Pronunciation: the Cinderella of Language Teaching
Adrian Underhill, UK
Adrian Underhill works as an international ELT consultant and trainer, which means things like running training courses, writing articles, working as series editor for the Macmillan Books for Teachers and speaking at conferences. Increasingly he provides training and consultancy for leadership and management in ELT organisations, helping them develop schools that are themselves learning cultures. He has been teacher, trainer and director of the International Teacher Training Institute at International House in Hastings and is a past president of IATEFL. A few years ago he followed an inspirational Masters course in Responsibility and Business Practice, as a result of which he developed a passion for the learning power of Action Inquiry and reflective practices, which he now integrates into his workshops and consultancies.
There is a problem
The physicality of pronunciation
Pronunciation suffuses all language activities
There is a solution…
1. Provide a mental map
2. Make pronunciation physical
Teacher Training course in the Sound Foundations approach to pronunciation
Explore further? Try these online links
We talk about the importance of integrating pronunciation fully into all our language teaching work, yet we struggle do so. In many lessons the focus of teacher or course book is on students getting the correct words in the correct order, with pronunciation a sort of half hearted ‘also ran’. The teacher ends up saying “yes good” when even the (beginner) student can hear that it isn’t good, that there is a gap between how they sound and how their teacher or the audio sounds. And they can see that their teacher does not or cannot do much about it, so they begin to assume that either pronunciation doesn’t matter or that it is unteachable.
The sidelining of pronunciation is well illustrated by the phenomenon of the ‘pron slot’, a sort of afterthought in both course books and lessons which separates pronunciation from the core language work, from the point of contact with new language, relegating it to a kind of rehab slot. But it is also too late, the new language has been met, its newness has passed, and a mother tongue version of pronunciation has already been imposed on the new language.
Detachment from the point of contact with new language, and the downgrade of pronunciation to a “rehab-slot” are symptoms of a problem, not the root cause. Think about this for a moment. Take the three systems of language pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, and let’s make a couple of kitchen table observations: First grammar. There is a lot of it, it fills hundreds of pages, there is always relentlessly more to learn. Second, vocabulary. There is a lot of that too. You need several thousand words to get by adequately, and dictionaries contain hundreds more pages. Thirdly pronunciation. There are only 44 sounds (British English) and these all fit on one sheet of paper (see my pronunciation chart below for example). With pronunciation there isn’t even a page 2. Yes, these 44 sounds meet and connect in different ways and can be more or less energised, and there are regional differences and so on, but still there are only 44 of them, which is enough for all the speaking of all the people in that language variety. So why do we make such heavy weather of it? Why do we let it become so complicated and mysterious and invisible that most teachers are scared of it, and their learners soon contract that fear by contagion? I think there is a perfectly good reason for this, which has nothing to do with teacher competence.
The other kitchen table observation is this: While grammar and vocabulary may somehow take place “in the head,” as kind of cerebral activities, pronunciation is the physical aspect of language. You do it with muscles and body and breath. And you can even see it move (so accurately that deaf people can ‘listen’ to language with their eyes). And yet we persist in our teaching to approach pronunciation as a quasi mental, intellectual activity, never quite getting to grips with the muscles that make the difference. Pronunciation is more usefully thought of as dance, which has sequence, coordination, grace and beauty. Like dance there a number of positions (in this case 44) and like dance these position flow together in a choreography of movement that carries meaning. While vocabulary and grammar provide a two dimensional matrix giving language its structure and meaning, it is pronunciation that provides the three dimensional form. Pronunciation breathes life into the cerebral aspects of vocabulary and grammar, giving it body and bringing it into the world through speaking and writing.
Pronunciation is prior to all other language activities. It is all-pervasive. Even if you do not speak aloud, pronunciation is still at work. Think about this: When you read, your inner voice may be saying, and therefore pronouncing, the phrases. When you prepare to speak, an inner voice may be rehearsing the words, and therefore of course the pronunciation. When you write, you may be saying the phrases internally with your inner voice, and without thinking about it you are practising your pronunciation. And what about when you listen? Well, in this case your pronunciation is being tested all the time as you use sounds (and context) to recognise and discriminate sounds and words from each other, identifying them and fitting them into what you think is being said (and sometimes being confused by them). There is a relationship between what you can say with your mouth and what you can hear with your ears. Once you can say it, you can probably hear it, so developing pronunciation improves listening. Pronunciation affects everything!
Vocabulary and grammar teaching have undergone interesting changes and development in the last 3 or 4 decades. But pronunciation teaching has not really changed. It is still essentially a behaviouristic “repeat after me” activity, offering little insight into how to contact the muscles that make the difference. Its methodology is still habit formation rather than insight, but how do you form the habit if you cannot build in the insight?
Well, here’s how. I claim that if we pay attention to this Cinderella of language teaching we will find something truly magnificent in terms of engagement for learners, impact on the rest of language learning, sense of success and linguistic self-esteem, and pleasure. How do we go about this? I propose that we need do just two things to revolutionise pronunciation teaching: provide a mental map and make pronunciation physical
Students and teachers alike need a clear mental map in order to see the territory and sense the direction, to know what pronunciation consists of, what you need to learn and where it is all going. I provide this with the Sound Foundations chart (see below)
The chart is a new thinking tool which:
- offers a cognitive/mental understanding of the territory and the journey
- presents the whole thing in one gestalt, showing the relationship of the parts to each other and
to the whole.
- offers a learners’ worktable, the equivalent of a white or blackboard for pron, on which
sounds can be worked out, exercised, compared, played with, recognised, confused, put into
words, taken apart again.
- makes pronunciation concrete rather than ethereal or elusive.
- brings pronunciation effortlessly into every aspect of every lesson without need for materials
- has a geography, a layout that is meaningful and tells you HOW and WHERE the sounds are
made. This only applies to the Sound Foundations chart used on this website (it is copied
wholly or partly almost everywhere, but charts without the geography are simply lists, not
When you learn sport or dance you become more attentive to subtle muscular movements that you may not be aware of in ordinary activities.
Pronunciation is no different. Here too we must help students connect with the muscles that make the difference. My first task with any new learners (beginners, intermediate or advanced, teacher or student, native or non-native English speaker, it’s all the same) is to help them (re)discover the main muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. I do this starting with the vowels, and you can see and hear this at the link below. At the beginning it is enough to help students identify 4 such buttons (physically as well as cognitively) which enable them to get around the mouth and consciously find new positions of articulation. These muscle buttons are:
- Tongue (moving forward and back)
- Lips (spreading and bringing back, or rounding and pushing forward)
- Jaw + tongue (moving them up and down)
- Voice (turning it on or off, to make voiced or unvoiced sounds)
This is the basic muscle kit you need to navigate round vowels and diphthongs, and it also transfers neatly to consonants and gets you round most of them.
If this interests you why not take a one week intensive teacher training programme with Adrian Underhill at Pilgrims in 2012? The programme comprises:
- Full introduction to the Sound Foundations chart and how to use it with all your classes
- Experience and practise new techniques for teaching, correcting and practising pronunciation
- Develop your confidence working with individual sounds, words, and connected speech.
- See how to integrate pronunciation fully with your on-going class work
- Practise everything, get and give feedback, adapt techniques to suit your own teaching styles.
- Each day will mainly consist of hands on guided practice of new techniques, and feedback.
- More than a three year practical phonology course in one day, and it’s fun, practical, and
unforgettable. Join us and see if you agree!
More information on one week intensive pronunciation course
My new app, using the chart! Sounds: The Pronunciation App
My pron blog
My guided tour of the pron chart, plus demonstration of gestures and sound positions, and accompanying ppt notes.
and scroll down to 2010 WEBINAR ARCHIVE
Youtube clips of some of my teacher training sessions. There are four here of between 3 and 5 minutes duration:
Interview with Adrian on ELT and pronunciation
See my book Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation
Please check the Pronunciation course at Pilgrims website.