Teacher in class looking on student.

Intonation is crucial for communication. It's also a largely unconscious mechanism, and as such, a complex aspect of pronunciation. It's no surprise that many teachers don't feel confident about tackling it in the classroom. When teaching grammar or lexis, we find ways of making the language accessible to our learners. How then to do this with intonation?

What is intonation?

Intonation is about how we say things, rather than what we say. Without intonation, it's impossible to understand the expressions and thoughts that go with words. Listen to somebody speaking without paying attention to the words: the 'melody' you hear is the intonation. It has the following features:

  • It's divided into phrases, also known as 'tone-units'.
  • The pitch moves up and down, within a 'pitch range'. Everybody has their own pitch range. Languages, too, differ in pitch range. English has particularly wide pitch range.
  • In each tone unit, the pitch movement (a rise or fall in tone, or a combination of the two) takes place on the most important syllable known as the 'tonic-syllable'. The tonic-syllable is usually a high-content word, near the end of the unit.
  • These patterns of pitch variation are essential to a phrase's meaning. Changing the intonation can completely change the meaning. Example:
    • Say: 'It's raining'.
    • Now say it again using the same words, but giving it different meaning. You could say it to mean 'What a surprise!', or 'How annoying!',or 'That's great!'. There are many possibilities.

Why teach intonation? 

Intonation exists in every language, so the concept we're introducing isn't new. However, learners are often so busy finding their words that intonation suffers. Yet intonation can be as important as word choice - we don't always realise how much difference intonation makes:

  • Awareness of intonation aids communication.
  • Incorrect intonation can result in misunderstandings, speakers losing interest or even taking offence!

Though it's unlikely our learners will need native-speaker-level pronunciation, what they do need is greater awareness of intonation to facilitate their speaking and listening.

Can I improve my own awareness of intonation?

It's difficult to hear our own intonation. Choose somebody to listen to closely: as you listen, visualise the melody in your head, 'seeing' how it's divided into tone-units. Next time you do a class speaking activity, focus on your students' intonation. Are there students whose language is 'correct', but something doesn't sound right? Do they come across as boring or insincere? It may well be their pitch range isn't varied enough.How I help my students


Some techniques I find useful for raising learners' awareness of intonation:

  • Provide learners with models - don't be afraid to exaggerate your intonation.
  • Let students compare two examples of the same phrase, eg: varied/flat intonation, English / L1.
  • Ask students to have a 2-minute conversation in pairs as 'robots' (elicit the word using a picture if necessary), i.e. with no intonation. When they then go back to speaking 'normally', point out that the difference is made by intonation - this is what gives movement to our voices.
  • Get students to imitate my intonation, but without words, just humming.

Intonation doesn't exist in isolation. So it makes sense to approach it together with other factors.

Intonation and grammar

Where patterns associating intonation and grammar are predictable, I highlight these to my students. I see these as starting-points, rather than rules.

Some examples are:

  • Wh-word questions: falling intonation
  • Yes/No questions: rising
  • Statements: falling
  • Question-Tags: 'chat' - falling; 'check' - rising
  • Lists: rising, rising, rising, falling

When practising these constructions, I include activities focusing specifically on intonation.

For example, Question-Tags: Students in groups are assigned jobs to mime to each other. Students make notes about what they think each person's job is. They then have to check they've understood the jobs: Students use rising/falling intonation question-tags depending how sure they are: 'You're a pilot, aren't you?'. At the end, students confirm their jobs.

Intonation and attitude

It's important that students are aware of the strong link between intonation and attitude, even if it's difficult to provide rules here.

  • The first thing is for learners to recognise the effect of intonation changes. I say the word 'bananas' - firstly with an 'interested' intonation (varied tone); then 'uninterested' (flat). Students identify the two and describe the difference. We then brainstorm attitudes, such as 'enthusiastic', 'bored', 'surprised', 'relieved'. I say 'bananas' for these. Students then do the same in pairs, guessing each other's attitude.
  • This can be developed by asking students to 'greet' everybody with a particular attitude. At the end, the class identify each person's attitude. For younger learners, I use 'Mr Men' characters (Miss Happy, Mr Grumpy, Miss Frightened, etc.) Each student is allocated a character and, as above, they greet the class with that character's voice.

    Intonation and discourse

    Learners' also need awareness of intonation in longer stretches of language. Here, we can give our learners clearer guidelines: 'new' information = fall tone; 'shared' knowledge = 'fall-rise'.

    A simple shopping dialogue demonstrates this:

    SK: Can I help you?

    C: I'd like a chocolate (fall) ice-cream.

    SK: One chocolate (fall-rise) ice-cream. Anything else?

    C: One strawberry (fall) ice-cream.

    SK: One chocolate (fall), one strawberry (fall). Anything else?

    C: Yes. One chocolate (fall), one strawberry (fall), and one vanilla (fall-rise).

    Higher level students can identify the 'new' / 'shared' information, and then practise reading accordingly.

    With lower level students, we memorise the dialogue together. Although I don't refer to intonation directly, I use my hands to indicate it (fall = hand pointing down; fall-rise = down then up). Students then prepare their own dialogues. I've found my learners pick up these patterns very quickly.


    When working on intonation in the classroom, I:

    • Remember that intonation is relevant to any speaking activity, and makes interesting remedial/revision work.
    • Remember that students don't always have to 'know' we're focusing on intonation: every time I drill phrases they're hearing intonation models.
    • Provide realistic and clear contexts.
    • Avoid going into theory.
    • Help students find patterns / rules-of-thumb, wherever possible.
    • Use a consistent system for marking intonation on the board for example: arrow for tone; tonic-syllable in CAPITALS; double lines ( // ) for tone-unit boundaries.
    • Keep it positive and don't expect perfection. The last thing I'd want is to make my students so anxious about their intonation that they stop speaking!

    Further reading

    • Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill
    • Pronunciation by Dalton and Seidlholfer
    • How to Teach Pronunciation by Gerald Kelly
    • Teaching English Pronunciation by Joanne Kenworthy

    Marta J. Sabbadini, British Council, Cameroon

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