By improving her delivery in one area, this student will score 26 on TOEFL speaking.

In the following recording, one of my online TOEFL Course students answered the following independent speaking practice test prompt:

Which do you think is better: living on campus in dorms or living off campus in apartments?

My analysis of her speaking fluency discovers that she has delivery problems specifically related to intonation.  Instead of varying her intonation, this student places equal emphasis on most words and maintains similar intonation patterns throughout her response. This student can take the TOEFL exam over and over, but, until she is able to vary her tone in a more natural native speaker way, she will not be able to score 26/30 on the speaking section of the TOEFL iBT. Therefore, what specific changes in intonation does she need to make in order to score higher on the TOEFL iBT?

Word Stress 1 + 2 + 3 + 4

This student understands the basic concept of word stress in that she places more prominent stress on the primary syllable of the multi-syllabic words that she utters. However, when stressing the prominent syllable of a word, she needs to remember four essential characteristics affecting word stress: loudness, length, pitch, and clarity.

For example, the word af*FORD*able contains three syllables, and the second syllable “ford” receives the prominent stress. Thus, this syllable should be louder, longer, higher pitched, and clearer than the rest of the syllables in the word.  This is the first major change that this student must make in order to vary her intonation more as she completes the TOEFL speaking tasks.

Sentence Rhythm

In addition to making changes in word stress by making the stressed syllable louder, longer, clearer, and higher pitched, this student needs needs to improve her sentence rhythm, the combination of stressed and unstressed words in spoken English.  To understand sentence rhythm, she needs to understand how to pronounce function and content words in spoken English.

Content words, which are more prominently stressed, consist of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs.  Content words carry the most meaning in the sentences they comprise.

Function Words, which are backgrounded more, consist of determiners, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs. Put another way, function words carry very little meaning and perform more a grammatical function in the sentences they occupy.

As this student improves her sentence rhythm, she will learn to differentiate between function and content words by placing more emphasis on the latter.

For example, observe the following sentence with the content words bolded:

The reading passage defines cooperative learning, and the speaker in the listening passage gives an example to illustrate the concept.

Each of the bolded words are content words and should be more prominently stressed by making them louder, clearer, longer, and higher pitched.   Conversely, the function words should be backgrounded more by making them quieter, shorter in duration, lower pitched, and less clearly enunciated.

Intonation: New information, focus words, and grouping

The last area of improvement needed for this student to help her vary her intonation refers to new information, focus words, and grouping.  These ideas are rather complicated, and each individual speaker has a varying style, but some general principles will help this student learn to vary her intonation.

  • The student should strive to  group ideas into 4-5 content words followed by a  short pause.  This grouping is called thought groups, and, at the end of each thought group in a sentence except the last, the student should slightly inflect her tone to indicate that she is not finished with this idea.  Then at the end of the last thought group in the sentence, the student should use lower pitch followed by a longer pause to indicate that this is the end of this idea.
  • If new information is presented in a thought group within a sentence, that word or idea should be more prominently stressed than the other content words in that group of words, which helps to highlight that new information.
  • Typically, within a sentence, even if no new information is presented, generally speaking, the last content word in a sentence should be more prominently stressed than other words within a sentence.

Example: The reading passage defines COOPERATIVE LEARNING (slight rise in pitch + pause) / and the speaker in the listening passage gives an example (slight rise in pitch + pause) / to illustrate the CONCEPT (pitch falls to end the thought + longer pause before beginning new sentence).

Long-Term Improvement Strategies

To make these intonation patterns automatic, this student will need to do a number of habitual activities over an extended period of time:

  1.  She should take to native speakers as often as possible, even considering volunteering perhaps at a homeless shelter or school in which she can get 5-10 hours of native speaker contact each week.
  2. This student should be watching close caption movies in English so that she can practice imitating the native speaker actors.
  3. This student can also use You Tube to play popular music along which she can sing. It is quite easy to find lyrics to pop songs at You Tube, so this student can get beneficial intonation practice by singing with the singer at the same pace with the same rhythm and tone.

With practice, this student will learn to vary her intonation in 1-3 months time.

Michael Buckhoff,

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