Author: British Council | Published 1 December 2022


Part of sounding natural when speaking another language, is using the correct rhythm of that language. 

Some languages spoken in Africa are syllable-timed, (each syllable is given equal time when spoken) e.g. French, Yoruba and Kiswahili. However, English is a stress-timed language (unstressed syllables are given less time and are spoken faster). This can create problems for learners. When listening, they say ‘it’s too fast’ or ‘we can’t hear all the words’; when speaking, the rhythm of their speech may sound unnatural. 



[play audio] 

[each line should be spoken with equal spacing and rhythm]                                              

Line 1: map                    wall                behind         door

Line 2: a map                 the wall          behind         the door

Line 3: is a map             on the wall      behind        the door

Line 4: There’s a map    on the wall      behind        the door.

Notice how the same words are stressed in each line, and which words are spoken quickly so that the rhythm stays the same.  


Write the 4 lines on the board.

Say line 1 slowly a few times. (Keep equal spacing and the rhythm by tapping on the table or clapping on the stressed words.) Gesture for learners to join you.

Repeat with lines 2–4. (Make sure that the words in bold are clearly pronounced.)

Tell your learners that this is the rhythm of English. Say line 4 without this rhythm; stress every word to show learners that this is unnatural in English. Repeat line 4 correctly to show that this is natural.  


Write these words on the board with equal spacing:

Teacher      asked       bring          colour         pencils        school       today

Ask learners if they understand the message (=yes).

Elicit the full sentence and write it on the board: The teacher asked us to bring some colour pencils to school today.

Ask: “What are the important words that carry meaning in a sentence?” (=nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs)

Ask: “What are the other words?” (=articles, pronouns, prepositions)


Write the sentence on the board: Maria is visiting Aisha in Arusha on Tuesday.

Ask learners to work in pairs to underline the important message words. (=Maria, visiting, Aisha, Arusha, Tuesday)

Take feedback. Ask learners to practise saying the sentence. Monitor sentence stress and rhythm. 


Ask learners to write 3 more sentences in pairs. Pairs swap sentences with another pair, underline the message words and practise saying the sentences. 


Elicit: How a teacher gets information from learners e.g. asking questions, prompting.

Rhythm: A strong pattern of sounds and words.

Sentence stress: The pattern of stressed and unstressed words across a sentence. Normally this emphasis is on words that carry important information, although this can change significantly, depending on the specific meaning the speaker wants to communicate.

Stress-timed: A language where the stressed syllables are said at approximately regular intervals, and unstressed syllables shorten to fit this rhythm.

Syllable: A single unit of speech which contains a vowel sound (e.g. 'how' has one syllable; 'clever' has two syllables; 'photograph' has three syllables).

Syllable-timed: A language whose syllables take approximately equal amounts of time to pronounce.