Helping EFL Learners Pronounce Wh-Questions

Wakhid Nashruddin

Our speaking will determine how well people understand our speech. Indonesian and English’s intonation and pitch are sometimes different in forms, functions, and meanings implied; since in the two languages, intonations may lead to different intention. When the speakers of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) fail producing good intonation close to native speakers, their speech will sound strange and will be difficult to understand. This research will try to analyze and solve Indonesian students’ problem in producing questions using question words seen from phonological point of view. This research will be conducted by compiling references to use in building and improving students’ understanding in uttering questions using question words. Using drill techniques, teachers will be able to make their students accustomed to produce good intonation questions.

Key words: pitch, meaning, question words, drill 


To be understood by people is a need in communication, either in spoken or written language. In order to be able to communicate well, we need communication skills. At least four major skills are needed in communication: listening, speaking, reading and writing. From these four skills, people tend to ignore the first skill. (FergusonCareer Skills Library, 2004: 3) Data in this book shows that people use 45% of their communication time in listening and 30% in speaking. It is implied here that most of our time in communication spent in spoken (oral) language, while reading and writing spent 16% and 9% of our communication time.

Listening and speaking is a major activity in our communication activity. So that people will understand our speech, we need to speak in a good way. Jones (1986: 4) defines ‘good’ speech as “a way of speaking which is clearly intelligible to all ordinary people.” On the other hand, he defines ‘bad’ speech as “a way of talking which is difficult for most people to understand.” From this point, the writer will start his exploration in finding the importance of good speech from phonological insight.

Pronunciation is a key to deliver and receive a message in spoken language. If a speaker cannot produce clear and correct pronunciations, it would be difficult for the listener to understand his speech. It will also happen to the listener who cannot recognize the speaker’s pronunciation because of the listener’s ignorance of phonological system.

In pronouncing words, some mistakes or errors from the speaker can cause problems. Kelly (2001: 11) believes that “the inaccurate use of suprasegmental elements, such as stress or intonation, can also cause problems.” Johnson (2001: 18-19) also shares the same opinions. Based on their ideas, the writer will try to talk about the intonation, since its importance in speaking. If students of EFL fail to produce sentences in appropriate pitch and intonation, this problem will hinder the intended meaning to be understood. (Hebert, 2002: 188)

Many kinds of sentence produce many different kinds of intonation. These different intonations have their own intention. In this case, the writer would like to analyze the importance of intonation of questions using question words (wh-questions). The writer considers this case because it seems that grammarians (e.g. Leech & Svartvik (1983) and Quirk & Greenbaum (1985)) and English teaching experts (e.g. Harmer (2001&2005) and Richards & Renandya (2002)) pay attention seriously in this problem. More over, Bowler & Cunningham (1991), Hancock (2003), Kelly (2001), and O’ Connor (1998) in their books about teaching pronunciation, which also focus on intonation, discuss these wh-question intonations carefully.


In this part, I will divide our discussion into three parts. The sequence is the wh-questions first, then intonation, and the last is wh-question intonation.


Let us begin our discussion with defining wh-questions. Peters (2004: 452) defines that wh-questions are information-seeking questions introduced by interrogative words. The interrogative words of English are who, whom, whose, which, what, where, when, how, why, whether, if (=’whether’). (Leech&Svartvik, 1983: 233) Whether and if are restricted to interrogative subclauses, not wh-questions, so they will be out of our discussion.

The following are the functions of each interrogative words taken from Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (6th edition), written by AS Hornby.

Who : to ask about the name, identity or function of one or more people. (p. 1478)

Whom : used instead of ‘who’ as the object of a verb or preposition. (p. 1478)

Whose : to ask who something belongs to. (p.1479)

Which : to ask somebody to be exact about one or more people or things from a limited number. (p.1475)

What : to ask for particular information about something or somebody. (p. 1473)

Where : to ask about in or to what place or situation. (p.1474)

When : to ask about at what time, on what occasion. (p.1474)

How : to ask about (1) in what way or manner. (2) somebody’s health. (3) the amount, degree, etc. of something, or about somebody’s age (used before an adjective or adverb). (p. 633)

Why : (1) to ask the reason for or purpose of something. (2) to suggest that it is not necessary to do something. (p. 1479)

The constructions of wh-questions need helping verbs. Sargeant (2007: 129) explains that “the verbs be, have and do, and helping verbs such as can, will and should are also used in questions. The helping verb comes before the subject, as it does in yes or no questions.”


Who is that man?

Whom does he meet?

Whose car is that?

When did they arrive here?

How can they do that?

However, if wh-word itself is the subject of the sentence, we do not use do to form questions. (Sargeant, 2007: 129)


Who pays the bill?

Which is better, Andy or Ary?


Intonation is an important meaning carrier. (Harmer: 2001: 184) Intonation can make the message uttered understood easily. Richards & Schmidt with Kendricks & Kim (2002: 272) illustrate that “when speaking, people generally raise and lower the pitch of their voice, forming pitch patterns. They also give some syllables in their utterances a greater degree of loudness and change their speech rhythm. These phenomena are called intonation.” According to O’Grady & Dobrovolsky (1992: 595), “intonation is pitch movement in spoken utterance that is not related to differences in word meaning.” So, intonation is pitch movement-either raising or lowering the pitch of the voice-and a degree of loudness and change of speech rhythm in spoken utterance, which do not change word meaning.

The production of pitch relies on the control of vocal cords. Fromkin, Blair & Collins (1999: 235) explain that “the pitch produced depends upon how fast the vocal cords vibrate; the faster they vibrate, the higher the pitch.” O’Grady & Dobrovolsky (1992: 37) explain more:

“The control of the pitch level is accomplished by controlling the tension of the vocal folds and the amount of air that passes through the glottis. The combination of tensed vocal cords and greater air pressure result in higher voice pitch on vowels and sonorant consonants, while less tense vocal folds and lower air pressure result in lower voice pitch.”

EFL students need to understand how to produce utterance using correct and acceptable intonation. Kelly (2001: 86) asserts that intonation is a sensitive thing in communication, although it is at an unconscious level. Realize it or not, it affects our intention.

Wh-question Intonation

What is the importance of wh-question intonation? Harmer (2001: 194) specifies that “we use changes in pitch to convey meaning, to reflect the thematic structure of what we are saying, and to convey mood.” It is very important to use correct intonation so that our message will not be misinterpreted.

Kelly (2001: 12) shows different intonation produce different intention. Let us take a look at examples given by him.

a) Why don’t you come to my PARty?

b) WHY don’t you come to my party?

The first sentence may mean a suggestion or invitation, while the second one may mean that the hearer has refused an invitation and the speaker is rather upset by this and wants to know why it has happened. The two exactly the same sentences have different intended meaning.

Soars, Soars & Maris (2004: 20) remind us to take care with the intonation, falling at the end in the wh- questions. They say that questions with a question word start high and fall. Allen (1982: 43), Leech & Svartvik (1983: 284), and Quirk & Greenbaum (1985: 454-455) also state that wh-questions normally have falling intonation.

Kelly (2001: 89) limits information questions with wh-questions have falling intonation if being asked for the first time. He (2001: 3) illustrates it in the following examples:

Where do you live?

Where do you live?

Furthermore, O’ Connor (1998: 121) shows different patterns of wh-question intonation:

The Glide-Up shows as much interest in the other person as in the subject:

How’s your daughter?

The Glide-Down shows the question sounds more business-like and we are interested in the subject, and also for one-word questions (unless they are repetition-questions):

Why did you change your mind?

The Take-Off is used for repetition-questions, that is repeating someone else’s question or when you want the other person to repeat some information.

When did I go?

From this part, we can see how important intonations are. EFL students need to know that different intonations can lead to misunderstanding if they do not recognize and take notice on them. If they fail identifying or delivering sentences with correct intonation, the failure of message sending can probably occur.


To overcome such problem, teachers need to find a correct method in solving it. On the other hand, the teaching of wh-question intonations should not only concentrate to the patterns, but also the function of them. Harmer (2001: 183) reminds teachers that the teaching of pronunciation should not only make students know different sounds, but also be able to improve the students’ speaking and comprehension.

Kelly (2001: 89) suggests that the teaching of intonation should also involve other aspects of the language learned. One of them is by connecting intonation patterns and particular types of grammatical structure. Following Harmer & Kelly’s ideas, the writer suggests that the teaching of wh-question intonation should goes together with the teaching of questions using question words. This also means that the teaching should be about how to form such questions.

The method which the writer proposes is the Audio-lingual method. This method uses drills to form sentences. Hopefully, by getting used to pronounce wh-questions using correct intonation, students will master it for the sake of their successful communication. This idea corresponds to Harmer (2001: 195) and Kelly (2001: 15) that one of some ways in teaching pronunciation is by making use of drills.


We have seen the importance of wh-question intonation. EFL students should pay attention to intonations of their speech since it will affect the ideas or messages they want to deliver. One of the important intonations is in wh-questions.

The writer thinks that teachers should teach this intonation since the very early stage of learning so that students will get used to it and will be able to apply it in their speaking. By applying the technique proposed by the writer, hopefully, the students of EFL will get the benefit of drill technique, master the skill they need, and not feel awkward when they have to speak.


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Bowler, Bill & Cunningham, Sarah. 1991. Headway: Upper-Intermediate Pronunciation.Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press

FergusonCareer Skills Library. 2004. Communication Skills (2nd ed.). New York:Ferguson

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Soars, Liz, John Soars, & Amanda Maris . 2004. New Headway English Course, Elementary Level, Teacher’s Book,Oxford: Oxford University Press


(Nashruddin, Wakhid. 2008. Helping EFL Learners Pronounce Wh-Questions. A paper presented at The National Seminar on The Teaching and Learning of English in Indonesia: Insights from Linguistics, The Network of English Language Teachers of Indonesia (ELT Indonesia), Malang, 24 November, 1, 15, 20 December)


About wakhidn

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