Marnie Reed of Boston University and Tamara Jones of SHAPE Language Center in Belgium proved to be a dynamic duo. Their afternoon session Intonation: Overlooked in IEPs, Essential for Conveying and Interpreting Meaning was well attended, and each minute was packed with insights and helpful, practical ideas.
Do English language learners grasp the intent of words spoken? How does English encode this intent? Do we teachers correct errors in intonation? These are some of the thought-provoking questions Drs. Reed and Jones explored.
Dr. Reed began with a review of some of the functions of intonation, such as signaling grammatical structures and syntactic organization and providing turn-taking cues. She asserted that although we develop awareness of our native sound system at infancy, ELTs tend to overlook the intrinsic functions of intonation and instead focus on the patterns we consciously learn, for example, the expression of sarcasm.
Recalling the Prosodic Bootstrapping Hypothesis, which states that infants recognize and make use of clausal units (thought groups) in speech comprehension, as well as Judy Gilbert’s Prosody Pyramid, which visually demonstrates the peak vowel in a stressed syllable of a focus word within a thought group, Dr. Reed went on to explain how essential intonation is in communication. She argues that judgments are made based on intonation; therefore, we must teach our students intonation patterns so that they can accurately convey and interpret meaning. Dr. Reed presented a power visual aid to drive home her point: Imagine a Venn diagram with one circle representing communicated content and the other circle representing communicative intent. How can we help our students recognize the overlap?
At this point in the session, attention focused on discovering learner and instructor metacognitive gaps. A survey showed that ELLs placed more importance on words than intonation. Furthermore, the students in the study saw production of phonemes being more important than the use of word and phrasal stress. Efforts by teachers to teach exaggerated stress were not seen as practical instruction that the students could apply to real-life settings.
Dr. Reed shared more effective ways of teaching prosody. She has used episodes of the TV show Friends, and commented that the character of Chandler provides frequent models of sarcasm. A transcript of a few lines can be shown with intonation noted by arrows. Questions for interpreting the communicative intent direct students to focus on intonation, and not just the spoken words. Although such transcripts can be time-consuming to create, once they are prepared, you can recycle the material with different groups of students.
Dr. Reed also uses authentic and scripted speech to teach students how intonation helps the listener predict subsequent information. For example, Dr. Reed uses a “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, in which one panel has the speech bubble blackened. She poses questions to her ELLs, encouraging prediction: What do you think the boy might say? What words are most important in that response? How might those words be said?
Other practical suggestions included conducting and using kazoos. In the conducting method, learners make use of the arms and other body parts (eybrows, legs…) to mimic the intonation patterns in a spoken dialog. The idea is that through body movement the prosody will be learned and retained. With the kazoos, the idea is to have students hum the patterns used in a dialog. Dr. Reed has had many adult learners thank her for the free kazoos and the learning experience.
One of my favorite activties presented at this session was a game to teach speaker attitudes. Dr. Reed’s “Active Listening Card Game” requires only five colored cards (each student will need 3-5 cards). Each card has a purpose, and students must be able to produce words or utterances to convey that purpose: Encouraging Words (Wow!), Emphasis Questions (Really?), Repeating Questions (a.k.a. echo questions), Information Questions (with wh- words), and Comments (That’s so interesting!) The game is played in pairs. Students take turns talking on a topic and listening. A timer is used, and the speaker must talk for one minute. During the course of that minute, the listener must try to use of each of the cards by producing appropriate but varied utterances. As a card is used, it is placed down on a table. After that one minute, the roles are reversed.
Indeed, there was a lot of useful information shared, and my attempt to summarize the presentation has already resulted in a lengthy blog post! All I can say is if you have a chance to attend a session with Drs. Reed and Jones at a future TESOL convention, don’t miss it.
My sincere thanks to Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones for sharing their presentation slides with me. Thank you again for a wonderful session.