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Teaching Tips 78

Toning it down
Real Why Questions

Tonal movement
Toning It Down





We have had quite a few Tips related to phonology & although we have looked at prominence, we haven't yet looked at tonal movement. This is  a tricky area as a lot of people find it very difficult to identify what actually happens in an utterance. From the tonic syllable – the last major stress in the tone unit, does the tone rise, fall, rise-fall, fall-rise or level – the five tones in English? And as it is difficult to identify ourselves, we are very cautious about dealing with this in class.

One attractive treatment of tonal movement is the discoursal approach. This was first put forward by David Brazil & uses the 'given' & the 'new' ideas. Basically, if we are talking about something we think the listener already knows about or has experience of then we rise or fall-rise – known as referring tones. If we think it is new for the listener we fall – known as the proclaiming tone.  Look at the following utterances:

Talking about weekend plans:

If we can't go on Saturday, why don't we go on Sunday?

Well, on Sunday, I'm supposed to be visting Ben.

In 'If we can't go on Saturday' the tonic syllable is on 'Saturday ' & takes a fall-rise pattern as it is part of the weekend plan conversation already underway.

The second part of the utterance 'why don't we go on Sunday?', the tonic syllable is in 'Sunday' with the proclaiming tone, a fall, as it is introducing a new idea.

And in the second utterance, the first part, Well, on Sunday' has the fall-rise on Sunday as it is shared, & the fall, the new information in the second part,  'I'm supposed to be visting Ben.' is on 'Ben'.

If you're not familiar with this approach to intonation, it is well worth investigating & passing on to your students. When dealing with dialogues, discourse, look for instances of proclaiming & referring tones & get your students to notice them.  Not only does this promote an awareness of this approach but gives a depth to their awareness on discourse in general. In a future Tip, we'll look at activities to
consolidate proclaiming  referring tones.

Rules are very useful, students appreciate them as a way to make the learning process more manageable & although the discoursal approach to intonation does not necessarily answer all of the questions, it contains relatively noticeable aspects with the basic manageable proclaiming & referring tendencies.

Here are some teaching materials based around this discoursal approach
to intonation:

Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English - David Brazil (CUP)
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Intonation in Context – Barbara Bradford – (CUP)
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Streaming Speech: Listening and Pronunciation for Advanced Learners of English: Student's Book - Richard Cauldwell (speechinaction)
To buy this book: Buy this book at

Richard Cauldwell's article 'The two-sides rule in teaching listening and pronunciation':
Richard's article 'Grasping the nettle: The importance of perception work in listening comprehension':

Other related Tips:
Setting the tone
Thought groups & prominence

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Question mark
Real Why





A couple of things this week, a speaking activity & a lesson plan.

You may have heard of the mayhem that surrounded the opening at 12 midnight of an Ikea furniture store in London last week. They had put on some special offers & expected a couple of thousand to turn up but six thousand actually appeared & the store wasn't prepared for the ensuing problems. The lesson plan is about this & uses an article from the Guardian Online. There is a lot of interesting language in the article & it is ideal for the basis of speaking activities. You can find the lesson plan at:

The article is for upper intermediate & upwards, although at a push, could be used for intermediate students. It could be adapted for lower levels with the teacher orally summarising the article & situation in general, & then on to the speaking tasks.

The second thing this week is the Real Why Question Activity. This consists of the students writing down three or four questions that they would really like the answers to. You might give examples to get them thinking:

- Why is English food so bad?
- why don't the Spanish have milk delivered to their door?
- Why are the trains in the UK so slow?

Whatever, so long as the students choose the why questions that they really want answers for. Then the students mingle, listening to the ideas & answers to their questions, & in turn giving answers to others. When the mingle comes to a close, the students decide on the best answers to their questions. Finally, elicit questions & best answers & have a general class discussion.

This activity can be lots of fun, with lots of meaningful speaking practice. One of the questions we had with the activity recently was 'Why is space black?' - answers on the back of a postcard. It's one of those activities that you can use again & again, similar to the Train Compartment activity as described in the 'Stranger On A Train' Tip:

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Using the telephone in English is one of the more challenging skills that a lot of our students need to master & clearly a difficult means of communication due to the absence of paralinguistic features. Here are a few guidelines on developing this is in & out of class.

  • teach conventional beginnings, endings, & functional language that cater to phone needs - requesting, giving information, arranging to meet etc...
  • help students to plan for the phone - for incoming calls they could have a list of phone language handy, together with some comprehension strategies - 'Could you repeat/spell that please?, I didn't catch that last bit, could you say it again, please? etc..'
  • for outgoing calls, encourage the stds to take notes in preparation. You could provide a phone form to complete beforehand that focuses them on the relevant organisation of their call.
  • lots of rehearsals in the classroom - sit the students back-to-back to simulate the lack of paralinguistics. If you can use internal phones in the school or company, so much the better.
  • lots of listening & listening strategies, & notetaking development.
  • a comparison between English-based phone language conventions & those of the stds' own conventions. In Spain, one picks up the phone & says 'Digame' - literally 'Tell me.' - not really one to transfer.
  • our students are going to have problems on the phone so we need to build up their confidence & ability to deal with the unknown. A practical way to do this is with blocking telephone roleplays. See the 'Blocking Roleplays' Tip:
  • encourage out of classroom phoning to each other - homework could ask them to use the phone in an information gap task.
  • ask friends & colleagues to be available for phone calls - set up some tasks.
  • if in an English-speaking country, set up tasks so that stds phone different organisations for information e.g. travel agents to research holidays - the stds come together to collate the information to see which offered the best deals. This could be planning a day out for the class - & then you go out for the day together!

A tricky area but one that can be fun in class. Here are a couple of links:

A few phone roleplays:

From - techniques & a plan:

And do check out Skype - free phoning from computer to computer:


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