Building listening skills through the basic emphasis pattern and sentence focus

Mark Alberding, Asia University, Tokyo

Quick Guide

  • Key Words: Listening strategies instruction, developing transferable listening skills, Basic Emphasis Pattern, Sentence Focus
  • Learner English Level: Beginner and above
  • Learner Maturity Level: University
  • Preparation Time: 15-20 minutes
  • Activity Time: 30 minutes+
  • Materials: A short listening passage suitable for your learnersÕ level; transcript of the listening for learners; a copy of the transcript marked for Basic Emphasis Pattern and Sentence Focus for teacher use. Optional: an overhead projector and transparency of the transcript.


Listening strategies instruction can make learners more independent, because in teaching learners how to listen, teachers are helping them develop transferable skills that can be applied to a wide variety of listening tasks and situations in, and outside, the classroom.

Although listening strategies instruction is typically found in materials designed for low intermediate and higher levels, usually in textbooks devoted to listening, there are a number of activities that can easily be used for lower level learners in a non-specialized, integrated-skills course.

Learners are often unfamiliar with the basic features of spoken English which signal important information. These features include increased or decreased pitch, rising or falling intonation, and word stress. When learners become aware of these features and use this awareness to recognize important information when listening, they are applying a listening strategy. With repeated exposure and practice, learners can begin to automatically apply these strategiesÑi.e. listen more like native speakersÑin any listening situation.

It is important to note that the activity described below can only be used once the learners can recognize the features of word stress: In multi-syllabic words one syllable receives greater stress and has a longer and full vowel relative to the vowel in an unstressed syllable, which is reducedÑtypically schwa. This may sound daunting but I have found that it is well within the reach of my low level, false beginner university class. I begin working on these features at the start of the semester, using words from our textbook. By mid-semester, after repeated practice, most learners are ready to tackle the more demanding task of recognizing stressed words in listening passages. At this point I begin to use the activity described in this article.

The activity gives students practice in the Basic Emphasis Pattern (BEP) and Sentence Focus to recognize the important information in a listening passage. The BEP is this: Content words (noun, verbs, adjectives, adverbs), the words that carry meaning, receive stress while the words that perform a grammatical role, structure or function words (determiners, conjunctions, pronouns, etc.), are de-stressed. Sentence Focus refers to the way that one word in a sentence or thought group is made prominent by a longer vowel, higher pitch, and stronger sound relative to the other words; the function is to focus the listener on the important, new information being presented. Note that this article presents a simplified overview of these features and I suggest using simplified explanations of them with low level learners. For example, I donÕt discuss the BEP as such, but instead explain that the most important words get stress. For sentence focus I use most important idea and the feature of higher pitch becomes the speakerÕs voice goes up with a hand gesture to reinforce the rise.


Select a listening passage suitable for your learners. For low level learners, a 30Ð45 second passage is probably all they can comfortably handle. Higher level learners can process correspondingly longer passages. I use the listening passages from my integrated-skills textbook. Almost any textbook will have suitable passages, or you can record a passage yourself. Prepare a transcript of the passage for your learners, with 1.5 line spacing to make it easy for learners to mark the transcript and with a large font size, such as 14 pt., to make it easy to read. You will also want, for your own reference, a copy of the transcript on which you have marked the BEP and Sentence Focus.

Optional: An overhead projector and a transparency of the transcript. This equipment is not necessary for effective use of this activity, but it is convenient for going over the transcript with learners after the listening portion is complete. The font size used for the transparency should be large enough for a room full of learners to easily read (I use 22 pt.).


Step 1: Play the listening passage. Learners should listen for the stressed words (i.e. the BEP).

Step 2: Distribute the transcript and play the passage again. As they listen to the passage, learners mark the BEP in each sentence by placing a dot above stressed words or the stressed syllable in a multi-syllabic word. Pause after each sentence (or clause/thought group if these are very long) to allow time for learners to mark their transcript.

Step 3: Play the passage again. This time learners listen for, and mark, the focus words in each sentence or clause, indicating the most important idea in that sentence or clause. The method of marking these words should be different from the marking of stressed words done during step 2, such as underlining the focus words.

Step 4: Go over the transcript with the learners, indicating where the stressed and focus words are. The overhead projector is useful here as it enables you to use your marked transcript as a reference for the students. I recommend playing the passage again during this step, pausing after each sentence.

Fig. 1 shows an excerpt from a listening passage transcript showing the type of marking described in steps 2-4 above.

Fig. 1: Sample transcript before and after marking

Figure 1


This is a challenging activity for low-level learners, but with adequate practice recognizing the features of word stress and other intonation cues, it is entirely Òdo-able.Ó Learners won't get it all right the first time but they will improve with repeated exposure and practice. Encourage learners to use what they have learned about word stress, BEP, and sentence focus when they listen on their own. The ultimate goal of this activity is for learners eventually to apply their knowledge and ability to discriminate word stress and sentence focus automatically, in any listening context in or out of the classroom. For learners to reach this goal, repeated practice of this, or any other, strategy building activity is necessary. While I have presented only one listening-strategy activity here, a range of activities can and should be used with lower level learners to build listening skills. Gilbert (1995), Gilbert (2001), and Mendelsohn (1994) are good sources for such activities.


Gilbert, J. (1995). Pronunciation practice as an aid to listening comprehension. In D. Mendelsohn & J. Rubin, (Eds.), A guide for the teaching of second language listening (pp. 151Ð165). San Diego: Dominie Press.
Gilbert, J. (2001). Clear speech from the start. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mendelsohn, D. (1994). Learning to listen: A strategy-based approach for the second-language learner. San Diego: Dominie Press.