Intonation Lesson (about 50 minutes)

Levels: pre-intermediate to advanced.
Ages: older kids; teens; adults
Type: drama; intonation practice through improvised role-play, investigating body language.
Skills: listening, speaking, reading, writing, pronunciation (sentence stress; conveying feelings and status through emphasis/intonation).
Language focus: vocab and grammar as it arises.

Note: I heard this idea from Tim McLeish via the smokers’ corner at St Giles London Central.

Materials: A whiteboard and a pen; 4 slips of paper.

Preparation: write four “conflict” situations, one on each slip of paper. Situations I have used include:

  • Lipstick on His Collar (a man comes home to his wife with his lover’s lipstick on his collar);
  • Drunk in a Restaurant (they keep ordering drinks, but it’s closing time and their waitress wants to leave);
  • You’re Fired! (a boss has to sack a lazy worker);
  • Bouncers (a student wants to enter a nightclub, but she looks too young and she has no ID);
  • Shoplifter (a shoplifter caught in the act of stealing from a shop; the shopkeeper detains the shoplifter and calls the police)


  1. Board/introduce “Communication”. Elicit from your students the following means of communication: “body language; intonation; speech.” Tell the students this lesson will look at all these ways of communicating. Divide the class into 4 pairs or small groups. Give each group one slip of paper.
  2. The Body Language Part

  3. Tell the groups in turn to come to the front of the class and present their situations, but using NO WORDS (this exercise will be a mime only). The other groups try to guess what the situation is (they are usually pretty good at this); board the situations as they are discovered/elicited.
  4. Quickly feedback by asking the class what they thought the characters were like in each group – how did x display his anger at the shoplifter? How did we know y was drunk?
  5. The Main Focus: Intonation

  6. Swap the situations between the groups, so that each group has a different situation to their last. Say that, this time, the groups are to present the situations again, but this time they can use sound as well as body language, but NO SPEECH. Instead, the only word they can use is “banana” – as in, “Banana?” “Banana banana!” Demonstrate this with the class and encourage them to be as expressive as possible with this one word, which will be used for ALL situations and words.
  7. Each group performs their scene in turn; watching/listening groups can write down the emotions displayed by the acting group, and how these are shown through body language and intonation.
  8. The final stage: integration
    Note: at this stage, I always leave groups with the same situation they used for intonation practice (above), as by now they have a sense of ownership of this material. However, you can swap the situations round again if you like.

  9. Explain that each group will now write a short roleplay of their situation. They can use normal English words (good for practicing any vocabulary from preceding lessons), but they should try to include the word “banana” just once in a normal context (e.g., “Nice perfume!” “Thank you, it’s the new banana scent from Dior“). Allow about ten minutes for the writing, and monitor as appropriate. Early finishers get longer to rehearse their roleplay.
  10. Students are allowed one practice session (important for building confidence!), during which time you should monitor and encourage students to be as expressive as possible, using body language, intonation and language.
  11. Each group then presents its roleplay to the class. Watching groups award points for the most English-sounding students and the most effective or interesting use of the word “banana.” Now is a good time to monitor intonation usage.
  12. Feedback

  13. Groups feedback on each other, then you feedback on each group. If you like, you can award prizes for the students or groups with the most points for Englishness or use of the word “banana.”

4 thoughts on “Intonation Lesson (about 50 minutes)

  1. This is a nice activity and I will try this in my class.Please add more and more activities like this please send me a name of a website if you have to refer when I do my class.Thank you.Good Luck!!!!!!!

  2. I must confess, there are times I’ve not wanted to use the word banana – maybe I’ve heard it too many times or maybe I fear my students will get embarrassed by the phallic-ness of the banana. Anyway I tend to find that any other 3-syllable names for fruit and veg work equally well. Try it with potato, tomato, pineapple, strawberry, etc. (… or cucumber?)

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