The role of discourse and phonology in promoting foreign language teaching: focus on intonation

By Joanna Nifli (MA TEFL/CELTA certified EFL instructor)

    In this blog post we look at intonation, the area of phonology which discourse analysis has thrown most light on. The aim is to raise teachers’ awareness on how intonation relates to the surrounding discourse, especially how a speaker’s choice of tonic stress, prominence and tone contours indicates the state of play in ongoing discourse from their point of view. This post will also aim to draw out some implications for English learning and teaching and to raise EFL teachers’ awareness on this area of language description.

Grammar and intonation

    There have been many attempts to show connections between intonation and grammar. For example, ‘rules’ to do with the correct intonation for yes-no and wh- questions and tags. McCarthy (1991) is sceptical about such attempts, and states that “the more we look at intonation and grammar, the more we are forced to conclude that they are separate systems which work independently, but in harmony, to contribute to discourse meaning.

    Kelly (2000) summarises some of these “generalisations”, claiming that they can provide guidance for students in making appropriate choices in intonation:

Main rules used in teaching intonation  
Information questions with who, what, where, etc.: Falling intonation (if being asked for the first time), e.g. What’s your name? What’s the time? Where do you live?  
Yes-no questions: Rising. (Is it the blue one? Have you got a pen?)  
Statements: Falling. (He lives in the house on the corner. Il’s over there.)  
Imperatives: Falling. (Sit down. Put it on the table.)  
Question tags expecting confirmation: Falling. (You ‘re French, aren’1 you? He’s very tall, isn’t he?)  
Question tags showing less certainty: Rising. (You’re French, aren’1 you? Your train leaves at six, doesn’t it?)  
Lists of items: Rising, rising and finally falling. (This train stops at Guiseley, Mension, Burley, Ben Rhydding and Ilkley)  

Adapted from Kelly (2000) How to Teach Pronunciation

Tone groups as informational units

    For Halliday, tone groups are informational units; the speaker decides how to segment the information to be transmitted and encodes each segment as a separate tone group. The nuclear prominence or tonic as we shall now call it, projects what the speakers decides is new (in the sense of ‘newsworthy’) in the tone group.

McCarthy, 1991:99

Given and new   The significant variable is: information that is presented by the speaker as recoverable (Given) or not recoverable (New) to the listener. What is treated as recoverable may be so because it has been mentioned before; but that is not the only possibility. It may be something that is in the situation, like I and you; or in the air, so to speak; or something that is not around at all but that the speaker wants to present as Given for rhetorical purposes. The meaning is: this is not news. Likewise, what is treated as non-recoverable may be something that has not been mentioned; but it may be something unexpected, whether previously mentioned or not. The meaning is: attend to this; this is news.   Halliday, 1985:277  

Types of tones and their meanings

For practical purposes, five main types of tones (i.e movement in the pitch of the voice) in English can be identified:

McCarthy adds a note of warning here:

    We can see what a mess can be got into if we try to attach attitudinal or emotive labels to tones out of context, for it seems almost any emotion can be accompanied by any tone, and that without lexical or contextual information or other vocal clues we cannot reliably label a tone contour as displaying a particular attitude or emotion. The most we can say is that emotional intensification tends to be accompanied by wider pitch contrasts, but that is far from attributing particular emotions and attitudes to particular tone contours.

McCarthy, 1991:107

Discourse and intonation

The most reliable interpretation of tone choice is to see tones playing an interactive role, signaling the ‘state of play’ in discourse. This is consistent with the interactive nature of other parts of the intonation system we have already looked at such as prominence and tonic placement (McCarthy, 1991: 109). In longer stretches of discourse, such as conversations, the speaker’s intonation indicates her interpretation of what is shared knowledge and what isn’t (Kelly, 2000: 101).

When you get to the office, you ‘Il see a tall man called Sean.

When you see Sean, give him this letter.

(Kelly, 2000:101)

The most basic intonation choice is between referring tones and proclaiming tones (Brazil, 1997). In English, the two most frequently occurring tones are the fall and the fall-rise. The fall is a proclaiming tone, and the fall-rise is a referring tone. Proclaiming tones express new information or add something new to the discussion.

Specifically, they can be used to:

-Give facts

-Express opinions we believe to be true

-Ask for new information

Referring tones relate to information that is presumed to be shared between the speakers.

We can use them to:

-Make sure what we are saying is correct

-Check information

The placing of prominence in discourse

Teachers can try to read this short conversation aloud, along with a partner. A reads naturally but B emphasizes the underlined words: They can then try to match the utterances 1-5 below with the possible meanings a e.

UtterancesPossible Meanings  
1 ILL walk with you to the station.   2 I’II WALK with you to the station.   3 I’ll walk with YOU to the station.   4 I’ll walk with you TO the station.   5 I’ll walk with you to the STAtion  a I don’t want to bring my car.   b But not back again.   c But not as far as the park.   d But I’m not going with him.   e Nobody else has offered.  

    As teachers and materials writers, we therefore need to provide learners with descriptions of intonation which will allow them to understand the communicative significance of the patterns of intonation identified in such rules, and of the exceptions to those rules.


Brazil, D. 1997. The Communicative Value of Intonation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cauldwell, R. and M. Hewings. 1996. Intonation rules in ELT textbooks. ELT Journal 50(4):327-334

Halliday, M.A.K. 2004. An introduction to functional grammar. London: Amold. Chapter 8.

Kelly, G. 2000. How to Teach Pronunciation. Harlow: Pearson Education. Chapter 6.

McCarthy, M. 1991. Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 4.

Thombury, S. 1997. About Language. Cambridge University Press. Unit 8.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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