Using Voice to Convey Meaning

We communicate not only by the words we say, but also by the way in which we say them.  It’s important for students to learn this.  First of all, meanings and perceived meanings can change depending on how you deliver a sentence; with the wrong inflection, your audience might infer something different from what you intended.  Second, simply voicing words can be boring when done monotonously, while breathing life into your words is more likely to engage your listeners.

To help your students better pronounce things and deliver lines with the right attitude and energy, here are some things you can practice.



Basic adjective pairs are a good way to start.  Have students say a pair of opposites like rough and smooth over and over again.  How are the properties of the consonants different?  What about the vowel sounds?  What are your lips, tongue, and teeth doing differently?  How do the words feel in your mouth?

Try these pairs:

    • rough and smooth
    • hard and soft
    • easy and difficult
    • huge and small
    • fast and slow



Turning a raw sound into a verb is called onomatopoeia.  Children do this often when imitating animals.  Get your students to make some animal sounds, even if they are at an advanced level, even if they are adults.

For example: say ‘bark’, meaning the surface of a tree trunk.  Then bark like a dog.  If the two sounds are indistinguishable, you’re doing it wrong.

You may even want to have a learner who does animal sounds well to demonstrate, then ask the rest of the class to describe the differences between the two ‘bark’s.

After you’ve done a few animal sounds, move on to sound effects.  Try words like these:

  • click
  • bubble
  • yawn
  • splash
  • boom
  • zip
  • jingle
  • vroom
  • drip
  • honk
  • sizzle
  • boing

Here’s a tip: these words should not be clearly enunciated.  Some sounds should be rather vaguely pronounced, and other sounds should blend together.  Learners shouldn’t focus on how they are spelled (in fact, maybe don’t even write these down for them), but rather picture how those sounds might be made.

Same Word, Different Meanings

Next try some words that mean different things in different contexts.  Adjectives and adverbs are a good way to go, as are interjections.  Perhaps call on one student to say a word one way, then another student to say the same word a different way.  Here are some example words:


    • as in ‘very kind’
    • the taste
    • as in ‘that’s cool!’


    • as in ‘very’
    • a response of surprise
    • a response of disbelief


    • as a description
    • as a command


    • neutrally expressing understanding
    • expressing excitement
    • expressing disapproval
    • expressing surprise
    • as a question
    • feigning interest while hiding disappointment

The main exercise here is to have them produce the sound after you tell them the meaning.  However, you could also reverse it: you or one of the students produce(s) the sound, then the rest of the class has to guess the meaning.

Same Sentence, Different Implications

Now do the same thing as the previous exercise, but with whole sentences.  By the way, here’s a commercial that puts the positive and negative versions of identical sentences and expressions back to back: watch

Here are some sentences to explore:

What did you say?

    • “I didn’t hear you. Could you repeat that, please?”
    • “How dare you say that to me!”
    • “No, way! Really?”

I don’t believe it!

    • astonished
    • skeptical
    • frustrated

Wait a minute.

    • “One moment, please.”
    • “Stop right there!”
    • “Is that what I think it is?”

Reading Aloud

Now that you learners are used to saying different things in different ways, have them read an entire passage.

Try a scene from a story.  If it’s heavy on narration, have students take turns reading it, each with a different tone, attitude, or characteristic.  If it has a lot of dialogue, let the students decide what differentiates the characters from each other.  They should them reflect those characteristics in their voices as they read it (whether a single person reads all parts or the parts are divided among the students).  Students should also feel free to use body language, although that shouldn’t become the focus (for this exercise, at least, physicality should enhance the voice, not overshadow it).

Finally, read some poems.  Let the students figure out what the author or narrator feels.  Is the tone constant, or does it change?  Underline some words to stress.  Highlight some words that could be said in special ways to better convey their purpose.  Let students practice a few times on their own, or before you or some classmates for feedback, before they read their poems before the whole class.

Final Note

As stated before, speaking dramatically can create a better experience for the listeners.  But hopefully, this series of exercises will also boost the confidence of some students.  Public speaking isn’t fun for a lot of people, but dramatic readings can help with that.  As you breath more life into your words, your audience will pay progressively more attention to what’s being said and what it means, and less attention to the person saying those things.  Speakers who feel ridiculous in front of others might learn that ridiculous on purpose can be fun for both the speaker and the listeners.  It’s not about avoiding mistakes; it’s about bringing words to life.

* Some of the exercises on how to say words in different ways are based on the advice of Mary Robinette Kowal, who is a writer, puppeteer, and audio-book narrator.

Get more with Insider Access


Extra Video Content

more How-to-Teach grammar videos*

with intros, instructions, and summaries

*compared to free resources


Exclusive Supplemental Resources


posters & handouts

bonus notes


Advanced Features in Student Projects

search and filter

planning info

language illuminated

Identifying Grammar vs Using It

Learning a grammar point shouldn’t just be about knowing how to use it. How to use a grammar structure doesn’t matter until after they’ve determined what they want to say.

Read More »
teaching tips

Reasons to Read Aloud

While we tend to read quietly on our own, reading aloud in a classroom can have multiple benefits, including practicing inflection, making the passage more engaging, checking for comprehension, and more.

Read More »
teaching tips

Define Your Own Terms

There are lots of long, strange-sounding, technical terms that we don’t use outside the classroom, so why confuse students by teaching them? Instead, make up your own terms for for those concepts.

Read More »

Share This Post