student awareness of
intonation at discourse level
- by Jeanette Corbett
paper will first outline the choice for the experimental practice
lesson, focusing on the reasons and objectives of the experiment.
Then it will outline current EFL practice and the reasons
for my interest in the area, as and when required, it refers
my reading and opinions on intonation.
Finally conclusions will be made as to how to integrate it
into future teaching and its applicability to my professional
development. An evaluation of the lesson against the objectives
outlined below can be found in Appendix 5.
Introduction: Reasons and Objectives
I decided to focus on intonation at discourse level for this
assignment because I believe too often intonation is dealt
with as an after thought in the EFL classroom. Admittedly
it is a widely misunderstood area, the reasons for which I
will outline later in this document.
Equally as teachers we seem to be reluctant to fully integrate
it into our classes, probably because we don't fully understand
it ourselves and there doesn't appear to be a workable system
to make it comprehensible to our learners (1.a).
Therefore I hope by completing this assignment, I will become
more knowledgeable about the area and provide my students
with an awareness of its importance in discourse, for both
speaking and listening.
My reasons for focusing on this area with this particular
class are outlined in the attached lesson rationale (Appendix
As a teacher, the objectives for me will be the successful
execution of the lesson, so that the message is clearly received
by my students. Equally that from the lesson I will be able
assess how important intonation at discourse level is for
students: is it understandable to them, do they consider it
to be relevant and indeed how should it be introduced in future
lessons. Also from the lesson and activities done with other
classes I will assess if indeed it is teachable as part of
The principal objective for the lesson is the realisation
of my aims, particularly focusing on the main aim and subsidiary
aims b and c (Appendix 1).
Rather than just introducing intonation at discourse level
and asking students to examine it, I felt it was important
that it would have a tangible link to their learning. As can
be seen in my lesson rationale (Appendix 4) the class have
been focusing on the development their listening skills &
strategies. Therefore this is also an objective of the lesson,
that students will recognise its relevance to their learning
and how it can help their listening. Equally a lot of the
material to be analysed is transferable as a tool to help
their conversational ability.
definition, the divisions, EFL teaching and learner problems
How would you define intonation? To me, it is rather like
grammar and your definition depends on your perceptions of
As it was compared to the planet Mars in an article that I
read recently (3), one could also describe the definitions
as well as our perceptions as being shrouded in mystery. Perhaps
then this is why we have labelled it as un-teachable, with
quotes such as 'an area of phonology that is not easily described
nor understood' (6).
From my knowledge and reading, I would say it appears to be
the pitch variation that a speakers brings to a stretch of
language, which they use to convey the meaning of their message
- the variation is determined by the speaker's expectations
and evaluation of the situation i.e./ the common ground (based
on experience and prior knowledge), equally the relationship
they have with the listener.
I chose to say a stretch of language because by nature we
communicate over one. A sentence or even a tone unit on their
own are without context, therefore it would be wrong to define
intonation based on any one of these. There is no evidence
of what has gone before or available evidence to realistically
predict what is to come.
As I defined it, I have linked intonation to discourse (a
stretch of language) though by its nature no description is
possibly complete. I say this because as a native speaker
I know what I'm going to say, I can control my choice of words
however the manner in which I say them, that which conveys
meaning is a non-cognitive choice. So then, how have we introduced
this 'manner of saying something' to students.
divisions and EFL teaching
Traditionally we have divided intonational meaning into two
categories, probably for easy of teaching, those being: grammatical
and attitudinal. A more recent approach has been discoursal,
as highlighted in my definition above. However, it would be
wrong to accept discoursal intonation as the way forward in
EFL teaching, without first defining and examining the usefulness
of the forementioned categories.
lets consider attitudinal intonation, which isolates intonation
tones and gives them labels, such as surprise, agreement,
disagreement etc, thus defining our emotions at the time of
This is the most common view of intonation and has become
entrenched in language teaching. Perhaps this is because it's
a wonderful opportunity for students to be actors and is useful
as a beginning on the slippery road to understanding English
intonation. However I question its usefulness. For example,
there is that famous activity in Headway Elementary:
A Did you know that Marco Polo discovered
Std B Really!
as one of my classes expressed surprise at the feat of Mr
Polo, I realised what a mockery of the expression of their
emotions it was - there was no real context for their surprise.
As said by McCarthy, it is a mess if attached out of context
and equally it needs both lexical and contextual information
to make sense (4), something lacking in a one-turn question
and answer exchange about Mr Polo.
Equally I question the naturalness of the response. In a recent
seminar, I found it very difficult to produce the defined
tone for a list of attitudinal functions, the tones I used
felt forced upon me, so I can imagine how my students feel.
For example, one only genuinely expresses 'surprise' in a
situation when it occurs. In a conversation, the speaker's
attitude depends on what has gone before and their expectations
of what is to come. For example on the tape script, Andrea
is genuinely surprised (her use of 'well') that the hoarding
was painted over; her expectation was that it had been taken
To summarise, it is difficult to assign a specific tone to
an attitude and then expect learners to naturally mirror it
when they are difficult to recognise in ourselves.
page 2 of 3
the lesson plan
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