English Intonation – 5 Learning Tips – Pronunciation Studio


Last week, I released a new course book – The Sound of English Intonation, designed to help learners improve both their stress and use of pitch in English (try a sample here). 

Stress and intonation can be difficult for teachers and learners of English to approach in the classroom and this course is designed to provide a practical path through them.

With stress, you have to learn the rules of sentence stress for the subject to make any sense. These can seem confusing, but are actually quite simple.

With intonation patterns, it can take a while to hear and produce them accurately in different sentence structures. With repetition and exposure, it’s normally possible for learners to master these. 

Don’t wait to include intonation in pronunciation courses!

I have found that covering the basics of stress and intonation in courses from the very beginning, when learners are working on pronunciation, is highly beneficial.

Over time, both choosing and producing stress gets easier, and using English pitch and intonation patterns become more natural for most learners. 

So here are 5 tips to help with this process, not in order of importance, but probably in the order they should be taught:

1) Learn how to stress

Most of us have such a clear idea of what stress is, that we never actually stop to think about what we actually DO when we stress.

It’s three things: volume (louder), pitch (normally higher), vowel quality (normally longer). Applying these in words and sentences is essential for all learners of English.

2) Find the Tonic Syllable

Many languages have flatter intonation than English. Students will normally import their mother tongue’s intonation into their pronunciation, so it’s essential that learners locate the main stress in every utterance, and then stress.

Really stress it.

I mean REALLY stress it. 

3) Learn Tone Units

A Tone Unit is basically a chunk of intonation. It always has a Tonic Syllable, and it can have a Pre-Head, Head and Tail.

It is quite a theoretical way of learning intonation, but it nearly always gives results because it allows learners to approach their speech with a real structure, and from this stems control. 

4) Rap

The PRE-HEAD is probably the hardest part of the tone unit for most learners. Why? Because in so many languages, you start with some stress. Not in English, anything with weak vowels at the beginning needs to be weak. I mean REALLY weak, and this isn’t natural to many learners. The best approach to learning this? Rap:

1 to the 2 to the 3 to the shops. 

5) Ignore Meaning

The goal in teaching intonation is to give learners control over their stress and pitch. I’ve seen teachers many times get stuck in long, rambling descriptions of how one tone means this, and another means that.

But intonation isn’t grammar, there isn’t such a strong relationship between what we say, and what it means. So my advice is this – don’t go there. Learn and teach the tools to control the way you sound. Leave the meaning to the words.

So there you have it, if you follow these 5 tips, and invest a bit of time in doing repetition and a bit of theory, this is how you can improve your intonation skills. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here