Teaching English intonation and stress patterns

Written By technology factory on Sunday, 13 November 2011 | 15:00

Teaching intonation - the theories behind intonation


1. Tone - the rise and fall of the voice. Tune/Pitch variation. An oscilloscope will give an oscillograph of speech. The frequency will be shown by the closeness of the waves (high frequency will be shown by waves which are closer together).
2. The volume (strength of signal) will be shown by the height of the waves. The height of the note depends on the speed of opening and closing of the vocal cords. More vibrations of the larynx (up to 800 per sec) show up more compact waves.

The first thing that people (Daniel Jones, Kindom, Pike) looked at was pitch variation. Crude rules (Wh Qs fall; Yes/No Qs rise) based on introspection (what do I say?) rather than data. Those who have collected data come up with interesting findings:

Does intonation tell us what speech function is?

Many authors of intonation practice books [ e.g. O'Connor and Arnold in "Intonation of Colloquial English" or Cook in "Active Intonation" and "Using Intonation" ] provide exercises where speech functions such as polite requests or confirmation questions dictate the intonation patterns which listeners should expect or speakers should employ.
However, the findings of some research projects - most notably the Scottish Intonation Project - are that the relationships between intonation patterns [such as the tones categorized by O'Connor & Arnold] and speech functions are not so predictable.
Clear instances of rising tune -
1. Echo questions e.g. you what?
2. Challenging e.g. on Monday?
3. Conciliation: Oh really?
ATTITUDE: O'Connor & Arnold believe that intonation goes with attitude. They list 500 different attitudes. They have 4 Main Tunes.
Attitude is not conveyed by pitch alone.There's more to context than just pitch.
Note: Paralinguistic features identified by Gillian Brown. Variables include: pitch span, placing in voice range, tempo, loudness, voice setting (unmarked, breathy, creaky) articulatory setting (unmarked/tense), articulatory precision (precise/slurred/unmarked), lip setting (pursed/smiling), direction of pitch (rise/unmarked), timing (unmarked/extended), Pause (unmarked/pause).
These features are correlated with descriptions from novels: replied/said, retorted/exclaimed, important/pompous/responsible, dadly/depressed/miserable, excited, anxious/worried/nervous, shrill/shriek/scream, warmly, coldly, thoughtfully, sexily, crossly/angrily, queried/echoed.
Gillian Brown uses feature analysis (+ - or /) to make the connections. The idea of "Para-Language" is from Abacrombie. Desmond Morris has written a popular book on the subject - English people converse at 24 inches apart.

The importance of intonation in social interaction

TURN-TAKING: Giving the floor to another person or taking your turn in a conversation: rise and fall are used as a signal for when to speak and when not. Remain at a high pitch if you want to continue talking. A fall shows completion. (See Brazil)
INFORMATION STRUCTURE (See O'Connor): Major stress items pick out the most important words in the sentence: they point to the new/unknown information in the sentence. Michael Halliday has done most work on this.
Note that one function of intonation is stress. The tonic (stressed item) is the item which has the greatest amount of pitch movement on it.

Implications for teaching English pronunciation

Many linguists and teachers suggest that teachers should focus on teaching STRESS rather than RISE & FALL since there is a massive difference between how one person and another perceives an utterance. You need a machine to determine whether it's a rise or a fall.
At higher levels - for example, pronunciation sessions for learners involved in the language of negotiation or presentation in fields such as business or education, emphasis should also be given to TOPIC STRUCTURE - also related to turn-taking. Topic Switching: Start high. When people switch tack, they mark it with their voice.
[a] CONCLUSION: Teachable items are
  1. Sentence STRESS
  2. Contrastive STRESS.
[b] Distinguish between production and comprehension in your teaching.

[c] Teach intonation in context. e.g. being angry - use model dialogues to represent particular functions of the voice. Some practice in linking intonation patterns to attitude will probably help in clearer communication of meaning in spite of the findings of the Scottish Intonation Project.

Use of "dialogues" as English pronunciation teaching materials

Could a prose text have been used to equal effect or does the target depend heavily on face to face communication?
Many dialogues in English coursebooks are written specifically for grammar demonstration on the one hand and conversation-facilitation on the other. In each case, useful vocabulary is also demonstrated.
Colin Mortimer's dialogues in The Cambridge Elements of Pronunciation series (e.g. "Stress Time", "Weak Forms", "Link Up" and "Clusters") include single lexical items and conversational phrases i.e. some very essential features of speaker/listener interaction.

The importance of meaningful contexts and the relevance of intonation practice

How important is it to memorize dialogues incorporating these different objectives? Remember Monsieur le Surveillant's son in Algeria who memorized the whole book. Ask him where he lives and he's very puzzled!
Remember Hasdrubel in an English Primary School. His family has moved from Spain. He has mastered phonics and look and say and his reading appears to be fluent, though he has a total lack of intonation & stress. He has no idea what the words mean!
Remember the gentleman who can impress us by instantly recalling sporting facts. Try him on international politics. His memory training permits him to recall every date associated with countless events - some trivial and some important. What he is almost totally unable to do is to link information and to evaluate what is trivial and important in relation to a further goal or greater purpose. The ability to select according to priority and to combine information in other than a chronological sequence appears to be missing.

Linking intonation practice to practice in grammatical accuracy

Although books for practising English syntax in written form such as Intermediate English Grammar have their purpose, we are failing as teachers if we do not provide learners with the phonological rehearsal and memory training needed to achieve accuracy in oral English. Many important opportunities were lost to learners when language laboratory pattern drills (of the more meaningful variety) went out of fashion. Coupled with practice in stress and intonation, these drills can contribute far more effectively to communication skills than libraries of materials described as "authentic" - which often do not require learners to produce any sounds or syntactic forms at all.
Schools and Self Access Centres which really provide language practice opportunities will possess materials providing simultaneous rehearsal of syntax and pronunciation. The best of these are:

Kernel Lessons Plus Laboratory Drills and Kernel Lessons Intermediate Drills by Robert O'Neill.
Robert's drills provide rehearsal in repetition, substitution (simple, variable or progressive), transformation (e.g. Question & Answer; Tense to Tense), combination (e.g. collocation exercises). However, phonology, stress and intonation is being rehearsed all the time. Moreover, Robert's skill in relating syntax (e.g. structural forms in different verb tenses) to meaning and situation, escapes the shortcomings of drills that teach "structure speech" and offers the rehearsal and production opportunities that must be present in the curriculum if we are to have any chance of teaching oral communication. Meaningful contexts and naturalistic settings are present throughout.

Learners and teachers should be suspicious of any theory related to communicative language which ignores the essential need for active rehearsal and production of phonology (vowel & consonant sounds), stress and intonation patterns (signalling meaning and attitude) and syntax (also related to meaning via concepts such as time and completion).

Phonetics is defined as the study of sounds, while Phonology extends to the study of sounds within a language system. All spoken and written languages are systems.

To deny learners rehearsal in the recognition and production of English phonemes and syntactic forms in the name of some theory of Communicative Language Teaching dependent on "authentic materials" is absolute madness and has nothing to do with teaching communication. It also portrays a mistaken notion of authenticity. Nearly all speeches and texts that can be found in the world are produced with some purpose in mind. There is nothing culpable about creating written or spoken material designed especially to help people learn English. If material developed to practise phonology &/or syntax completely ignores function, attitude and meaning, then it is probably not very good material. Authenticity is not an issue. Texts or dialogues tailored to the phonology or grammar problems of learners from specific language backgrounds can be perfectly authentic as teaching material. Why choose texts designed to help or appeal to people with needs and interests which bear no relevance to learners' problems and goals?

Intonation has various functions in different world languages

On this page, we have been concerned with the functions of intonation in spoken English. In world languages, intonation is used to mark:
  1. gender
  2. number
  3. quantity
  4. tense or time
  5. modality
  6. pace (in some languages)
  7. word order
  8. punctuation and
  9. boundary features

Teaching English rhythm and stress patterns - use of weak forms, stress placement & timing

As movement of pitch is heard on stressed syllables in the English language, practice of English intonation and stress patterns are closely linked. However, it can be beneficial to focus specifically on word and sentence stress. A Pronouncing Dictionary is recommended as a reference source to check where syllable stress occurs within words. Practising placement of stress within sentences is also essential if learners are to become good listeners and communicators, since the same sentence can take on different meanings depending on where the speaker chooses to place the primary stress:
EXAMPLE SENTENCE [A]: "I'm not going".
  1. "I'm not going": meaning [1] = Not "ME", but perhaps "YOU", "SHE" or "HE".
  2. "I'm not going": meaning [2] = I reFUSE to go.
  3. "I'm not going": meaning [3] = I'm not GOing... I'm COMing BACK!
Sentence stress can also be illustrated and practised by writing a long sentence on the board, which can be made to carry many different meanings or points of emphasis.
EXAMPLE SENTENCE [B]: "Janet's going to Brighton tomorrow afternoon to buy herself a pair of red, leather shoes."
Practice of sentence stress is achieved by cueing the learners with questions while requiring them to use the whole sentence in reply. The second time this is done, the learners can discard the parts of the sentence which do not contain the important element of the answer in order to form a more natural response.
The teacher provides cues such as: "Is John going to Brighton...?", "Is Janet going to London..?", "Is Janet going away from Brighton...?", "Is Janet coming from Brighton...? Is Janet going to sell her mother a pair of red, leather shoes?", "Is Janet going to buy herself three pairs...?" "Is Janet going to buy herself a pair of blue, suede shoes / red, leather sandels?"
It will become clear to learners that there are many variations of sentence stress, which will decide the meaning of their responses.
A practice session on stress could also be included in a lesson aimed at improving listening comprehension. Learners who listen to utterances in a linear way, giving equal importance to each word in sequence, are exhibiting very poor listening strategies. Learners who do this are usually the ones who complain that it is too fast and ask for sluggishly slow colloquial. What they are missing is the fact that in the English language, the words carrying the important meaning are often located at or towards the end of an utterance or sentence. Words such as "I" (and more difficult items than subject pronouns placed near the beginning of sentences) are often fairly redundant in terms of meaning since they refer to known territory: i.e. the listener already knows that it is "you" who is speaking. Try the following technique to make your learners more relaxed about rapidly spoken utterances:
EXAMPLE SENTENCE [C]: "I don't know whether you're wondering who I am, but may I introduce myself. I'm Tarzan."
Having deliberately recited the unimportant parts of this utterance at breakneck speed, reassure your learners by asking them just to listen to the important components near the end of the utterance, especially the words and syllables carrying the main stress. Make the point that native speakers only listen out for one or two propositions in an utterance and all that this one really communicates is "ME...TARZAN". Learning what parts of an utterance to discard (not even to assign to "the recycle bin") is a very important listening strategy. Native speakers would find listening comprehension impossible if they did not know how to process utterances in this way. It may be worth mentioning that the keys and tunes used at the beginning of sentences can communicate attitudes i.e. they can tell you if the speaker is angry or trying to be friendly, polite, formal or cold. Without understanding any of the words, it is still possible to detect the speaker's attitude.

Nonsense words (just "pure noises"!) can even be used to practise conveying attitude. In multilingual classes, this can form the basis of an interesting contrastive linguistics project on differences and common ground in the use of tunes and keys to communicate feelings and attitudes. Leo Jones includes activities of this kind in "Notions of English" [Cambridge]. Ask your learners to utter a nonsense sentence such as "I love you" several times, telling them what attitude [e.g. warmth, indifference, pride, hostility, boredom, interest] you wish them to communicate on each occasion. Fame Academy teachers try to get learners to sing with expression. The challenge for language teachers is to get learners to speak with expression.

Phonology, stress patterns and tunes are all interrelated. To achieve the correct rhythm, it is necessary to know when to use weak forms [this frequently involves the neutral vowel "schwa"], which is under-deployed by many second language learners. Learners whose native languages have many consonant sounds, but relatively few vowel sounds, especially long vowels and diphthongs [e.g. native speakers of Arabic languages and dialects], are likely to have poor stress timing and to make insufficient use of pitch variation (i.e. intonation).

Good material to practise expression (i.e. rhythm, stress and intonation) includes situational-based texts designed for role play where utterances are short (but dramatic!). Some of the best role play texts I have used were provided by Doug Case and Ken Wilson and the English Language Teaching Theatre. The two best titles were: "Off Stage" 1979 Heinemann [15 sketches + accompanying audio-cassette] and "Further Off Stage" 1984 [10 sketches + accompanying audio &/or video cassette]. Unfortunately, these materials are no longer in print. As smaller publishers are taken over by larger ones, editors who may not have had much classroom teaching experience are sometimes too involved in the promotion of new material of questionable value and overlook older "jewels in the crown". Doug Case and Ken Wilson's excellent material is in no way dated. Ken Wilson is also remembered for his key participation in the Solid British Hat Band, which produced "Mister Monday & other songs for the teaching of English" [Longman 1973]. These songs are also landmark material and could still be successfully used to practise syntax aurally / orally instead of reading through landmark material such as Raymond Murphy's "English Grammar in Use", which will itself be 20 years old soon!
Listening practice can also take the form of discrimination exercises where the same utterance is recited using different sentence stress patterns. The learners do not even have to see the sentence written down, but it is helpful if they have an Answer Grid where they have to choose between three possible meanings for each utterance: meaning [A], [B] or [C]. The same utterance can be used in successive discrimination test questions applying different stress patterns until each of the alternative meanings [A] [B] and [C] have been exhausted, though the learner will need to mark their answers in the correct sequence. Thus, seven different utterances, each presented three times, would require a ready-made Answer Grid offering twenty-one different meanings.
The best published material I have used of this kind was Donn Byrne and Gordon Walsh's "Listening Comprehension 1 Teacher's Book" [Longman 1973] containing sample utterances to practise phonology [Units 1-11], stress, rhythm and intonation [Units 12-16]. The Answer Grids were contained in an accompanying student's workbook entitled "Pronunciation Practice". These materials have long been out of print, though it is quite easy for native speakers of English to produce their own.

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