How to teach Intonation
Here are five ways to teach it in the classroom
Play a game The concept of intonation can be hard, but students are quick to know what’s wrong when they’re listening for it. So, create a dialogue and then and read it for the class. Read some lines of the dialogue with the wrong intonation. Have the students note which ones are wrong. The person/team that correctly identifies all the wrong intonation wins.
Dialogue Tree Lots of times, you can use rising or falling intonation, but the meaning changes. (For example: “I bought a car” –vs– “I bought a car?”.) Have the students write a dialogue on some theme. Every third line, they should write two possible replies—one with rising and one with falling intonation—and then continue on writing both dialogues. Make the dialogues short or they’ll run out of paper quickly.
I only go up Give the students a discussion topic, but tell them one partner can only use rising intonation. (So, one partner will need to ask lots of one word questions.) They should discuss the question for two minutes and then switch.
Identify the weakness and make it go away Do your students have trouble with some specific intonation pattern? If so, force them to practice it in creative ways. For starters, they should write dialogues that use the pattern. Then give them discussion questions that use the pattern or discussion questions that might elicit the pattern for the answer.
Just the intonation, please After students write a dialogue ask them to label it in a way that will let them know the intonation patterns. (For examples, they can put and “up” or “down” arrow on each word. Then, they should cross out all the words and read the dialogue without words. They can just make neutral sounds (e.g. grunts) or hum the sentences.
What’s intonation? Why is it important?
Intonation is when your voice goes up or down in a sentence. Said another way, intonation is your voice going from high to low or low to high. Your voice can start high and go down (falling intonation). It can start low and go up (rising intonation). It can go up, down, up. It can go down, up, down.
It’s important because intonation affects meaning in different ways. Lets look at some examples.
I eat apples.
You like apples?
Rising and then falling
Where did he go?
Note that if you change the intonation pattern, the meaning changes.
Rising intonation changes a statement to a question.
I eat apples?
Falling intonation makes a question sound unimportant to you. (You don’t care about the answer.)
You like apples?
Double rising intonation on a wh- question makes it sound like you misunderstood the first time you heard the answer.
Where did he go?
Here are some more resources for you to check out to learn more about intonation and all the ways it can affect meaning.
While learning all the rules for how intonation can affect meaning can be useful, just listening a lot and unconsciously imitating patterns is even better.
Using Limericks to help students improve intonation, timing, and word stress.
A limerick is a humorous, five line poem where the first, second, and fifth lines rhyme. The third and fourth lines rhyme too (i.e. AABBA rhyming). Often, the lines that rhyme also have the same number of syllables.
After the bear caught the fish 7
A genie gave him a wish 7
The bear didn’t know what to say 8
So, he sent the genie away 8
“I already have the fish!” 7
Limericks (and other poems) can be great for helping students improve speaking skills. They give English a little bit more structure and repetition makes it easier to feel intonation, timing, and word stress patterns.
When students write enough of their own poems, they’ll begin to instinctively write lines with the same number of syllables. This is when you know they’re really getting English patterns down.
Moreover, if students are paying attention to the syllable counts, they’ll begin to see how we can play with English to create new effects. Exceptions to rules drive students crazy, but not native speakers. We use and create exceptions to make English work for us. To wit: subjects don’t have to come at the beginning and words like “everyone” can be pronounced with three or four syllables.
The only problem is that limericks often have so much new vocabulary and strange grammar that teaching them can be tricky. So, with apologies to actual poets, we wrote four limericks that you might use in the classroom. Can you add anymore? Post in the comments!
There once was a sad man with a beer 9
From the side of his face fell a tear 9
Yes he was so sad, 5
His heart felt so bad, 5
When he saw his face in the mirror! 9
The rain fell upon the once dry ground 9
And sent everyone running around 9
They didn’t want to be wet 7
So they were filled with regret 7
For warm summer sunshine they moaned 9
Tim rode his blue bike to school 7
Brad took his time like a fool 7
Judy wandered alone 6
Bobby talked on the phone 6
Tim was all alone at school 7
Prosody (Word Stress, Timing, and Intonation) Lesson Plans
In recent years, language teachers have generally agreed that teaching word stress, timing, and intonation are very important. Not every class, nor every student, needs prosody work; but many do.
Fine and dandy, but how to teach it exactly? This is the introduction to a series of lesson plans on prosody. The lessons will appear in the coming weeks.
Just a few notes:
First, in the introduction to Sue F. Miller’s wonderful book “Targeting Pronunciation: Communicating Clearly in English”, she says that the most important thing in any lesson on prosody is listening and repeating. Word to that and you’ll see it a lot here.
Also, there needs to be something to practice. Material is provided here around various themes. You can easily switch it up though. Using sentences and vocabulary from your units is a great idea.
Here are some other helpful posts on prosody.
How to listen to this poem: Kite by Rives
A high-level listening exercise. If you like Rives you can learn more about him at his website: shopliftwindchimes.com
Rarely. Sometimes. All the time.
In English classes, we rarely talk about new relationships or how we feel after we sleep with someone for the first time. But, we do sometimes talk about these things with our friends. And we think about them all the time.
Rives’ poem “Kite” is about waking up and finding a note from his new lover. She says “Good morning, Sparkle Boy! I’ll be back around noon. You—make yourself at home.” He does just that.
Enjoy listening to this funny and beautiful poem about new love. Part One has comprehension questions to help you understand the poem. Part Two gives you an exercise to help you improve your intonation, word stress, and timing skills. Finally, in Part Three there are some questions to discuss with a partner (or contemplate on your own).
Part 1: Understand the Poem
Try to answer these questions by yourself. If you have trouble, the answers are below.
Why is the poem titled “Kite”?
Why does she call him “Sparkle Boy”? Is it a good thing?
What does it mean to “make yourself at home”? When do people use this expression?
What did the girl’s slippers look like?
What’s the difference between “shuffle” and “walk”?
When do people use the word “frankly”?
Is his tub clean or dirty? What does skanky mean?
What does “to get caught up in the romance of the suds” mean?
Why is it funny when he adds “muthafucka” (motherfucker) at the end of the translation of the Latin poetry?
What is his mood while he’s taking the bath?
He says “maybe I played with myself, but it’s not what you’re thinking.” What does he assume the audience is thinking?
What does “to get laid” mean?
Then he says he did play with himself. What did he do? What did he think of while he did it?
What are antics?
What is the volume of the Prince CDs while he plays them? How do you know?
What is he thinking and feeling when he looks in the mirror?
What does he make for the girl?
What does it mean “I tagged that kite with my words”?
What does he want her to know?
What does “to nail a milestone” mean?
Part 2: Intonation, Word Stress, and Timing
Listen to the poem until the 1:15 mark (when his hand talks to him). Then read the poem out loud to that same point. Repeat this three times.
Then, try to say the words while you listen to Rives. Say the words at exactly the same time, and in exactly the same way, as Rives.
Repeat the process for 1:15-2:10 and 2:10-2:55.
Part 3: Discussion Questions
Do you like bubble baths?
He does many things while he’s alone in her apartment. What are all the ways that he makes himself at home?
What things would you do if this happened to you?
How have you felt just after you started dating someone (after you knew that he/she liked you too)?
After reading the poem on the kite, what kind of person do you think Rives is?
What does he want her to know about him?
How would you react if you were the girl and saw the kite when you came home?
Throughout the poem, Rives is very honest about things that we all do but never talk about. What are some examples? How does this honesty make the poem better?
The audience laughs a lot during the poem. Did you laugh? When? Why?
Kite by Rives
The morning after the first night we made love,
the note on your pillow said:
“Good morning, Sparkle Boy!
I’ll be back around noon.
You–make yourself at home.”
And so I did.
I’m saying maybe I put on your slippers,
which were as comfortable as bunnies
because they were bunnies,
and then shuffled across my new favorite
hardwood floor to the bathroom
where maybe I took a bubble bath,
which is not something I can do at my place
because, frankly, my tub is way too skanky
to ever sit my bare ass down in.
And then maybe I got so caught up in the romance of the suds
I started quoting old Latin poetry from my college days
like: “fulsere quondam tibi candidi diez…”
You know, uh: “Verily the gods do favor me this morning…muthafucka!”
And then maybe I…played with myself.
But it’s not what you’re thinking–
I’m saying possibly I just sorta
stuck my hand up from the water, for some reason, and started going, like, uh, you know like, um, uh:
HAND: “Somebody got laid last night!
You! You! You!”
Or, you know, whatever.
And then maybe I…played with myself,
and it’s exactly what you’re thinking.
But if I did, it was only to put
the mental motion picture of our naked night together
on replay and replay and replay
so touching myself was just like…
Tivo in a way.
And, and, and yes, you know, I was still wet when I borrowed your bathrobe.
And yes, I scared the birds away from your balcony
with my antics, dancing full-blast
to your old Prince CD’s–
but please let’s keep that my little secret,
because nothing is as private as a solitary dance
unless–maybe–it’s standing in front of a full-length mirror
in a borrowed pair of bunny slippers,
slipping off a bathrobe and then wishing to a lightbulb
that my name, or my game, or my whatever were bigger,
wondering: “What kind of woman wants this skinny kid for a warrior?”
And so I made for you a kite, enormous,
out of coat hangers, brown paper bags
and the masking tape from that drawer in your kitchen,
and I hung it in the hallway
where you couldn’t hardly miss it,
and I tagged that kite with my words,
Just so you know–
My weird mind wanders and my brave heart breaks.
I’ve nailed some milestones, but I make mistakes,
Cuz I got more faults than a map of California earthquakes.
I am taking a nap beneath your covers.
Wake me if you like me.
Wake me if you want me.
Wake me if you need another poem.
Your once and future lover
has made himself at home.
Suggested Answers to Part One
Why is the poem titled “Kite”? Because at the end he makes a kite for her that expresses how he’s feeling.
Why does she call him “Sparkle Boy”? Is it a good thing? “To sparkle” means to shine like light on a diamond, so it’s a very good thing. She probably means that he is an energetic and fun guy.
What does it mean to “make yourself at home”? When do people use this expression? This expression means to act in the same ways that you act at home. For example, if you’re hungry and at a guest’s house, you probably wouldn’t just take food from the cupboard without asking. But, if they tell you to make yourself at home, then you can. People use this expression when they want their guests to feel very comfortable.
What do the girl’s slippers look like? They look like bunnies/rabbits.
What’s the difference between “shuffle” and “walk”? To shuffle means to, sort of, slide your feet in short movements over the floor. Here, he means that he is moving playfully.
When do people use the word “frankly”? Before they want to say something that is uncomfortable to say, but very honest.
Is his bathtub clean or dirty? What does skanky mean? His tub is dirty. “Skanky” means very dirty.
What does “to get caught up in the romance of the suds” mean? He means that he was feeling very romantic because of the soapy, bubbly water.
Why is it funny when he adds “muthafucka” (motherfucker) at the end of the translation of the Latin poetry? Because the Latin is so serious and very formal, the contrast of using a very informal swear word is funny.
What is his mood while he’s taking the bath? He’s very happy.
He says “maybe I played with myself, but it’s not what you’re thinking.” What does he assume the audience is thinking? “To play with yourself” means to masturbate.
What does “to get laid” mean? It means for someone to have sex with you.
Then he says he did play with himself. What did he do? What did he think of while he did it? He masturbated. He imagined the previous night with his new girlfriend.
What’s TIVO? TIVO is a device that lets you record and watch TV shows.
What are antics? Funny or silly (often annoying) actions.
What is the volume of the Prince CDs while he plays them? How do you know? It’s very loud. “Full blast” means maximum volume.
What is he thinking and feeling when he looks in the mirror? He’s wondering if he is good enough for her, if there are enough good things about him so that she’ll really want to be with him. Wishing that his “name” were bigger, means he wants to be more famous. Wishing that his “game” were bigger, means that he wants his career or skills to be bigger. Wishing that his “whatever” were bigger is a reference to his penis.
What does he make for the girl? He makes her a kite.
What does it mean “I tagged that kite with my words”? It means that he wrote words on it.
What does “to nail a milestone” mean? It means to have a big accomplishment.