I once had a student who ended every sentence with a rising intonation.
When I would ask her how she was doing, she would respond, “I am well? Thanks?”
To be honest, before I started teaching her, intonation activities never crossed my mind. But her ability to turn everything into a question demonstrated to me just how important it is to teach intonation to English language learners.
The ability to communicate and the ability to be understood are the most important parts of learning a new language. As teachers, we understand this and spend countless hours running pronunciation and grammar exercises in the classroom. And while that’s certainly important, it’s not enough.
Students don’t just need to learn what to say, they also need to learn how to say it. But sometimes it can be difficult to teach a topic like intonation, which can be very subtle and which just comes naturally to native speakers.
The activities in this post are designed to help you teach English intonation in an accessible and engaging way. No matter what level you’re teaching, these activities are a gateway to more fluent-sounding speech among your students.
Why Should English Teachers Prioritize Intonation?
Whether you’re teaching general ESL lessons or you’re focusing specifically on conversational English, you should have the same goal: helping your students sound as natural as possible.
Intonation is a huge part of natural communication. The way we use pitch, stress and emphasis on specific words can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
If you don’t believe me, say the sentence “she didn’t steal my wallet” five times, placing the emphasis on a different word each time you say it.
As you can see, the sentence takes on a different meaning every time you stress a different word. For ESL students, this can become a problem if they use the wrong intonation and end up conveying the wrong message.
Imagine if one of your students tried to explain to a police officer that a woman didn’t still his wallet, but ended up putting the stress on the word “wallet.” Instead of telling the officer that the woman’s innocent, the student actually implied that she stole something other than his wallet, which can lead to a confusing situation.
Isn’t English delightfully complicated?
If you want your students to be fully prepared for communication with native speakers, it’s essential to make them aware of intonation pitfalls and prepare them to say what they mean to say.
5 Effective Intonation Activities for Teaching English to Any Skill Level
When teaching intonation, it’s best to use ESL activities that are fun and engaging. Stress and emphasis aren’t things that most people can learn from studying through computer programs and textbooks.
Let’s have a look at some interactive intonation activities that will help your students actively build their communication skills.
1. Video Warm-ups
Regardless of whether you’re teaching intonation for the first time or you’re simply reviewing material you covered last week, it’s always a good idea to introduce a short warm-up that gets students thinking about the material.
The videos below don’t just teach intonation in an engaging way, but they also have interactive elements that make them great for classroom warm-up activities.
If you’re looking for a way to introduce intonation to your students, have a look at this YouTube channel. You can browse a number of different video clips covering intonation and pronunciation.
For classroom activities, have students follow along with Rachel’s playlist of intonation videos, imitating her examples. Rachel also has mouth exercises that’ll help them learn how to relax their tongues so that they don’t become tired from speaking English.
This channel is great because it has many different intonation warm-up activities that help students learn how to listen for changes in pitch and speak in high and low pitches.
Most of Jill’s videos can involve participation from students, whether it’s saying sentences in a “sing-songy” manner or repeating various high and low-pitched sounds.
One of the best ways to teach correct English intonation is to show students authentic English speech in a variety of situations. FluentU is an innovative platform that helps you do that while also actively building students’ language skills.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
2. Stress Shifting
As we saw with the sample sentence “she didn’t steal my wallet,” it’s possible to change the meaning of a sentence by putting stress on a specific word. Stress Shifting is a simple activity for introducing this concept to your class.
First, you’ll need to collect a list of sample English sentences that your students will read aloud for intonation practice. “Perfect Phrases for ESL Conversation Skills” is a popular English phrasebook that you can use to pull sample sentences from. You could also use this list of 76 important English travel phrases as a jumping off point.
Once in class, write one of the sentences on the board and underline a word to stress. Have a student volunteer read the sentence. Then, erase the underline and move it to another word. Have a different student read the sentence.
Discuss how the intonation shifted, and how the meaning of the sentence changed accordingly. Rinse and repeat with the other sentences in your list.
If you have access to a language lab or recording devices, you can have your students record themselves saying each sentence with different words stressed. This creates a great opportunity for you to assess every student’s intonation, and ensures that even your shyest students get in on the activity.
3. Inside Out
This exercise is a fun and effective way for students to practice English intonation. It will help students learn how intonation can be used to express emotions, feelings and attitudes in English.
For this activity, assign each student a specific emotion or feeling (such as “excitement,” “fear,” “sadness,” “confusion” and so on, just like in the popular kids’ movie “Inside Out”) and have them communicate using the emphasis and pitch that reflects their feeling.
For beginner classes, you might want to create the sentences (or pull from the resources mentioned above) beforehand in order to save class time. But for your intermediate and advanced classes, feel free to have them come up with their own sentences that coincide with their assigned emotion.
4. Who Do You Think You’re Talkin’ To?
The way you speak to your boss is probably not the same way you’d speak to an annoying younger brother or sister. We speak differently to people depending on who they are and how we feel about them.
This is incredibly important for ESL students to know when learning English, so they don’t go through life speaking sarcastically to everyone they encounter. This activity helps them get used to adjusting their intonation depending on their audience.
Put students in pairs and have them read sample sentences to each other. But when they read each sentence, change the dynamic by having them pretend they’re speaking to a stranger, a close friend, a parent, someone they don’t like and so on.
Listen as you walk around the class and pause, correct or discuss with students where necessary. At the end, gather students for a group discussion about the ways they modified their pitch and word stress depending on their audience.
5. Intonation Improv
This ESL roleplaying activity builds on the last one, with an opportunity for more advanced students to get extra English communication practice. It’s also a nice way to help your more creative students shine.
Put your students in groups of two or three and give them a number of different scenarios, such as:
- Meeting a friend for the first time in years
- A couple breaking up
- Arguing with a stranger
- A doctor and a very sick patient
Every scenario has a different type of emotion that can be expressed through intonation. Reconnecting with a friend should have an intonation that demonstrates excitement or happiness, while arguing with someone would be sarcastic or angry.
You can let students discuss and prepare in groups and then perform one by one for the class, or simply call up volunteers to improvise together. Depending on your class’ proficiency level, you may want to have some general lines written out that students can build off of.
Keep each role-play brief (just a couple of minutes) so that the focus stays on intonation. Afterwards, students can pose questions or discuss what they heard and how they might’ve changed their own intonation.
Remember that every language has its own rhythm and rules regarding intonation, so don’t assume that your students will automatically understand English intonation the first time you teach it. But with these activities and a little bit of patience, your students will be able to better express themselves.