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

- 2

In contrast, there is the grammatical approach. At first it seems to be simpler because it recognises that there are some sentence types, which follow certain intonation contours e.g./ WH questions - falling, however there are lots of exceptions. It appears to be useful for learners, as they learn a structure the teacher can highlight the typical intonation pattern quickly on the whiteboard. I myself have found those for questions tags the most useful, perhaps because it allows students to express their expectations most accurately, as a signal to the listener. However these contours become questionable, depending on the meaning/function that the speaker wishes to convey.

As a guide for students, I feel that the natural division between tone units and syntactic boundaries is the most useful aspect of the grammatical approach. It can assist with their listening as means of predicting what may come next and also help them manage their speaking by using natural pauses. As a noticing activity, I have asked students to mark these on tape scripts, after which they listen to check. Comments have been positive and students have been encouraged that more or less their predictions were correct.

On the whole, teaching materials, our stock and trade, appear to have used intonation as an add on to other aspects of the language. Also expressed by Jenner and Bradford, both of the approaches above view intonation as a 'back up' system for kinds of information conveyed by other aspects of the language - attitudinal by tone of voice and grammatical by word order and lexis (3).

Traditionally, intonation has only been introduced at sentence level, in contrary to the objective we have with our students - to give them the ability to communicate in English. As I have already said we communicate over a stretch of language, it only follows then that intonation should be examined at discourse level in the classroom.
Recent articles on the subject define it as the speaker's means of organising and relating meaning throughout the discourse. Others may argue that it is the primary means of organising language but I think we naturally employ other factors such as body language by the use of eye contact or gestures, also we judge the conversation by the relationship we have with the other speaker.

And from my reading I would conclude that intonation itself does depend on the speakers involved: their opinions, relationship and their expectations of the conversation. Due to this, in my opinion the most accurate model is found in spoken discourse: it demonstrates the ongoing state of play between the parties, their interpretation of the common ground and how the speakers wish to appear to each other. More importantly there is a context from which students can assess the pitch variations and the features of natural speech, which contribute to it.
Presented in a listening activity, intonation in discourse can be a fulfilling noticing activity for students - it is naturally linked moment by moment, as the conversation evolves. After assessing the voice features of the speakers throughout the discourse, the teacher can focus on prominence (the important information in a tone unit) activity or tone and pitch level.
I believe if students begin to understand how it contributes to a conversation, they can transfer this knowledge to their own speaking; equally use it as a strategy to help with their listening. Recently with listenings, as a gist activity I have asked students opinions about the features of the voice: speed, perceived attitude and pitch, to begin in developing their awareness of discourse and its related link with intonation.

Perhaps more importantly, this approach does not label but interpretates meaning based on the choices of the speaker, which is a re-enforcement of their expectations. To me this is what we seek to encourage and develop in our learners - their choice of language. Hopefully by taking a discourse approach to intonation, we can integrate it into the classroom, so that learners can notice aspects of it from a tangible context (receptive) and eventually reproduce them in their natural speech. (productive)

Learner Problems
For the learner intonation is indeed a minefield, they may have the grammatical and lexical knowledge to communicate successfully but still fail with a native speaker because they don't understand the discourse features or indeed how to deliver their message successfully.
Failure could possibly occur due to a number of factors. Firstly, the essential information of the message isn't grasped if the learner fails to stress the important information. Equally pragmatic meaning could be misunderstood if the learner doesn't understand when a topic is open or closed. Overall, lack of misunderstanding leads to a poorly controlled conversation in which the learner can't understand what information is given and what is new (2).

In my opinion, these misunderstandings occur mainly because of the language. Learners communicating think only about WHAT they are saying e.g./ am I using the correct words, what type of question am I responding to etc. rather than HOW they are saying it. Perhaps this is because as teachers there has been a reluctance to integrate intonation into classroom activities, preferring to practise the language with learners instead.
Also this reluctance could have occurred because it is judged to be specific to English, there is a lack of understanding among us of how we use it in natural discourse and nor is it dealt with effectively in materials.
As it is treated as something supplementary in class and too often found on the last page of a unit in the course book - it is no wonder that learners themselves do not equate its importance to grammar and vocabulary or even the speaking skill. Equally as teachers we may have sent a message that it is intangible to them by failing to integrate it within the language package. So then how can we start to redress this imbalance?

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