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How to Teach Intonation Awareness to EFL Students

How to Teach Intonation Awareness to EFL Students

English is widely spoken in different parts of the world today, along with the local language of the region. Although there’s no major difference in the way it is written in different countries (US and UK English), the way it is spoken can vary significantly.

This doesn’t mean that a certain speaking style is wrong. It just means that the way you speak may be referred to as ‘speaking with an accent’.

Intonation equals oral skills

However, no matter what English accent is being used, intonation is also a necessary characteristic. Without these variations in tone, language is monotone and flat and not as easy to understand. Intonation is responsible for bringing language alive and giving it colour, it adds emotion to words and works as punctuation while speaking. It helps to improve communication by enabling the speaker to convey meaning in the intended manner by varying the pitch for certain ‘content words’. Intonation is a character of every language and often a listener can guess which language is being used, simply by listening to the variation in tone; a good example is Italian.

Why is teaching intonation important?

The teaching of pronunciation and intonation should go hand in hand. EFL / ESL students eventually grasp the rules of writing English, but when they read or speak in general, there is a notable difference. The tone varies, words are mispronounced, misunderstandings can be easily created and the tone may even offend someone.

Take for example the classic conversation in The Big Bang theory:
Sheldon: Which is the sixth Noble Gas?
Leonard: Radon?
Sheldon: Are you asking me or telling me?
Leonard: Telling you? (Pause) Telling you.

How do we teach intonation?

To begin with, there is no fixed way of teaching intonation to students and many teachers avoid going into this subject. It is primarily the ability of students to adapt to the new accent and some do it fairly well, while others find it difficult. Teaching intonation can be a joy, as it encourages students to be expressive and adds to their enjoyment of learning English. It also gives the teacher an opportunity to be dramatic and creative and to bring expression and humor to the classroom.
As teachers, we should firstly classify speech into the four major intonational features i.e, intonation units, stress, tone and pitch range.

The division:

Start off by dividing the stream of speech into smaller phrases called Intonation Units (or tone units). This is much like breaking up a block of text into paragraphs and paragraphs into sentences. Having divided your block of text into meaningful tone units, it’s now time to identify the focus words
and tonic syllables and then to demonstrate how these syllables are stressed.

The words that require some stress are called content words and the lexical / supporting words are called function words. On a general note, verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, question words, negatives, and prepositional adverbs are content words. Articles, modal auxiliaries, prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns are function words. I found that making flashcards using Cram was particularly useful for this exercise.

Assigning the tone and pitch

Once the students understand pronunciation and syllable stress, it’s fairly easy to use them in a sentence, as the words will be same every time and only the pitch and tone (high rise or low rise) will vary depending on them serving as the content words or focus words in a sentence.

The sentences now need to be assigned a tone to sound correct. The tone explains whether the speaker of the sentence intends to refer, state, question, hesitate, proclaim, indicate completion, agree, disagree, etc. The tone and pitch go hand in hand and vary according to the sentence and intent of the speaker.

Primarily, there are three types of tones; falling tone (low pitch), rising tone (high pitch) and a partial fall (mid level pitch). By observation, general statements always fall low i.e., they have a falling tone.
Example, I bought a car. My dog runs really fast.

Questions are a little tricky. Questions which can be answered by yes / no, go high i.e. they have a rising tone.
Example, Do you mind coming over to my house? Did you pick up the groceries?
The remaining questions go low, i.e. they have a falling tone.
Example, What is your name? Why did you beat the dog?

Sentences, which are unfinished, have a partial rise, i.e. some focus words go up, but the sentence always ends on a low tone.
Example, The(low tone) incredible actor, who came from Hollywood (partial rise)…. was awarded an Oscar. I know I ate a lot of food, (partial rise) but I’m growing (low tone).


The challenge

Teaching intonation can be difficult at first, since the students are only just learning to speak a new language and this all takes time. As a teacher, it can be important to correlate a sentence with the local language of the speaker to help them understand the words and the intent of the sentence easily. You can use the Google Translate tool for this.

Start off by making students recite poems and read stories aloud to the class. Show them video clippings of famous speeches, explain the emotions and note down the tone and pitch of the speech. Students remember well what they learn visually and by watching people speak.

Like most teachers I spend a lot of time trying to discover the best ways to help my students not just understand and remember the concepts in English, but also to show them the beauty of the spoken language and to show them how they can bring language alive and vibrant by using intonation. I’ve shared some of the ways in which I do it and a few examples that have helped me make my point. I would love to know how you pursue this in your classroom and it would be nice to hear your experiences too.

Ethan’s Blog

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