Advanced Word Stress – Practice Contrast Between Stressed and Unstressed and Reduced Syllables

By now, you know the number one piece of accent advice I wish I could give every non-native speaker: stress your words clearly.

Word stress helps you pronounce words accurately, and it helps other people identify and understand the word you’re saying.

When we stress a word, we emphasize one syllable of this word by making the vowel sound longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement.

Stressing words consistently helps you speak clearly and confidently because you know that people are able to easily follow what you’re saying.

(If you’re completely new to word stress, be sure to check out this video on word stress in American English, where we’ll work through it step by step, and you’ll get plenty of practice.)

If you’re ready to go deeper into the nuances of word stress, let’s get started!


How Contrast Works with Stressed and Unstressed and Reduced Syllables

Once you’re pretty comfortable with stressing syllables by making the vowel sound longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement, it’s time to focus on contrast.

Contrast is when we create a clear distinction between super obvious stressed syllables and unstressed or reduced ones that almost seem to hide.

When a syllable is not stressed, it’s de-emphasized, which means it’s shorter, quieter, lower in pitch with a less exaggerated, more relaxed vowel sound.

Some syllables are so relaxed that they’re reduced, which means the vowel sound turns into the schwa /ə/ sound.

You can hear the schwa sound you hear in first syllable of the words “about” and “today.”

Or the vowel sound may become a relaxed /ɪ/ sound, like you hear in the second syllable of the word “women.”

These reduced syllables require very little effort, and your mouth should barely move.

This helps create that clear contrast between stressed syllables and reduced ones.

That said, unstressed syllables will still have a clear vowel sound, but these syllables will be less distinct and less obvious than stressed ones.

That’s what we’re going to practice in this video!


Contrast Helps You Sound More Natural and Understand Native Speakers

If you’re trying to sound more natural and more like a native English speaker, working on contrast will help you get so much closer to your goal.

Even if you’re not that concerned with your accent in American English, knowing how contrast works and understanding how it sounds will make it easier for you to decipher what native speakers are saying.

Remember, it’s not necessarily that we speak fast; it’s that we use contrast to speak more efficiently.


Practice Stressing and Reducing Vowel Sounds in American English

To help you really understand how contrast works, we’re going to look at short two-syllable words, most of which contain the same vowel sound in both syllables.

In some of the other examples, you’ll be able to hear the reduced vowel sounds.

Because one syllable will be stressed, or emphasized, and the other will be unstressed or reduced, you’ll be able to clearly hear how stress changes how the vowel sounds.

The trick when practicing is to try to do less work on every syllable but the stressed ones.

That’s right: you have to practice relaxing. I know that’s hard!

You really want to relax your mouth on unstressed and reduced syllables.

When you put too much effort into the unstressed or reduced syllables, it becomes less obvious which vowel sound you’re stressing.

Your focus and effort should be on the stressed ones.

We’re going to practice with one example for each of the 20 vowel sounds in American English.


Practice Contrast with Long Vowels and Diphthongs

We’ll begin with long vowels and diphthongs.

/eɪ/ sound

Let’s start by practicing contrast with the /eɪ/ sound.

The word we’re going to practice is payday, payday.

When watching the video, can you hear which syllable is stressed? Payday, payday.

As you can hear, this word is stressed on the first syllable: PAYday or /ˈpeɪˌdeɪ /.

This means the vowel sound /eɪ/ is longer, louder, and higher and pitch, with extra clear mouth movement: PAYday, PAYday, PAYday.

As you can hear, both syllables of this word have the /eɪ/ sound.

However, the second syllable is less obvious. It’s less distinct. It’s shorter, quieter, and lower in pitch.

Try it for yourself, and see if you can really emphasize the contrast between the stressed and the unstressed syllable: PAYday, PAYday, PAYday.

Remember your goal is to relax on the unstressed syllable.


/i/ sound

Let’s try another vowel sound. Let’s look at the /i/ sound.

The word we’re going to look at is believe, believe.

Some people, including me, even reduce this first vowel sound, and it sounds like buh-lieve.

By reducing the vowel sound even further, it makes it really clear which syllable I’m stressing: beLIEVE, beLIEVE.

In this case, we’re stressing the second syllable: beLIEVE or /bəˈliv/.

Can you hear the contrast between the two syllables?

The first syllable is shorter, quieter, and lower in pitch, with less exaggerated mouth movement.

The second syllable is longer, louder, and higher in pitch with more obvious mouth movement: beLIEVE, beLIEVE. It almost looks like I’m smiling on that second syllable.

Try it for yourself: believe, believe, believe.


/aɪ/ sound

Let’s move on to the /aɪ/ sound. The word we’re going to explore is highlight, highlight.

As you can hear, the word “highlight” has the same vowel sound on both syllables.

However, one is clearly stressed, and the other is a little less obvious: HIGHlight or /ˈhaɪˌlaɪt/.

Can you see how my mouth is moving more on the first syllable? And it’s relaxing a little bit on the second syllable: highlight, highlight.

Try it for yourself: highlight, highlight, highlight.

Don’t forget, your goal is to relax on that second syllable, to really focus attention on the first syllable: HIGHlight, HIGHlight.


/oʊ/ sound

Next up, we have the /oʊ/ sound. The word we’re going to practice is snow globe, snow globe.

Can you hear which syllable receives more stress on this word? Snow globe, snow globe.

That’s right: the first syllable is stressed, SNOW globe or /ˈsnoʊˌgloʊb/.

As you practice, make sure that first syllable is longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement: SNOW globe, SNOW globe.

Try it for yourself: SNOW globe, SNOW globe, SNOW globe.

As you continue to work on contrast, it becomes easier to create that distinction.


/u/ sound

Moving on, let’s practice with the /u/ sound. We’re going to look at the word cuckoo, cuckoo.

(You may have heard of a cuckoo clock or a cuckoo bird.)

Listen and see if you can hear which syllable is stressed more in this word: cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo.

As you can hear, the first syllable is the one that receives the most stress: CUckoo or /ˈkuˌku/.

Now try it for yourself! Make the first syllable longer, louder, and higher in pitch with extra clear mouth movement: CUckoo, CUckoo, CUckoo.

How’s it going? You’ve got this!


/aʊ/ sound

The next vowel sound is the /aʊ/ sound. We’re going to look at the word loudmouth, loudmouth.

Which syllable receives the most stress in this word? Loudmouth, loudmouth, loudmouth.

As you can hear, the first syllable receives the most stress: LOUDmouth or /ˈlaʊdˌmaʊθ/.

That syllable is longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement.

Now you try: LOUDmouth, LOUDmouth, LOUDmouth.


/ɔɪ/ sound

Next up, we have the /ɔɪ/ sound. The word we’re going to look at is enjoy, enjoy.

As you probably noticed, you only hear the /ɔɪ/ sound once in this word, so it makes it really clear which syllable is stressed!

In this case, I want you to pay attention to how the vowel sound in the first syllable transforms: enJOY or /ɪnˈdʒɔɪ.

Can you hear how the vowel sound of the first syllable “en” kind of disappears?

It almost sounds like it’s hiding; it kind of fades into the background behind the very clear “joy”: enJOY, enJOY.

That’s because the vowel sound in the first syllable is reduced. You can really hear clear contrast when vowel sounds are reduced.

Try it for yourself: enJOY, enJOY, enJOY.

How are you doing? As you can tell with a little more practice, stress gets a lot easier.


Practice Contrast with Short Vowel Sounds

Now that we’ve finished with the long vowels and diphthongs, let’s move on to some short vowel sounds.

/æ/ sound

First we have the /æ/ sound. Let’s look at the word backpack, backpack.

Can you hear which syllable is stressed in this word? Backpack, backpack, backpack.

As you can tell, the first syllable is stressed, which means it’s longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement: BACKpack or /ˈbækˌpæk/.

This is especially key on short vowel sounds where your mouth moves a little less than it does on long vowel sounds and diphthongs.

Notice how contrast sounds in this word: BACKpack, BACKpack.

You can hear that the vowel sound on the first syllable is extra clear.

It helps create that contrast, that clear distinction between the first and the second syllable, which helps your listener identify the word you’re saying.

Try it for yourself: BACKpack, BACKpack, BACKpack.


/ɛ/ sound

Now let’s consider the /ɛ/ sound. Let’s take a closer look at the word expect, expect.

Listen again and see if you can identify which syllable receives the most stress in this word: expect, expect, expect.

As you can hear, the second syllable receives the most stress.

This means the vowel sound in this syllable is longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement.

Because we’re focusing attention on the second syllable, we need to de-emphasize the first one.

This means that that first syllable may even be reduced to the /ɪ/ sound: exPECT or /ɪkˈspɛkt/.

As you know, we use this reduced /ɪ/ sound in order to make that first syllable quicker and easier to say.

Now you try it! Make that second syllable longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement: exPECT, exPECT, exPECT.


/ɪ/ sound

Now let’s look at the /ɪ/ sound. As I mentioned earlier, the /ɪ/ sound sometimes appears in reduced syllables.

So what’s the difference between the sound that’s stressed and the one that’s reduced?

As always, it has to do with how much emphasis we put on this vowel sound.

When the /ɪ/ sound is stressed, we make it longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement.

Let’s look at the word visit, visit.

Can you hear the difference between the /ɪ/ sound on the first syllable, and the /ɪ/ sound on the second syllable? Visit, visit, visit.

As you can hear, the first syllable is stressed: VIsit or /ˈvɪzɪt/.

The /ɪ/ sound is more clear and more obvious on that first syllable: VIsit, VIsit.

Now you try it: VIsit, VIsit, VIsit.


/ɑ/ sound

Now let’s look at the /ɑ/ sound. The next word we’re going to look at is lockbox, lockbox.

Can you hear which syllable is stressed more in this word? Lockbox, lockbox.

That’s right – the first syllable receives the most stress: LOCKbox or /ˈlɑkˌbɑks/.

Now you try it: LOCKbox, LOCKbox, LOCKbox.


/ɔ/ sound

Let’s move on to the /ɔ/ sound. You can hear this vowel sound in both syllables of small talk, small talk.

Which syllable of this compound noun receives the most stress? Small talk, small talk, small talk.

As you can hear, the first syllable receives the most stress: SMALL talk or /ˈsmɔlˌtɔk/.

The vowel sound is longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra mouth movement: SMALL talk, SMALL talk.

Now you try it: SMALL talk, SMALL talk, SMALL talk.


/ʌ/ sound

Moving on, we have the /ʌ/ sound. This is the stressed version of the schwa sound.

Let’s take a closer look at the word custom, custom.

Can you hear the difference between the stressed and reduced syllable? Custom, custom, custom.

As you can hear, the first syllable stands out more because it’s being stressed: CUStom or /ˈkʌstəm/.

Now you try! Remember, you want to relax on that second syllable, pull back a little, really try to let the first syllable shine: CUStom, CUStom, CUStom.


/ʊ/ sound

Moving on, we have the /ʊ/ sound. Let’s take a look at the word cookbook, cookbook.

Can you hear which syllable is stressed more in that word? Cookbook, cookbook, cookbook.

As you can hear, the first syllable receives the most stress, which means that the vowel sound is going to be longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement. COOKbook or /ˈkʊkˌbʊk/.

Now you try it: COOKbook, COOKbook, COOKbook.


Practice Contrast with R-Controlled Vowel Sounds

Moving on, let’s look at the r-controlled vowels.


/ɝ/ sound

Let’s look at the /ɝ/ sound in the word learner, learner.

Listen closely – can you hear which syllable is stressed? Learner, learner, learner.

As you can tell, that first syllable is stressed. The second syllable is reduced; it’s less obvious.

Remember to create that contrast between the two syllables: LEARNer or /ˈlɜrnər/.

Now you try: LEARNer, LEARNer, LEARNer.


/ɛr/ sound

Now let’s look at the /ɛr/ sound you hear in both syllables of airfare, airfare.

Listen closely: which syllable is stressed? Airfare, airfare, airfare.

That’s right – the first syllable is stressed because it’s longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement: AIRfare or /ˈɛrˌfɛr/.

Now you try it: AIRfare, AIRfare, AIRfare.

Once again, you want to pull back a little from that second syllable in order to let the first syllable really stand out: AIRfare.


/ɪr/ sound

Now let’s take a look at the /ɪr/ sound. You can hear this sound in the word appear, appear.

In this word, the sound /ɪr/ only appears one time.

Can you hear what’s happening to that first syllable? Appear, appear.

That’s right – the first syllable has a reduced vowel sound. It sounds like /ə/.

It almost seems to disappear underneath that stressed syllable: apPEAR or /əˈpɪr/.

Now you try: apPEAR, apPEAR, apPEAR.


/ɑr/ sound

Now we have the /ɑr/ sound that you hear in “partner.”

Can you hear which syllable is stressed in this word? Partner, partner, partner.

You can hear a clear distinction between the stressed syllable in “part” and the reduced syllable in “ner”: PARTner or /ˈpɑrtnər/.

How about you try? Make the stressed syllable longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement: PARTner, PARTner, PARTner.


/ɔr/ sound

Now we have the /ɔr/ sound you hear in the word “before.”

As you can hear, I’m reducing that first syllable in order to really focus attention on that second syllable: beFORE or /bɪˈfɔr/.

You can really hear how the reduction focuses attention on the second syllable.

That’s the power of contrast!

Give it a try: beFORE, beFORE, beFORE.


/ʊr/ sound

Last but not least, we have the /ʊr/ sound in the word secure, secure.

Can you hear which syllable is stressed? It’s pretty obvious when you listen for the contrast. Secure, secure, secure.

As you can hear that first syllable is being reduced in order to focus attention on the second syllable: seCURE or /sɪˈkjʊr/.

Now you try it: seCURE, seCURE, seCURE.


Keep Practicing Contrast Between Stressed and Unstressed/Reduced Syllables

Now that we’ve looked at contrast with 20 different sounds in American English, I hope you’re starting to notice the difference between stressed syllables and those that are unstressed or reduced.

Focus on making the stressed syllable really obvious, making the vowel sound longer, louder, and higher in pitch, with extra clear mouth movement.

Try to relax and put less effort into those unstressed or reduced syllables.

For even more practice with word stress and contrast, be sure to check out my Stress Simplified program.

You’ll find over 50 practice exercises to help you master stress patterns in American English, as well as contrast and vowel sounds.

Ready for more? Head over to this video to practice sentence stress and contrast between content and function words.

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