Teaching prosodic patterns through English movies

Lindsay Mack, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

Quick guide

  • Keywords: Prosody, intonation, stress, pronunciation, Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
  • Learner English level: Intermediate-advanced
  • Learner maturity: High schoolor university
  • Preparation time: 30 minutes
  • Activity time: 60 minutes
  • Materials: DVD Napoleon Dynamite (2004) or another teen movie, handout (see Appendix 1)


Prosody is a broad term that refers to several types of speech, such as stress/accent, intonation,and timing. In order to teach my students English prosodic patterns, I chose my favorite movie, Napoleon Dynamite. In the movie, the speech patterns of the protagonist, Napoleon, reflect the typical speech of high school students when they are frustrated and angry. Furthermore, when Napoleon speaks, it is relatively easy to hear the stressed syllable that is also lengthened. Other teen movies with similar dialogs, such as Mean Girls (2004), Clueless (1996), Princess Diaries (2001), or Juno (2007) could be used instead of Napoleon Dynamite because the characters use a lot of stresses and accents when speaking.


Step 1: Go through the video beforehand and choose one or two short dialogues you feel demonstrate good examples of timing, stress, and intonation in spoken English (similar to the dialogue in Appendix 1). You do not need to go through the whole movie; many good dialogues can be found in the first 20 minutes.

Step 2:Transcribe the dialogue for the chosen scene(s).


Step 1:Warm up by posting an image of the main character, Napoleon Dynamite (or another character from the movie you are using), and ask students:

Which three words do you think of when you see this picture?

Do you think this person was popular in high school?

Go over the answers with the students.

Step 2:Distribute thescript for the scene you have transcribed and play the short dialogue (2-3 sentences). Tell students:

Listen to the following dialogue and underline the syllables that are being stressed.

Step 3:Ask students:

How does the character feel? How do you know that? What noises do they make?

Which words/syllables are being stressed?

What happens to the speed of the sentence?

Step 4: Review the answers together with the students. Use graphic intonation arrows on the words that need to be stressed. Explain that, in spoken English, frustration is usually characterized by a long ugh, gosh or a sigh that has a low pitch, as if someone is punching you in the stomach. In these words, the stress is lengthened on the first syllable and the intensity is stronger. Gosh becomes ggggaaawwwwsh and ugh becomes uuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh. Also explain that sometimes, in spoken English, want to and what you become wanna and whatcha. Furthermore, these phrases are real English slang, used when people speak English to their friends and are never said slowly but only when the sentence speed is fast.

Step 5: Activate the students’ schemata by asking preview questions before showing the next clip, in order to promote comprehension. Ask students to:

Read the following dialogue and mark the syllables that should be stressed following the prosodic pattern of frustration.

Then, show the video clip you have chosen andreview answers with the students.

Step 6: Tell students to:

Choose a partner and read through the same dialogue using the same prosodic pattern as the character in the movie.

Explain they do not need to act like the character whose part they are reading, but instead should focus on trying to follow the prosodic patterns of frustration.

Step 7: Ask for volunteers to perform their dialogue. Bring in some props or costumes to put on the students to make them look like the characters they are playing.


Even though prosodic patterns in Japanese are very different than those in English, prosodic patterns of spoken English are often overlooked by teachers and not taught to students. Therefore, Japanese students greatly benefit from direct and explicit instruction on prosodic patterns found in English. This lesson is a fun and engaging way to explore these aspects of the English language, one thatstudents generally find very amusing.


Coon, J., Covel, S., Wyatt, C. (Producers) & Jared Hess (Director). (2004) Napoleon Dynamite [Motion Picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Appendix: Prosodic Patterns in Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Look at the picture of Napoleon and write three words to describe him.


__________________     ____________________     ___________________


Do you think he was popular in high school?

Exercise 1

Now listen to the following movie dialogue from Napoleon Dynamite and underline the syllables being stressed. Only underline the sentences that Napoleon says.


    Grandma:How was your day Napoleon?

    Napoleon:The worst day of my life, whatcha think!

    Grandma:I want you to feed Tina.

    Napoleon: Ugh   

    (Napoleon walks outside to feed Tina.)

    Napoleon: Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner! Tina, eat. Food. Eat the Food!


  1. How does Napoleon feel? How do you know that? What noise does he make? 



  1. Which words/syllables are being stressed?



  1. What happens to the speed of the sentence?



Exercise 2

  1. When you were in high school did you like going to school every day?



  1. What happened when you wanted to leave school because you weren’t feeling well? Think about:

(a) Where you would go?

(b) Who you would call? 

(c) Did your school allow you to leave?  

In Napoleon’s case, when he feels sick at school he calls his older brother. The following is a dialogue from Napoleon Dynamite between Napoleon and his brother, Kip. Napoleon is at school calling his older brother who is at home making lunch. 

  1. First read the following dialogue and mark the syllables that should be stressed following the prosodic pattern of frustration.
  2. Listen to dialogue in the movie and compare your answers.
  3. Choose a partner and read through the dialogue. Remember to sound frustrated!!

Napoleon Dynamite:(Calls his brother from school)

Kip: [making nachos and talking on the other line; answers the phone] Hi.

Napoleon Dynamite: Is grandma there?

Kip: No, she's getting her hair done.

Napoleon Dynamite: Ugh!!

Kip: What do you need?

Napoleon Dynamite: Can you just go get her for me?

Kip: I'm really busy right now.

Napoleon Dynamite: Just tell her to come get me.

Kip: Why?

Napoleon Dynamite: ’Cause I don't feel good!

Kip: Well, have you talked to the school nurse?

Napoleon Dynamite: No, she doesn't know anything. Will you just come get me?

Kip: No.

Napoleon Dynamite: Well, will you do me a favor then? Can you bring me my chapstick?

Kip: No, Napoleon.

Napoleon Dynamite: But my lips hurt real bad!

Kip: Just borrow some from the school nurse. I know she has like five sticks in her drawer.

Napoleon Dynamite: I'm not gonna use hers, you sicko!

Kip: See ya.

Napoleon Dynamite: Ugh! Idiot!