There are a lot of different things involved in the act, skill, and craft of speaking. Communication is multi-faceted, to say the least. What we say is only one part of the equation, and today we’re going to focus more on how we say what we want to say. Your tone of voice makes a huge impact on the meaning of what you're saying. It's the reason that text messages are so ineffective at communicating messages clearly!
If you're teaching a conversation class, looking for ways to improve your students' communication, or find your students reading out loud in dull, flat tones, then this article is for you! Learn more about the tones of voice below, so that you're better equipped to helping your students excel at communicating in English. After all, communication and language isn't all about words and letter sounds! It's much more complex.
The Tones of Voice & Their Identifying Marks
There are 6 different tones of voice, and we’re going to focus on the 4 prosodic tones of voice. Prosody is a term that refers to the patterns and sounds used primarily in poetry. A prosodic tone of voice is a pattern or type of sound that can alter the meaning of your spoken language. Your pitch, loudness, speed, and rhythm of your speech can have a huge impact on the success of your communication, which makes it a really valuable linguistic concept to be aware of as an ESL teacher!
The pitch at which you speak can completely change the meaning of a simple sentence. A quick search on Google will yield the following definition, pitch is “the degree of highness or lowness of a tone.” The most common way that this is seen is in the difference between a question and a statement. Pay attention to your pitch when saying the following sentences: “They are running to the store,” and “They are running to the store?” If spoken correctly, the first sentence will have a falling pitch, while the second sentence will have a rising pitch.
In order to introduce and familiarize your students with this concept, use an object to illustrate the rising or falling pitch. Use something like a pencil or rubber band to track pitch. When the pitch of a sentence goes up, the pencil goes up and the rubber band stretches upwards. When the pitch of a sentence falls, the pencil can lower and the rubber band is slowly released. Use this technique to first identify pitch in someone else's speech, then practice saying sentences with rising and falling pitch along with your students, and finally have your students practice the concept independently.
The loudness of your speech sends a clear message to the individual you’re speaking to, whether you mean for it to or not. Loudness can be simply defined as the volume at which you speak, though it is often more subtle than the difference between yelling and whispering. It can signal the emphasis of a sentence, which signals the most important part of what you’re communicating. Think of the difference between saying, “Can I have some water?” and “Can I have some water?” The first sentence emphasizes that the water needs to be given to you, while the second sentence emphasizes that you want water as opposed to another drink.
If you're looking to introduce the impact of subtle volume changes to your students, use a sentence to work through the various meanings it could have when emphasized differently. Take a simple sentence like, "Please buy me a new blue pen." Write the sentence on the board and ask your students to write it in their notebooks and choose the word that should be emphasized. Get a few answers from them and then talk about how there is no right answer. Underline the first word (Please) and say the sentence with that word emphasized. Discuss the meaning with your students (the person is probably begging). Then, erase the underline and underline the next word (buy). Emphasize that word and discuss the meaning (they want the person to purchase a pen, not borrow or steal). Continue going through each word and talking about the ways that loudness and affect meaning.
Speed is another factor in your tone of voice that can communicate a lot. Whether you say a sentence quickly or slowly can signal that you’re annoyed, in a hurry, confused, etc. Speed cannot be communicated very clearly through written speech without the help of a descriptive word (he snapped). Consider the speed at which you say a sentence like, “She bought the yellow bathing suit.” A faster speed will send a message of impatience, while a slower speed could communicate that you’re unsure of the color of the bathing suit (among other things).
Speed is a difficult concept to teach ELLs because they're often already weary of "fast talkers." It's hard enough to understand English slowly! If your students are hesitant or struggling with this concept, start slowly. Talk a little bit about slow speech at first, and then work on faster speech. To make this concept a little more fun and engaging, fill out flashcards or slips of paper with different emotions that can be communicated through the speed at which you speak. Then, have each student, except for one (Student A), choose a slip out of a hat and stand in a circle. Student A has to ask a question to every student. It can be the same question. Those students will say their response at whatever speed they need to in order to communicate that emotion. Have Student A guess the emotion. If they're wrong, talk about what they guessed and how you could improve your communication by changing your speed.
The last prosodic tone of voice is rhythm, a combination of pitch, loudness, and speed. There are many different types of rhythm in languages, but English uses what is called a stress-timed rhythm. Stress-timed rhythm is a steady pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, which can be seen most prominently in poetry. Think of Shakespeare’s famous line, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Maintaining a proper rhythm is a huge component of communication that we don’t typically consider.
There are so many ways to work on rhythm in the classroom. One of the easiest ways to begin is by exaggerating speech. Either exaggerate the rhythm so much that your students are forced to hear it, or listen to recordings of speech that are unnaturally robotic and dull. Ask your students what is wrong with this speech and how they would fix it. Another great way to make the concept clear is to talk about phone numbers. When we recite phone numbers we use a set rhythm that allows us to remember them better. We don't say "7778900927" all in one go, we split it up and say, "777-890-0927." If you're looking for ways to encourage your students to work on integrating rhythm into their speech, check out jazz chants or recite poetry as a class.
Tone of voice is so important for ESL teachers and ELLs to be familiar with because we use it in so many different ways, and it often goes unnoticed! Tone of voice can express emotion like anger, sadness, joy, and annoyance. It can be used to organize grammar, such as in the case of questions and statements or positive and negative sentences.
The shape of words in English is entirely dependent upon the different tones of voice. Many words are made up of syllables that are the main stress, secondary stress, or unstressed, and without learning about tone of voice, students will be unable to properly pronounce words. Likewise, tone of voice can help us to clearly communicate the meaning of our sentences, such as in the case of saying, "I like bread," and "I like bread." Finally, tone of voice helps us to remember and learn new information. Phone numbers are just one of the ways that we use tone of voice and rhythm to remember things.
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How do you introduce tone of voice in your classroom?
Do you use audio or video recordings when introducing these concepts? What are your favorite resources?