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Tone & Tonal Movement

Setting the tone

Intonation 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?

As 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:

1. Students listen to various speakers of different nationalities speaking in their native language & then discuss the differences between them.

2. Students listen to various nationalities speaking English & discuss the differences between them.

3. Students have a roleplay using the 'foreign' characteristics that came out of their discussions above.

4. 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.

5. Students, in their own language, mimic English speakers of their language - lots of fun.

This 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 -

rise rise
fall fall
rise-fall rise-fall
fall-rise fall-rise
level level

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.
For example;
- 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.
For example;
- 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.

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 following utterances:

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
to intonation:

Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English - David Brazil (CUP)
To buy this book: Buy this book at Buy this book at

Intonation in Context – Barbara Bradford – (CUP)
To buy this book: Buy this book at Amazon.comBuy this book at

Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English: Student's Book - Richard Cauldwell (speechinaction)
To buy this book: Buy this book at

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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