Intonation is crucial for communication. It's also a largely unconscious mechanism, and as such, a complex aspect of pronunciation.

It's no surprise that many teachers don't feel confident about tackling it in the classroom. When teaching grammar or lexis, we find ways of making the language accessible to our learners. How then to do this with intonation?

  • What is intonation?
  • Why teach intonation?
  • Can I improve my own awareness of intonation?
  • How I help my students:
    • Awareness-raising
    • Intonation and grammar
    • Intonation and attitudes
    • Intonation and discourse
  • Conclusion


What is intonation?
Intonation is about how we say things, rather than what we say. Without intonation, it's impossible to understand the expressions and thoughts that go with words.
Listen to somebody speaking without paying attention to the words: the 'melody' you hear is the intonation. It has the following features:

  • It's divided into phrases, also known as 'tone-units'.
  • The pitch moves up and down, within a 'pitch range'. Everybody has their own pitch range. Languages, too, differ in pitch range. English has particularly wide pitch range.
  • In each tone unit, the pitch movement (a rise or fall in tone, or a combination of the two) takes place on the most important syllable known as the 'tonic-syllable'. The tonic-syllable is usually a high-content word, near the end of the unit.
  • These patterns of pitch variation are essential to a phrase's meaning. Changing the intonation can completely change the meaning.

    • Say: 'It's raining'.
    • Now say it again using the same words, but giving it different meaning. You could say it to mean 'What a surprise!', or 'How annoying!',or 'That's great!'. There are many possibilities.


Why teach intonation?
Intonation exists in every language, so the concept we're introducing isn't new. However, learners are often so busy finding their words that intonation suffers. Yet intonation can be as important as word choice - we don't always realise how much difference intonation makes:

  • Awareness of intonation aids communication.
  • Incorrect intonation can result in misunderstandings, speakers losing interest or even taking offence!


Though it's unlikely our learners will need native-speaker-level pronunciation, what they do need is greater awareness of intonation to facilitate their speaking and listening.

Can I improve my own awareness of intonation?
It's difficult to hear our own intonation. Choose somebody to listen to closely: as you listen, visualise the melody in your head, 'seeing' how it's divided into tone-units. Next time you do a class speaking activity, focus on your students' intonation. Are there students whose language is 'correct', but something doesn't sound right? Do they come across as boring or insincere? It may well be their pitch range isn't varied enough.

How I help my students
Some techniques I find useful for raising learners' awareness of intonation:

  • Provide learners with models - don't be afraid to exaggerate your intonation.
  • Let students compare two examples of the same phrase, eg: varied/flat intonation, English / L1.
  • Ask students to have a 2-minute conversation in pairs as 'robots' (elicit the word using a picture if necessary), i.e. with no intonation. When they then go back to speaking 'normally', point out that the difference is made by intonation - this is what gives movement to our voices.
  • Get students to imitate my intonation, but without words, just humming.


Intonation doesn't exist in isolation. So it makes sense to approach it together with other factors.

Intonation and grammar
Where patterns associating intonation and grammar are predictable, I highlight these to my students. I see these as starting-points, rather than rules.

Some examples are:

  • Wh-word questions: falling intonation
  • Yes/No questions: rising
  • Statements: falling
  • Question-Tags: 'chat' - falling; 'check' - rising
  • Lists: rising, rising, rising, falling


When practising these constructions, I include activities focusing specifically on intonation.

For example, Question-Tags: Students in groups are assigned jobs to mime to each other. Students make notes about what they think each person's job is. They then have to check they've understood the jobs: Students use rising/falling intonation question-tags depending how sure they are: 'You're a pilot, aren't you?'. At the end, students confirm their jobs.

Intonation and attitude
It's important that students are aware of the strong link between intonation and attitude, even if it's difficult to provide rules here.

  • The first thing is for learners to recognise the effect of intonation changes. I say the word 'bananas' - firstly with an 'interested' intonation (varied tone); then 'uninterested' (flat). Students identify the two and describe the difference. We then brainstorm attitudes, such as 'enthusiastic', 'bored', 'surprised', 'relieved'. I say 'bananas' for these. Students then do the same in pairs, guessing each other's attitude.
  • This can be developed by asking students to 'greet' everybody with a particular attitude. At the end, the class identify each person's attitude. For younger learners, I use 'Mr Men' characters (Miss Happy, Mr Grumpy, Miss Frightened, etc.) Each student is allocated a character and, as above, they greet the class with that character's voice.

Intonation and discourse

Learners' also need awareness of intonation in longer stretches of language. Here, we can give our learners clearer guidelines: 'new' information = fall tone; 'shared' knowledge = 'fall-rise'.

A simple shopping dialogue demonstrates this:

SK: Can I help you?
C: I'd like a chocolate (fall) ice-cream.
SK: One chocolate (fall-rise) ice-cream. Anything else?
C: One strawberry (fall) ice-cream.
SK: One chocolate (fall-rise), one strawberry (fall-rise). Anything else?
C: Yes. One chocolate (fall-rise), one strawberry (fall-rise), and one vanilla (fall).

Higher level students can identify the 'new' / 'shared' information, and then practise reading accordingly.

With lower level students, we memorise the dialogue together. Although I don't refer to intonation directly, I use my hands to indicate it (fall = hand pointing down; fall-rise = down then up). Students then prepare their own dialogues. I've found my learners pick up these patterns very quickly.

When working on intonation in the classroom I:

  • Remember that intonation is relevant to any speaking activity, and makes interesting remedial/revision work.
  • Remember that students don't always have to 'know' we're focusing on intonation: every time I drill phrases they're hearing intonation models.
  • Provide realistic and clear contexts.
  • Avoid going into theory.
  • Help students find patterns / rules-of-thumb, wherever possible.
  • Use a consistent system for marking intonation on the board for example: arrow for tone; tonic-syllable in CAPITALS; double lines ( // ) for tone-unit boundaries.
  • Keep it positive and don't expect perfection. The last thing I'd want is to make my students so anxious about their intonation that they stop speaking!


Further reading
Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill
Pronunciation by Dalton and Seidlholfer
How to Teach Pronunciation by Gerald Kelly
Teaching English Pronunciation by Joanne Kenworthy

Marta J. Sabbadini, British Council, Cameroon


Submitted by julesbaby on Wed, 12/28/2016 - 14:20

Thank you for the very useful tips. Brita Haycraft's work is fascinating. I'm a latecomer to the world of teaching and was immediately struck by the lack of guidance given to pupils and students concerning intonation. I advise mine to use common sense where possible - which is the most important word in the sentence? That word, and only that word, is the one to stress - the intonation of the others will go up or down naturally.

Submitted by andydo on Sun, 05/29/2016 - 02:56

admin, are you sure fall-rise intonation is for shared knowledge and falling intonation for new information, not the other way round? Would be great to get confirmation on this

Thanks for your comment. Generally, we use falling intonation for new information and fall-rise for shared information. I will take a look at the dialogue to check that it is right! Thanks, Cath

Submitted by dorika123 on Mon, 05/02/2016 - 09:09

Hi, I'd greatly appreciate any help with analysing the tunes of questions. The particular question is "What's the time, please?" and has the low drop tune. "time" would be the high head and the please would be low fall? What bothers me is the comma, does it change anything? Thank you :)

Hi Cally, You might find Brita Haycraft's seminar 'Tricks and techniques for better spoken English' useful - you can find it here: She looks at techniques for teaching contrastive stress, connected speech and weak forms, as well as intonation. Cath

Submitted by carl hibbs on Wed, 02/19/2014 - 09:40

I teach English to students in France. The 'rythm' of English is very much different to French. I often use a simple role play dialogue called. 'Can you help me please?' We change the word order and intonation (of please and can) and explore different situations and consequences. 'Can you please help me?' or 'Please can you help me?'

Submitted by Khuraman Safarova on Tue, 02/18/2014 - 14:33

I teach the intonation with the help of small dialogues, poems and questioning words,especially with the dialogues. The dialogues make the students pay attention to the stress of the words.

Submitted by SSevinge on Sat, 02/22/2014 - 10:00

In reply to by Khuraman Safarova

I support you greatly as intonation is important in dialogues very much. But it is necessary in role plays, in teaching stories, poems, etc.

Submitted by idylledu on Fri, 02/08/2013 - 14:51

Once we talked about english pronunciation which reminds me the film I watched many times:My Fair Lady.When the lady attended her first party in horse racing to meet the actor's mother.She greeted to everyone:'How do you do 'in very standard and different made me laugh and feel awesome too.Particular she kept saying:the rain falls on a plain in spain.I couldn't help LOL.It is really a good sentence for practicing english speaking.

Submitted by Abu Ibrahim on Fri, 02/22/2013 - 09:52

In reply to by idylledu

To start with this is the good exercises for pre-inter level but what if someone has more exercises or role plays to improve intonation. Plz forward on my email

Submitted by elzoghby on Tue, 07/30/2013 - 23:13

In reply to by idylledu

Most learners of English as a second language or a foreign lanuage find it difficult to listen and understand what they are listening to even if they have enough vocab .What is your advice?

Submitted by Amin Rahman on Mon, 11/14/2011 - 11:35

I believe intonation can be taught/improved  by reciting poetry of different types including from Shaskespeare for advanced students and reading out from plays.  Reading poetry and from plays is  different and needs more understanding and focus than reading plain text.

Questions can be asked with different emphasis on each and every word to illustrate intonation.

Stress each word in turn to change the meaning of the following sentence.

Would you like dinner later?

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