Teaching Tone of Voice

by Lyn Dawes

Talk is made human by the tone of our voices. The tone in which we speak carries some of the message of the words, and is powerful enough to be able to alter meanings.

‘Do you want an ice cream?’

‘No.’

You can say ‘No’ with true negativity; or you can say ‘No’ with uncertainty, as if ready to be persuaded otherwise; or you can say ‘No!’ in a jokey, ironic way meaning, ‘Yes!’ Most of us can apply an appropriate tone rapidly and we can readily pick up nuances in what is said by instantly evaluating the tone of voice used by others.  These capacities are learned by immersion in a range of conversations in various contexts, a type of learning that goes on throughout life. For children in classrooms, the lessons of what may be conveyed by voice tone are still being learned. Everyday chances to practice using their own voice to convey what they understand, know, think and feel and to listen to others, are invaluable.

By ‘tone of voice’ here I mean the way we speak using a variety of rhythm, intonation, speed, volume and pitch. This is necessarily a rather loose definition since it is intended to include a range of voice qualities that are put to use to affect meaning. Of these qualities, traditionally in classrooms we have worked on volume as a particular problem! Which it is, and would be in any circumstances in which multiple separate conversations were going on in an enclosed space. For example, you invariably encounter a similar volume problem in a well-known Italian restaurant which has wooden floors, ceilings and walls and no sound-absorbent fabrics. You have to leave in order to talk to your friends. We cannot work like this in classrooms, so volume of talk is always going to be a problem. One solution is to have fewer children in a classroom. Since this seems unattainable, another solution is to include work on volume specifically in the direct teaching of talk skills as part of an understanding of the nature and purpose of exploratory talk. Excess volume becomes less necessary to a child as members of a group understand that they will be listened to, and in any case voices are more measured when all are talking on task to get things done. Purposeful talk tends not to be shouted.

Tone of voice can convey the emotion behind speech. Strangely, the reasons for voice tone may not be always apparent to the speaker. It may take a careful listener to perceive that someone they are talking to is angry, upset or uncertain. But it is very easy to misinterpret tone of voice, deducing coldness, warmth, impatience, patience, cheerfulness or despair, and so on, when no such quality exists. Discussions about tone of voice can help children to understand that how they talk to one another matters; and to help those who appear perpetually cross, flippant or disinterested, and so on, to gain insight into what others hear in their voice. Children can learn to ensure that in discussion, the meaning conveyed by the words is given precedence over the way they are said. This is not to say that we want children to talk in robotic voices; just to develop a sensible awareness of how to avoid some cul-de-sacs in conversation by speaking clearly and in an appropriate tone of voice.

The Cambridge Oracy Skills framework provides a useful structure for teaching oracy throughout the curriculum.  Its categories of oracy skills – Physical, Linguistic, Cognitive, Social & Emotional – enable us to ‘see the wood for the trees’ when planning to teach oracy skills. Tone of voice is there:

Section 1: Physical.

fluency and pace of speech;
tonal variation;
clarity of pronunciation;
voice projection

Section 4: Social & Emotional

confidence in speaking;
self assurance

These brief descriptors provide the basis for oracy learning objectives to pair up with everyday curriculum objectives. For example:

Science investigation: Discuss and devise a group hypothesis; decide how you feel about the coming investigation then present your hypothesis to the class using a tone which will convey your approach (for example confident, hesitant, uncertain, interested, excited, certain, worried).

Effective talk in classrooms relies on teaching children the importance of the words they use, the nature of tone of voice, and an awareness of some aspects of body language. I must say that of these three features of talk, I would say that a knowledge of how and why to use talk to communicate ideas is by far the most important. That is, the language tools we need, simple things like ‘What do you think?’ ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘Can you say a bit more please?’ ‘Please explain what you mean by-’ are essential for making sense of things, and can be readily taught. Unless the child can convey their ideas in this way, and unless they know how to listen to others and give them oral feedback, talk is limited to chatter. I like chatter. But in classrooms we can use talk for learning, an exciting and satisfying process. We can chatter before and afterwards, but in class, we can take part in talk for learning – a rich experience.

But tone of voice can exert a powerful influence. Teachers think a lot about tone; they know that children take what they hear as a model for the way they use own voices. Teachers are good to listen to. They have individual ways to convey enthusiasm, interest, purpose, the desire to be on a quest for knowledge along with a positive attitude; their talk with children is often infused with a tone that conveys reliability and certainty. Their voice speaks of a history of a good working relationship with the children in their class, a mutual trust. Things are going as they should. Teachers can also use their voice to own uncertainty or lack of knowledge, which can be a very motivating experience for children. Teachers evolve powerful ways of talking with children that may not be immediately clear to those coming into the classroom. Once I was teaching my class in the company of a visitor, and Sam, aged eight, interrupted me to tell me some fact about the topic, which was crystals in metamorphic rock. The visitor immediately stopped the lesson by telling Sam that he should apologise for being rude. Everyone went quiet. We were dismayed. We – as a class – knew that Sam knew more about crystals than I did, and we also knew that interruptions were fine, if to the point and helpful. Politeness prevented me from correcting the visitor; she had not understood the tones of voice used in the room. But as a class, we discussed the incident later and came to some interesting conclusions about ‘us and them’ scenarios; about being part of a group, and how to include others in the group without letting them change it at least until they understand it.

Children are very sensitive and respond viscerally to tone of voice.  Some children know too much about listening to loud, angry voices, which may not be directed at them, but even so generate fear. Children overhearing shouting may believe that they are the cause of adult anger. Those shouted at directly learn to defend themselves often by silence and may avoid of any sort of discussion in which different points of view are negotiated. Others have been overly exposed to sarcasm, derision, indifference, unkindness or intolerance, all conveyed by voice tone. We cannot and should not protect the child from all lived experience, but in classrooms we can make sure that no-one generates in them destructive echoes of the fear, uncertainty, loneliness or confusion that is called up by a raised voice or those other awful tones. In contrast, some children’s most significant experience will be of overly-indulgent, placating voice tones, from which they will have learned nothing about considering others, reasoning or reflection. Talk about tone of voice can help every child to be a little more analytical about their own voice and the voices they hear.

Good authors can write believable and powerful dialogue; it comes to life on reading; so is tone of voice really so important? It seems so. It’s not uncommon for an email to be misunderstood because of the writer’s ‘tone of voice’; they may be perceived as brusque, casual, cheerful or indolent and so on, simply depending on their punctuation and sentence structure. We are required to teach children in their writing to use a range of words instead of ‘said’ – exclaimed, stuttered, bleated, sniffed – many of which are intended to convey tone of voice.

‘They are lost,’ she said.

‘They are lost,’ she shouted/whispered/claimed/commented/mumbled.

Funnily enough, all these descriptors seem to convey a kind of artificiality. The context for what is said is often enough to help the reader to infer tone. In the same way that speech really should not have to be written in full sentences, it is often best left as ‘said’ if the reader is to be engaged with the story. Finding synonyms for ‘said’ is possibly a good way to build vocabulary but probably will not help the child to become an effective story writer. Drama sessions and reading aloud can bring out the value of a range of tones of voice to convey meaning. And one of the best experiences a Primary Teacher can have is hearing a five or six year old reading a book aloud with the tones of voice pitched just right. It seems a miraculous thing for a little child to do. No doubt they are drawing on their experience of having had books read to them.

Tone of voice can be subtle and difficult to describe or analyse. To do so might seem like destroying the poetry of the rainbow; but some pertinent information and awareness of tone of voice can help children to understand what they hear, and feel more confident in speaking to others. I asked a ten year old in school today if she had been taught anything about tone of voice. She quizzed me for a few moments about what that meant.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that will probably be one of those PSHE things.’

Maybe. But maybe many children would benefit from regular and frequent opportunities to talk about tone of voice as part of their learning of oracy skills.

What can we actually teach?

  1. Active listening. Listen attentively to a range of voices (film clips etc.) and discuss how to describe their tone and the feelings the characters convey. Does everyone agree?
  2. Ask pairs of children to listen attentively to one another taking it in turns to describe a hobby or interest for a minute. Listeners can ask questions. Discuss what tone of voice the speaker used.
  3. Playing with tone of voice. Devise a drama activity in which groups are given the same script and asked to act it out happily, indifferently, angrily, as if in fear, excitedly and so on. Provide this information ‘in secret’ to the group. Ask the rest of the class to talk together to identify both the emotion and how it was conveyed.
  4. Give groups a topic each and ask them to prepare a two-minute talk in which they give as much information as possible to the class in a rapid and monotonous way. Evaluate the value of the talks in terms of how much could be remembered. Next ask groups to prepare a one minute talk in which they explain two or three facts. Talk about the difference pace and tone of voice makes to how well listeners understand.
  5. Draw tone. Give groups drawing equipment. Read a sentence in a particular tone of voice – cheerful, fed up, hurried, uncertain, angry – and ask groups to discuss and draw an ‘emoji’ representing what they understood the emotion in the voice to be. They can add describing words to their picture.

Background information

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