Tone & Tonal Movement
is usually seen as a difficult area for both the student &
the teacher with quite a few teachers trying to 'protect'
their students from disillusionment by ignoring intonation
completely. The students won't be able to hear it, let alone
come out with it, so why bother?
suggested in previous Tips, introducing
'prominence' - stress within utterances - goes a long
way to helping both receptively & productively. And before
getting into more technical discussions of intonation with
our students there is another approach to smooth the road.
This is through 'voice quality setting' in which the distinctive
features of speakers are discussed. In other words, how does
it sound? Is the speaker using a deep pitch, using the tip
of the tongue, not opening the lips much, sound squeaky etc..
Using this kind of 'lay-language' is attractive for all. Here
are a few ideas for incorporating this:
Students listen to various speakers of different nationalities
speaking in their native language & then discuss the differences
Students listen to various nationalities speaking English
& discuss the differences between them.
Students have a roleplay using the 'foreign' characteristics
that came out of their discussions above.
Students 'shadow read' - see a past
Tip 'Shadow Reading' where students read a script with
exactly the same mannerisms along with the tape several times
& the teacher gradually turns the volume down, so that
by the end the students are sounding very similar to the original
on the tape.
Students, in their own language, mimic English speakers of
their language - lots of fun.
brings an awareness of what is involved in intonation - a
lot more than the sum of the words - without all the technical
talk & in a safe & fun way. The teacher can then feel
more confident about getting into more specific listening
development later on.
Tone it up
Last week we had another look at tone units & mentioned tonic syllables. Tone units divide speech up to make it all easier for the listener. We pause at the end of each tone unit.
See the Tip from last week:
Within each tone unit there is a tonic syllable, & this is important as it is where the tone changes. There are five main tones in English -
It can be difficult to hear the tones & it's not only students that need ear training but teachers as well. We can hardly integrate intonation into our teaching if we feel unconfident about actually identifying the movement in the first place. So listen out for tonal movement in conversations you have & with the audio teaching materials you use. The more you do, the easier it becomes.
There are several functions of intonation, the main ones being Grammatical, Attitudinal & Discoursal.
The Grammatical function - intonation reinforces grammar.
- wh-questions: fall
- conditional sentences: rise on the first clause & a fall on the second
- imperatives: fall
- yes/no questions: rise-fall
The Attitudinal function - intonation carries the emotions of the speaker.
- expressing surprise: rise
- sarcasm: rise-fall
- politeness: rise ('the polite rise')
- doubt: fall-rise
The Discoursal function - if we are talking about something we think the listener already knows about or has experience of then we rise or fall-rise – known as referring tones. If we think it is new for the listener we fall – known as the proclaiming tone.
See the following past Tips for more on this function:
Toning It Down
You don't say!
So what do we do with all of this?
We can highlight the different areas for our students, making them aware that there is a system at work, & we can also integrate these ideas into our day-to-day teaching.
The first can be done through activities to highlight the different functions. For example, students could listen to a series of questions & decide what the movement is on all of the wh- questions & the movement on the polar questions - a guided problem solving awareness activity.
Integrating intonation can come at many stages in a lesson. In the planning we work out the stresses & tonal movement so that in the presentation stage we can clearly model the new language, drill it & then offer a comprehensive board stage for the students to copy down.
It is important to take intonation seriously. Begin with tone units & the main stresses, the telegram words, & then move onto introducing different aspects of tonal movement.
Toning It Down
We have had quite a few Tips related to phonology & although we have
looked at prominence, we haven't yet looked at tonal movement. This is
a tricky area as a lot of people find it very difficult to identify
what actually happens in an utterance. From the tonic syllable – the
last major stress in the tone unit, does the tone rise, fall,
rise-fall, fall-rise or level – the five tones in English? And as it
is difficult to identify ourselves, we are very cautious about dealing
with this in class.
One attractive treatment of tonal movement is the discoursal approach.
This was first put forward by David Brazil & uses the 'given' & the
'new' ideas. Basically, if we are talking about something we think the
listener already knows about or has experience of then we rise or
fall-rise – known as referring tones. If we think it is new for the
listener we fall – known as the proclaiming tone. Look at the
Talking about weekend plans:
If we can't go on Saturday, why don't we go on Sunday?
Well, on Sunday, I'm supposed to be visting Ben.
In 'If we can't go on Saturday' the tonic syllable is on 'Saturday ' &
takes a fall-rise pattern as it is part of the weekend plan
conversation already underway.
The second part of the utterance 'why don't we go on Sunday?', the
tonic syllable is in 'Sunday' with the proclaiming tone, a fall, as it
is introducing a new idea.
And in the second utterance, the first part, Well, on Sunday' has the
fall-rise on Sunday as it is shared, & the fall, the new information
in the second part, 'I'm supposed to be visting Ben.' is on 'Ben'.
If you're not familiar with this approach to intonation, it is well
worth investigating & passing on to your students. When dealing with
dialogues, discourse, look for instances of proclaiming & referring
tones & get your students to notice them. Not only does this promote
an awareness of this approach but gives a depth to their awareness on
discourse in general. In a future Tip, we'll look at activities to
consolidate proclaiming referring tones.
Rules are very useful, students appreciate them as a way to make
the learning process more manageable & although the discoursal approach
to intonation does not necessarily answer all of the questions, it
contains relatively noticeable aspects with the basic manageable
proclaiming & referring tendencies.
Here are some teaching materials based around this discoursal approach
Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English - David Brazil (CUP)
To buy this book:
Intonation in Context – Barbara Bradford – (CUP)
To buy this book:
Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced
Learners of English: Student's Book - Richard Cauldwell (speechinaction)
To buy this book:
Richard Cauldwell's article 'The two-sides rule in teaching listening and pronunciation':
Richard's article 'Grasping the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening comprehension':
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