An Introduction to Intonation

Skyler Vincent Schiavone, Tokyo International University

Quick Guide 

  • Keywords: Pronunciation, intonation, speaking skills
  • Learner English level: Advanced beginners and above 
  • Learner maturity: Ages 12+
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: 15-20 minutes
  • Materials: Diagram (Appendix A), Statement paper (Appendix B)

Intonation, the rise and fall of the pitch of voice when speaking, is a key feature of English pronunciation. A sentence that ends with falling intonation will sound complete, whereas a sentence that ends with rising intonation will sound unfinished, or like a question. Many students often ignore intonation, which can make their meaning unclear. By using a listening-based approach, students can identify and then practice basic intonation patterns to improve their pronunciation skills. The following activity is simple and easy to prepare, and helps students get familiar with, and practice, intonation.



Step 1: Draw a diagram with two arrows on the board (one rising and one falling) to represent rising and falling intonation (see Appendix A).

Step 2: Prepare a list of 10 statements to practice as a whole class and 10 additional statements for student-to-student practices (see Appendix B for examples).



Step 1: Introduce the pronunciation feature of intonation. Use the diagram (Appendix A) to show how intonation can rise or fall in a sentence and thus affect meaning. If the sentence “Sarah failed the test” is read with a falling intonation it sounds like a statement; read with a rising intonation, it sounds uncertain, like a question.

Step 2: Use the sentences in the worksheet (Appendix B – Part 1) as listening practice and have the class identify if your voice is rising or falling. Follow the instructions, and repeat if necessary.

The focus of this step is on listening for intonation rather than meaning.

Step 3: Read the sentences again and instruct the class to repeat after you. Use the diagram on the board to show how your voice is rising or falling. Explain how falling intonation shows a finished statement, but a rising intonation will sound like a question.

Step 4: Divide the class into pairs and provide each student with additional sentences and responses (Appendix B – Part 2). Student A will choose to read the sentence in either a rising or falling intonation and Student B will listen and respond appropriately. Then the students will switch roles in set 2. This step is meant to increase student autonomy and add a communicative element, which will help students gain comfort in recognizing and responding to the message implied by rising or falling intonation.

Step 5: To review part 2 as a whole class, nominate students for the roles of A and B to read the sentences and respond respectively. Upon completion of the exchange, student A will reveal his or her choice of intonation to confirm the correct response.



This activity works well as an effective introduction to intonation, as the explicit teaching and practice will help students notice this feature of pronunciation. The low-stakes listening comprehension and repetition exercises provide practice where students can rely on each other for assistance. The speaking exchange exercise provides a degree of autonomy within a controlled practice activity. This is a useful exercise for students who are beginning to speak independently.



The appendices are also available below.


Appendix A: Diagram

Rising (arrow pointing up) Falling  (arrow pointing down)


Appendix B: Statement Paper

The follow sentences are all statements. If read with a falling intonation, they will sound like facts. However, if they are read with a rising intonation, they will sound uncertain, or like questions, as if the speaker is asking for clarification.


Part 1

(Steps 2 and 3 guide in parentheses)

  • Sarah failed her test. (falling – certain statement)
  • It’s already 6 o’clock. (rising – I can’t believe it – I thought it was earlier.)
  • He ate all the ice cream. (rising – I can’t believe it – that was a lot of ice cream.)
  • The office closes at 1:30. (falling – certain statement)
  • We aren’t going out for dinner tonight. (rising – I’m surprised – I thought we were going out.)
  • She has eight cats. ( rising – I can’t believe it – that’s a lot of cats.)
  • They don’t like chocolate. (falling – certain statement)
  • It’s going to snow tomorrow. ( rising – I didn’t know that and can’t quite believe it.)
  • There’s no more money. ( falling – certain statement)
  • John got an A in math. (rising – I’m surprised – I didn’t think he was a good student.)


Part 2

(These sentences are provided to students. Students are instructed to choose whether to read the sentence in a rising or falling intonation, and their partner must identify the appropriate intonation and respond appropriately.


Set 1


Student A (Choose to read with a rising or falling intonation.)

Student B (Listen carefully and respond with the correct option.)

If you hear a rising intonation:

If you hear a falling intonation:


We’re going to have a vocabulary test tomorrow.

Yes, everyone knows. Haven’t you been studying?

Right, I’ll make sure to be ready.


Nobody knows the password.

I guess not. We’ll have to call someone.

That’s not good.


Taro ate 50 plates of sushi.

Yes, he did! I guess he was hungry.

Wow! I can’t even imagine that.


He’s not coming back.

No, I guess not.

Well, then we’ll have to do it ourselves.


The test takes three hours.

Yeah, didn’t you know that?

I’ve heard. I guess it’s going to be a long day.


Set 2


Student A (Choose to read with a rising or falling intonation.)

Student B (Listen carefully and respond with the correct option.)

If you hear a rising intonation:

If you hear a falling intonation:


Class will finish 30 minutes early today.

Yes, the teacher told us yesterday.

That’s great news.


The train’s going to be late.


Yes, they just made an announcement.

Oh no. I hope it doesn’t take too long.


The cafeteria is going to be closed for the rest of the semester.

Don’t you remember? They told us about this months ago.

I know. What a shame.


Mr. Smith is 40 years old.

I couldn’t believe it either – he looks quite young.

Wow! I thought he was much younger than that.


The kids stayed up until 2 AM.


Yes, they did. And now I have a headache!

Oh my! I hope they’ll be alright today.