TOEFL Sentence Rhythm

Practicing the correct TOEFL sentence rhythm will help you to speak more naturally. Moreover, speaking more naturally will help you score higher on the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT. Further, scoring higher on the TOEFL exam will help you get into a top-notch university. Or, scoring higher will help you clear a healthcare credential.  Finally, scoring higher on the TOEFL exam will increase your chances of getting a high-paying job, right? Through listening and voice recording practice, you will improve your sentence rhythm of American English.

TOEFL sentence rhythm

What is TOEFL sentence rhythm?

Sentence rhythm is the combination of stress (content words) and unstress words (function words) in the English language. Put another way, native-English speakers do not evenly stress all the words in a sentence.

Example of speaker without sentence rhythm:

Did you notice about the speaker places similar stress on almost every word. In addition, the speaker pauses after almost every word. This speaker does not have good TOEFL sentence rhythm.

Example of speaker with sentence rhythm:

Unlike the first speaker, the student does not stress every single word in the sentences that he utters. In fact, this student does a better job not only with sentence rhythm but also with thought groups and blending.

Therefore, this speaker has much more natural TOEFL sentence rhythm.

TOEFL Sentence Rhythm: What are function words?

When you speak, you should not place too much sentence stress on function words.  These words carry little meaning and denote a grammatical relationship with other words in their sentences.

Example of function words:

Determiners Prepositions Auxiliary verbs
Definite article: the

Indefinite articles: a, an

Demonstratives: this, that, these, those

Pronouns and possessive determiners: my, your, his, her, its, our, their

Quantifiers: a few, a little, much, many, a lot of, most, some, any, enough

Numbers: one, ten, thirty

Distributives: all, both, half, either, neither, each, every

Difference words: other, another

Pre-determiners: such, what, rather, quite

be (am, are, is, was, were, being)



do (did, does, doing)

have (had, has, having)








TOEFL Sentence Rhythm: What are content words?

Unlike function words, content words carry meaning, and thus receive more stress. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs are examples of function words.



























For more information, read my lesson about parts of speech.

TOEFL Sentence Rhythm: Can you guess the words missing from this paragraph?

The function words have been omitted from this paragraph to show that they do not carry much meaning.  Can you identify which words have been deleted?  Write down the missing words on a sheet of paper. Then click on answer to see what words were left out.

________advanced-level reading class, ________course prepares you________university-level reading________ ________  strategy-based approach, encouraging you________view reading English________ ________problem-solving process. Learners________develop targeted vocabulary, comprehension skills, ________ reading fluency________ ________ enhanced focus ________ critical thinking ________academic skills. You ________ improve ________ reading speeds through ________ completion______

View Answer Key


TOEFL Sentence Rhythm: Listen to the passage with the function words omitted. It takes me roughly 60 seconds to read it this way.



TOEFL Sentence Rhythm: Listen to the passage with the function words included. This time it took me 52 seconds to read the passage.


Practice reading the paragraph out loud. Can you read it in 52 seconds like I did?  As you improve your TOEFL sentence rhythm, you will be able to read in it in about the same time that I took.

Why did it take longer to read the paragraph without the function words?

Without the function words, I was not able to group ideas into thought groups as effectively. Therefore, my pacing and sentence rhythm were off.

Why did you read the paragraph with the function words 10 second faster?

With the function words, it was easier to group unstress and stress words together. Therefore, my pacing and sentence rhythm were more natural, so I was able to read that passage faster.

Voice Recording Activities: How this can help you improve your sentence rhythm

Below are four nursery rhythms that you can use to practice your sentence rhythm. After the nursery rhymes, I include some poems that you can practice reading. These pronunciation practice exercises are considered easy to difficult. First, you should record your voice reading each nursery rhythm/poem. Second, compare your recording to the sample native speaker recording. Finally, as you evaluate your recording, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Did you say the rhyme/poem in about the same number of seconds as the native speaker recording?
  • Did you place more stress on the content words and less stress on the function words?
  • Did you leave any of the function words out of your recording? Even though you should not stress function words, it does not mean that you should not pronounce them at all.
  • Did you pause in about the same places as the native speaker?
  • Did you use a combination of higher and lower tones like the native speaker?


Voice Recording Exercise: Hey Diddle Diddle

Hey Diddle Diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed,
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.


Voice Recording Exercise: Hickory Dickory Dock

Hickory, dickory, dock.
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.

Voice Recording Exercise: Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

Voice Recording Exercise: Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said “What a good boy am I!”

Voice Recording Exercise: “No Man Is An Island” by John Donne

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

Voice Recording Exercise: “Stopping by Woods On a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Voice Recording Exercise: “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?” by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Voice Recording Exercise: “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths — for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head;

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 20

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Voice Recording Exercise: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim

Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.


TOEFL Services to Help You Speak More Clearly

If you are having a lot of trouble reading the rhymes and poems out loud, you should consider using my accent reduction services. You can learn more about this service here: TOEFL Clear Speech Tips


Michael Buckhoff,

Teaching Experience

TOEFL Private Lessons

Online TOEFL Courses

Leave a Comment

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

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

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