You Said That To Her? Prosody As Meaning



Here is an English-language sentence, in the context of a dialogue, consisting of just five words, and having least five distinct meanings. The word that is italicized and in bold is the one to stress in each variant of the sentence.

  • You said that to her? (I could imagine almost anybody else saying that to her, but certainly not you. I am stunned.)
  • You said that to her? (You actually had the nerve to say that to her face, rather than writing to her or letting her know by some indirect means? That must have taken some nerve!)
  • You said that to her? (Of all the things you could have said to her,  you chose that one? Those specific words? Are you crazy or something?)
  • You said that to her? (Am I understanding this correctly? You didn’t say that about her, to someone else, but actually to her? Why would you do a thing like that?
  • You said that to her? (Of all the people you could have said that to, you said it to her? Don’t you realize how serious the repercussions will be?)

Mapped out as per above, there seems nothing unusual about these nuances to a native English speaker. But how often do we cover such ground – formally called prosody: the rhythm, stress, and intonation of speech – with learners of English? Despite evolution in pedagogical approaches, we never quite get away from lexis and grammar as the building blocks of meaning. To the extent that it is treated, even the dark horse third element, pronunciation, is very much about how individual words are spoken. Yet in everyday English usage, the choice of which word within a sentence should be emphasized – and recognizing the different meanings those different types of in-sentence emphasis can have – can be just as important as vocabulary and sentence structure. “Negotiating meaning” has become a popular catchphrase in EFL pedagogical discussion, but how often do we include this type of “negotiation training” in our lessons?

In a learner’s L1, recognizing the importance of emphasis within a phrase or sentence is a natural part of learning a language, because we learn the significance of these variances through their association with the situation being discussed; with the tone of voice being employed, by the facial expressions that accompany it, and other contextual clues. That recognition achieved, we then learn to reproduce this modulation of emphasis to add impact and precision to our own utterances.

Yet in EFL/ESL, this important aspect of language learning tends to be pretty much ignored, despite an even greater need to add to the learner’s comprehension arsenal by alerting him or her to these nuances. This can be more of an issue than it might seem at first glance. Shyness or lack of self-confidence – or sometimes simply a learner’s natural L1 vocal range which can be narrower than that normally found among native English speakers – can result in a monotone when the learner attempts to express himself or herself in English. This then can combine with improperly pronounced single words, or erroneous sentence construction, to , thus constitute a “comprehensibility handicap” for the learner which may end up creating a vicious circle that reinforces they shyness of self-confidence issues mentioned.

Teaching EFL/ESL learners to recognize and reproduce correct English language prosody also points to the importance of incorporating more audiovisual resources into language teaching, as clues to emphasis and stressed words within sentences are typically absent in written communication, especially stripped-down written formats like e-mail, text and instant messenger where we cannot use bold or italics to represent which parts of a sentence should be stressed to achieve specific meanings. 

So how can we best teach this often-neglected aspect of communicating in English?

First of all, as teachers we can conduct exercises such as the one at the top of this blog post to sensitize learners as to the way prosody can affect meaning in English. Often there will be similar parallels to their own L1, and realizing that they not be getting their full meaning across when producing speech in a monotone may motivate them to add a little color to their speaking. Without going into detailed analysis of whether your learners have an L1 that, like English, is stress-timed (Dutch being one example), syllable-timed (like Spanish and Italian) or mora-timed, such as Japanese, it is useful to get learners to accept the idea that emphasis has to be slightly exaggerated in the framework of communicating orally in English in order to be more comprehensible, as well as sounding more normal, to a native English speaker. This is especially important in phone conversations, where the learner cannot read or employ facial expressions to help clarify meaning.

Using authentic audiovisual resources, especially those drawn from entertainment, can help teach the importance of prosody in oral English language communication.

Secondly, showing examples – especially via authentic language video clips – can further reinforce the notion that communication is not limited to words, nor to the way the words are assembled, but also is a product of the swells and ripples within a sentence. Using entertainment examples (such as clips from films, television series, or music videos) is recommended, because actors and singers give slight but nevertheless realistic or “natural” added emphasis and stress where it can convey meaning. Even the apparent absence of such highs and lows in a sentence can be shown to have meaning, for example in sarcasm – increasingly present in both British and American comedy output – which is characterized by a “flatter” delivery than that used for other purposes, such as imparting information or expressing emotion. Made-for-teaching, “graded” audiovisual material, on the other hand, often features prosody that is far too exaggerated and thus comes off as artificial – even condescending – to the learner.

To conclude: incorporate building sensitivity to prosody in the English language– and how to use it – into your lessons as a different way to build towards the objective of accuracy. It is one aspect of language production that need not be in open conflict with fluency, but rather is a vital component of negotiating and producing better meaning. And – last but not least – it’s a fun way to bring out and show off the Shakespearean actor that lies within every good teacher of English!






TEFL & Teens: How To Keep Sane In The Classroom

Girl Sleeping in Class

We are pleased to publish the following Guest Post by Katherine Hackett of global TEFL training provider i-to-i, the Teach English Abroad specialists. 

Classes with teen learners split the TEFL teacher population. Many teachers look forward to their teenage classes and find that they provide the most interesting lessons, whilst others just don’t know where to start. If you fall in to the latter camp here are some tips to help you keep sane in the classroom:

Show an Interest. During speaking activities show an interest in all of your students’ answers. Even if your students respond with a disinterested scowl or blank glare to your questions, keep your enthusiasm up. Over time, showing respect and interest in what they have to say will encourage them to speak out in class (making your job a lot easier).

Group Tasks. Working in groups can be a great way to enhance class interaction, bonding and engagement. However, with teenage classes this should be treated carefully.  When you first start teaching a class of adolescents, take a few weeks to observe the existing relationships. Use this time to work out who would work well together and how they could complement each other’s strengths. Shy students tend to pair well with confident and helpful students, whilst excitable students benefit from a calm partner.

Fact Find. Teenagers, like the rest of the human race, just want to feel important! Show that you value them and see them as individuals by finding out a small fact about each member of your class. Perhaps Ji Won likes to wrestle in his free time, or Ana is a member of a garage rock band. Once you’ve gathered this information,  you can casually drop it into conversation with the students and use it to tailor class lessons to them.

Be a Teacher, Not a Friend. Whilst it’s extremely important to make your class feel valued, it’s equally important to make sure they respect you as a teacher. Set clear boundaries and, if they are broken, have a set of consequences. If you want to encourage student ‘buy in’ then agree appropriate punishments through a class vote.

The Golden Rules. The worst thing you can do in the TEFL classroom is to present your students with a complicated list of rules. They won’t be remembered and will make you look pedantic.  If you’re struggling to decide, ‘respect your classmates’ and ‘respect your teacher’ should cover everything.

For more advice, lesson plans and guidance on teaching English as a foreign language a comprehensive TEFL course will equip you with all the skills you’ll need.

Katherine can be reached at

ELT Elephant-in-the-Room Fundamentals Part III: Which English?


Part Three of a four-part series on fundamental ESL/EFL teaching principles which are easy to forget – or tempting to ignore

So far, we’ve examined the subjects of Motivation and Repetition as examples of simple but essential principles of the language learning process which tend to be “crowded out” of lessons, either by the constraints of an imposed curriculum or by the distractions of trendy but sometimes superfluous educational technology. In this installment of the series, we take a look at the old British English vs. American English divide, and show how it is just about as relevant to today’s learners as a debate over the respective merits of the teletext over the telegraph.

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ELT Elephant-In-The Room Fundamentals Part II: Repetition

The second in a four-part series on fundamental ESL/EFL teaching principles which are easy to forget – or tempting to ignore

Fear of repetition? Or long silences? You’re not alone.

Second in our series of simple but essential principles of the language learning process – fundamentals that have been known and understood for decades but which we as teachers have sometimes failed to implement – is the pedagogical concept of Repetition. Yes, Repetition. To summarize: Repetition.

We know that frequency of exposure to – and use of – a language, as well as what can be labeled practice or drilling, are all essential in moving the effects of language input, as well as skills involving language production, from short-term to long-term memory. For example, we all learned in our TEFL courses that a vocabulary item needs to be seen and used at least 10 to 12 times by a learner before it is effectively absorbed into the learner’s active vocabulary.

But what do we, as teachers, actually do to bring about that degree of repetition? And how many of us actually keep track of the number of lexical exposures achieved for a specific target lexical term, driving that number forward until the desired frequency has been reached?

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ELT Elephant-In-The-Room Fundamentals Part I: Motivation

A four-part series on fundamental ELT principles that are easy to forget – or tempting to ignore

As Teachers of English, we are lucky enough to live and work at a time when the pedagogical resources available to us are better, more numerous and more accessible than they have ever been. The wealth of materials, approaches and communities – from basic online vocabulary games to interactive video lessons all the way through to constantly evolving Personal Learning Networks (PLN’s) on social networks like Twitter – would have been difficult to imagine even 10 years ago. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t stumble upon (no subliminal plug intended) a wonderful web-based pronunciation tool, word-tree maker, or timeline-based grammar explanation that would not be worth using in class or as homework.

However, the dazzling array of new ideas and platforms can also cause us to forget simple but essential principles of the language learning process: fundamentals that have been known and understood for decades now but which teachers sometimes fail to implement. We can think of these principles, collectively, as the “elephant in the room” in the field of ELT, in reference to the metaphor for an obvious, highly problematic and seemingly insoluble situation that nevertheless no one wants to acknowledge or try to deal with. Our job is to keep this elephant very much in mind, and to always circle back to how we can persuade it to leave the room rather than just wishing it would go away.

The first of these essential but sometimes-neglected fundamentals is Motivation.

We know that the strongest form of motivation is that which comes from within the learner himself or herself. Yet, for the most part, adolescent and young adult learners sat in front of you in an English class are most probably  there simply because they are forced to (in secondary education, for example, or, for adults, because their employer requires it). Alternatively, they may be there in a capacity that is “voluntary” only on the surface (attending a language institute course imposed by their parents, for example). Therefore a teacher’s ability to create “second-level” motivation – the kind of motivation which can be generated regardless of the learners’ original reason for being in the class – becomes essential if we are to optimize the conditions for learning.

As we all know from our own experiences as learners, a good dose of second-level motivation can be sparked – must be sparked, can only be sparked – directly by the teacher. Someone who is dynamic, who keeps the class moving and interacting, who engages students on a personal level, who can use a pinch of humor to encourage continued effort, and who challenges learners to budge from their self-imposed intellectual inertia – certainly someone like this can make a big difference in the learning experience.

But – in particular for today’s generation of teen and young adult learners – part of second-level motivation inevitably comes from the subject matter being taught, or from the course materials used in teaching it. The truth is that for digital natives, entertainment, far from being the froth of life as it was for the previous generation and all those before it, has become the sine qua non condition for intellectual engagement. Marketers have known this for some time. Want to sell a young teen boy a video game? Make sure he can find cool clips of game footage, edited with a thumping soundtrack, on the IGN website that he will surely consult if in the market for such a game. Want a 16-year-old girl to open a Junior Account at your bank? Sponsor her favorite Boy Band and send her exclusive clips of their rehearsals. Want to raise awareness for a good cause among university students? Forget university dorm bulletin boards. Make sure you have a fun, viral Faceboook fan page instead.

Clearly, learners will be more “switched on” in response to subjects and inputs that are current and authentic (news, global issues, the latest entertainment), that are interactive (providing immediate feedback and opportunities to connect to others), that interest them (via formats like music, movies, or games), and which they see as relevant to their current or future lives (how to get a job; ideas for a first date; how the latest Android phone stacks up against the new iPhone). Learning resources that strike them as static, stale, contrived or of little practical use just make our job ten times harder than it needs to be.

Grammar is a particular case in point. A native English language speaker, I remember literally falling asleep from the mind-numbing boredom of being forced to “review” the conditional perfect and similar concepts in my middle school English class. More involuntary naps ensued when language teachers attempted to drum notions of Spanish and French grammar into my head years later.

Is there, today, any remaining excuse for subjecting kids to this type of sterile “rule transmission” when there are so many other ways to “teach” grammar inductively, naturally, and based on authentic examples drawn from current online media? None that I can think of. Yet compare the airtime given to this subject compared to that dedicated to teaching with Twitter, Facebook, class blogs and the like at EFL/ESL teacher conferences around the world. See the elephant? Sparking motivation can be really hard. The choice of tools available to us to help us in this domain is vast but can be confusing. Figuring out what will work for your learners, given their age, culture, and context will take time, energy and ideas dedicated to ensuring that it happens.

Every audience, every class, and every learner is different. But, generally speaking, we need to always remember that the combination of emotion, relevance, interactivity and autonomy turbo-charges learning. Boredom erects a three-meter-high wall around it.

Next in the Series: Repetition

English Attack! Featured On France 2 National Television

We’re delighted at the coverage we’ve been getting in France lately, spanning blogs, national radio, major print publications, and the best so far: a wonderful mini-feature on the Telematin morning news show on the main French national state-owned television channel, France 2. Singing our praises in the segment is the journalist Julia Livage, otherwise known in France as “Web Julie,” a very influential voice in recommending websites.

The report was seen by roughly one million Saturday-morning television viewers on the 1st of September, with only one negative consequence for us: the resulting flood of traffic to English Attack! temporarily crashed our servers! We’re back online now, and eager to extend our PR reach into new markets. Anyone wishing to write about us, either on your blog or for a media outlet, please contact Paul Maglione at

Glasgow On My Mind


This year’s ELT-a-thon in Glasgow was my third IATEFL conference, as well as my third as a speaker, but the first where I really got the feeling that EFL and ESL are fields in serious transition, with the path forward uncertain.

Personally, the conference week started off well (serendipitous meeting with Bethany Cagnol of TESOL France getting on the plane in Paris, sat together, good laughs); then took a turn for the worse when I got to my hotel late in the evening (restaurant closed, no other dining alternatives in vicinity, went to bed hungry like Oliver Twist) and then deteriorated further when I got my pre-conference SIG planning totally wrong, pitching up to the “Young Learners and Teenagers” event (the latter being my interest) only to find – mea culpa for not reading the schedule carefully – that the day’s talks were focused on the tiniest of tots and how to teach them.

Initially, my excessive politeness kicked in and I stayed put, deciding to tough it out despite my error. I felt compelled to make for the exit, however, when egged on to participate, along with the other 50 or so teachers present, in a “clap-hands-and-repeat” sing-along on the theme of “I’m happy / you’re happy; I’m sad / you’re sad” or something along those lines.

I must say that, as much as I admire primary school teachers and their endless quest for new ideas to engage learners of that age group, I fail to see why grown men and women are always exhorted to “join in the fun” at conferences like these.  It seems something particular to the teaching profession and, I suspect, ELT in particular. You seldom see pediatricians affecting whooping cough at seminars on children’s illnesses; or fashion designers dressed up in Petit Bateau outfits at trade shows for children’s apparel, but for some reason when it comes to Young Learners and English, there seems to be this irresistible urge to “get down with the kids.” Baffling. I know I will get stick for this from some of those who were there, but please, it’s no criticism of your teaching approach: it’s just that I’m allergic to this type of forced presentation session “interactivity.”

While I’m in mild rant mode, I just want to point out the continuing absurdity of lumping in teenagers with Young Learners in that particular SIG. It’s a bit like having an “Aviation English and Glaswegian Street Slang” SIG: the two have absolutely nothing in common; the teachers of one group tend not to teach the other; and as a result the “Teens” part of the label always feels like a last-minute add-on with no real pedagogical focus upon it. A good example: the very comprehensive symposium on Teens and Technology on the Thursday afternoon was organized by the Learning Technology SIG, and was the better for it.

On to the Conference proper, which was a very special one for me as I got to see, live on stage, two of the authors I first read when studying TEFL: Jim Scrivener and Michael Swan. Predictably, they spoke to packed audiences, adding to the privileged feeling of having them at the conference.

Jim Scrivener’s talk, in particular, was highly thought provoking. His general message — that we are often guilty of “excessive niceness” in the classroom, preventing us from challenging our students more – was a brave one, and he followed it up with a challenge of his own: that we take time to think about where learning is actually occurring in the classroom, and to focus our time and energy on those valuable trigger points.

Scrivener also spoke about the problem of some teachers blindly following the course book.  To be fair, this is sometimes a symptom of inexperience; and sometimes teachers have book-based lesson plans more or less imposed on them by their Director of Studies, school owner, or state education system. But Jim’s general point is still valid: textbooks are all too often used as a substitute for contextual analysis of learner’s needs and the creation of tailored lesson plans to address them.

As ever, the subject of “Technology” loomed very large across all five days of the Conference. The trickle of how-to sessions I first experienced in Harrogate on this theme has by now turned into a raging river, encompassing new conference agenda favorites like mobile learning and now learning with tablet computers. But to echo Scrivener’s point about asking ourselves where learning actually occurs, what worries me is that very few of these talks start by stating the pedagogical aims of the proposed technology-assisted task. They tend, instead, to just dive into an explanation of how to use the website, app or program in question, followed by samples produced in class and testimonials on how much the (usually young) learners enjoyed the activity.

The activities shown are, mostly, indeed engaging and do promote learning (or at least activity) autonomy and some language use in new and original ways.  But I get the distinct feeling that most of them will end up being bypassed by other, newer types of digital activities, more flavors-of-the-month, in which case: why bother? Learning the sequence of required steps, getting used to the user controls, and getting a handle on the interface logic of any new digital device or online service takes requires a certain amount of trial and error, and takes time and practice. Once you’ve learned it, you can start to use it fluidly and unleash some real creativity. But, just like language learning itself, the key is in the repetition, the building up of confidence and self-assurance, and the pushing of the technology into the background as one’s increasing familiarity with it allows us to focus on the content, on the communicative objective. Compare the trepidation you felt just before publishing your very first post on Facebook, and the timidity of that message, with the nonchalance with which you now add to your profile status on a regular basis.

So it would not be a bad idea if, on the subject of learning with technology, we could encourage teachers to commit to a course-long use of a couple carefully selected tools, to be used both within and outside of the classroom, so that both the teacher and his or her learners can benefit from the flattening out of the technology learning curve over time, In short, let’s not swap the confining nature of the linear textbook with a de-focus created by a rather promiscuous use of too many of the newly available digital teaching and entertainment tools.  They may be great conference subject matter, but – if used haphazardly and in an unstructured, short-term way – these may ultimately distract teachers from their core teaching objective. The danger, paradoxically, is that this might in turn ultimately drive some teachers back to the safe, secure, and comforting “home base” represented by the course book.

There is one last aspect of the IATEFL conference that reminds me about Scrivener’s point referenced above. It puzzles me that the one field directly related to “where learning actually occurs” in the most basic way, cognitive neuroscience, is still very much a side-show at conferences like these. Sure, James Zull’s eye-opening  talk on the subject was positioned as a plenary, but one still gets the impression that talk of neurons, synapses and dendrites sort of sails past everyone’s head, and that the end-of-talk applause is more at the politeness end of the scale than demonstrative of real enthusiasm and agreement in a head-nodding way.

How can this be? Brains are required for learning, so if we want to understand how to teach better, we really need to get at the fundamentals of how learners learn, not just pedagogically but physiologically as well. To reprise my comparisons with other professions earlier in this post, can we imagine graduating engineers without a thorough understanding of physics, thermodynamics or the fundamental properties of metals? Would we award professional qualifications to agronomists who have not studied the chemistry of soil, plant cell structure, and the precise nature of photosynthesis? Yet millions of teachers venture forth from teacher training every year without a solid grounding in brain-based learning.

The more we find out about how the human brain actually works, the more we realize how much it changes over time (with very real implications on how we need to teach to different age brackets, like teens); how specific regions of the brain are primed to deal with communication generally and language specifically; and how pedagogical principles like the value of repetition can find very real support in an understanding of how stimuli move from input to intake to long-term memory. It’s a fascinating, evolving, and vital area of research directly related to teaching as a field of study and as an applied science, and I would love to see it occupy its proper role in the teaching profession, especially in language teaching, and at conferences like these. That said, kudos to IATEFL for bringing Dr. Zull over from Ohio.

In between the plenaries, the talks, and meeting up with existing and potential territory Marketing Partners for English Attack!, I managed to squeeze in about half a dozen chats with textbook publishers as well. It’s a fascinating time to be talking to the latter. Publishers are both interested in – and wary of – pure-play digital upstarts like ourselves. They are starting to finally understand that “going digital” means a lot more than adding an online “complement” to their course books, and that having a truly compelling and pedagogically valid stand-alone online offering is in fact expensive, requires a lot of hard work, and takes years to get right. Our message to them is that it makes a lot of sense to simply partner with the best of what’s out there, rather than try to compete with them when what we do will never be the primary focus of the mother ship. Will we be working with them more in the near future? We shall see: “Talks are ongoing,” as they say in diplomatic circles.

So, in conclusion, IATEFL 2012 was a conference at which the continuing “learning with technology” show-and-tell picked up further pace; it was a conference at which at least one of the ELT gurus present delivered a back-to-basics message unadorned with the usual Dogme trappings; and it was a conference at which the traditional backbone of the event, the publishers, showed signs of realizing that “the jig is up” without, for that, fully being able to say what their businesses will look like five years from now.

We know that ELT is changing, but, at its heart, is it really destined to be a transformative change? Perhaps we are simply and very slowly becoming aware that the fundamentals must remain at the core of what we do – and in fact we need to research these more fully and seriously than ever before, including on the cognitive level – but that the means to then implement teaching techniques based on these fundamentals will be available in more shapes, sizes and patterns that anyone could have previously imagined. Provided that we treat the best of the technology tools as stable, continuously used resources that build towards something, and not quick-to-adopt, quick-to-abandon gewgaws, we may actually be able to have our digital cake and eat it too. Roll on Liverpool!