Intonation is one of those crazy little things that can make one speaker sound bored and another interested – while they use the same exact words.
Intonation adds a dimension to the English language, a richness that goes beyond the mere use of the right words and the right grammar structure. It’s what helps you say a lot, in perhaps just a few words.
ESL students learn intonation by imitation and understand it the more they listen to native English speakers, but it takes more than that, more than just listening. Intonation has to be taught. And corrected. And here’s how.
Correcting ESL Student Intonation: 7 Ways
Rising vs. Falling
The very first thing ESL students must understand about intonation is the difference between rising and falling intonation. The best way to illustrate this difference is to say the same sentence with both and discuss the speaker’s intentions in each case.
You’re John, aren’t you? (The speaker is certain.)
You’re John, aren’t you? (The speaker is uncertain.)
Isn’t that funny. (The speaker is making a comment.)
Isn’t that funny? (The speaker is asking a question/seeking confirmation.)
Be sure to illustrate the difference with arrows and repeat the correct intonation for each case. Then, have students repeat examples in both rising and falling intonation. They may not get it at first – both may sound exactly the same. Have them repeat till they can clearly express both the rising and falling intonation.
Focus on the Rising Pitch
A lot of students end questions or sentences flat – no rising pitch at the end, and sometimes this rising pitch is absolutely necessary to convey the right intention. If a student says “Sorry”, it sounds like an apology. But if they are trying to get someone to repeat what they’ve just said, they should say, “Sorry?” Sometimes you need to exaggerate the rising pitch at the end and have students repeat. Don’t worry if it sounds exaggerated at first. It’ll sound more natural later as they gain confidence.
Use Short Sentences
In the beginning, the best way for students to both hear and repeat a rising or falling intonation is through very short phrases and sentences.
Sorry. Yes. Sorry? Yes?
Then, work your way towards longer phrases and sentences.
Build towards Longer Phrases
This is a great strategy to use when students are having a particularly difficult time with longer sentences. If you want your students to ask, “Would you mind closing the window?” start by saying and repeating the last word and working your way backwards:
Closing the window?
Mind closing the window?
Would you mind closing the window?
Just as important as using the right intonation is discerning the speaker’s intention based on the intonation he/she uses. Give students exercises where they must listen (either you or an audio track) to different types of intonation, and ask them what the speaker’s intention is.
Say: Isn’t it hot. Ask: Am I asking a question or making a comment about the weather?
Say: Don’t you like coffee? Ask: Do I sound certain or surprised?
Finally, say “You have to go?” And simply ask your students what you’re indicating with your intonation (surprise).
One Word Answers
Another great way to practice intonation is by asking students to reply to a variety of situations with only one word. Because they can only use one word, the intonation has to be just right to carry the right intention. For example:
Say: What do you say to a friend who’s just arrived late?
Say: Your friend has not arrived yet, but you’re not sure why. What do you say to your other friend?
Watch my Cue!
Try this game to keep your students on their toes. Write out some short phrases on some cards but don’t punctuate them. Give each student a card. Your student has to read the phrase, and say it out loud, but first they have to see what you indicate with your hands. Sweep your hand up if you want them to use rising intonation; sweep it down if you want them to use falling intonation.
You won the lottery. (sweep you hand down)
You won the lottery? (sweep you hand up)
See how many get it right! And have other students say what is being expressed (surprise, certainty, comment, etc…)
Intonation may be a pain to teach but don’t try to avoid it.
You owe it to your students to give them all of the tools they need to communicate accurately and effectively. And intonation is one very powerful communication tool.
Have you used any of these strategies in your ESL classroom? If you have any to add, please share them below!