Pronunciation can be improved by focusing on the right words. Knowing the difference between content words and function words is the first step. Remember that we stress content words in English as they provide the words that are most important to understanding a sentence. In other words, function words like the prepositions "at," "from," or "to" are not stressed, whereas content words such as the nouns "city" or "investment" and main verbs like "study" or "develop" are stressed because they are key to understanding.
Step 1: Find the Focus Word
Once you are familiar with using content words to help with stress and intonation, it's time to take it to the next level by choosing a focus word. The focus word (or words in some cases) is the most important word in a sentence. For example:
- Why didn't you telephone? I waited all day!
In these two sentences, the word "telephone" is the central focus. It's the key to understanding both sentences. Someone might answer this question by saying:
- I didn't telephone because I was so busy.
In this case, "busy" would be the focus word as it provides the main explanation for someone being late.
When saying the focus word, it's common to stress this word more than the other content words. This may include raising the voice or speaking the word louder to add emphasis.
Step 2: Change Focus Words to Move the Conversation Along
Focus words may change as you move through a conversation. It's common to choose focus words that provide the next topic for discussion. Take a look at this short conversation, notice how the focus word (marked in bold) changes to move the conversation forward.
- Bob: We're flying to Las Vegas next week.
- Alice: Why are you going there?
- Bob: I'm going to win a fortune!
- Alice: You need to get real. Nobody wins a fortune in Las Vegas.
- Bob: That's not true. Jack won a fortune there last year.
- Alice: No, Jack got married. He didn't win a fortune.
- Bob: That's what I call winning a fortune. I don't need to gamble to win a fortune.
- Alice: Looking for love in Las Vegas is definitely not the answer.
- Bob: OK. What is the answer in your opinion?
- Alice: I think you need to start dating girls from here.
- Bob: Don't get me started on girls from here. They're all out of my league!
- Alice: Come on Bob, you're a nice guy. You will find someone.
- Bob: I hope so…
Stressing these key words helps change the topic from a vacation in Las Vegas to finding someone to marry to solving Bob's love life issues.
Practice: Choose the Focus Word
Now it's up to you to choose the focus word. Choose the focus word for each sentence or group of short sentences. Next, practice speaking these sentences while making sure to emphasize the stress word more.
- What do you want to do this afternoon? I'm bored!
- Why didn't you tell me she had a birthday?
- I'm hungry. Let's get some lunch.
- Nobody's here. Where has everyone gone?
- I think Tom should buy lunch. I bought lunch last week.
- Are you going to finish work or waste time?
- You always complain about work. I think you need to stop.
- Let's get Italian food. I'm tired of Chinese food.
- The students are getting horrible grades. What's wrong?
- Our class is going to have a test on Friday. Make sure you prepare.
The focus word for most of these should be clear. However, remember that it's possible to change the focus word in order to bring out different meanings. Another good way to practice is to use sound scripting - the marking up of your text - to help you practice dialogues.