Avoid Sounding Like a Robot: 6 Top Tips for Teaching Intonation

Avoid Sounding Like a Robot: 6 Top Tips for Teaching Intonation

"How are you today?" "I’m fine." Those words “I’m fine'” will be delivered quite differently when spoken by friends in good moods or by friends who are angry with each other. We convey most of our message with our words, but the intonation we use to deliver those words also sends a message. We often communicate emotions, uncertainties, intentions to continue talking, and signals let others know we’re finished speaking all through our intonation.

Not only is intonation important for communicating meaning, but it is also one of the greatest factors in producing accented speech. Students might have wonderful pronunciation skills, but if they speak in monotones like a robot, they will be often misunderstood. Given the importance of this skill, it’s essential that we address it in our ESL classrooms.
Here are some tips and activities for helping your students improve their intonation and rhythm.

Try These 6 Tips for Teaching Intonation

  1. 1


    Use proper intonation and stress yourself. The best way for students to learn intonation is to be exposed to accurate native-speaker intonation patterns. Be careful of “teacher talk.” Sometimes when we speak to students (especially beginning learners) we slow down too much and lose our own natural intonation. To be sure, we want to speak slowly enough for our students to understand, but we don’t do them any favors when we produce unnatural sounding speech. Showing them what NOT to do can also be effective. As a good way to begin the lesson, speak in absolute monotone for the first 5 minutes of class. As students begin to notice your different pattern of speaking, ask them if they thought it was easier or more difficult to understand you without proper intonation. Explain that English speakers are not used to hearing monotone intonation, and they will be harder to understand without good intonation skills.

  2. 2

    Encourage Authentic Listening

    Like any pattern, the best way for students to acquire these critical pronunciation skills is to listen to them as often as possible. Encourage your students to watch TV shows to learn different types of intonation. By watching sitcoms or dramas, students will be exposed to conversational exchanges to show them how we interact with one another and intonation. Encourage them to make notes of the different variations in intonation patterns and practice drawing intonation arrows for some of the sentences they hear.

  3. 3

    Teach the Most Common Patterns

    While allowing students to discover intonation patterns through listening will be most beneficial for them, teaching them some common patterns explicitly can help them get started. The following six patterns are among the most frequently used in English. Below is a simplified explanation that focuses on the ending of sentences.

    - I want to travel to the Bahamas. (Falling slightly at the end)
    - Do you want to travel to the Bahamas? (Y/N Question --Raising at the end)
    - Where do you want to go? (WH- Question- Rising/Falling)
    - Do you want to go to the Bahamas or Hawaii? (Either/Or Questions-- Rising /falling)
    - You want to go to the Bahamas, don’t you? (Tag questions-- Rising/falling/rising)
    - When I go to the Bahamas, I’m taking my swimsuit, sunscreen, and camera. (Series -- rising, rising, falling)

  4. 4

    Use Visuals

    Since many languages manipulate intonation and rhythm in different ways, many students may find it difficult to hear the differences in English intonation patterns. To make these distinctions more clearly, use visuals to help students see how different sentences are said. For intonation, use wavy lines and arrows to show the rising and falling of different syllables and words. Model example sentences and corresponding lines. Then, have students practice by drawing their own arrows on various sentences.

  5. 5

    Dialogues and Emotion

    Sometimes the best way to hear intonation is to focus on drastic differences. One way to practice these skills is to practice a common dialogue in a variety of different contexts. Create a simple dialogue, such as the following:

    • A: Good afternoon.
    • B: Hi. How are you?
    • A: Fine, thanks. And you?
    • B: I’ve been busy, but good.
    • A: Well, it was nice talking to you. See you later.
    • B: Same to you. Goodbye.

    Pair students up and have them practice this dialogue with different scenarios. Example scenarios that are good for this activity include: two friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time; an employee who was just fired and their former boss; a cop and a suspected criminal, a boy who really likes a girl but the girl doesn’t like him; someone visiting an ill friend in the hospital; two strangers making small talk on a plane, etc… Make sure to emphasize to the students that the only difference between the scenarios is their intonation and rhythm; therefore, they have to really express their emotion using rising and falling voice. This would also be a good opportunity to teach other cultural customs in terms of body language, facial expressions, eye contact, etc… For example, in the cop/criminal scenario, the criminal might avoid making too much eye contact, which might raise suspicion for English-speakers. For a fun whole class activity, give each pair of students a different context and have the students practice and then perform their dialogue for the whole class. Then, have the other students guess what kind of situation they were performing.

  6. 6

    Use Kazoos

    There are a number of things a learner must think about when speaking. Sometimes, fluency and forming difficult sounds can get in the way or frustrate a learner when speaking. To isolate the skill of intonation and rhythm, go to the dollar store and pick up kazoos for your students. Model on the kazoo different intonation patterns and show how much meaning can be made without words. Kazoos are a great way to target intonation skills in a non-threatening way. You can repeat the dialogue activity from above keeping the same scenarios but using the kazoo sound instead of words. Your students will have a blast with all the noise!

Intonation is a vital part of learning English and teaching intonation and rhythm doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Using these fun activities can get students engaged and involved in the lesson all while drastically improving student pronunciation. Even if students can’t pronounce all of the sounds in English correctly, having good intonation patterns will help them to be better understood.

How do you handle intonation in your classroom?

Like it? Tell your friends: