In linguistics, intonation is variation of pitch while speaking which is not used to distinguish words. It contrasts with tone, in which pitch variation does distinguish words. Intonation, rhythm, and stress are the three main elements of linguistic prosody. Intonation patterns in some languages, such as Swedish and Swiss German, can lead to conspicuous fluctuations in pitch, giving speech a sing-song quality. Fluctuations in pitch either involve a rising pitch or a falling pitch. Intonation is found in every language and even in tonal languages, but the realisation and function are seemingly different. It is used in non-tonal languages to add attitudes to words (attitudinal function) and to differentiate between wh-questions, yes-no questions, declarative statements, commands, requests, etc. Intonation can also be used for discourse analysis where new information is realised by means of intonation. It can also be used for emphatic/contrastive purposes.
Intonation, rhythm, and stress are a major part of learning how to speak English well. Students should be given plenty of speaking practice during their classes and may occasionally need special lessons devoted to these topics. We have 44 such activities on Busy Teacher. This intonation worksheet, for example, is a well organized role play activity you can use to give your students practice using English in a real life situation. The activity includes all directions and teaching materials including a script.
Intonation, rhythm, and stress become very important topics for advanced learners.
Beginners should be taught what syllable of new words are stressed but are not expected to have excellent intonation or rhythm when it comes to speaking or reading aloud. Advanced learners may have an excellent understanding of English but having incorrect intonation and rhythm when they are speaking will prevent them from coming across that way. Slash reading is an excellent method to practice this with intermediate and advanced learners. For slash reading, have students place slashes where a native speaker would naturally pause. “I have been studying math, / science, / and history / for many years. /” You can also use arrows to give students some guidance too. In the example above the arrows would go down, down, up, and down. These are some very simple approaches to a complex topic.