María Gabriela Valenzuela Farías, Chile


Suprasegmentals are aspects of the English language that are not commonly taught in schools where English is a foreign language. Awareness and formal instruction are necessities, especially for EFL students that are not immersed in the English culture. Different activities can be incorporated in normal English classrooms to help and empower students to produce and perceive English intonation.


Suprasegmentals are aspects of the English language that are not commonly taught in schools where English is a foreign language. According to Crystal (1969, as cited in Johns-Lewis, 1986) intonation is not a simple concept, due to the numerous prosodic systems, such as pitch, tempo, rhythm and loudness that are included. However, intonation plays a key role for exchanging ideas, attitudes and emotions during a conversation. It is, according to Wennerstrom (2001) the melody of the voice at the moment of speaking. That is why awareness and formal instruction are necessities, especially for EFL student sthat are not immersed in the English culture, therefore the possibility of the native speaker input is remote, and the chances for unintelligibility or misunderstanding while speaking in the L2 are real possibilities.

Defining intonation

Levis (1999) stated that intonation is the voice quality, intensity and prosody. In his work, Levis referred to Ladd’s (1996) work to exemplify that intonation is defined as the different pitch movements that an utterance can have in a discourse level (rise, fall, fall-rise) Intonation gives the speech life, without which the verbal communication of a person would be monotonous, and unexpressive, in other words it would lack “life”.

In English different linguistics systems such as tonality, tonicity and tone are set to signal different functions. Wells (2006) has defined 6 important functions of intonation which are attitudinal, grammatical, focusing, discourse, psychological, and indexical function. It is because of these functions that explicit instruction to ESL students will empower them with knowledge and awareness of the similarities and differences between their L1 and L2.

Tones in English are essential to master in order to avoid misunderstandings; according to Roach (2009) English has 3 simple tones (level, fall and rise) and 2 complex tones (fall-rise and rise-fall). There are certain general uses for the previously mentioned tones, but also it is important for EFL students to be aware that in everyday language, native speakers do not alwaysfollow “generalrules” especially if they are in informal situations.

The tendency for falling tones is in wh-questions, statements, commands, and for giving the idea of finality. On the contrary, rising tones according to Roach (2009) are used to give the notion that something else is coming, or the idea that the speaker has not expressed his or her final thought; its use might also indicate a question for the listener. Falling-rising tones can have different pragmatic uses which can lead to confusion and misinterpretation for non native English speakers. According to Halliday (1967) rising-falling tones are a signal of hesitated answers. For Roach (2009) the set ones represent “limited agreement” between speakers.

Intonation is part of the language and formal instruction is necessary in EFL classrooms, especially if the focus is communicative competence. Suprasegmentals have been neglected from EFL classrooms and only some segments of English have been taught in English instructions, unfortunately not in a systematic way, leaving these aspects of phonetics to the willingness of the teacher.

Problems for ESL students

EFL students are normally taught grammatical structures, vocabulary and certain distinctive sounds between their L1 and L2. These are some of the reasons whys tudents are worried and pay more attention while speaking to grammar and vocabulary and leave intonation out of their speech. According to Gilbert (1994) foreign English speakers cannot hear or identify the intonation of a native speaker. EFL students with no formal instruction in suprasegmentals are not being empowered for having a correct communication. Languages have different patterns of intonation; for example, Spanish speakers with no instruction in English intonation would tend to transfer their L1 intonation obtaining a “flat sound” (Celcie-Murcia, Brinton, &Goodwin, 1996.) Chinese speakers, for instance, will tend to apply Chinese rhythm over English sentences, producing in some cases unintelligible utterances. It is for these reasons that phonetics and especially suprasegmentals need to be put back into the curriculum, and incorporated with simple exercises in EFL classrooms.

Practical ideas for teaching

When teaching intonation, visuals of pitch (such as fall, rise, and falling-rise) are useful in creating a concrete image of something as abstract as intonation. Simultaneously showing the contrast between English and the students´ L1 would help to understand the differences in intonation patterns. Examples:


Another tool is using a Kazoo; sometimes for a non-native speaker the idea of intonation can be difficult to understand, especially if students have never been exposed to real language and highlighted the idea of rhythm in their voices.

The kazoo creates a relaxing environment for learning; in some countries this instrument is a new object, so students will be curious to play with it. Different dialogues can be demonstrated with the kazoo, intonation patterns and differences between L1 and L2.

Rubber bands have been long used for teaching stress patterns, but also they can be helpful to show intonation contrast. Each student should have a rubber band, and they will stretch it every time that they hear, for example, a falling intonation. Also students can be practicing a conversation in pairs, and every time a partner identifies a tone, he or she can stretch the rubber band. This in expensive tool will give the students a concrete idea about what intonation really is.

Short dialogues can also be helpful for practicing intonation as long as students are asked to put their emotions and attitudes into the phrases they will utter. Rubber bands and kazoos can be incorporated during the dialogues to make the practice more fun and challenging.

A: I finally got a new car.
B: That's wonderful news! I'm so glad to hear.

Hsiang-Pao Lin, Chuen-Yn Fan, and Chi-Fen Chen (2000)


English intonation plays a fundamental role in language communication. EFL students who do not receive formal instruction about suprasegmentals in general, are at adisadvantage for mastering the target language and the communication purpose. Intonational patterns can vary from language to language, and not being aware of the possible changes between L1 and L2 can lead to problems at the moment of speaking. It is important to incorporate exercises of intonation in formal classes. Empowering students with a deeper knowledge of the English language will help them to achieve their primary goal, which is being able to communicate without misunderstandings.


Celce-Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., &Goodwin, J. (1996). Teaching pronunciation: A reference for teachers of English to speakers of other languages.Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress

Gilbert, J. B. (1994). Intonation: A navigation guide for the listener (and gadgets to help teachit). In J. Morley (Ed.), Pronunciation pedagogy and theory. Bloomington: TESOL, Inc.

Halliday, M.A.K (1967) Intonation and Grammar in British English, The Hague: Mounton

Hsiang-Pao. L, Chuen-Yn. F, Chi-Fen. C (2000) TeachingPronunciation in the Learner- CenteredClassroom

John-Lewis, C. ( 1986). Intonation in Discourse. Houlton, ME: College-Hill Press, Inc

Levis, J (1999). Intonation in theory and practice: Revisited. TESOL Quarterly, 33(1), 37-63

Roach, P (2009) English Phonetics and Phonology. A Practical Course. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress.

Wells, J. ( 2006) English Intonation : An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress. Wennerstrom, A. (2001). The music of everyday speech: Prosody and discourse analysis. New York: Oxford UniversityPress


About the Author


M.Gabriela Valenzuela has her Master degree in TESOL, she currently works at the Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción in Chile teaching linguistics and phonetics. Her research interest are related to acoustic phonetics and language variation. E-mail: mgvalenzuela@ucsc.cl


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