30 March 2015 / by Elena Riches

What is intonation and why teach it?

What is intonation? The term 'intonation' refers to the linguistic use of pitch to convey meaning of a sentence and/or word and during your life as a TEFL teacher you will come across students who will have difficulty using intonation and stress in the correct manner - this means they may not be able to get their point across very well and, in turn, native English speakers could have difficulty understanding them. The reason for this is that they try to speak English as they would their own language, making it sound very different. Because English is a stressed language it means more attention should be paid to where the stress is placed in a word or sentence, rather than the number of syllables the word has.

I've outlined below some stress and intonation mistakes that students can make:



The student says désert instead of dessért placing the intonation at the beginning of the word instead of at the end -"We ate a great desert when we holidayed in Egypt". Oh, so it was that windy that you ended up with a mouthful of sand? and cômma instead of coma. "My friend slipped into a punctuation mark after his accident". These kind of mistakes may lead to misunderstandings, and the speaker’s meaning or intention may not be at all clear. This isn't really good for communication because, if there are too many mistakes with word stress, the listener may become impatient or confused.


Just like placing the stress on the wrong syllable within a word, placing the stress in the wrong place in a sentence can also lead to confusion or the speaker’s inability to convey exactly what they mean. Here's a great example:

I didn’t say you could come here = Someone else said you could
I didn’t say you could come here = I am denying saying it
I didn’t say you could come here = I implied it/whispered it/wrote it down
I didn’t say you could come here = I said someone else could
I didn’t say you could come here = I said you want to
I didn’t say you could come here = I said you could arrive here
I didn’t say you could come here = I said you could go somewhere else

So there you can see how the sentence completely changes depending on which word is stressed.


This is one intonation I hear often from Spanish students in yes and no questions where there is a rising pitch towards the end. And on the other side of it, lots of students end their sentences flat so they don’t sound like questions at all, they sound like statements. It seems though that students often have more trouble imitating the rising more  than the falling intonation.


More often than not a student will use the wrong pitch to convey feelings. A single word like really can express completely different feelings: Really said with a falling intonation expresses disbelief, while Really? with a rising pitch expresses surprise.

Obviously, the correct use of intonation is necessary in order to get a message across and to ensure your speech is natural sounding.  But, how can we teach this? Instead of giving a student an explanation regarding theory or linguistics, show them how to place stress to convey meaning. Exaggerate surprise or looks of disbelief so students get the full effect of the intonation. Be sure to contrast the difference when placing stress on different words in a sentence:

I want to learn English (meaning, they’re not being forced to learn English) vs. I want to learn English (meaning, they want to learn English as opposed to another language). Try it out on your students and get them to tell you the difference in meaning.

You could also go over some basic rules of word stress. For example, when the same word can be both a noun and a verb (rebel, insult, suspect), explain that the first syllable is stressed in the noun and the second syllable is stressed in the verb. You could even mark the stress the way dictionaries do (/hoʊˈtɛl/ for hotel), use bigger or smaller circles or Cuisenaire rods (ho-tél) as they can be useful to show where the stress goes in a sentence.

If you're not already a TEFL teacher but you're the kind of person who loves to help people to overcome difficulties such as these, click HERE for a no-obligation interview with Oxbridge TEFL and you could be teaching English within a month.


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