Teacher-Created Lesson Plan

It's Not What You Say It's How You Say It: Sentence Stress

Students will gain mastery with sentence stress, which is how changing the sound of one word in a sentence can change or add meaning to the entire sentence different than what the original definition of just the plain words intended.
Aaron S.
Classroom teacher
Wuhan Foreign Languages School
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My Subjects English-Language Learning

Students will be able to...

1) remember the definition of sentence stress and explain it to others

2) identify sentence stress in conversations and demonstrate correct understanding of sentence stress by replying correctly, appropriately, and in a timely manner

3) add sentence stress into their conversations by initiating the use of sentence stress correctly and appropriately

English-Language Learning
Grades 9 – 12
All Notes
Teacher Notes
Student Notes

1 Introducing It's Not What You Said It's How You Said It

Begin by introducing the phase, "It's not what you say it's how you say it."  Ask students for their thoughts about possible meanings and have them offer examples of it.  Direct the conversation to examples they personally would have experienced such as someone sad but saying they are fine, or when you ask a question: really? Then the other person replies: really!  Then show the students the YouTube clip of which includes the phrase, "It's not what you said, but how you said it."  Lead students to the conclusion that how you say something can affect the meaning of what you are saying.  Tell them that this is voice modulation and their are several ways speakers do this, and this lesson is about one way called, "Sentence Stress." 

2 What is Sentence Stress?

Using Apple Keynote, Microsoft Powerpoint, or however you like, present and explain to students with the definition of sentence stress: Changing the sound of one word in a sentence can change or add meaning to the entire sentence different than what the original definition of just the plain words intended.  Show students an example sentence, and stress each word in that sentence, explaining how meaning is added to the sentence based on the stress each time.  For example:

I didn't say we should kill him. 

I didn't say we should kill him. (Someone else said it, not me)

I DIDN'T say we should kill him. (Stronger, angrier denial)

I didn't SAY we should kill him.  (But I implied it, wrote it, or whispered it.)

I didn't say WE should kill him. (You should kill him, or someone else.)

I didn't say we SHOULD kill him. (We must kill him, or we shouldn't kill him.)

I didn't say we should KILL him. (We should fire him, or something else.)

I didn't say we should kill HIM. (It should be someone else.)

3 Student Practice

Provide more examples for students.  First speak a sentence and ask students to identify the word you stressed.  This can be done using plickers.  Give students several choices and have them respond with their plicker.  After students have identified the correct word that was stressed.  Have students tell you the added meaning.  One student can say it, and then a plicker poll can see if the rest of the class agrees or disagrees.  Repeat the same sentence several times, stressing a different word each time.  Then switch to a new sentence.  At first, make the stress very obvious, but then make it more subtle as you go along with examples.  


  • I did not cheat on the test today.
  • I did not kiss that woman!
  • I wasn't asked by the teacher to get out of the classroom.

To make it even more difficult, try to find some examples from TV shows and have students do the same as before when you were saying the sentences.  However it will be more difficult now that students are listening to a "real world" examples.  This could be multiple short clips or a single longer clip, both can work. 

After students have mastered listening to sentence stress, it's time for them to start using it on their own.  Have students work with a partner.  With their partner they can take turns stressing different words in sentences.  One partner will speak the sentence stress, the other partner will listen, identify the stressed word and tell the additional meaning.  Students will switch back and forth and can change partners.  Students can begin with the same examples the teacher used, but then should think of their own examples.  The teacher should walk around listening and assessing while partners are working.

4 Student Activity

Free, Paid

Similar to what was suggested before with the teacher showing students a TV or movie clip example of sentence stress, now students can create their own example.  From their favorite TV show or movie students can use movie editing tools like iMovie or similar to find and edit a clip that illustrates use of sentence stress.  Students should add into the clip someway to identify the stressed word and the added meaning.  Once the clips have been made they can be shared (which may be a day or two later).  Students can assess each other's clips, if they agree with the creator or not.  The teacher can assess as well.

OR  a non-tech activity:

For this activity, the teacher should actually bring a white hat to class. First explain to the students that we are going to practice this dialogue:

  • Teacher: "Where is my white hat?"
  • Student: "I didn't steal your white hat?"
  • Teacher: "I didn't SAY you stole my white hat!"
  • Student: "But you think I did something with it."

 The teacher should begin the dialogue by always saying to a student “Where is my white hat?” When the teacher asked this question the student would always respond, “I didn’t steal your white hat.” Then the teacher should reply, “I did not say you stole my white hat.” But the teacher should always stress a different word in the sentence, so students would have to listen to which word the teacher stresses, and their second reply would change based on which word the teacher stressed. So in the above example the teacher stressed the word “stole” and the student would reply, “But you think that I did something with it like hid it or ate it.” Then the teacher would go to another student and start the dialogue again. The teacher would stress a different word this time, maybe white. And the student would reply, “But you think I stole your purple hat or some other color.”

Once the students clearly understood the dialogue (after 2 or 3 examples) the teacher then should explain that to make this more interesting he is going to leave a white hat  in the classroom, but then will leave for about 2 minutes. When the teacher is out of the classroom, the students should hide the hat, then when the teacher comes back in the teacher will actually be looking for my white hat.  When the teacher comes in, then he can walk around the class room seriously looking for my hat and questioning students. If he wants, he can completely overact to make it even more fun. To some students you can be very angry and accuse them of stealing my hat – but then always follow with the dialogue. Other students you can be extremely sad and ask them if they would help their poor teacher. Try to ask all the students or at least as many as time allows, mostly using the dialogue to finish our interaction and correcting any misunderstanding.

Students love the overacting, so go overboard. At the end of the activity if you haven’t found your hat yet, you can play a quick game of hot or cold to find it. If you're walking closer to your hat the students would say hot, hottter, on fire, you’re burning up, etc. If you're walking away from your hat  students would say, cold, colder, you’re freezing, etc. 

If your class is really big, it would be possible to modify this activity and have groups of students perform it themselves with the teacher walking around assessing.

5 Wrap-up

Activity: Assessing

To finish, students can self-reflect about how sentence stress can help them understand and use English better.  Here are a few questions to guide their thinking:

  • What makes identifying sentence stress difficult?
  • What can I do to improve my understanding?
  • What did I learn today that can help me in the future?
  • What did I struggle with today or what do I need more practice with?
  • What advice would I give to someone learning this topic?

Students can reflect and share anyway they are comfortable with audio recording, writing, selfie-video, etc.