|Vol. 41, No. 3, Fall 2011:Conversations|
Piece of cake! Idiom activities and the importance of proper intonation
Idioms pop up everywhere in English media, often met with confused looks by our students. Even our more advanced students have difficulty using them with any degree of competence, especially if the idioms are culturally different from their own (Irujo, 1986). Given their importance, more attention should be paid to teaching idioms in ESL settings (Cooper, 1998). It is up to the teachers to help students not only learn idioms, but also to encourage their usage in an intelligible manner. How can teachers incorporate idioms into classroom settings in a relaxed, communicative, and student-centered way? More important, how can we teach the intonation of idioms to achieve students’ maximum intelligibility? I have found the following three activities to be helpful for my students.
1. BYOI—Bring Your Own Idiom
2. Where Is the CHAnge?
After the classmates have heard the dialogue, I will ask them, “Where is the change?” Hopefully, they will hear “OUt” on the first try. I will then mark it on the board. The rise in pitch at the beginning of “OUt” rather than on the word “hang” is essential to the intelligibility of the idiom as well as to the rest of the dialogue. Teachers play a vital role here. Once an idiom is presented, either the students or the teacher should provide/elicit the proper intonation and then mark it. This marking system is especially important for non-native-English-speaking teachers who may be unfamiliar with the proper intonation of idioms.
The good news regarding idiomatic phrases is that there are general intonation patterns. In an emphasized two-syllable word, such as “brainer” in the expression “no-brainer,” the word tends to receive a higher tone or pitch on the first syllable. It’s a no-BRAIner. In the case of a one-syllable word, such as “cake” in the expression “piece of cake,” there is a higher tone on the first half of the word: It’s a piece of CAke. In either case, the rising intonation at the beginning is then followed by a falling intonation. Saying the idiom in front of your students in slow motion can really help to clarify this, and it is also good for a laugh. When students know the proper intonation, communication can be achieved even with less-than-perfect pronunciation. This is good news for our students, as it is generally much easier to change the pitch of a word than to pronounce the word properly.
3. Mini Dialogues
Make sure the students understand that even though these dialogues are being written down, they should be striving for spoken and not written English. I also ask them to consider the roles of the speakers as in the following student dialogue (the professor is putting on her coat as her student enters the office):
This exchange meets the criteria in that it is a spoken dialogue, the roles are defined, at least one idiom is used, and the idiom is marked with the proper intonation. Once their dialogues are done, I collect, correct, and return them. Afterward, I circulate, taking student questions on my corrections. Then, I have each pair practice and perform at least one of their dialogues in front of the class. Eye contact, body language (students must sit facing each other), and voice management should be emphasized during practice time. Be sure to circulate, as some students will simply read the dialogue together. I walk around with a blank sheet of 8½ x 11 paper, which I use to cover up the dialogue they are working on. This forces them to look up and, hopefully, at each other. The students then perform at the front of the class. I act as the director, yelling “Action!” and opening/closing my cell phone like a director’s slate. The class listens for the idiom used in the dialogue. This is always fun, as students enjoy watching their classmates perform. I like to supply props/wigs to spice it up. Be prepared for the cameras to come out! I also quiz them on the idiom and the intonation right after each dialogue.
Cooper, T. C. (1998). Teaching idioms. Foreign Language Annals, 31(2), 255-266.
Cruttenden, M. (1986). Intonation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Scott, W. A., & Ytreberg, L. H. (2000). Teaching English to children. New York: Longman.
About the Author
Andrew Schneider has been teaching ESL/EFL for 20 years, having taught