The Melody of English | IATEFL PronSIG webinar summary

The full title of this webinar – The Melody of English: Research and Resources for Teaching the Pragmatic Functions of Intonation – is a real mouthful and it was the very first PronSIG event that I’ve ever experienced.  The speakers were Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones, both of whom seem to have written methodology books in this area.


Why teach the pragmatic functions of intonation? 

Marnie spent the first half of the webinar establishing the need for increasing learners’ sensitivity to pitch movements that lead to some sort of implicature – the speaker implies something through his or her intonation. She suggested that the way intonation is treated in language courses leads to it looking decorative and Ss come away feeling it has no particular meaning. She cited an example of a language lab that she observed where Ss practised intonation with decontextualised sentences and repeated it over and over until their intonation became increasingly target-like, in order to please the teacher. When Marnie asked these Ss whether they would use this native-live intonation in their everyday speech, they apparently suggested that only women speak like this and that it sounds silly and exaggerated.

Marnie went on to explain that her intention was not to force a speech pattern onto the learners and they had the right to reject it if they felt it was irrelevant to them. Her concern was about their ability to decode real world meaning and speaker intent because the Ss were not sensitive to the fact that we use intonation to provide extra meaning (the example she used repeatedly was the teacher didn’t *grade* the papers vs. the *teacher* didn’t grade the papers where the shift in the tonic word reveals more information than the words themselves state).  Marnie felt that the Ss’ beliefs about intonation were going to underpin their receptivity to it. In this case, Ss felt it was decorative, leading to gaps in their metacognition. She also suggested that teachers may also face these same gaps and NESTs are at greater risk because they use intonation unconsciously and are perhaps not motivated to analyse the theoretical basis for it and may not be equipped with dealing with it in the classroom.

What is intonation? 

Systematic and linguistically meaningful use of pitch movement at the phrase level or at the super-segmental level. Pickering (2012)

Marnie pointed out that English intonation is a bit of an outlier and we tend to use a wide pitch contour for everyday utterances and that if we’d  put languages and how they use intonation on a continuum, English would be at an extreme end. German, Turkish and Arabic would also apparently be in the vicinity but English tends to fall at the very extreme end in terms of its use of pitch movement for normal discourse and extra use of it to convey speaker intent where we are making an implication.

Unlike many other languages where grammatical inflection, word order or lexis is used to signal contrast or important information, English does this largely through phonology. Rogerson Revell (2012)

Problems with teaching intonation

Ts spend a lot of time on the attitude or affective areas of intonation such as being sarcastic and showing anger. I think Marnie was referring to that frequently used activity which involves decontextualised sentences being read out in conjunction with an emotion like anger. She suggested that we may working at a surface level producing or imitating intonation without compelling Ss to consider why the pitch range is so exaggerated compared to their L1 and what it might be trying to convey.

What would success look like?

Marnie seemed to describe two sides to this. The first was the ability to grasp implicature and be able to articulate it (in the sense of identify and respond to it). The second was the ability to predict the topic of the next sentence. She shared an example of this which I couldn’t quite hear but the gist of it was that the proficient English speaker is primed to know what to expect when he or she hears non-standard intonation which violates the norms. This might be an important skill in academic lectures where Ss are just following along without knowing what’s coming up.

Resources for teaching the pragmatic functions of intonation

Tamara handled this section of the webinar.  She focused on three situations where we’d expect to hear exaggerated intonation:

  1. Speaker attitude e.g., A: How are you today? B: *great* (with a sort of slow falling pitch movement)
  2. Contrasting information e.g., The *teacher* didn’t grade the papers vs. the teacher *didn’t* grade the papers
  3. Strong agreement e.g. She *does* have a good point.

I’m not sure why Tamara claimed that the utterance in number 3 is also an example of breaking a grammar rule by throwing in an auxiliary verb. Using do/does to add emphasis is generally standard usage.

There are no arguments for teaching intonation in terms of attitude, because the rules for use are too obscure, too amorphous, and too easily refutable.  Brazil et al (1980)

I recall Mssr Brazil being oft quoted in my Delta input lessons as evidence that intonation is a murky area of phonology that’s best left untaught. I could never agree with that perspective and I was happy to hear that Marnie and Tamara concurred. Tamara shared the following activities for focusing on the pragmatic functions of intonation:

1. Noticing: Ask Ss to take a passage and ask several proficient speakers to read it outside class time. Ask them to notice what happens to certain words or phrases and report back. Ss then notice that the proficient speakers all read these words or phrases in the same way or in Tamara’s words, they do something weird to it. Tamara suggested that this noticing is an important part of selling the idea to them – that the pitch change exists in reality and not just in the minds of their teachers.

2. Awareness-raising: Once Ss have noticed the pitch change, use awareness-raising activities to connect intonation to meaning such as:

Let’s conTINue our disCUSion of polLUtion

YESterday we deFINED polLUtion.

1. What will I probably say next?

a. Today we’ll talk about the IMpact of polLUtion

b. ToDAY we’ll deFINE acid RAIN

3. Assumptions understood: Use short dialogues which challenge Ss to interpret meaning or implicature such as this one:

A: Would you like to go skiing this weekend?

B: So you can ski?

What had the man assumed?

(a) A was a good skier.

(b) A was going skiing this weekend.

(c) A didn’t know how to ski.

(d) A did not intend to go skiing.

4. Matching activity: Ss look at a sentence such as “I took the 10:20 evening training from LA to San Francisco” and use the concept of shifting prominence to match it with a range of implicatures such as

a. Not John.

b. I didn’t drive it.

c. Not the 12.20 etc.

5. Quality choral repetition: Along with drills, get Ss to use paralinguistic cues to ‘feel’ the pitch movement in utterances such as “What’s the MATter?” and “You must be JOKing”.

  • Clap: Clap strongly and loudly on the stressed syllable. Clap quickly and quietly on the unstressed.
  • Eyes: Open your eyes wide. Relax them on the unstressed.
  • Eyebrows: Raise them. Relax them.
  • Get up: Stand up. Sit down.
  • Walk: Take a long step. Take a short step.
  • Dance: Take a long step. Take a quick step.
  • Shrug your shoulders: Raise them. Relax them.
  • Snap your fingers: Snap.

Tamara also suggested using rubber bands with words that have exaggerated intonation. I would caution against doing this. I’ve used rubber bands before and find that Ss end up altering the quality and the length of the vowel, reducing rather than enhancing comprehensibility.

6. Card matches: Similar to number four except that the words which have prominence are indicated in the text. These utterances and their implicatures are presented on individual cards.  Ss read and match the cards.

I want to learn to ski on my holiday

I want to learn to SKI on my holiday

I want to learn to ski on my HOLIDAY.

I WANT to learn to ski on my holiday.

My husband already knows how to ski.

I don’t have to learn to ski, but I am interested in doing it.

I am too busy with work to learn right now.

I am not interested in learning to swim or to surf

7. Marking the dialogue: Play short clips such as these ones from Seinfeld and Friends, provide a transcript and ask Ss to mark up words where they hear an exaggerated intonation.

8. Correct me if I’m wrong: Ss complete some sentences about themselves (My name’s … My first language is … My favourite food’s … etc.) and then exchange it with a partner who reads it out wrong “Your favourite colour is black” and then gets corrected “No, my favourite colour is WHITE.” (in the same vein as Mark Hancock’s Contradict me from Pronunciation Games, CUP)

9. What comes before? Provide statements such as “I’m afraid I see some DISadvantages” and Ss work out the preceding statement – “This plan has a lot of advantages.” And then Ss select a dialogue and present it to the class.

Are you sure? Maybe we need TWO new PCs.

I went to the lab on Saturday AND Sunday.

I agree. That IS an unrealistic deadline.

Frank, could YOU do the presentation?

No, the exam is on the FIFTH.

When I reflect on the way I’ve taught intonation, I’ve generally focused on getting Ss to work towards practising intonation that’s definitely not native-like but is easier on the ear either by not sounding too flat or too singsong. I never plan to teach the pragmatic side of intonation and if it happens, it’s usually in emerging language focus. The fact that Ss might be missing out on key aspects of real world communicative competence because of their inability to pick up something proficient English speakers subconsciously process all the time is truly food for thought. I particularly liked the example Tamara shared towards the end when she said that sometimes when she tries to highlight an error to Ss through intonation such as “Louis GO to the bank?”, her Ss use paralinguistic clues to perceive that their teacher is unhappy but miss out on the pitch movement on GO and instead focus on correcting the preposition or some other part of the utterance.

While the studies that were cited and the rationale around teaching the pragmatic functions were really interesting, I felt the activities that were shared were a bit of a damp squib. Most of these (save No.9) are ones that my peers and I have been using variations of for years. Linda Grant’s Well Said, a book that both these ladies seem very partial too was supplementary material for a course I taught with my former employer. Ss could get access to their own copies and they universally disliked doing exercises from it because they found it dry and disengaging.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful for this nice long list of references:

  • Gilbert, J. (2014). Myth 4: Intonation is hard to teach. in L. Grant (Ed.) Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Levis, J. (1999). Intonation in theory and practice. Revisited. TESOL Quarterly 33(1), p.37-64.
  • Paunovic, T. & Savic, M (2008). Discourse Intonation – Making it work in S. Komar & U. Mozetic (Eds.). As you write it: Issues in literature, language, and translation in the context of Europe in the 21st century, V (1-2), 57-75.
  • Pickering, L. (2012). Intonation. in K. Malmkjaer (Ed.) The Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia (3rd edition), pp. 280-286.
  • Vandergrift, L. & Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in action. NY: Routledge, P.22.
  • Wells, J.C. (2006). English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Wichmann, A. (2005). The role of intonation in the expression of attitudinal meaning. English Language and Linguistics, 9(2), pp. 229-253.

And I think Olya from ELT Stories suggested Paul Tench  (1996, 2001) for functions for teaching intonation.

Image attribution: Flickr | Pronunciation by Steve Bowbrick | CC by 2.0


3 thoughts on “The Melody of English | IATEFL PronSIG webinar summary

  1. Thanks for that! I was sad to have missed the webinar, however I’m quite familiar with the bulk of this stuff as Marnie was my prof. and advisor on my MA in Boston. I’d like to add that it’s not only her work on surpasegmental pron that’s so eye-opening…my own perspectives and practices were also dramatically affected by what I see as her utterly ‘Demand High’ approach to teaching in a highly systematic and strategic corrective feedback-heavy way, emphasizing Ss’ metacognitive steps, as laid out in her book ‘Goal-Driven Lesson Planning’ with Michaud.


    1. Utterly envious of you Matthew – you got to spend a whole academic year and perhaps more with Marnie 🙂 Have you written anything up on how this experience changed your teaching practices? BTW, thanks for introducing me to her book – I’ll look it up.


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