Understanding how to identify accented syllables is a finer point of language, and should be addressed only after students have mastered phonics.
ACCENT, STRESS, AND SCHWA
Accent is also known as stress. In English, we stress one syllable more than the others when we pronounce a word, which basically means we say it louder than the other syllables. A key point is that accent has to do with how the vowel sounds. An accented syllable will fully pronounce the vowel sound, while unaccented syllables have less emphasized vowels and possibly even the schwa sound.
Schwa /ə/ is the sound an unaccented vowel can make that sounds like short u or “uh”. Think of the sound at the end of “banana,” the beginning of “about,” or the middle of “Japan.”
STRATEGIES FOR IDENTIFYING ACCENTED SYLLABLES
Identifying the stressed syllable can be as simple as saying the word and listening for which part sounded loudest or had the clearest vowel sound. If a student isn’t sure what syllable to accent when pronouncing a word, ask them to try saying it different ways, placing the stress on different syllables each time and listening for which one sounds familiar.
Take the word “cancel” for example. Try saying the word twice, stressing the first syllable and then the second. Which one sounded right?
can’ cel or can cel’?
You probably figured out that the first way (can’ cel) is correct.
Another strategy to try is having the student place their hand underneath their chin as they say the word. Since the accented syllable is the loudest and has the strongest vowel sound, their chin will drop further on the accented syllable.
Try it out with the words “pencil” and “button.”
The key to using this strategy is to say the word naturally. It may even help to use it in a sentence. You should have felt the accent in the first syllable of both words: pen’ cil, but’ ton.
As mentioned, identifying the accented syllable is one of the finer points of language and should only be addressed once students have mastered phonics. When these strategies aren’t enough, have the student look up the word in the dictionary to find the accented syllable and give the proper pronunciation.