Helping Students Master the Ohs and Mms in English: Tips on Teaching Intonation

I’ve often taught separate lessons for each intonation pattern in American English, and I think this is effective when language learners are first studying the different patterns. However, once students have been exposed to those patterns, they need to deal with them in close proximity to one another. For instance, when rising and falling intonation are used back-to-back, can students hear the difference? Students’ comprehension of various intonation patterns should be tested not only through simple discriminatory exercises, but also through listening passages that illustrate intonation in a meaningful context. Once they gain comfort identifying a speaker’s mood or underlying thoughts through intonation, they can more accurately use the intonation patterns in their own speech.

Interjections fit very well into a lesson on pronunciation. Though short by nature, they play important roles in communication. Here’s a suggested series of activities:

  • STEP 1 – Elicit interjections from the class and list them on the board. Example: What do Americans say when hurt themselves? (Ouch!) Possible list: ouch, ah, well, mm, oh, oops, yikes.
  • STEP 2 – Listening task: Test the students’ ability to identify an intonation pattern and its meaning. Have students sit in pairs and listen to a list of isolated interjections spoken by the teacher. The teacher can use versatile interjections such as ah, oh, well, and mm. State each interjection in two different ways (for a total of 8-10 items). Be sure to use facial expressions and possibly even body language to help illustrate the meaning you want to convey. After each item is spoken, the students will work in pairs to identify the pattern and interpret its meaning. Example: Students hear “Oh!” with a sharp rise-fall. They identify the pattern and understand that the teacher is surprised by something. The teacher asks one pair to share their ideas, the class agrees or disagrees, and then the teacher confirms the correct answer.
  • STEP 3 – Pronunciation task: Test the students’ ability to produce correct intonation with interjections. Prepare 5-6 photos of people in advance. You can use magazine photos, Microsoft clip art, or online images (from Yahoo and Flickr). You want to collect photos illustrating a variety of emotions: bored, excited, surprised, in pain, etc. Tape the photos on the board and number them. In pairs, students should choose an interjection to represent each photo. Their work can then be shared and compared. Be sure students say the interjections with a clear and appropriate intonation pattern.
  • STEP 4 – Using the same photos, assign one to each pair. With their partners, students create a short dialogue (teacher must set minimum and maximum length) between two people. One character is the person in the photo. The interjection selected from Step 3 must be included. Dialogues are then shared with the class.

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