Sentence Stress through Obama’s inauguration speech

Levels: intermediate to advanced.
Ages: older teens; adults
Type: listening for key/ prominent words in a real speech
Skills: listening; pronunciation (intonation and stress patterns in spoken English, mimicking an accomplished orator).
Language focus: any vocab as it arises.

copies of the transcript of Obama’s address for your students;
some way of displaying or projecting the speech below, with sound.

  1. Ask students if they saw Obama’s inauguration speech; discuss what they thought of it. How has the world changed since he made it? Are they hopeful or pessimistic about their futures? Why?
  2. Invite students to consider what he might have said during the speech. Give one or two examples if you think it necessary (e.g. thank the people for voting for him; thank George Bush etc)
  3. Board students responses.
  4. Explain that they are going to listen to/watch the first part of the speech and check their predictions. (NB if your class haven’t come up with many good ideas you might want to skip this stage)
  5. Students listen and check their predictions
  6. Give them the list of things he mentions and ask them to put it in order.

    In the introduction to his speech he…

    • Thanks Bush
    • Offers his gratitude to the US people
    • Underlines that the citizens of the US are together
    • Makes a comment about the war
    • Makes a comment about the economic crisis
    • Talks about hope for a new age
    • Mentions job losses, healthcare and housing problems
    • Mentions the environment
    • Talks about the US people’s fear of decline
    • Repeats and confirms his promise to the US people
  7. If you want, at this stage, you could give them the tapescript and have them underline the relevant sections. (But don’t include the last bit or your next activity won’t work.) OR you could lead a discussion about the content of the speech; their opinions of it etc.
  8. Point out that they were able to get most of these points without understanding every word; invite them to feel glad of this.
  9. Explain that the most important words in spoken language tend to be stressed (with a little more volume/vowel lengthening/raise in pitch). Explain that understanding the stressed words is usually enough to understand the whole of a text – with a bit of common sense and thinking to fill in the rest.
  10. Explain that they are going to listen to a short section of the speech and write down the key (stressed) words. Explain that they can listen to it several times but that you’re not going to pause the recording: they shouldn’t waste time writing down “and”/”is” etc.

  11. Play them this section (above); students write down stressed words. Play the tape a few times – students compare and share in pairs after each listen.
  12. Hopefully you can then elicit to the board:

    Today… you … challenges … real … serious… many… not… easily… short… time… know this… America… will … met

    You can then read these words out loud and ask if this is enough to understand Obama’s gist. (the answer, I think, should be yes…!)

  13. Invite the students to fill in the rest of the text using their memory, common sense, knowledge of grammar and/or guesswork.
  14. Give/show the original text and ask them to compare. Explain that in some cases they may have come up with perfectly correct alternatives:

    Today, I say to you that the challenges that we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or (in a) short span of time. But know this America, they will be met.

  15. Read aloud some of the text but pause in illogical places e.g.:

    today I say to // you that the // challenges we face are // real they are… etc.

    Ask students what the problem is.

  16. Tell students to mark the places where Obama could, if he wanted, pause for breath, then elicit to the board. It should look something like this:

    toDAY I say to YOU // that the CHALLenges we face are REAL // they are SERious // and they are MANy // They will NOT be met EASily // or (in a) SHORT span of TIME // But KNOW THIS // AmERica // they WILL // be MET.

  17. Invite students to listen to the speech and mime (it helps if they stand up and also imitate his facial expression and body language) The purpose of miming is to encourage them to listen closely for how some words are “eaten” while others are lengthened and stressed.
  18. Invite students to choose two chunks next to each other and practise saying them. Practise fast, slow, loud, quiet, ignoring each other. Then in open class, they tell you their choice, you repeat it to them (with perfect Obama intonation); they mimic it straight back to you, looking at your face – not at the text.
  19. If you want you could get them to learn it by heart, practise and perform it, voting for the most effective orator in the class.
  20. If you want to you can then explain to students the meaning of the words “prominence”; “tone unit”/”chunk”

I first learnt this style of lesson (steps 10-18) from Nick Hamilton at International House London. It is similar in style to lessons by David Brazil (see his “Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English”).
Tim McLeish

The relevant text:

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation…


… as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

2 thoughts on “Sentence Stress through Obama’s inauguration speech

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.