How to teach intonation

Many non-native English speakers have problems recognizing and using the different intonation patterns in English.  For an instructor, it’s crucial to raise the learners’ awareness of intonation because it performs a function, as well as indicating an emotion. Teaching this aspect of phonology is often an area overlooked by teachers and something that often confuses students because the key meaning of what is being said is not encoded in the meaning of the words, but rather the sound of the person´s voice (which is often very culture-dependent).

Being unaware of these differences increases the possibility for a non-native speaker to easily miscommunicate or misunderstand the intended message. For example, the English language has a literal meaning and a contextual connotation (e.g. I really like your hair). Depending on the speaker’s intonation, the literal meaning can denote a compliment while the non-literal meaning can show sarcasm. Though language learners have a concept of intonation from speaking their own language, how it’s used in English differs.

Let’s look at some intonation examples.

Cantonese speakers tend to sound quite flat which to a native English speaker can show apathy or boredom whereas French speakers tend to avoid glides.  As a result, French speakers may sound overly passionate or a bit forceful without intention. Spanish like Cantonese speakers can sound quite flat, which consequently indicates being impolite in English, in addition to using the verb ‘give’ rather than polite language.

Learning to speak English and communicating effectively goes beyond only grammar and vocabulary. ESL learners need plenty of intonation practice to avoid miscommunication both as a listener and speaker. Let’s begin by looking at the different tones.

There are five tones in English which can specify different emotions and functions:

Fall ↘

Rise ↗

Rise fall ↗↘

Fall Rise ↘↗

Flat →

Look at these examples and consider how intonation can change the meaning of each one:

a) ‘aah!’ = surprise (sharp fall) / realisation (rise-fall) / ‘cuteness’ (fall, slow) / fear (flat, long)

b) ‘what?’ = surprise (sharp rise) / confusion (long, flat) / irritation (sharp fall)

c) ‘a handbag’ = affirmative statement (fall) / An item on a list (flat) / interest or curiosity (rise) / an old lady’s outrage (sharp, extreme fall-rise)

You’re probably asking yourself how and when to incorporate intonation practice in lessons. A good time to introduce intonation is to have a pronunciation stage.

1. Take a marker sentence from a listening tape-script and write it on the board.

Highlight the intonation by marking the arrows on the sentence, and then drill it. Show a variety of emotions, such as fear, anger, and irritation. Afterwards, drill it using different emotions. In the production stage of the lesson have the learners practice by responding to situations using the correct intonation or incorporate it as part of a role play.

Below are two more suggestions taken from on intonation and feelings

2. For students to convey the right emotion they must first understand it.

Try an exercise in which students can see that the intonation, not the words, is what conveys real meaning. Make this a multiple choice exercise. For each question, write a short sentence or phrase. Below it write several options students may choose from.

For example you might say: 'I have something to tell you.'

How does the speaker feel? Happy and excited? Sad and worried? Nervous and worried?

Now, read each sentence/phrase out loud. Make sure you convey the right feeling. For instance, say, “I have something to tell you” in a way that conveys that it is a serious matter that worries you, and you’re nervous talking about it. Students listen to each one and circle the right feelings.

3. Give your students a series of questions they must evaluate.

Tell them that they must indicate whether each has a rising or falling intonation. For example:

Did you remember to buy the milk? (rising)

Where did you buy that? (falling)

See if students can see a pattern (yes/no questions have rising intonation; wh- questions have falling intonation).

Our Top Tips for Intonation Practice

1. Give clear models and try the elastic effect by exaggerating the intonation features, and then ask the learners to keep reducing it until it sounds appropriate. 

2.  Mix a direct and continuous approach by incorporating intonation into each lesson.

3.  Model a variety of emotions and functions.

4. Make sure to model and ask learners to identify the function or emotion.

5. Exploit a listening text by identifying recurrent emotions.

So ask yourself.  Are you ready to address intonation in class?

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About the Author

Bryan Holmes

Bryan worked as a teacher trainer and course director for the Trinity CertTESOL at English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL, MA TESOL and Cambridge DELTA. With over 10 years teaching experience, he has a special interest in phonetics and phonology.

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