We write your ESL lessons for you

For just a few dollars a month, get hundreds of professionally-written, ready-to-go lessons and activities. Sign up below and be the first to know when we launch.

Teaching intonation for question tags

large__4943429This tip came from someone who observed a lesson of mine.

I was struggling to teach the intonation of question tags – especially where the intonation falls on the tag when it isn’t really a question, and rises on the tag when it is a question. If you’re a British English speaker, you’ve probably had similar experiences. Question tag intonation can rapidly turn your lesson into a not so tuneful singing lesson…

For example:

1. You liked that film, didn’t you. (Falling intonation on the “you”)

2. You liked that film, didn’t you? (Rising intonation on the “you”)

In 1, the tag is a confirmation type question – we expect the other person to say “yes”. In 2, it’s a genuine question and we don’t know whether the other person will say “yes” or “no”.

My student was having huge difficulty in getting the intonation right. He’d pitch the “didn’t” part of the tag too high for 2, ending up with a falsetto squeak for “you”, or too low in 1, leaving him nowhere to go on the “you”. Or his voice would rise or fall too much, leaving him out of breath and out of his vocal range.

We tried various things: modelling and recording my voice so he could listen and then record his own… To no avail. If he couldn’t get it right in a controlled environment, how would he be able to use question tags naturally – and confidently – in real conversations?

Instead – and here’s the tip – the teacher trainer showed me how I could teach it as stress – and not intonation. In the following, the words to be stressed are in bold.

1. You liked that film, didn’t you. (Falling intonation on “you”)

2. You liked that film, didn’t you? (Rising intonation on the “you”)

While maybe not “pitch perfect”, the effect of stressing the word means the voice naturally puts the emphasis in the right places for either confirmation or question. In 1, stressing “didnt” means the voice falls off when it gets to “you”, while in 2, stressing “you” puts the emphasis squarely on the other person, inviting an answer.

Photo credit: matt_e

If you found this article helpful, please share:

More ESL lessons and activities help

  • Grammar
  • Speaking and Pronunciation
  • Vocabulary activities
  • Warmers
  • Writing