Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Music has Meaning – Part II

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland
jonestamara@hotmail.com

The Functions of Focus

Recently, I shared the research of Reed (2015) in which she sheds light on the disconnect between what speakers mean and what students may actually hear. Specifically, when proficient English speakers shift the pitch change from the end of a thought group in order to communicate a specific meaning. For instance, when a speaker says, “My boss said he’d fix the problem” many English learners may assume that the problem had been or would be fixed. Conversely, proficient English speakers would understand that the pitch change on the word “said” implied that, in fact, the problem probably hadn’t been resolved at all.

Not hearing or failing to understand the meaning that is communicated by these pitch changes on focus or prominent words can put our students at a major disadvantage. They end up missing out on key information that their peers will have gotten and they are often incapable of making the predictions that help good listeners follow a conversation.

Getting from “Huh?” to “Ah!”

In order for students to learn about focus, they first need to accept that, “[u]nlike many other languages, where grammatical inflection, word order or lexis is used to signal contrast or important information, English does this largely through phonology.” (Rogerson Revell, 2012) It seems students are often reluctant to embrace the study of focus because they don’t believe that (1) is really does exist and (2) it actually communicates meaning.

In order to raise students’ awareness, it is helpful for them to notice pitch changes. Reed (2015) has students do this by giving them each a passage that contains several italicized words and asking them to approach proficient English speakers (usually in her university Intensive English Program office) and ask them to read the passage. Students are invariably astonished to hear the passage read in exactly the same way with exactly the same focus by a variety of speakers.

Once students have realized that focus is real and not just a figment of their teacher’s imagination, they are open to learning what it all means. To do this, it’s helpful to present a “What comes next?” kind of activity. I like an excerpt from Grant’s (2010) text that I tweak a little. I show a PowerPoint slide in which a speaker is saying “Let’s continue our discussion of pollution. Yesterday we defined pollution.” Then, I ask the students which of the following statements the speaker will probably say next: (a) “Today, we’ll define acid rain.” or (b) “Today, we’ll discuss the impacts of pollution.” Students usually say that there is no way to be sure what the speaker will say next. They are continuously surprised to hear that native English speakers almost always identify the correct answer as (b).

Next, it can be helpful for students to do some “quality repetition” (Gilbert, 2008, page 31) in order to really own the pitch changes. To facilitate this, teachers can have students chorally repeat sentences in which the pitch change is not at the end of the thought group, such as, “I can swim” and “You do look like your father.” While they are repeating the sentences, they can pull and relax rubber bands or open and close their fists to feel the contrast between the focus word and the other words.

Finally, it is always useful to provide ample opportunities for controlled practice. One fun activity I do with my students is a card match. On it are several versions of the same sentence: “I want to learn to ski on my vacation.” This sentence appears on several cards, but with a different focus word, such as “I want to learn to ski on my vacation.” and “I want to learn to ski on my vacation.” On the other cards, I write the meaning implied by one of the sentences. For instance, the match for “I want to learn to ski on my vacation.” would be “I don’t have to.” and the match for “I want to learn to ski on my vacation.” would be “I already know how to swim.” I distribute one card to each student and they go around the room and read out their cards until they find the perfect focus / meaning match.

These are just some ideas for how to introduce your students to this important skill. I would be very interested to hear if you teach this in your lessons and what has worked for you.


Gilbert, J.B. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation Using the Prosody Pyramid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grant, L. (2010). Well Said: Pronunciation for Clear Communication, Third Edition, Boston, MA: Heinle.
Reed, M. (2015, Feb 17). The Melody of English: Research and Resources for Teaching the Pragmatic Functions of Intonation, [webinar] IATEFL.
Rogerson-Revell, P. (2012) Can or should we teach intonation? Paper presented at the 2012 IATEFL Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

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