student awareness of
intonation at discourse level
- by Jeanette Corbett
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.
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).
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.
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)
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
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