Teaching Tag Question Intonation

W. R. Elliot


A difficult problem for Japanese learners of English is the intonation of questions. Most learners believe that all questions take a rising intonation. Unfortunately, that is not the case at all. Yes-no questions take a rising intonation, but questions using the wh- words, and how , take a falling intonation. Even then, the intonation is often determined by the situation and the speakers intention.

Tag questions pose an even more difficult problem for the Japanese learners, because not all tag questions are in fact questions. The speaker may decide on discourse using the form of tag question for a variety of reasons. These include: confirmation of what the speaker thinks to be true, emphasis of what the speaker is trying to assert, and many emotions on the part of the speaker. A speaker can show anger, happiness, sarcasm, pride, hate, irony, etc. by using tag questions. These are all shown by using stress and either a rising or falling intonation at the end of the tag question.

In this paper I want to introduce some scenarios that I use in my classes to teach the correct use of tag questions, including stress and intonation. These short scenarios can be used with many levels and ages of students.

The Scenarios

In the first scenario Speaker B has applied for the position of lifeguard at a swimming pool. Speaker A is interviewing him for the position and has decided to hire him.

  • A: Okay, you'll be our lifeguard this summer. By the way, you CAN swim, can't you? (with a rising intonation)
  • B: Well, I got a swimming gold medal in the Olympics. So I CAN swim, can't I? ( with a falling intonation )

In the second scenario, Speaker B is a baseball player, but he has a broken leg and is in the hospital. Speaker A is his wife and is very worried that he will try to get out of bed and go to the game today.

  • A: You're NOT going to the game, are you? (with rising intonation)
  • B: I want to go, but since my leg is broken, I guess that I'm NOT going, am I? (with falling intonation)

In the third scenario Speaker A is an American in Denver speaking to two other Americans who have just returned from Japan with very different impressions about the country. Speaker A has never visited Japan.

  • A: Japan is a very BEAUTiful country, isn't it? (with rising intonation)
  • B: Yes, that's right. It has very beautiful TEMPles, doesn't it? (with falling intonation)
  • C: What? You saw what was there, didn't you? (with rising intonation) There was TRASH everywhere, wasn't there? (with falling intonation)

The Method

When teaching the rising and falling patterns of tag questions, I tell the students that I am going to give them some very short, easy examples of how native speakers use tag questions. I then say the dialogs listed above in as natural of a voice as I can. The students listen to the dialogs two times. On the third and fourth times, they repeat after me. I then tell them to try to make a simple rule as to when to use rising or falling intonation. I let them work with a partner or in small groups for this part of the activity. Using either L1 translation or their interlanguage English, they are usually able to conclude that rising intonation is used when the speaker is unsure of the answer and falling intonation when the speaker is confident what the answer will be.

After this, I give the students a few minutes to practice their choice of one of the dialogs. They then perform the dialog at the front of the class. They are then either given time in class to write their own dialogs using tag questions or it is assigned as homework. One advantage of using this activity for homework is that it spreads the productive language learning over two lessons and this helps to reinforce memory and habit. A disadvantage is that they usually have to work alone and lose valuable language focused input from their partner or group members by not being able to negotiate the dialog. Finally, the students will perform the dialogs that they have written themselves, with the listeners guessing the speakers intention based on the tag question intonation.


Although knowing what kind of intonation to use in tag questions poses a major problem for Japanese learners of English, it can easily be taught by some conscience-raising communicative activities. By knowing the situation, by listening to a native speaker or near-native speaker, and by watching the speakers' gestures and facial expressions, Japanese learners are able to discover for themselves the correct intonation usage. The activity can be taught in one lesson or be spread over two or more lessons. Learners generally enjoy writing their own dialogs and often surprise me with the high level of discourse they are able to produce and with the wide range of ideas they find in their imaginations. The use of tag question intonation can be made easy for the students.