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Raising student awareness of
intonation at discourse level
- by Jeanette Corbett

- 1

This 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 4).

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 language.

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.

Intonation: definition, the divisions, EFL teaching and learner problems

Intonation: A definition
How would you define intonation? To me, it is rather like grammar and your definition depends on your perceptions of it.
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.

The 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.

First 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 speaking.

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:

Std A Did you know that Marco Polo discovered ……..?
Std B Really!

Once 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 down.

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.

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