeable change in pitch on the vowel. In one-syllable words, that one syllable gets the primary stress.


“blue” = /BLUUU/

“ten” = /TEHN/

The only exceptions to this rule are a handful of function words like “the” which are usually unstressed or reduced.

2.  Secondary Stress:  These are the syllables that are stressed, but not as much the primary stress, so they are loud and long with a change in pitch, but not as loud or as long as the syllables that get the primary stress. The change in pitch on the vowel is not quite as noticeable.


disappear” = /DIH-suh PEEER/ (syllable with secondary stress is underlined)

3.  Level 3 is the completely Unstressed Syllable:  These are the syllables that have no stress at all so we rush through them and shorten them so much that the vowel in the syllable is almost completely gone.   The change in pitch on the vowel is barely noticeable, but it is there.


prepare” = /pruh-PAIR/ (unstressed syllable is underlined)

And just as a reminder, the important part of all of this is...

It’s the contrast between all these different levels of loudness, duration, and pitch that creates the rhythm of English.

If you encourage your students to practice with this in mind, their timing and rhythm will be more familiar to what the listener expects so speech will be more easily understood. Also, having some variety in loudness, duration, and pitch makes a person a more interesting and powerful speaker.

Even if your student still has an accent, that’s fine… accents are definitely not a bad thing!!!  But remember the goal of accent modification or pronunciation training.  We want to eliminate the confusion and frustration that our students experience when they not easily understood.

Improving the rhythm of speech by learning and practicing all 3 Levels of Stress will help all of your students sound better.


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