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Prominence and information structure in pronunciation teaching materials



Prominence is marking of particular syllables as salient in English speech. This marking is accomplished by the pitch, duration and intensity of the voice, and is multi-functional in English. Prominence is the target of increasing research both in regard to its form and its functions Prominence is also one of the most commonly taught suprasegmental features included in published pronunciation materials, and it is uniformly seen by pronunciation researchers as critical to intelligibility. The linguistic and pedagogical research on prominence, however, has diverged, and very little theoretical research is reflected in pronunciation teaching materials. This paper examines what current research shows about the form and functions of prominence in English, describes how prominence is represented in teaching materials, and suggests areas of current research that can profitably be applied to teaching materials.
Levis, J. M. & Silpachai, A. O. (2018). Prominence and information structure in pronunciation teaching
materials. In J. Levis (Ed.), Proceedings of the 9th Pronunciation in Second Language Learning
and Teaching conference, ISSN 2380-9566, University of Utah, September, 2017 (pp. 216-229).
Ames, IA: Iowa State University.
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
John M. Levis, Iowa State University
Alif O. Silpachai, Iowa State University
Prominence is marking of particular syllables as salient in English speech. This
marking is accomplished by the pitch, duration and intensity of the voice, and is
multi-functional in English. Prominence is the target of increasing research both
in regard to its form and its functions Prominence is also one of the most
commonly taught suprasegmental features included in published pronunciation
materials, and it is uniformly seen by pronunciation researchers as critical to
intelligibility. The linguistic and pedagogical research on prominence, however,
has diverged, and very little theoretical research is reflected in pronunciation
teaching materials. This paper examines what current research shows about the
form and functions of prominence in English, describes how prominence is
represented in teaching materials, and suggests areas of current research that can
profitably be applied to teaching materials.
One of the most commonly taught suprasegmental features of English pronunciation is
prominence (also known as sentence stress, nuclear stress, tonic, etc.). Prominence is not
only commonly taught in pronunciation materials, it is also the subject of a wide range of
current research in regard to both its form and its functions. In regard to form,
prominence is the use of pitch, duration, and intensity to mark particular words/syllables
in an utterance as salient. Functionally, prominence has multiple uses, the most important
of which are to mark a default placement on the final content word of a phrase, to mark
contrasting information, and to signal new information and given information. The
purpose of this paper was to examine how pronunciation teaching materials reflect the
findings of linguistic research on prominence and to suggest possible changes to teaching
materials to connect them more closely to current findings.
Prominence – Its form
Prominence refers to the greater strength of a word or a syllable compared to other words
or syllables surrounding it within a phonological phrase. In English, for example, some
prominent syllables are perceived as more important than others, and they often bear
stress accents (Beckman, 1986). Prominence in English can be phonetically marked in
many ways. The most common acoustic cues to prominence are fundamental frequency
(f0), duration, intensity, segmental clarity, and any combination of these features.
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
Particularly, prominent words often have salient f0 movements expressing pitch accents
(Gussenhoven, Repp, Rietveld, Rump, & Terken, 1997; Ladd 1996; Pierrehumbert 1980;
Rietveld & Gussenhoven, 1985; Terken, 1991), increased duration and/or intensity,
increased spectral emphasis in the mid and high frequency regions relative to non-
prominent words (Beckman 1986; Beckman & Edwards 1994; Cambier-Langeveld &
Turk 1999; Cole, Kim, Choi, & Hasegawa-Johnson, 2007; Kochanski, Grabe, Coleman,
& Rosner, 2005; Sluijter & van Heuven 1996; Tamburini 2005; Turk & White 1999).
Prominent words are also often hyper-articulated, relative to non-prominent words. That
is, these words are pronounced more clearly than usual, and as a result they have larger
vowel spaces (Baker & Bradlow, 2009).
Prominence – Its functions
Prominence at the phrasal level is often identified with the information structure of the
phrase. Specifically, prominent words often introduce information that is new or
important to the goal of the discourse, or they may bear contrastive focus (Bolinger
1986). In contrast, words that lack prominence are typically considered given in the prior
discourse, or anaphorically recoverable (Schwarzchild, 1999). The relationship between
prominence and information structure is typically strong in rightmost prominent words
(words that bear nuclear accents) in the phrase (Calhoun, 2006), whereas prominence in
pre-nuclear positions seems to depend on other factors, such as those that affect rhythm
(Cole, Mo, & Hasegawa-Johnson, 2010).
Prominence – Its perception
There are conflicting answers about which phonetics cues reliably mark prominence.
Early perceptual studies of single words by Fry (1955, 1958) suggest that prominent
syllables are marked, in decreasing order of importance, by duration, f0, and intensity.
Using analyses from laboratory speech, Lieberman (1960) described a system for
deducing lexical stress from acoustics. His work suggests that these three cues are
similarly important; that is, each cue is a good predictor of prominence. Other studies
using laboratory speech have yielded varying results. For example, perceptual studies by
Gussenhoven et al. (1997), Rietveld and Gussenhoven, (1985), and Terken, (1991) found
that f0 bumps in synthesized words were perceived as prominent. Beckman (1986) found
that prominence substantially correlated with a combination of intensity and duration.
Lastly, the synthesis experiments by Turk and Sawusch (1996) suggested that duration
and intensity are perceived together as a single percept, although the results of their rating
scale experiment indicated that intensity does not significantly contribute to perceived
Experiments using natural speech (e.g., spontaneous speech) have found that f0 plays a
relatively minor role in prominence perception. For example, in Silipo and Greenberg
(1999, 2000), two trained linguists agreed, when asked to manually mark prosodic stress
in spontaneous American English discourse, that intensity and duration played the major
role in marking prominence and that pitch of vocalic nuclei played only a minor role.
Similar results were found in another corpus study by Kochanski et al. (2005) which
examined how prominence is acoustically marked in speech in a database covering
several dialects of British and Irish English and three speech styles. It was found that
speakers generally did not use f0 to distinguish prominent syllables from other syllables
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
within an utterance. Instead, prominence was primarily marked with intensity and
Acoustic features related to prominence perception interact with other factors related to
pragmatics and discourse, making it difficult to precisely specify how prominence is
phonetically marked. For example, words from sparse lexical neighborhoods are often
phonetically reduced compared to those from dense lexical neighborhoods (Munson,
2007; Wright, 2004). Moreover, words preceded by a highly probable context are more
phonetically reduced than the same words in a less probable context (Lieberman, 1963).
The classic example is the word nine in a stitch in time saves nine and the number that
you will hear is nine, where the target word is preceded by a more probable context in the
first sentence. Third, high frequency words in a language tend to have less salient f0
marking, reduced duration and intensity, and decreased vowel formant dispersions
relative to low frequency words (Aylett & Turk 2004; Bell, Jurafsky, Fosler-Lussier,
Girand, & Gregory, 2003; Fossler-Lussier & Morgan 1999; Gregory 2002; Ito, Speer &
Beckman 2004; Munson 2007; Watson, Arnold & Tanenhaus 2008; Wright 2004).
Furthermore, a word’s phonetic realization tends to be reduced on its second or
subsequent mention (Baker & Bradlow, 2009; Fowler & Housum, 1987). While earlier
studies suggest that second mention reduction might be induced by a word’s discourse-
given status (Bard, Lowe, & Altmann, 1989), recent research (Baker & Bradlow, 2009)
suggests that the second mention reduction may also occur when the apparent second
mention does not have the same referent as the first mention, indicating that second
mention reduction is not purely semantically motivated. The effects of lexical frequency
and previous mention may not only occur in the acoustic signal but also in the listener’s
mind. Cole et al. (2010) found that listeners tended to rate low frequency words as
prominent even when these words lacked the necessary acoustic cues for prominence (in
their study, increased duration and intensity).
In English pronunciation teaching materials, prominence is typically presented as a
required element of prosody. The form involves marking a syllable in a phrase as more
prominent than other syllables. Prominent syllables are typically said to occur once (and
sometimes more than once) within each spoken phrase. In regard to pitch, a prominent
syllable is usually represented with a pitch excursion up or down from the pitch line, as in
(1) and (2). In (1), the stressed syllable of the final word has a jump in pitch (the
prominent syllable). This is followed a fall in pitch to the end of the sentence. In (2), the
utterance has the same prominent syllable, but it starts at a relatively low pitch before
rising to a high pitch on the last syllable.
(1) I’m going to Argen
(2) You’re going to ArgenTI n a?
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
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In (1) and (2), prominence is in the default position for English, that is, on the stressed
syllable of the last content word in the phrase. Up to 90% of English phrases in
spontaneous spoken language have prominence in this position (Crystal, 1969).
Prominence placement may deviate from the default position in a number of sentence
structures because some information is not expressed in the phrase. In (3), prominence
(marked in CAPS) is not on the final content word because the sentence ends with a time-
adverbial (Allerton & Cruttenden, 1979; Dickerson, 1989).
(3) He’s GOing soon.
Perhaps the most commonly taught non-final placement of prominence is when
prominence signals the information structure of discourse. This function of prominence
includes two aspects of the system. First, a word or syllable is marked as prominent
because it is new information. Second, and equally important, final content words may be
non-prominent when they are no longer new, that is, when they are given.
The identification of new and given information is typically presented as being
straightforward, with lexical items that were previously new being repeated (and so
becoming given). Other lexical items that were not previously in the discourse then
presented as new, and are thus identifiable through their prominence. An example of this
is found in (4), from Grant (2012, p. 114).
(4) A. Let’s continue our discussion of polLUtion. / B. YESterday / C. we
deFINED pollution. / D. ToDAY / E. we’ll talk about the IMpact of pollution / F.
its far-reaching efFECTS. / G. Many people think pollution is just a problem for
SCIentists / H. but it’s NOT just a problem for scientists. / I. It affects EVeryone. /
J. Because it affects human LIVES, / K. it’s a HEALTH problem. / L. Because it
affects PROperty, / M. it’s an ecoNOmic problem. / N. And because it affects out
appreciation of NAture, / O. it’s an aesTHEtic problem.”
In (4), we see a constructed paragraph to show how prominence (in CAPITAL letters)
highlights new information and how lack of prominence on final content words can
signal that the lexical item can mark information as given. For example, the word
pollution is marked with prominence in phrase A. In A, pollution is phrase final and there
is no reason to mark anything else as prominent because it is the first phrase. In C and E,
pollution is again phrase final but is not prominent. Pollution has become given
information, and prominence marks the new information, the next to last content word
(deFINED and IMpact). Another example of a lexical item starting as prominent and then
becoming non-prominent is the word PROBlem in phrase G. The word is repeated in H,
K, M and O, three times as the last content word. But in each case, problem does not
receive prominence because it is given information.
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
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Prominence and information structure in pronunciation teaching materials
When considering texts like that found in (4), the Given/New distinction seems
straightforward at first glance. The cognitive challenges of identifying Given/New in
constructed texts is passed over, and the even greater cognitive challenges of making use
of prominence to express information structure in spontaneous speech is almost never
addressed. (Levis, 2001; Levis & Grant, 2003). The ways that L2 learners are taught
about information structure raise several concerns.
Prominence is multi-functional in English and does not simply mark New and
Given information. Because prominence may also be used to call attention to
contrasts (Levis & Muller Levis, 2018), to correct misinformation and to
emphatically agree (Grant, 2012), L2 learners may struggle to distinguish other
functions of prominence from prominence’s role in marking information
Information structure is not always as clear as constructed passages suggest.
New information placement overlaps with final content word placement because
new information is often on the final content word due to grammatical elision,
e.g., I lost my umBRELla. What KIND? (What kind has prominence on the final
content word, but is short for What kind of umbrella did you lose? The missing
words after KIND are understood from the original question.)
Lexical repetition does not always involve the same words, and lexical items that
refer to the same thing are not always marked as given. Information that is not
lexically identical may be considered given because of its understood relationship
to the original word (e.g., Did you buy the CAtamaran? No, I had to get a
SMALler boat.) On the other hand, related words may be presented as different
from the initial mention (e.g., Have you even flow in an AIRplane? Sure. Last
month, I went to Europe on a large JET.)
Teaching students to recognize new and given information is difficult. The
cognitive aspects of such decisions, especially in longer or spontaneous texts,
seems to assume native speaker competence in interpretation (Levis, 1999).
Teaching the pronunciation of information structure is easiest when using a
prewritten text and when using clearly defined rules. Although this type of
pronunciation practice can be effective in the short run, it does not necessarily last
(Hahn, 2002) or transfer to spontaneous speech.
As an illustration of how simplifying information structure for pronunciation teaching
can actually make the topic quite complex, Table 1 shows how informational stress
(Given-New) is taught in one pronunciation book (Reed & Michaud, 2005, p. 127). The
explanation mixes several functions together and talks about words being prominent
because they are important, an unexplained evaluation, rather than because they are final.
The explanations also conflate the typical prominence on content words and the less
common prominence on function words, the use of prominence for contrasts, and finally,
conflates new information and contrast without explaining what is being contrasted.
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
When do you use informational stress?
A: Where's the book?
The content word "book" is the most important word in
this question. It receives standard sentence-level stress.
B: The book's on the
The word "book" is now old information, so the content
word "counter"-the new piece of information-is stressed
(informational stress).
A: Next to the paper?
The content word "paper" is the most important word in
this question. It's new information. Notice that the stressed
words in all the examples so far have been content words.
Usually the most important word in a sentence is a content
word. However, this isn't always the case.
B: No, under the paper.
Here, the most important word is the preposition "under"
(a function word) because it's a new piece of information
and because it contrasts with "next to."
A: I've already looked
under the paper.
The content word "looked" is the new piece of
information. "Looked" receives informational stress.
B: Well, look again
Now the word "look” is old information. The word "again"
is stressed because it is the new piece of information and
it's contrastive.
The relationship of the default placement of prominence on the last content word, and the
use of prominence to mark new information occurring on the last content word is
sometimes addressed by pronunciation textbooks, but there is usually be no clear
explanation about why the same prominence placement has two different explanations, as
in the examples in (5) and (6) from Lane (2005, p. 166). The example also does not show
new information that is not at the end of a sentence. This requires language learners and
teachers to provide such information on their own. If they do not understand the system,
however, this may prove impossible.
(5) Beginning a Conversation: When you begin a conversation, you often highlight the
last content word.
What did you do on the WEEKend?
(6) Highlighting New Information: New information is often presented in the last content
word of a sentence.
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
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(What did you do on the WEEKend?) I went DANcing.
Some textbooks try to be more systematic in explaining new information, but in doing so
they may increase cognitive complexity, as in the examples in (7)-(9) from Dauer (1993,
p. 231). Dauer explains what is meant by new and old (given) information
Simplifying to make information accessible often involves assumptions about whey
certain types of lexical items are prominent while others are not, as in (10) from Gilbert
(2012, p. 60) in which new information is described as marking a new thought, as though
each lexical item represented a thought. Additionally, there is now clear statement of why
KIND is new in B: but of is not.
(10) After a conversation begins, any word can become a new thought (the new focus
of information).
A: I lost my HAT. ("Hat" is the last content word. It is the focus of the
Pronunciation involves both cognitive and procedural knowledge
Sentence stress is also moved to separate new information from old
information. Old information is what the speaker assumes the listener already
knows, either because it was just mentioned in a previous sentence or because it
is part of the physical situation. Sentence stress will fall on the new information.
If the old information is repeated, it will not receive sentence stress. In the
following examples, the same meaning can also be expressed by using
auxiliaries, omitting the old information, reordering the sentence, or using
(7) A: Who borrowed my eraser?
B: I borrowed it. (== I did.)
I is new information, not known by A; borrowed it is old information.
(8) A: I bought a new car.
B: What kind of car did you buy? (== What kind?)
(9) Teacher: This is a difficult test. (== This test is difficult.)
The teacher has the test in her hands, so it's known or old information.
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
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B: What KIND of hat? ("Kind" is now the focus. It is the new thought,
and "hat" is an old thought.)
A: It was a RAIN hat. ("Rain" is now the focus. It is the new thought.)
In (11), the difficulty of representing new information can be seen in the use of words
within the same lexical set, in this case, money and dollars, which is clearly a synonym
for money within an American English context, yet is described as representing new
information (Miller, 2000, p. 71).
(11) Use focus to highlight new information. Stress the word that gives the new
A: I need to borrow some MOney. ("money" is new information)
B: How MUCH money? ("money" is now old information)
A: Well, not TOO much money. ("much" and "money" are both old information)
B: I have about ten DOLlars. ("dollars" is new information)
A: I was hoping to borrow TWENty dollars. ("dollars" is now old information)
Prominence is considered by pronunciation researchers as a critical feature for
intelligibility (Hahn, 2004; Jenkins, 2000), especially in relation to prominence’s function
in marking information structure. However, current pronunciation materials, in their
desire to make new and given information accessible to L2 learners, often simplify in
ways that do not reflect what research tells us about prominence. In this section, we
suggest directions for changes in pronunciation materials that can make current insights
into prominence and its role in signaling information structure. Here we present four
suggestions for connecting pronunciation teaching practices more closely to research.
1. Use real spoken data (and longer texts) to help learners perceive prominence
in speech and to help learners work out patterns
This recommendation is to use not only constructed texts in teaching new and given
information, but asks us to also make use of authentic spoken texts. L2 learners,
especially at higher proficiency levels, can analyze such texts to cognitively engage with
how speakers construct discourse and highlight particular words and syllables to
communicate their message.
2. Describe how to identify “information”, what makes something “new” or
“given”, and the relationship of new information to the default pattern
Information or thoughts are implicitly associated with particular lexical items in
discourse, but materials often assume L2 learners will be able to apply example texts to
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
new texts and to spontaneous speech. This is not accurate. While the pronunciation of
prominence may be quite teachable (Levis and Muller Levis, 2018; Pennington & Ellis,
2000), the cognitive aspects of prominence placement are far more difficult and cannot
only be addressed in relation to perception and production.
3. Explicitly practice given/old information
Marking new information is often taught as the only important function of prominence,
but equally important is the marking of given information. While new information is
marked as phonologically salient, given information must be backgrounded both to avoid
calling attention to it and to contrast with the salience of the prominent syllables. Our
experience has been that L2 learners can mark words associated with new information as
prominent but that following words associated with given information are also marked as
prominent rather than being deaccented. Almost no pronunciation teaching materials
explicitly teach deaccenting of given information despite its importance in the prosodic
shape of an utterance.
4. Include exercises to fill out the communicative framework for teaching
pronunciation (Celce-Murcia et al., 2010) to encourage moving beyond
controlled production to cognitive understanding of information structure.
Pronunciation teaching involves varied activities and exercises to address the complex
and interrelated skills involved in L2 learning. L2 learners, especially adult learners, need
cognitively oriented explanations of the pronunciation feature and how it functions,
practice hearing and interpreting the feature, and training and rehearsal in producing the
feature with and without attention to communicative meaning. In Table 1, we use the
five-part communicative teaching framework of Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin
(2010) to suggest possible changes to the way we teach prominence and information
Table 1
What is Currently Available in Textbooks and What is Needed
Communicative Pronunciation
Teaching Stages
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
Controlled production (strong
focus on intonation form, e.g.,
read aloud)
Guided production (some
focus on meaning required
along with some focus on
intonation form, e.g., simple
information gap activities)
Communicative production
(focus on meaning dominates,
e.g., discussion or debate)
The use of prominence to signal the information structure of discourse is a critical aspect
of communicative ability in English. It is also a cognitively challenging aspect of speech
for L2 learners who may not understand either the pronunciation or the functions of
prominence. We suggest that more effective teaching of this feature must take into
account non-pedagogical research on prominence and on information structure.
John Levis is Angela B. Pavitt Professor of English at Iowa State University. His articles
on pronunciation and intonation have been published in a variety of professional journals,
including TESOL Quarterly, Applied Linguistics, System, Annual Review of Applied
Linguistics, TESOL Journal, ELT Journal and World Englishes. He is author of
Intelligibility, Oral Communication and the Teaching of Pronunciation (Cambridge
University Press). He was co-editor for the Phonetics and Phonology section of the
Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (Blackwell), Social Dynamics in Second Language
Accent (De Gruyter Mouton), Handbook of English Pronunciation (Wiley), and Critical
Levis & Silpachai Prominence and information structure
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching 9!
Concepts in Linguistics: Pronunciation (Routledge). He initiated the annual
Pronunciation in Second Language Learning and Teaching Conference and is founding
editor of the Journal of Second Language Pronunciation (John Benjamins). His newest
project is, a website providing reliable information about
teaching pronunciation. Email:
Alif Silpachai is graduate student in Applied Linguistics and Technology at the
Department of English at Iowa State University. His research interests include production
and perception of suprasegmentals, particularly pitch accents and lexical tones. Email:
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... Such appropriate use of prosody is indicative of reader's understanding of the text (Bock and Mazzella, 1983;Whalley and Hansen, 2006;Paige et al., 2017;Groen et al., 2018). Prosody has therefore been recognized as a critical component of oral reading training and evaluation systems (Danne et al., 2005;Sinambela, 2017;Levis and Silpachai, 2017). Recent studies (Lochrin et al., 2015;Breen et al., 2016;Groen et al., 2018) indicate that learners with good word decoding ability can still span a wide range of prosody skills and correspondingly varying levels of comprehension. ...
... Phrasing and prominence are considered to be critical to the listener's ease of comprehension of speech (Bock and Mazzella, 1983;van Maastricht et al., 2017;Levis and Silpachai, 2017). Native English speakers are found to recognize and adjust to grammatical and pronunciation errors by non-native speakers but not so for the suprasegmental aspects, motivating increasing attention to the latter in spoken language training (Liscombe, 2007;Li et al., 2017). ...
Prosody is the supra-segmental aspect of speech that helps to convey the structure and intended meaning of lexical content unambiguously. The automatic detection of prosodic events, such as phrase boundary and word prominence, has a number of applications in discourse analysis, where a combination of syntactic and acoustic-prosodic features is typically employed. This work addresses prosodic event detection in the context of assessing oral reading skills of middle-school children. We discuss the observed characteristics of a specially created labeled data set of oral reading recordings of English stories by non-native speakers. The obtained diversity of language skills adds to the known challenges of high speaker variability in the acoustic realization of prosodic events. A combination of knowledge- and data-driven feature selection is implemented to identify a compact set of word-level features from the acoustic correlates of prosody considering different ways of incorporating the necessary temporal context. The system is benchmarked with reference to a widely known prosodic event recognition system in a speaker-independent set-up to obtain a competitive performance with greatly reduced feature dimensionality. The interpretable features enable us to use the predictor model importance scores to identify high-level speaker traits that influence the acoustic realization of prosodic events, suggesting a potential extension to systems that can extract and utilize speaker idiosyncrasies for superior prosodic event detection.
... This teaching tip does not address issues related to prominence's role in information structure. See Levis & Silpachai (2018) for a fuller discussion of how information structure is represented in pronunciation teaching materials. ...
Conference Paper
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Contrastive stress, in which words or syllables are emphasized to show their relationship to other words or syllables (e.g., It’s not unknown, it’s well-known), calls attention to how spoken lexical information is highlighted to express explicit and implicit comparisons/contrasts. By doing so, it evokes a set of possible referents and then uses pitch and length to select one referent from the group (Cowles et al., 2007). Although contrastive stress is common in conversational and planned speech, L2 English learners at all proficiency levels struggle with it, instead emphasizing repeated words (e.g., It’s not unknown, it’s well-known). Contrastive stress is highly teachable at all levels of instruction and promotes comprehensibility improvement with even modest levels of instruction (Benner, Muller Levis & Levis, 2014; Levis & Muller Levis, 2018; Muller Levis & Levis, 2012). Improvement is evident in controlled and more communicative activities. This teaching tip includes a variety of controlled and communicative activities to teach the production of contrastive stress, including strategies to identify contrasts in written texts, to produce contrasts in asking about and expressing preferences, to express contrasts using simple pictures, and in using contrasts to correct and disagree.
Recent advances in our empirically-based understanding of the role of instruction in pronunciation learning have been accompanied by growing recognition of the need for more knowledge about teachers’ cognitions of pronunciation teaching. That is, we want to know what they do and why because it informs teacher educators and researchers and provides a useful forum for teacher reflective practice. This paper draws on semi-structured interviews ( N = 19), classroom observations ( N = 6) and follow-up discussions to report on the pronunciation techniques the participants say they use, what they were observed using, and their related knowledge and beliefs. The following thematic areas emerged: Ways of presenting pronunciation; Listen-and-repeat practice; Explicit/analytic practice activities; Sounds and spelling; Use of phonemic symbols; Speech perception and awareness raising. The findings are discussed in terms of factors driving teacher behaviour, advice that can be given to language teachers and teacher educators and areas that need further research.
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This book examines intelligibility in pronunciation teaching and its connections to L2 oral communication: the principles behind the concept of intelligibility; what research says about intelligibility for segmentals, consonant clusters, word stress, rhythm, prominence and final intonation; and what intelligibility research might look like in classroom contexts.
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Pronunciation features are not equal in how they affect listeners' ability to understand. Some are low value, while others are high value. This study explores whether con-trastive stress is high value. Previous research has shown that identification of contrastive stress is learnable (Pen-nington & Ellis, 2000), and that explicit teaching about contrastive stress patterns can improve production for advanced learners (Hahn, 2002; Muller Levis & Levis, 2012). To test whether instruction on contrastive stress improved comprehensibility and fluency in spontaneous speech, we developed a 3-week class for intermediate ESL learners, whose pre-and posttest productions were rated by native listeners. Ratings for fluency showed no improvement. Ratings for comprehensibility significantly improved for the experimental group while control participants showed no improvement. Improvement resulted both from better contrastive stress and greater comfort with producing grammatical frames to express the contrasts. The article concludes by discussing the importance of high-value pronunciation features for improved comprehensibility. I n a video of his younger than 2-year-old son, the linguist Deb Roy (personal communication, n.d.) shows a child whose contrastive stress is perfectly expressed. We hear the child saying, "That's a BLUE car. That's a GREEN car. That's a ORange car. That's an OTHer orange car. " In these utterances, the child shows command of a basic prosodic pattern of English by calling attention to contrasting lexical items when everything else in the sentence pattern is the same. He also demonstrates anticipation of a pattern of contrasts by placing contrastive stress on BLUE before any other colors are mentioned.
In natural speech, accented words may differ as to the degree of perceived prominence. At the acoustic level, two aspects of fundamental frequency ( F0) variation may be responsible for the perceived prominence differences: the magnitude of F0 changes and the relative frequencies of F0 maxima. Two experiments, with the same group of subjects, addressed the question of which aspect of F0 better predicts perceived prominence. Both experiments used reiterant speech with synthesized F0 contours. The speech materials consisted of ‘mamamamamamama’ utterances with F0 maxima on the second and penultimate syllables (“P1” and “P2,” respectively). In one experiment, subjects adjusted the frequency of P2 so that it was judged to have the same pitch as P1, for different rates of baseline declination. In the second experiment, subjects adjusted P2 so that it was judged to have the same prominence as P1, again for different declination rates. The results to be presented are relevant for refining the theory of pitch accentuation. For instance, if perceived prominence is predictable from F0 maxima, both experiments should give the same results.
In this dissertation I present a model for the determination of intonation contours from context and provide two implemented systems which apply this theory to the problem of generating spoken language with appropriate intonation from high-level semantic representations. The theory and implementations presented here are based on an information structure framework that mediates between intonation and discourse, and encodes the proper level of semantic information to account for both contextually-bound accentuation patterns and intonational phrasing. The structural similarities among these linguistic levels of representation are the basis for selecting Combinatory Categorial Grammar (CCG,Steedman1985, 1990a) as the model for spoken language production. This model licenses congruent syntactic, prosodic and information structural constituents and consequently represents a simplifcation over models of prosody developed in syntactically more traditional frameworks. The previous mention heuristic, which has been widely used as a model for determining intonation contours, is shown to be inadequate for handling a broad range of examples involving semantic contrasts, which require pitch accents to be allocated based on their ability to discriminate among available entities in the discourse model. To address this problem, I introduce a model that determines accentual patterns based on sets of alternative entities in the knowledge base. The algorithms for building the information structural representations that encode the semantics of intonation supply the foundation for two computational implementations. These implementations demonstrate how the theoretical model applies to the problem of producing contextually-appropriate spoken output in a natural language generation framework and provide a platform for incrementally testing and refning the underlying theory.
Predictability is known to affect many properties of speech production. In particular, it has been observed that highly predictable elements (words, syllables) are produced with less phonetic prominence (shorter duration, less peripheral vowels) than less predictable elements. This tendency has been proposed to be a general property of language. This paper examines whether predictability is correlated with fundamental frequency (F0) production, through analysis of experimental corpora of American English. Predictability was variously defined as discourse mention, utterance probability, and semantic focus. The results revealed consistent effects of utterance probability and semantic focus on F0, in the expected direction: less predictable words were produced with a higher F0 than more predictable words. However, no effect of discourse mention was observed. These results provide further empirical support for the generalization that phonetic prominence is inversely related to linguistic predictability. In addition, the divergent results for different predictability measures suggests that the parameterization of predictability within a particular experimental design can have significant impact on the interpretation of results, and that it cannot be assumed that two measures necessarily reflect the same cognitive reality.
This work concerns how information structure is signalled prosodically in English, that is, how prosodic prominence and phrasing are used to indicate the salience and organisation of information in relation to a discourse model. It has been standardly held that information structure is primarily signalled by the distribution of pitch accents within syntax structure, as well as intonation event type. However, we argue that these claims underestimate the importance, and richness, of metrical prosodic structure and its role in signalling information structure. We advance a new theory, that information structure is a strong constraint on the mapping of words onto metrical prosodic structure. We show that focus (kontrast) aligns with nuclear prominence, while other accents are not usually directly 'meaningful'. Information units (theme/rheme) try to align with prosodic phrases. This mapping is probabilistic, so it is also influenced by lexical and syntactic effects, as well as rhythmical constraints and other features including emphasis. Rather than being directly signalled by the prosody, the likelihood of each information structure interpretation is mediated by all these properties. We demonstrate that this theory resolves problematic facts about accent distribution in earlier accounts and makes syntactic focus projection rules unnecessary. Previous theories have claimed that contrastive accents are marked by a categorically distinct accent type to other focal accents (e.g. L+H* v H*). We show this distinction in fact involves two separate semantic properties: contrastiveness and theme/rheme status. Contrastiveness is marked by increased prominence in general. Themes are distinguished from rhemes by relative prominence, i.e. the rheme kontrast aligns with nuclear prominence at the level of phrasing that includes both theme and rheme units. In a series of production and perception experiments, we directly test our theory against previous accounts, showing that the only consistent cue to the distinction between theme and rheme nuclear accents is relative pitch height. This height difference accords with our understanding of the marking of nuclear prominence: theme peaks are only lower than rheme peaks in rheme-theme order, consistent with post-nuclear lowering; in theme-rheme order, the last of equal peaks is perceived as nuclear. The rest of the thesis involves analysis of a portion of the Switchboard corpus which we have annotated with substantial new layers of semantic (kontrast) and prosodic features, which are described. This work is an essentially novel approach to testing discourse semantics theories in speech. Using multiple regression analysis, we demonstrate distributional properties of the corpus consistent with our claims. Plain and nuclear accents are best distinguished by phrasal features, showing the strong constraint of phrase structure on the perception of prominence. Nuclear accents can be reliably predicted by semantic/syntactic features, particularly kontrast, while other accents cannot. Plain accents can only be identified well by acoustic features, showing their appearance is linked to rhythmical and low-level semantic features. We further show that kontrast is not only more likely in nuclear position, but also if a word is more structurally or acoustically prominent than expected given its syntactic/information status properties. Consistent with our claim that nuclear accents are distinctive, we show that pre-, post- and nuclear accents have different acoustic profiles; and that the acoustic correlates of increased prominence vary by accent type, i.e. pre-nuclear or nuclear. Finally, we demonstrate the efficacy of our theory compared to previous accounts using examples from the corpus.