How Exposure to Intonation Aids Reading Comprehension

How Exposure to Intonation Aids Reading Comprehension

By: Meredith Stephens

Intonation, along with its associated prosodic features, is much more than the melody of speech; it is the primary organizational principle underlying spoken discourse. And it must have had an early evolutionary status, crossing the human-animal communication barrier, judging by the role it plays when we train dogs, for example, to respond to commands.

When I first started working in Japanese universities in the year 2000, I was struck by the disparity between students’ abilities in spoken and written skills; the former lagged behind the latter. This was counter-intuitive, because both my EFL and ESL students from other language backgrounds tended to have superior spoken to written skills. In my own case, I found speaking and listening in Japanese easier than reading and writing. I had assumed that the learner would acquire a foundation in the spoken language and map the written system onto that. 

Was there something remiss in the pedagogy for there to be such an imbalance between Japanese students’ spoken and written skills? Maybe the students were translating from right to left in their heads in order to transform the sentences into Japanese word-order, bypassing the need for phonological representation, in the process known as kaeriyomi (Kato, 2006). Many of my students had been taught using the traditional methodology of yakudoku, which requires students to translate from Japanese to English (see Gorsuch, 1998). 

Could the attention to translation of the written word, rather than the attention to the spoken language, be the reason for this imbalance? Traditional English-language pedagogy in Japan focused on translation, unlike its successor, Communicative Language Teaching. In previous generations, learners’ contact with English was generally limited to its written form. Because of the contrasting word orders of Japanese and English, a more accurate rendering could be achieved by translating from right to left thereby approximating Japanese word order. The limitation of this approach was the paucity of phonological processing when reading, and therefore the lack of opportunity to develop inner speech in English (Leane, Nobetsu & Stephens, 2015).

An illustration of the brain in side view, pointing out the following areas: spatial memory, short term memory, verbal memory, visual memory.

Years after teaching in Japan, I started paying attention to papers addressing the problem of how to improve language learners’ reading proficiency, by incorporating the sound of the language. The most exciting and formative paper I read was by Catherine Walter (2008) with the apt title Phonology in Second Language Reading: Not an Optional Extra ( Walter argued that reading comprehension is dependent on verbal working memory (VWM), of which the phonological loop is a component. (Refer also to Amanda Gillis-Furutaka’s (2024) paper in last month’s bulletin for a detailed explanation of the phonological loop.) In Walter’s study, learners with poor reading comprehension had poor phonological inventories, and those with good reading comprehension had superior phonological inventories. Walter recommended teachers provide exposure to the spoken language and phonology. Accordingly, I speculated that Japanese students would benefit from increased phonological exposure in order to improve their reading comprehension. I ordered extensive readers for the library which were accompanied by CDs, and instructed students to conduct reading-while-listening. I discouraged them from doing silent reading, because I considered their phonological inventories–their understanding of not only segmentals but in particular suprasegmentals–inadequate without the scaffold of aural support.

One important feature of spoken communication is intonation. Intonation is so fundamental to oral communication that it may even transcend species. I suspect that most of my communication with my dog is successful because of intonation, not to mention gestures and context. Dogs can understand a limited number of single words, but not grammar. How is it that my dog can understand extended utterances I direct at her without an understanding of grammar? She stays outside the doorway from the courtyard leading to the house even though she wants to come in, because of the message my intonation conveys. When I want her to come inside, I issue an extended utterance to her rather than an individual word, and she obeys immediately. Likewise for the instructions to sit, to stay, and to jump in and out of the back of the car. I almost never offer her treats to train her, and have never read a dog-training manual. She is completely in tune with my instructions, largely because of her parsing of the rise and fall of pitch in my voice, gestures, and the context. 

A photostrip, holding five black and white photographs of a border collie sailing, in a car, and in a forest.
Some photos contributed by Vela Noble

Intonation serves as a tool for interspecies communication, and is also a key feature of spoken languages. However, as important as it may be, it is not usually apparent from mere observation of the written word. Native-speaking teachers of English sometimes ignore the function of intonation because it tends to be below the level of consciousness (Reed & Michaud, 2015). Japanese teachers of English may gravitate towards teaching grammar and vocabulary, or even have students translate using kaeriyomi.

English intonation is characterized by how its extreme pitch range is used in everyday discourse to convey intent (Rajan, 2015), and learners may even perceive normal intonation as “exaggerated” (Reed & Michaud, 2015). Therefore, the role and importance of intonation is not necessarily self-evident to learners. Most critically, English intonation interacts with grammar to convey meaning (Halliday, 1985; Wells, 2006), so we are doing our students a disservice if we neglect to explain its role. According to Crystal (2016), intonation “plays a critical role in helping our brain to process what we hear” (p. 145). Intonation facilitates memory of spoken text. English intonation units comprise five to six words, and the pitch usually falls in the last word in the intonation unit. This can be seen in the act of reciting a telephone number one has heard, or memorizing a phone number (See Crystal, 2016, for an excellent explanation of this, or this clip from “The IT Crowd” for an example.) If my phone number is, say, 2468 828 036, there is a rise in pitch on the last number in each subgroup (see the number in purple), and a fall in pitch on the last number in the final subgroup (see the number in orange): 2468 828 036. If I tell that number to someone on the phone, and they dictate it back to me to confirm it with the rising pitch placed on the last number in different sub-groups before the final one, such as 246 8282 036, I fail to recognise my own number unless I can confirm it by writing it down as I hear it. I have stored the numbers in my long term aural memory with a specified intonation.

An illustration of a woman shouting through a megaphone. A soundwave comes out of the megaphone.

If we continue to condemn our students to conduct silent reading rather than reading-while-listening, we are depriving them of the critical grammatical scaffolding provided by intonation. Of course there will eventually come a time when students will need to read without the aural scaffold. In Isozaki’s (2023) study of 126 university students studying English in Japan, 82.5% considered that their silent reading improved after completing a course of reading-while-listening. After the scaffolding provided by reading-while-listening, the majority of the students reported an improvement in silent reading. Isozaki (2024) comments, “My experience is that students who have the option to pair and adjust audio, do so, and then always naturally stop on their own. As with Chang & Millett (2015), as soon as they are able to read at the speeds they want to, they notice and leave the audio behind. (Some very advanced, motivated and fluently reading students access and check pronunciation on the audio in a separate session, for class discussion prep or their own verification. It then shows in their confident speaking. Needless to say I firmly believe their choice should be supported and encouraged!)” (Anna Husson Isozaki, personal communication, 12 Feb, 2024).

Meanwhile, while we still have the opportunity to provide an aural scaffold for our students, we should take full advantage of it. A generation ago, teachers did not have access to graded readers with audio, but now they are commonplace. Reading-while-listening to graded readers is a convenient way to expand and reinforce learners’ phonological inventory, of which intonation is a critical component.

An illustration of a girl reading a book aloud.

Intonation, the invisible feature of spoken language that we take for granted until it is misplaced, is part of the phonological loop and therefore working memory. The pitch contours of spoken English are integral to comprehension, and proficient readers superimpose them on the written text as they read. In other words, the unspoken intonation of a text is also a reading structure. English learners will benefit from familiarizing themselves with English intonation, in the form of reading-while-listening, and attending to the interplay of grammar and intonation. This will help them make the eventual transition to silent reading.


  • Chang, A. C-S, Millett, S. (2015). Improving reading rates and comprehension through audio-assisted extensive reading for beginner learners, System, 52, 91-102, ISSN 0346-251X.

  • Crystal, D. (2016). The gift of the gab: How eloquence works. Yale University Press.

  • Crystal, D. (2019). Sounds appealing: The passionate story of English pronunciation. Profile Books Ltd.

  • Gillis-Furutaka, A. (2024). Our minds’ eyes and ears: The phonological loop and how it helps us to read. MindBrainEd Think Tanks: Reading as a Spoken Experience in the Brain and Language Classroom, 10(2), 18-24.

  • Gorsuch, G. (1998). Yakudoku EFL Instruction in Two Japanese High School Classrooms: An Exploratory Study, JALT Journal, 20(1), 6-32.

  • Halliday, M.A.K., 1985. Spoken and written language. Deakin University Press.

  • Isozaki, A. (2023). Untie Their Hands: Using Self-paced Reading-Listening for L2 Reading Proficiency Gains. The Reading Matrix: An International Online Journal 23(2), 67 – 86.

  • Kato, K. (2006). Daigaku ni okeru eigo riidingu: eigo no ‘tadoku’ koosu to‘yakudoku’ koosu [English reading course in college: Translation method or extensive reading]. Bulletin of the Faculty of Literature Aichi Prefectural University 5, 87-99.

  • Leane, S., Nobetsu, C., & Stephens, M. (2015). Direction of translation from English to Japanese. 355 – 363. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H. Brown (Eds.), JALT2014 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT

  • Rajan, A. (2015). The melody of English | IATEFL PronSIG webinar summary. Retrieved from

  • Reed, M. & Michaud, C. (2015). Intonation in research and practice: The importance of metacognition. In M. Reed & J. Levis. (Eds.) The handbook of English pronunciation (pp.454–470). Wiley Blackwell.

  • Walter, C. (2008). Phonology in second language reading: Not an optional extra. TESOL Quarterly 42, 455–474. Retrieved from

  • Wells, J. (2006). English intonation: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Meredith Stephens holds a BA, Dip.Ed. from the University of Adelaide and a Master of Applied Linguistics from Macquarie University, Sydney. She taught EFL for over twenty years at universities in the west and then east of Shikoku. She has been retired for nearly two years now, but her professional interests are rekindled every time she receives an issue of Mind, Brain & Education.

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