Play on Feelings: Using Intonation to Express Emotions

Intonation is notoriously difficult for English learners, yet it is important, particularly in English, for sending emotional messages. The role of intonation in English is complicated but generally English speakers use intonation to express emotion, as well as attitude! When we are worried about a situation, we may express that as much with our tone as our words. The listener needs to pick up on that worry in order to fully communicate. When our students speak, they also need to convey their feelings to help others understand their needs. On the other hand, sometimes we speak ironically. If our students can’t understand a sarcastic tone of voice, they will take away the opposite message from that the speaker intended.

And looking beyond communicating accurately, expressing and understanding the feelings and intentions of others, is key to making friends. Our students can’t have meaningful relationships in English unless they can speak with emotion. They do this naturally in their L1, of course, but it’s another story in another language. Often, our students are struggling with getting the words and grammar correct, perhaps even pronunciation. It’s a lot to ask them to also focus on tone. Furthermore, not every language is as expressive as English, so they have to learn the conventions of emotion and attitude conveyance in English.

So here’s a quick game to help practice using intonation to express emotions! I can it Play with Feelings!

The Activity

1. Pick a few short neutral statements. These expressions could come from a play you are working with or a TV show or film. Or they could be common conversational expressions. But you do need to choose statements that change meaning depending on the emotion or attitude of the speaker.  For example in the play Rising Water, a father returns home in the middle of a city-wide flood. He asks his wife where their son is. She answers:

I don’t know. Downtown, I think.

There are many ways the wife could say this. If she wants to convey her uncertainty, perhaps persuade the father to look for him, she might use a worried tone. However, if she wants to put him at ease and express faith in her son’s abilities, she can say this is a more casual tone. Perhaps she thinks the husband should be responsible for the son. Then she might say this quite angrily or defensively.

Each intonation carries a different emotion and requires a different response from the husband. Other expressions that work well for this include:

  • What are you doing here?
  • Can we talk?
  • I’m not sure that’s completely true.
  • I really think we need to figure this out.

2. Write the line you’ve chosen on the board. Then write three different emotions that are distinct such as worry, anger, and joy. Ensure that all three are appropriate for the line. Be sure students know what the words mean, and how to express them with their voice. You might want to model this (which can elicit some giggles and loosen students up).

3. Tell students they have to say pick an emotion and say the line with that feeling. The other students will guess which emotion they feel.

4. Encourage other students to give feedback.  They may say something like, “That’s not angry. This is angry. ‘What are YOU doing HERE?!?!” This gets them all practicing even more.

You can use this activity as a whole-class or in pairs or small groups. Students may want to start in small groups and then do some demonstrations in front of the class. It’s a great icebreaker or quick activity for the beginning or end of class.

Extension Idea

If you’re working with a script (be it a scene or a whole play), you’d then have them go through the script and mark the emotions they feel their character uses.

You can also go on to discuss each line and what the relationship and context might be. Students can go on to write a whole role-play based on a line and an emotion. Following that, have them imagine a situation from their own lives where they might use that emotion. They can role-play and practice dealing with that situation!

More resources to practice intonation to express emotions


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