Teaching Pronunciation: Intonation

Next up, intonation! What is intonation exactly, and why does it matter? Intonation is made up of the pitches that rise and fall when we speak. When we speak, intonation acts like punctuation. Although we don’t think about it too often, our intonation actually communicates a lot about our intentions and emotions. Misplaced intonation can not only make the speaker’s English sound “off” or “accented,” but it can also give off the wrong impression or cause miscommunication.


American English relies a lot on falling intonation, which is when we drop or lower our voice at the end of a phrase. We tend to use it at the end of a thought for short assertions and questions with interrogative words. For example: It’s hot today. What are you wearing? In both examples, your voice naturally drops to indicate that you have completed the thought. Sometimes, in more complex sentences, we fall or drop more than once to indicate the separation of phrases or ideas. This acts in a similar way as a comma or a semicolon.

We also rely on rising intonation when we are asking a yes or no question. For example: Is it hot? In this example, your voice rises when you say the word “hot,” indicating to the listener that you expect a response. Sometimes ESL texts will mistakenly teach that all questions need rising intonation. This isn’t true. Think about how you say these two questions: Is it hot? Why is it so hot? In the first example, the intonation rises at the end. In the second example, “why” is stressed, and the intonation drops at the end.

For some sentences, we mix up the intonation. If we have an introductory phrase or clause, sometimes we rise at the end of the first part and fall when the sentence is completed. For example: If I go outside, I’ll get hot. We naturally rise a bit when we say “outside,” and we fall when we complete the thought with the word “hot.” We also go up and down when we are asking about two or more things. For example: Is it hot (rise) or cold (fall)?

If we are saying all the correct words, then why does intonation even matter that much? Surely the listener can figure out what we mean, right? Well, sometimes but not always. Plus, listeners can subconsciously judge the speaker by these little cues, even if they don’t intend to. Strong, falling intonation at the end of each phrase (or “lexical chunk”) makes the speaker sound more confident. Misplaced rising intonation makes the speaker sound confused or insincere.

A common mistake for Mandarin speakers is to increase their volume to stress meaning rather than use their intonation. In their native language, a change in tone indicates a totally different word. So, they often give equal stress to each word and up the volume to give certain words more value. This can come across as aggressive or angry, which is unfortunate when the speaker does not have that intention.


Fortunately though, with VIPKID, you are working with young students who still have a lot of linguistic flexibility. With the very young students, you might notice that they naturally copy your intonation. Your best strategy with the young ones is to pay attention to your own intonation. Make sure your speech stays as natural as possible, even when you slow the pace down. For example: Can you circle (rise)? Yes! (fall) I can circle! (fall) For the really young students, you can also practice repeating “uh-oh!” and “oh no!” with an intonation shift. This can actually be a pretty fun game. Drag a character or image off the screen and say, “oh no!” Sometimes we combine this with practicing “goodbye.” Either the teacher or the student will say “bye!” and lean over so they aren’t in view. Student or teacher then says, “Oh no! Where’s Student/Teacher?” It’s silly and exaggerated, and I’ve found that the young ones tend to copy my intonation exactly when we do it.

With the older, more advanced students, visual cues help. I like to draw little arrows to indicate the ups and downs. When you have longer reading passages, drawing arrows to coincide with the punctuation helps highlight how intonation acts as audible punctuation for the listener.


One great thing about focusing on intonation is that it naturally lends itself to fixing another common problem for Mandarin speakers: the dropped word endings. You’ve probably noticed that many of your VIPKID students struggle with their final S, T, L, D, and B sounds. It doesn’t come easily for them, so many students drop the sounds as they speak. However, focusing on intonation requires pauses as we rise and fall, which often helps the student slow down to finish the word correctly. Once the student gets in the habit of moving their pitch up and down, it is easier to add stress to place value on words rather than shooting the words out one by one. Intonation goes hand in hand with word stress, and when we stress a word, we are more likely to hit that final consonant as well.

Happy teaching!


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Mother. Teacher. Reader. Trying to make ends meet without losing pieces of my soul in the process. This is a place for my thoughts on teaching English and on life in general.

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