Teaching English intonation and stress patterns

Early theories

The first thing that people (Daniel Jones, Kindom, Pike) looked at was pitch variation.

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.

Basic rules were formed - such as

Later linguists who have collected data rather than usings introspection (what do I say?) have queried the validity of these rules as well as claims that intonation tells us what speech function is.

As models to offer learners seeking to be understood, I take the view that basic rules still have their place, even if they do not reflect what all native speakers do. They at least raise awareness that tone contributes to the nature of what the listener perceives.


One of the most influential practice books, used for many years since 1959 (perhaps still) at University College London, the workplace of some of Britain's best linguists, is
Intonation of Colloquial English by J.D. O'Connor and G.F. Arnold.

O'Connor and Arnold define ten tone groups and find memorable names to describe the movements of pitch: The Low Drop, The High Drop, The Take-Off, The Low Bounce, The Switchback, The Long Jump, The High Bounce, The Jackknife, The High Dive, and The Terrace.

In their chapter II on Intonation and Meaning, they in fact concede that "no tone group is used exclusively with this or that sentence type" and similarly "no sentence type always requires the use of one and only one tone group".

While surveying their ten tone groups and sentence types (e.g. statements, wh-questions, yes/no questions starting with an auxiliary verb), they also define attitudes (e.g. "weighty", "judicial", "serious", "urgent", "unsure", "tentative"). O'Connor & Arnold are not alone in believing that intonation goes with attitude.

A similar, yet simpler, approach is adopted in two works by V.J Cook, which can be found as used books:

  1. Active Intonation [1978]. This contains 20 lessons with accompanying language laboratory drills (bought separately if you can find them) on three audio cassettes.

  2. >Using Intonation [1979]. This is more of a pamphlet than a book, clearly influenced by the emerging popularity of functional syllabuses in the mid to late 1970s. There is a single audio-cassette (bought separately if you can still find it!) containing examples, listening exercises and conversations.

V.J. Cook acknowledges that the description of English intonation in his courses is basically that of J.D. O'Connor and G.F. Arnold (see above section). However, to simplify things, V.J. Cook's classification offers half as many tone groups: i) the high fall, ii) the low fall, iii) the high rise, iv) the low rise, and v) the fall-rise.

While correlating tone groups loosely with language functions, Cook also makes reference to attitude (e.g. A low fall with a high head sounds "rather definite"; a low rise with a high head suggests "the speaker is in control of the situation and has some authority").

Linking tunes to the functions of utterances

Many authors of intonation practice books have provided 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?

Other works on spoken English emphasize that Attitude is not conveyed by pitch alone; there's more to context than just pitch.

Gillian Brown's Listening To Spoken English includes content on Paralinguistic features. 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.

Discourse Intonation - e.g. turn-taking between speakers

Another approach to explaining the function of intonation, pioneered by David Brazil, regards it as 'discoursal', not grammatical or attitudinal as in O'Connor and Arnold's model. See the speechinaction.org website on the theory of the tone unit within this method of analysis known as discourse intonation.

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.

Studies of intonation - 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.

Should 'intonation practice' material be "prose texts" or "dialogues"

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, Clusters and Contractions) include single lexical items and conversational phrases i.e. some very essential features of speaker/listener interaction.

The case for reinstating 'intonation drills' in the syllabus

Although books for practising English syntax in written form have their purpose, they place no demands on learners to answer within a reasonable time frame.

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. Part of the challenge set by these was responding at speed rather than plodding through written materials.

Self Access Centres which offer opportunities for oral English to be practised, will possess materials providing simultaneous rehearsal of syntax and pronunciation. Although published several decades ago, the best of these are:

Kernel Lessons - Plus: Laboratory Drills and Tapescript by Robert O'Neill,
and Kernel Lessons: Intermediate Recorded Drills: Tapescripts

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 approaches to learning second languages which ignore 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).

The various functions of Intonation 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 in English [Cambridge 22/11/1979]. 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).