Teaching Speech Rhythm and Intonation

Trevor B. van Peppen


Chuo Nogyo High School is a public school located in Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. I teach a weekly, two-hour class to third year students. The students are enrolled in one of six possible courses of study, namely: 1) animal husbandry, 2) vegetable course, 3) flower arranging, 4) flower growing, 5) computers, and 6) cooking. The class consists of thirteen students between the ages of 16-20. Their English proficiency is low in all four skill areas (speaking, listening, reading, and writing). However, their motivation to learn English is high since they have chosen the English Conversation course as their elective. I teach the course with a Japanese teacher of English, who functions as my assistant. The class size is small so there is plenty of opportunity for each student to interact with the teachers.
Until recently, students in Japan have focused exclusively on grammatical forms/syntactic relationships in their EFL classes. Comparatively speaking, little emphasis has been placed upon pronunciation. However, with the introduction of oral communication classes students are being required to orally perform the structures they learn in their reading and writing classes. The focus in teaching English is now shifting from a focus on grammar to a focus on communication. To help in this shift many foreign, native speakers of English have been placed in junior and senior high schools throughout Japan. The presence of assistant language teachers (AETs) has brought a new perspective on English usage into the classroom. AETs play an important role in developing sociolinguistic competence, which includes the idea of appropriate use of language (Bachman, 1990). This element is often missing from Japanese classrooms. High school students in Japan often ask what westerners perceive as very personal questions. Hence, my first activity focuses word stress and intonation, as well as appropriate use of English. While using a pronunciation activity as the lesson's focal point, I also address appropriate use of language by explaining differences in social interactions within Japanese and western cultures.

My philosophy of teaching includes the use of music in language instruction. Through a needs analysis I discovered all the students are able to read simple eighth, quarter, triplet, sixteenth and sixteenth/dotted eighth rhythmic patterns. Tumanov (1986) notes that some prosodic structures in language are closely related to rhythmo-intonation structures in music. He further notes that there are weak and strong stresses in music as well as in spoken speech. Based upon these findings, and my students' ability to read musical notation, I have developed an activity which helps accomplish three things: 1) to practice oral production of questions with appropriate speech rhythm and intonation, 2) to teach cultural differences between Japanese and westerners as to acceptable questions one may ask someone upon meeting them for the first time, and 3) to help students improve their English pronunciation.

Activity #1


Note commonly asked questions which Japanese students ask foreign teachers. Transcribe the questions using musical notation to indicate speech rhythm and intonation. Include bar lines to indicate word stress.
Students repeat the questions after the teacher
Students read the questions off the handout

Students practice asking/answering these questions in pairs

After completing the task, discuss which questions are appropriate to ask someone when meeting for the first time.

What's your name? Where do you live?

What do you do for a living? What's your hobby?

What's your favorite color? Do you like Japanese food?

Can you speak Japanese? Can you speak a second language?

Do you like Japan? Can you use chopsticks?

How old are you? What's your dream?

How much do you weigh? Do you have any brothers or sisters?

How much money do you make? Do you have a girlfriend?

When teaching intonation in regards to asking questions, students need to be made aware of when to use rising and falling intonation. Appropriate intonation is dictated by the type of question being asked and the focus of the question itself. A question may be asked in several ways, depending on the information that the speaker is attempting to solicit. In each case, the word stress, speech rhythm and intonation of the utterance changes. My second activity helps students with information focus in asking questions, through the execution of a communicative task.

The use of musical staves, bar lines and rhythmic notation can be used to indicate emphasis in spoken English. Consider the following question: "When did you come to Japan?" Below are four different executions of the same question.

When did you come to Japan? (No particular emphasis)

When did you come to Japan? (Emphasis on time)

When did you come to Japan? (Emphasis on person)

When did you come to Ja - pan? (Emphasis on place)

Activity #2


Prepare a list of ten questions and ten inappropriate responses (see handouts).
Teacher is in the 'hot seat' and students ask him/her questions
Teacher does one of two things:

A. Asks for clarification of part of the question

(i.e. S: What is your mother's name?

T: My brother's name?

S: What is your mother's name?)

B. Gives an inappropriate response to the question

(i.e. S: What's your favorite movie?

T: Sushi.

S: What's your favorite movie?)

Both cases will cause the student to reformulate the question using information focus through variations in intonation, speech rhythm and word stress

Student A uses the handout to ask questions to Student B, who then reads the inappropriate response written on his/her page. Student A repeats the question using variations in intonation, speech rhythm and word stress to focus Student B's attention on the information he/she is trying to elicit. Student B then responds appropriately to the question. Students switch roles when they have finished Student A's questions.

Handout - Student A

Question  Answers
  1. Who is your favorite Japanese rock group? 
  1. Thursday. 
  1. Do you have a part-time job? 
  1. Yes, I do. 
  1. What time did you come to school today? 
  1. Curry and rice. 
  1. What did you do last night? 
  1. In Kanagawa. 
  1. What's your telephone number? 
  1. At 8:30. 

Handout - Student B

Question Answers 
  1. What time is it? 
  1. The Beatles. 
  1. What western food do you like? 
  1. My brother works at 7-11. 
  1. What's your favorite sport? 
  1. By bicycle. 
  1. When were you born? 
  1. I'm going to watch tv. 
  1. How did you come to school today? 
  1. My student number is 087325. 


  • Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental considerations in language testing (Chapter 4). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tumanov, A. (1986). Music in L2 Pedagogy: A comparative analysis of music and language. Russian Language Journal, 40, (136-137), 35-54.