Teaching Students to Speak English with Focus:

A Crucial Role in Oral Communication


Chi-Fen Chen, Chuen-Yn Fan, and Hsiang-Pao Lin


Division of General Studies

Chia Nan College of Pharmacy and Science

Tainan, Taiwan, R.O.C.




This paper first addresses the significance of teaching Chinese students the use of focus in English oral communication and discusses the reasons why many Chinese students fail to show focus in their English speech. Then a two-stage procedure, based on the communicative approach, which involves students in recognizing and practicing the use of focus in oral communication is presented. This procedure starts from exploring the forms and meanings of focus in English, moving to communicative functions. More specifically, in the first stage, the salient physical features of focus and then the relationship between focus and meaning in communication are examined; in the second stage, a number of activities related to communicative functions are provided for students to use focus in contexts, so that students get a chance to apply what they have learned from the first stage. It is hoped that familiarizing students with focus will, therefore, not only offer them the necessary basis, but also enhance their sensitivity to the use of focus in oral communication.


Key words: focus, prominence, pronunciation, pitch, speech, communication.

I. Introducing the Role of Focus in English Oral Communication


In spoken English, native speakers always indicate the most important word of a message by giving it the most emphasis through a combination of the pitch peak, loudness, and vowel lengthening on the emphasized word. This emphasized word is called “focus,” an easy term for language learners to understand, or “prominence,” a linguistic term used by many pronunciation reference books. A focus word in a sentence has more “semantic weight” than other words (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994, p.54), so it stands out distinctively to call the listener’s attention to the important information. Since focus itself can carry the speaker’s intended meaning without using any other words in a message and it can also perform certain communicative functions, such as showing new information and making contrasts, it plays a crucial role in conveying and interpreting meaning in English communication.


II. Significance of Teaching Focus to Chinese Students


The importance of the use of focus in English communication will never be overlooked since English speakers use focus all the time to show emphasis no matter whether it is used consciously or unconsciously; however, the importance of teaching focus in EFL class is not well-recognized by researchers or teachers. Mackay (1985) has pointed out that emphatic and contrastive stress (i.e. focus) in English does not usually cause problems for second-language learners since its use is probably universal (p. 221). Dauer (1993) has supported the above assumption by noting that non-native speakers usually do not have much difficulty using focus since other languages often do something similar (p. 232). Therefore, it seems to be unnecessary to teach students to use focus in English, for they can transfer this emphatic use from their native language to English.

As native speakers of Chinese, we can affirm that the use of focus in Chinese speech is very common too. However, we still wonder if Chinese students transfer the use of focus into their English speech. The first question we would like to bring up is:


Q1: Do Chinese EFL students transfer the language behavior of using focus in speech from Chinese to English?


Being Chinese teachers of English in Taiwan for more than seven years, we have to, unfortunately, say the answer is probably no. Based on our own teaching experience, we have found that when Chinese students speak English, each word in their speech seems to have almost the same weight and length, very much like the way they do in saying Chinese words (Chen, Fan, & Lin, 1996). In addition, their English speech tends to be monotonous since there is no clear pitch change on any words. Many of Chinese EFL students, therefore, do not show focus when speaking English; besides, due to the lack of awareness of using focus in English, they do not perceive the use of focus by English native speakers either. That is, they fail to use focus both orally and aurally in English oral communication.

An empirical finding of a speech analysis (Brown and Huckin, 1987) of 45 clients from 11 language backgrounds (20 of them are Chinese speakers) can further prove the existence of the Chinese students’ problem in the lack of the use of focus in their English speech. The study has found that one of their clients’ major problems was that they stressed too many words and so failed to focus on the most important words of the sentence, which they pointed out to be a major cause for incomprehensibility of their English speech because the meaning could not be conveyed clearly without the use of focus in speech.

From the above discussion, it is true that many of Chinese students do not use focus in their English speech, which indicates that this language behavior of using focus in speech is not automatically transferred from Chinese to English. Then, we would like to find out the possible reasons for this problem. The second question we want to pose for discussion is:


Q2: Why is this language behavior of using focus in speech unable to be transferred from Chinese to English?


Although the use of focus in speech is probably universal in languages, every language has a “specific” way to show focus; for instance, Japanese uses a particle ending, and German uses the signal word doch (Gilbert, 1994, p. 43). For native speakers of English, they may assume showing focus by a lengthening and loudness of the stressed syllable as well as a change in the pitch of the emphasized word is a natural part of speech, but “in fact it is highly language specific” (Gilbert, 1994, p. 44). For this reason, the ESL or EFL learners, if not being taught this “specific” way of showing focus in English, can not be promised to produce focus properly in their English speech. This “language specific” fact of showing focus in English can be a reason to explain why Chinese students fail to produce focus in their English speech.

In terms of the specific way of showing focus in English, “pitch movement and prominence are inextricably bound up” (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994, p. 77). A number of linguistic studies (Bartels & Kingston, 1994; Sluijter, 1995; Rump & Collier, 1996) have found that contrastive focus in English is prosodically marked by pitch peaks which are rather high in the speaker’s range. The listener, therefore, through the signaling of pitch peaks, can have a clear idea about what information is the most salient.

Since Chinese is a tone language, in which pitch is an inherent part of the word, not a changeable element working at the level of the sentence or of the discourse, the tone (i.e. pitch level) difference in Chinese words make them phonetically distinct and therefore allow the different meanings to be attached to the otherwise same string of phonemes (Mackay, 1985, p.219). Thus, Chinese speakers use loudness and often lengthening to emphasize important words, but hardly change the pitch of the focus words to the highest peak, which makes their focus in English speech not distinctive enough. A common example is that when we ask our students, “ Can you cook?” they may respond “I can’t cook” with emphasis on “can’t.” However, since students do not change the pitch of “can’t” to the highest key, the sentence sounds like “I can cook,” even though the final consonant “t” is pronounced. Without knowing and using this very important marker of emphasis, pitch peaks, many Chinese students cannot clearly indicate the meaning of a message in English and neither can they fully understand English speakers’ intended meaning of their messages.

Another possible reason is that Chinese students in Taiwan lack enough experience of interaction with English speakers in real life; thus, they are not aware that the combination of loudness, lengthening, and pitch change of words in English can convey different meanings. They usually pay more attention to the words they hear or say than the way these words are expressed. They think that they can get the meaning of a message as long as they know every word in this message. As a result, they cannot distinguish the meanings between sentences which are spoken with exactly the same words but with different focus. For example, they fail to tell the difference between “I think that book is good” (I’m not very sure) and “I think that book is good” (That book, not some other books, is good). The awareness that the meaning of a message in spoken English can be affected by changing focus is not easy to be acquired naturally in this EFL environment. Therefore, the use of focus in English speech needs to be taught in the class; in addition, due to the important role of focus in oral communication, we suggest that it be taught in the communicative approach.


III. Ways of Teaching Focus in the Communicative Approach


As Pirt (1990) has noted, “Learners need to be made aware of the communicative values of intonation rather than merely of its physical characteristics. They then need to be given a chance to use intonation interactively, and not to simply repeat it” (p.115). Since focus, a very important aspect of intonation in English, can affect a message’s meaning and carry out various functions in communication, it must be taught, not merely through imitation and repetition drills, but in the communicative approach.

In this approach, almost everything is done with a communicative intent, and thus, the importance of using the language is emphasized as much as that of knowing its forms, meanings, and functions. Based on this principle, the activities provided for teaching the use of focus in speech are designed to help students be able to recognize as well as to produce its physical features, meanings, and functions in English oral communication. In addition, the activities are designed to be pseudo-communication, which gives students a motive and provides them with an opportunity to use focus spontaneously for a communicative purpose. The most important reason for teaching the use of focus in the communicative approach is that it enables students to convey and interpret messages interpersonally within specific contexts, which helps them be able to speak English with focus in real life situations.

The following suggested activities for teaching focus will be presented in two stages. The first stage is to give students practice in relating focus to meaning in communication, with more controlled and listening discrimination activities. The second stage is to give students practice in performing communicative functions through the use of focus, with more free and real conversation activities.


Stage 1: Relating focus to meaning


This stage is divided into three steps to help students learn to use focus more comfortably. Having students know the “forms” (i.e. physical features) of focus in spoken English is the first step. They need to know that focus in English is indicated by a combination of three physical features: loudness, lengthening, and pitch change. After students get familiar with the physical features of focus, they can move to the second step to develop awareness of the relationship between focus and meaning in communication. Finally, the third step is to have students produce focus according to their intended meaning.

Step (1): Getting familiar with the physical features of focus in English

Focus in English is indicated by a combination of three physical features: loudness, lengthening, and pitch change. Among these three, as we discussed earlier, pitch change appears to pose the biggest difficulty for Chinese students using focus in English speech. They are not used to emphasizing important words by changing the pitch appreciably in their Chinese speech, nor are they used to doing so in their English speech. In order to help them recognize and produce focus by changing the pitch, that is, by giving the pitch peak, we highly recommend the teacher to have students hum the sentence or use a kazoo (a toy humming instrument), as Gilbert has suggested (1984), rather than say the sentence at once. Students can practice humming the same sentence but shift the focus word each time to feel that the “melody” (the pitch movement of rising and falling) of the sentence sounds different.

Examples: 1. Where did you find your key?

2. Where did you find your key?

3. Where did you find your key?

4. Where did you find your key?


Another more interesting way is to have students play a “pitch matching” game in pairs. One student chooses a focus word in the sentence and hums the sentence with the appropriate pitch movement, and the other student has to listen to the melody carefully and find out where the sentence focus is.

The practice of humming sentences with melody makes students have fun in the class, and it also produces a significant effect for students on the recognition of the pitch change as an indispensable marker of focus in English. Once they are familiar with the pitch change of the focus words by humming, it will be much easier for them to hear or say the focus words in spoken sentences. Then, in pairs again, they can try saying the sentences with focus to each other to check whether they make focus clear in their speech.


Step (2): Building the awareness of the relationship between focus and meaning


After being able to recognize and produce the physical features of focus in English, the students need to become aware that the meaning of the sentence can be changed by the use of focus. First, the teacher says the same sentence but with different focus each time, like the examples given below, and then explains how the meaning changes with the shift of the focus word.


George is moving to Toronto next month. (not some other time)

George is moving to Toronto next month. (not some other month)

George is moving to Toronto next month. (not some other city)

George is moving to Toronto next month. (not just going there)

George is moving to Toronto next month. (he really is)

George is moving to Toronto next month. (not someone else)

(Dauer, 1993)


Next, the teacher can have students experience how focus affects the meaning of a message. Students need to know that focus itself carries the intended meaning of the speaker, which cannot be ignored in oral communication. They can be given a listening exercise to start with, for students need to listen to spoken English so as to get a general feeling of the way English sounds in everyday communication before they are asked to speak. In fact, “students who are skillful listeners are likely to be skillful speakers” (Wong, 1987, p.18). In the following exercise, the teacher reads aloud individual sentences with focus, or plays the tape, and asks students to listen for the focus word in each sentence. They then have to choose an answer which indicates the most likely meaning of the speaker.


Examples: 1. They hear: Make that a medium pepperoni pizza.

They read: (a) Not a large.

(b) Not a sausage.

2. They hear: I sprained my ankle playing soccer.

They read: (a) Not my wrist.

(b) I didn’t break it.

3. They hear: Did you fax the invoice to ATM Industries?

They read: (a) No, my assistant did it.

(b) No, I mailed it.

(c) No, just the report.

(Grant, 1993, p.119)


This ear-training exercise is aimed to sensitize students to the relationship between sentence focus and meaning. When doing this, students need to be reminded to notice the physical features of focus in English, especially the pitch change, which helps them identify the focus word in each sentence and interpret the sentence’s meaning correctly. After the listening activity, do not give them correct answers immediately; they need to compare their answers in pairs or groups first to make sure whether they catch the right focus and its indicated meaning. If they have different opinions about their answers, the teacher needs to remind them of the three features of sentence focus and says the sentence or plays the tape again.


Step (3): Producing focus appropriate to the intended meaning


With the awareness of the relationship between focus and meaning, students then can do some controlled speaking activities in mini-dialogs, where they use focus to convey different meanings interactively. The following activity, “playing with focus shift” in mini-dialogs, gives students practice in producing focus appropriate to the intended meaning. In pairs, student A chooses to say sentence (a) or (b) with different focus; student B listens closely to the focus word and then answers with words appropriate to speaker A’s choice.



1. (a) It’s a big dog. No, it’s a wolf.

(b) It’s a big dog. More medium sized.

2. (a) But we asked for two Cokes! Oh, I thought you wanted tea.

(b) But we asked for two Cokes! Oh, I thought you wanted one.

3. (a) I think that hamburger’s mine. No, this one is yours.

(b) I think that hamburger’s mine. Aren’t you sure?

(Gilbert, 1993, p. 90-91)


Another similar pair-work activity is that student B has to use focus properly in his sentence to respond to student A’s choice of the two different things. In the following example (1), if student A says “Paul looks happy!” student B has to say “He’s got a new car” with the focus on car; but if student A says, “I think Paul needs a new car,” student B has to say “He’s got a new car” with the focus on got. This exercise appears to be more challenging than the previous one for students to do; therefore, the teacher needs to give students more guidance.


Examples: 1. A: Paul looks happy! B: He’s got a new car.

A: I think Paul needs a new car.

2. A: We must get some flowers. B: I’ve got some flowers.

A: Don’t forget to get them a present.

3. A: Let’s go to Paris. B: I’ve been to Paris.

A: Have you had a good weekend?

(Bradford, 1988, p.9)


Both of the activities are semi-controlled and easy to do, but they are truly communicative in that they include three features of communicative activities: information gap, choice, and feedback. In both activities, since student B does not know which sentence student A will choose, he has to pay attention to what student A says; thus, an information gap exists and it can arouse students’ interest to communicate with each other. Then, students in pairs have to use focus appropriately in their communication either making a choice or giving a feedback. The activities involve the process of recognition as well as production of the use of focus in oral communication. If students can successfully go through these activities, then they can move on to the second stage: using focus to carry out various communicative functions.


Stage 2: Performing communicative functions with focus

The purpose of using focus in communication, for the speaker, is to ‘highlight’ what he thinks important in the utterance, and, for the listener, is to focus his attention on important information in order to ‘follow’ correctly what the speaker means. By using focus, the speaker thus delivers various communicative functions. In the following discussion, we provide several activities for practicing the use of focus to carry out certain common functions of communication, such as showing disagreement, correcting wrong information, calling attention to new information, and moreover, showing surprise, anger, or excitement and so on. These activities are presented from controlled to less controlled practice, hoping that the students can gradually become aware of the use of focus and therefore feel comfortable relating their learning experience in the classroom to real life communication.


Function (1): Showing disagreement

Students work individually first, looking at the mini-dialogs where speaker A and B have different opinions on some events. Speaker A reads his statement with the sentence stress on the last content word, which makes his sentence neutral in meaning. Speaker B has to decide the focus word of his statement in each dialog to show disagreement by underlining or circling it. Have them work in pairs and practice making the focus clear. Then they can change roles doing this activity. Before the practice, the teacher may want to check the proper locations of all focus words with students, and later on gives more examples in appropriate contexts.


Examples: 1. A: The score was 8 to 44. (neutral sentence)

B: Really? I thought the score was 4 to 44. (focus sentence)

2. A: Boston lost the game. (neutral sentence)

B: Really? I thought New York lost the game. (focus sentence)

3. A: It wasn’t George’s fault. (neutral sentence)

B: Really? I thought it was George’s fault. (focus sentence)

(Baker & Goldstein, 1990, p. 35)


The purpose of doing this activity is to have students get familiar with the use of focus to highlight the disagreed parts in their communication, just like what people commonly do in real life. The teacher can encourage students to say the dialogs more dramatically with a proper facial expression and a strong emotion of doubt or disbelief to make this practice more interesting.


Function (2): Correcting wrong information


In this activity, the teacher prepares some sentences with deliberate mistakes in them. Then he tells these incorrect sentences to the class (remember to make all the sentences neutral in meaning), students have to listen carefully and then, based on the actual facts they know, correct any wrong parts that the teacher says. When making correction, they need to use the focus so as to effectively correct the teacher.


Examples: 1. T: Hongkong is bigger than Taiwan.

S: That’s wrong. Hongkong is smaller than Taiwan.

2. T: Most Chinese people like to drink tea with sugar.

S: That’s wrong. They like to drink tea without sugar.

3. T: The language lab is on the third floor of this building.

S: That’s wrong. It’s on the fourth floor of this building.


This activity is designed to give students a chance to use focus spontaneously by means of correcting what they hear interactively. Since in a Chinese society most students do not correct their teacher in class, the teacher may have to encourage students to do so. Through this activity, they will feel more confident in their English, and therefore, keep a very high interest in using focus for communicative purposes. In order to make this activity more exciting, the teacher can divide the class into two groups and have them compete with each other to see who can correct more of the teacher’s wrong information.


Function (3): Calling attention to new information


Using focus to introduce new information seems to cause more difficulties for most Chinese students. We suggest that the teacher help students find the focus words before practicing the dialog, in this case a dialog taking place when people are shopping. Go over the dialog with students and discuss where the focus words are, and then underline or circle the focus words together. Finally, they work in pairs and act out the dialog with appropriate sentence focus. For more varieties, the teacher can have them do some substitution practice as well.


Example: A: May I help you?

B: Yes, please. I’m looking for a jacket.

A: Here’s a nice jacket.

B: But this is a purple jacket!

A: That’s okay. Purple jackets are very popular this year.

(Substitution words: hat/green, blouse/orange, purse/striped, etc.)

(Molinsky & Bliss, 1989, p. 64)



Since we find that the use of focus to emphasize new information is often ignored by our students, it is very necessary to give students as much practice as possible. Another option is that the teacher can have students listen to the dialog carefully and ask them to mark all the focus words while listening. Through listening, or ear training practice, students can become more aware of and thus familiar with the use of this function. It is suggested that the teacher use realia when acting out the dialog, which is very helpful for students to make emphasis naturally on new information in their communication.


Function (4): Making an argument - “Mine is better than yours!”


Making an argument is a type of communication skills that most people will need in their daily lives. In order to get the idea of how focus words are used to achieve this function, the teacher can have the students listen to the tape first if the voice quality and pitch movement of the tape are well produced. Otherwise, the teacher can work with students underlining the focus words first before getting into practice. Tell the class that their task is to work in pairs making an argument about how good his or her daddy is.

After they have completed this activity, they can be given other situations where they compare their pets, boy/girl friends, teachers, motorcycles, watches, and so on. At this time, students have to work out by themselves where the focus words are and then practice their own dialogs.


Example: Sally: My daddy’s really wonderful. He’s big and strong and handsome.

Annie: Really? Well, my daddy can do everything.

Sally: Can he? What?

Annie: He’s really smart. He can speak a hundred languages.

Sally: A hundred! Which languages can he speak?

Annie: Well, he can speak Spanish, Italian, French, German, Japanese, Arabic, and uh, a lot more.

Sally: Well, my daddy is athletic.

Annie: Athletic?

Sally: Uh huh. He can swim, ski, and play football, tennis, and baseball.

Annie: Oh, well, can your daddy cook?

(Hartley & Viney, 1983, p.14)


As a follow-up activity, the teacher can have students play boasting by creating and acting out a TV commercial. Tell the class that they are going to make a TV commercial where two famous competitive brand products, for instance, ‘Pepsi’ and ‘Coke,” are promoting their products to get more customers to buy them. To create a more dramatic effect of advertising, students have to, on the one hand, use focus appropriately, and on the other, demonstrate a clever use of emotions, such as showing excitement, disappointment, and surprise.


IV. Conclusion

We have observed that a great number of Chinese students have problems using focus to convey, negotiate, or interpret meaning of the message in conversation practice. Often times, their conversation is likely to have word stress, and rising or falling intonation, but there is no pitch peak in their messages due to lacking focus. Though the lack of focus is only one of the many problems students have when learning English, we believe that students need to be explicitly taught the importance of the signaling of focus in speech, since focus is an important element of verbal interaction, and besides, it is “almost certainly the most teachable one” (Dalton & Seidlhofer, 1994, p.81).

In this paper we have provided some activities for teaching sentence focus. The activities suggested are designed in such a way that the students are guided through two stages, starting from forms and meanings and then moving to functions. Though in real life the distinctions between the two stages are not at all clear-cut, there is a need to separate them from the point of teaching. A final reminder for the teacher is that people can only articulate well what they can discriminate aurally. Therefore, listening practice is absolutely necessary for students to develop their speaking skills. Students should be first given recognition exercises through listening activities and then oral production exercises. Our hope is that the exercises and activities suggested here will be of use to teachers who are interested in helping their students use English for clear communication.


Note: This paper is based on part of the workshop entitled “Teaching English Intonation: A Communicative Approach,” which was presented in The 13th Conference on English Teaching and Learning in the Republic of China at National Tsing Hua University on Oct. 5, 1996. The workshop included two parts of intonation teaching: (1) intonation patterns and communication; (2) sentence focus and communication.




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