EFL / ESL Teaching Tip: A Few Tips for Teaching Intonation

This is James, the Head of Teacher Training here at Rennert, explaining some key points to consider when teaching intonation.


James: Hi! So, today I wanted to share a couple of tips on teaching intonation. Now, I always think that the pronunciation system is like a vocabulary system and like a grammar system in that it is a way of conveying meaning and that is something that I think is often overlooked. There’s two main functions to intonation. One is to contrast new information with old information and one is to separate thought groups. So, for example, if I say, “Follow that CAR. Which CAR? The BLUE car. The BLUE car with the BAD guy in it.” I’m using the intonation and stress to, kind of, contrast the new information with the old information. And then, for example, separating thought groups–if I say, “Jane said, ‘My dog is clever.'” or if I say, “Jane,” said my dog, “is clever.” the meaning is completely different. It’s also a little weird, but it is completely different, right? Your dog is talking. But all I’ve done–the words are the same, the grammar’s the same—but the vocabulary…the pronunciation, sorry, has changed and changed the meaning.

Now another thing I think is really interesting is if you have students whose first language is a tonal language, for example Chinese or Thai…Vietnamese. When…there each word the tone carries meaning like, “ma, ma, ma, ma” (said with a variety of tones), like, it’s all different meanings because the tone is different. So, students expect that. That’s what they are used to. So, when they learn a word they’re automatically learning or memorizing the tone of the word. When we teach a word, we usually teach it with falling intonation. “It’s book (falling intonation). It’s my favorite (falling intonation).” However, when we construct those words in sentences the intonation can change. But it can be very confusing for a student who has a tonal language and they’ve learned that book always has falling intonation and then suddenly they’re hearing it with rising intonation and it can be very very confusing and difficult for them. Also, when they’re using the pronunciation they’re so used to just using the tone that they’ve learned. So, that’s something that I think is very interesting to think about and consider if your students’ first language is a tonal language. So, a couple things to keep in mind, the uses of intonation in our language and then the differences between other languages and how that can really affect their ability to apply those uses or understand them.


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