Monday, May 2, 2016

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Examining word-level stress patterns: Comment on Murphy & Kandil (2004)

In their study, Murphy and Kandil (2004) run an analysis on the Academic Word List (Coxhead , 2000) to categorize stress patterns. Their aim, I believe, was to determine which word-stress patterns were the most common, and thus help instructors focus their efforts on teaching those particular patterns. They developed a numeric convention to group words by their common stress patterns: 3-2 means that a word with three syllables would have its primary stress on the second syllable (e.g. commitment); 5-3-1 would be a word with five syllables, the primary stress being on the third syllable, and a secondary stress on the first syllable (e.g. theoretical). The results of their analysis shows that of the 525 headwords in the AWL, there were 39 distinct patterns, but over 90% of these words have only 14 of those word-stress patterns. Looking at their results table (p. 69), we see that the most common stress pattern is the 3-2 pattern, followed by the 2-2, 4-2, and 2-1 patterns. They conclude that knowing these patterns “should prove useful as a complementary source of information for purposes of curriculum and lesson planning and private study” (p. 73). In addition, they state, “[W]e have found that the numeric conventions for labeling stress patterns illustrated in this report are useful when working with EAP and other ESL learners” (p. 70).

As practitioners, rather than researchers, how do we apply findings like this? First of all, let us look more closely at these patterns and real examples that we would use in the classroom. For the 5-3-1 stress pattern, which was mentioned in the article along with the sample words theoretical and methodology, these two words are grouped together because they each have five syllables and a primary stress on the third syllable. But how about the word electrical? That is a four-syllable word, with its primary stress on the second syllable (4-2), so thus would be placed in a separate category, despite the fact that it shares an important attribute with theoretical, a 5-3-1. Also, we have biology, another 4-2 word, placing it in a category with electrical, rather than with methodology. This wouldn’t make a lot of sense to instructor and student alike. And how would teaching a numeric convention along with the word and its meaning be of much help except for a student who is adept at numbers and wants to memorize a 3-2 along with the word?

Perhaps theory has caught up with practice in the years since this study was published. One of my favorite pronunciation resources is Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication (Grant, 2010). Her chapter on “Using Suffixes to Predict Stress” introduces the idea that word-stress is often based on suffixes, and contrary to Murphy and Kandil’s method of counting from left to right, her rules are based on right to left. It doesn’t matter how many syllables the word is, most common suffixes call for stress on the syllable right before the suffix. Or perhaps the second syllable from the suffix (again, starting with the last syllable). Here are some examples, showing that the numeric convention is less helpful than simply knowing the suffix:

- ic
scientific (4-3)
electric (3-2)
economic (4-3)

- ion
information (4-3)
imagination (5-4)
institution (4-3)

- ology
biology (4-2)
psychology (4-2)
epistemology (6-4)

Here we can see that helping students notice that in general, the suffix usually calls for the primary stress to be just before it may be more helpful than grouping words based on total syllable counts, the way that Murphy and Kandil describe. It should be acknowledged here that they did mention in their discussion the fact that suffixes have an impact on stress. Specifically, they write, “[T]eachers may take advantages of the opportunity…to build learner awareness of the impacts of suffixation by also introducting stress patterns of related words within the same lexical family (e.g. eCONomy, ecoNOMical, ecoNOMically, and eCONomist)” (p. 71). But they fail to see that knowing which suffixes call for the stress immediately before and which do not (e.g. ic/ical vs. ist) is probably more than the importance of words being within a certain lexical family. I certainly agree, however, with the article’s premise that word-stress patterns are a very important aspect of pronunciation, especially in the realms of EAP and academic preparation. Teaching word-stress patterns, especially with suffixes, can be fun and engaging while lending itself well to various academic topics.

Murphy, J. & Kandil, M. (2004). Word-level stress patterns in the academic word list. System, 32, 61-74.
Grant, L. (2010). Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication. National Geographic Learning.