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Teaching Tone






Teaching students to understand and appreciate tone can sometimes be a challenge. Nevertheless, once they understand the concept and the intended impact on the audience, they will become more confident in the analysis and interpretation of any text. Appreciating tone will lead them to an emotional and engaged response to texts and ultimately, an engaging and successful written response.


My heart sank when I saw a worksheet on Twitter which gave the students the phrases to learn by rote to discuss tone. Have we stripped the enjoyment out of literature and language to the point we cannot develop students’ ability to feel confident about their own emotions about a text?

I have always taught my students to develop and instinctive response to understanding tone. Having read the poem or extract, how do they instinctively feel? Are they feeling sad, angry, uplifted, inspired, enthused? Does the tone change?  How does the writer use language or the rhyme scheme to change the tone? Once they understand the process, they do not forget their appreciation of tone.

Emotional Engagement

As far as I am concerned, the ‘perceptive response’ in the examination criteria is only truly achievable if a student has an emotional engagement and interest in the text they are studying. Without this they cannot truly understand and convey their understanding. Appreciating a text is NOT just about recognising how terminology has been used, it is about how language is used to have a particular impact on the reader, and they key to appreciating this is by recognising the tone. This also extends to essay writing. The best essays, from students at every level, evolve from a fundamental understanding and appreciation of the text they are studying, not from learning a formulaic way to write.

Improving Mental Health

Never underestimate how encouraging students to appreciate poetry and music can improve their mental health, and provide some much needed stress releases. As part of our Raising Self Esteem group session, we discussed alternative to self-harming. Our most engaging discussion evolved from using music and songs as a way of improving our mood. Selecting a song that is upbeat and has a happy tone to improve mood and develop happy emotions. Most of the girls said they listened to miserable and sad music. Part of our session was about how to lift our mood and use alternatives to prevent actual self-harm and thoughts about self-harming. As part of your teaching of tone, introduce this idea to your students, it is an easy and successful way to make them feel instantly better about, and within themselves. It will also help them with their examination preparations.

A Task to Teach Tone

This task can be completed as a whole year group session, or as a class. I use this task in two ways – either as an introduction to poetry, or as a more light-hearted revision session in preparation for the examination.  I recently met up with two of my ex-students and they both remembered this particular lesson with fondness, and they say it had a great impact on them – it works!



In the format of a quiz, get the students into groups of 4 or 5. I give them an A3 worksheet with the headings listed below. They must complete the sheet as they listen.

Artist Title Message Tone – shift in tone Narrative viewpoint(s) Review /10


Play a maximum of 10 songs. Use a mix of genres and artists. As so many famous artists died in 2016, the last time I delivered this, I used this as part of the theme and included, George Michael, Prince and David Bowie.

Some possible inclusions:

‘Three Little Birds’ Bob Marley – I defy anyone not to feel happy listening to this beautiful song.

‘Under Pressure’ Queen and David Bowie – narrative voices, changes in tone.

‘Too Much Too Young’ The Specials – a great message and fun.

‘Don’t Give up’ by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush is great for changes in narrative voice, delivers a strong message and the tone changes.

‘A Different Corner’ – George Michael – a strong message.

‘1999’ Prince – different narrative voices, a strong message about the need to party!

‘Good Day Sunshine’ The Beatles – Yet again, instantly upbeat, a song that will lift everyone’s mood.

Skepta or JME

My biggest claim to fame so far is that in the late 1990s I taught Skepta and JME, Joe and Jamie Adenuga. I taught Jamie English for two years. Jamie always had an interest in beats and tone and intonation. When I deliver student sessions, it always goes down well that Joe and Jamie both found a way of integrating poetry into their life, and that understanding rhyme and rhythm and conveying a message through tone may come in handy one day, if your students ever become famous Grime stars!

Student Contributions

I am definitely showing my age in this selection, but the beauty of this task is that you can include anything that you enjoy of feel that will have an impact. Leave enough time at the end of the lesson for them to make a contribution and suggestion. The beauty of You tube is that you can find almost everything at the click of a mouse. It is more engaging and productive than getting them to learn yet another list of ‘key terms’. Plus, in the run up to the examinations, when they are fed up and feeling stressed, it is an excellent way to get them to relax whilst learning something they will quite possibly, never forget. A lifelong love and appreciation of the impact of tone in songs and poetry.

Good luck!