Teaching Intonation: Rising to the Challenge

Like many of you, I’ve begun to give some thought to 2017. I’d like to continue my practice of starting each new year with a special video challenge on YouTube. A 20-day Fast Speech Challenge marked the start of 2016. I kicked off 2015 with a similar 20-day Phrasal Verb Challenge. Presently, I’m toying with the idea of addressing intonation patterns. I may reduce the length of my video challenge, but there is certainly enough content for me to create at least 10 short lessons, if not more.

But how will I teach it so that the patterns are mastered? Obviously, there will be limitations due to the one-way format. Ideally, students need feedback when it comes to pronunciation practice. I have two ideas in mind to address this challenge:

  • One tip I’ve given in my Oral Reading Fluency series is to record oneself. Learning to evaluate one’s own speech is important, and this is possible when learners can compare their output to a model — in this case it will be mine.
  • Students can also learn by listening to their peers. They can learn to identify who is producing a close match to the model and whose sample is unclear and less accurate.

I also believe that there’s a stronger chance for mastery when the content is delivered well in the first place. How do you like to teach intonation? I plan to keep these things in mind:

  1. Body movement is helpful. I recall this point being emphasized by pronunciation experts like Judy Gilbert and Tamara Jones at TESOL 2013. I’ll be sure to make use of body movement in my video instruction to help students internalize the patterns.
  2. Short words and limited sounds can nicely balance long, meaningful sentences. Several years back I talked about using interjections to teach intonation and changes in meaning. “Oh!” can be said at least a half dozen ways to express emotions like understanding, surprise, doubt, boredom, playfulness, and sympathy. I know I’m not the first to use interjections that way, and there are plenty of teacher who take a sentence, strip it of words, and use a nonsense syllable like DA to convey the rhythm and stress of the statement. What do you mean? becomes DA da da DA? with falling intonation on the final syllable.
  3. Patterns can be and should be taught in isolation as well as in combinations. I see intonation patterns kind of like verb tenses. It’s helpful to present one verb form at a time at first, but comparing and contrasting is inevitable. In the end, students will make use of different tenses and aspects when they express their thoughts. Similarly, we can do repetition of a single intonation pattern in isolation, but at some point we have to practice  different patterns side-by-side because that’s how real communication is. We don’t speak only with rising or only with falling intonation. Moreover, intonation isn’t limited to those two patterns.

What’s interesting about my comparison to verb tenses is that some feel direct attention to grammar isn’t desirable. I’m not one who avoids explicit grammar instruction. I feel there’s a place for it. I feel the same way about pronunciation aspects like intonation. Some of it can be learned simply through exposure and the chance to read aloud and engage in conversation. However, many students benefit from a clear explanation of each pattern. For some, it may be an opportunity to confirm and reinforce existing knowledge. For others, those explanations will settle doubts or even introduce ideas that weren’t previously considered.

Any additional thoughts on teaching intonation are welcome!


Photo credit:

Climbing (July 31, 2013) by Michael Pollak. Retrieved from the Creative Commons on Flickr.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. arun goyal says:

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Jennifer. And your son and daughter whom we have seen growing up over the years.

    The piece on intonation is brilliant, as usual..
    In new year, please refer similar or contrasts with other languages.. You have a global audience and not just Americans..
    Appreciate your patience

    1. Hello Arun,

      Indeed, it’s useful to compare English intonations patterns to patterns in other languages. There are many possible comparisons, I’m sure, but I fear I don’t have the knowledge to address them all. I’ll do my best to be comprehensive. 🙂

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