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June 2024 - Year 26 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Seven Failures in Pronunciation Teaching, and Seven Possible Solutions

Adrian Underhill is a consultant to schools and offers face to face teachers’ courses of 1 and 2 weeks at Oxford University, IH London and Bell Cambridge, as well as online. He has a series of videos at and blog   Demonstration videos at   and other on YouTube. Email:



This article is based on a presentation I gave at the IATEFL Annual Conference in Brighton April 2024 entitled Seven shortcomings in pronunciation teaching and seven resolutions.

Before starting I should first say that I advise teachers to teach their own accent and pronunciation, while at the same time exposing their learners to multiple Englishes online, exploring and experimenting with the differences they hear, and searching always for pleasurable intelligibility in whatever accent they choose.

What follows is a reflection on what I have learnt from experience about pronunciation teaching, especially about how, in my opinion, our methodology has stuck to things we know don’t work, and omitted things that do.

Failure of hollow knowledge

The mental representation and description of something like grammar or pronunciation is a kind of ‘knowledge about’. The skill that learners actually need for doing it is ‘how to knowledge’. In the case of pronunciation ‘knowledge about’, consists of mental constructs in the form of diagrams, descriptions of articulators and their coordinations, Greek/Latin terms from linguistics, etc., while ‘know how’ constitutes the physical skill to coordinate muscles and breath. From the learner’s perspective the first kind of knowledge is hollow knowledge, which needs to be filled with experience.

We teach grammar and vocabulary cognitively, so perhaps we over apply this to pronunciation, failing to see that pronunciation is a physical activity having more in common with learning to dance than with learning grammar.

Learners’ primary task must be to reconnect with the muscles that make the pronunciation difference. To keep this physical focus, I identify 5 ‘muscle buttons’ which I help learners to find during the first couple of lessons:

  1. Lips (spreading + back, or rounding + forward)

  2. Tongue (moving forward and back)

  3. Jaw + tongue (moving up and down)

  4. Voice (on/off to make voiced or unvoiced sounds)

  5. Breath force (to stress/unstress syllables)

We encounter and experience buttons 1-3 when we play with vowels in the first lesson, button 4 when we play with consonants, and button 5 when working with word stress and connect, ed speech. Physical experience fills out ‘the hollow’.


Failure of repetition

You can’t repeat your way out of a muscular habit. You need to get behind the grip of the L1 muscular habit … but how? Of course you can imagine, as behaviouristic listen-and-repeat does, that you just put a sound in the students’ ears, and it will pop out of their mouth. But it doesn’t work as there is no magic tube connecting ear to mouth. Repetition may help for mental repetitions like numbers or words in the 1st language where no new muscular coordination is required. But in the case of learning new pronunciation the circuitry has to be extended to include muscles, and getting muscles to coordinate in ways that oppose the mother tongue habits. In fact, we know from our experience (as teachers and learners) that we can’t hear a new sound until we can say it. In other words, reconfiguring the muscles is what develops the new neurological circuitry and the new hearing.

Repetition is not the remedy for a physical habit, but a confirmation of what we can already do. To say a new sound, you need to connect with and sense the relevant muscles and open to a new muscular coordination different from your previous habit. Once you find the required muscular coordination then forms of practice becomes worthwhile.

Here are a few activities that seed the learner’s awareness of reconnecting with the muscles in order to release from the grip of mother tongue habit and discover new sounds. 


Physical connectivity activities

The forest leaf

A first exploration of the territory of pronunciation. This is a simple class activity story which the class does together. 

“Visualise your tongue as a leaf in a forest, blowing in the wind. 

The leaf touches a semicircle row of trees - your lower front teeth - in turn. 

The wind blows again, and the leaf touches another row of trees, growing upside down from the sky in this strange forest - your top front teeth. 

Behind this row of trees there is a hard piece of sky (palate) The leaf explores this. 

And behind that there is a soft marshy piece of sky. The leaf touches this too. 

The leaf returns to the lower trees at the front, and behind them there is another soft wet squelchy marsh…

At the front of this amazing forest there is a window (your mouth) 

When the window opens (jaw and mouth open) the light comes in, and the sounds of the forest come out….”

With the actions of this story learners connect with the territory of pronunciation, in particular tongue, lips, tongue, jaw (Buttons 1 – 3 above). 


Accent in your own language

Ask learners: Is there a part of your country where people speak with a different accent? Can you imitate it in one word? So, you can change your pronunciation! Say it both ways. And alternate. Can you feel a small movement in your mouth?


Mime and gesture

All sounds involve muscular position and movement. I use mime to show whatever is visible in the making of a sound, or perhaps a sequence of several sounds. For some sounds the mime shows there is little or no visible information. That too is instructive. I use gesture with arms and hands to draw attention to the length or abruptness of a sound, or the movement of the lips or jaw, and so on. These are simple when you see them, harder to describe. I have videos of these mimes and gestures here:


Change it v Correct it

A learner probably cannot correct a sound that is not in their mother tongue set of sounds. So, saying “Correct it” does not help. The first step they need is to escape the mother tongue grip, so the invitation “Change it” is more useful and more doable. The suggestion is to make any change at all to the sound you are currently making. Then you will be freer to find something new.


“Listen to the differences round the class

 When students are saying a sound or word aloud, individually round the class, I ask them to listen to the others, and to hear the differences – and accept and enjoy them. Can you hear the differences?


S L O W down

Help learners to say a sound or word or phrase very slowly so they can see and sense what’s going on in their mouth. Use your fingers to dictate a speed slow enough that they can notice each movement of lip tongue or jaw. Offer feedback commentary, reshape the sound, put it back in context, speed it up.

One golden rule emerges: Find the learner’s (wrong) sound in your own mouth before assisting them. Then you can see exactly what their learning journey must be and how to help them. This means that Teacher needs to know their own mouth! 

If you don’t know what you’re doing all you can say is “Repeat after me”. Though it might be more honest to say, “I don’t know what I’m doing but repeat after me”.

(Trained teachers (CELTS, DELTA, Masters etc.) may know about what certain muscles do but have not connected with the muscles in themselves to follow this golden rule. They have know-about, but have not developed conscious know-how)

Activating Inner Ear and Voice

Our methodology has overlooked this interior learning and practice territory.


The inner ear

This involves listening internally several times to something you’ve just heard once externally. Instructions might be:

Listen but don’t repeat

Listen again inside ….

Can you still hear my voice?

How many words, sounds, stresses? 

Hear it again?


Inner voice

This involves practising the sound, word or phrase internally using your own inner voice. Instructions might be of the kind:

Change it into your own inner voice.

Say it inside, silently.

Get ready to say it, but don’t.

Join the words, place the stress.

Slow it down. Speed it up.   


Outer voice

This involves either:

The Private Voice

Say it aloud just for yourself. No one will listen or correct you. Can you hear any difference in pronunciation between your inner voice and outer voice

(A good question as often the inner voice sounds better, as it is not subject to the habituated muscles of the outer voice. And this means that the leaner has two models in them, one perhaps they can hear as better)

Go back inside and come out again. Can you improve it?


Public Voice

For others to hear: Say it aloud to your neighbour, or the class, or to me.

It is interesting that by adding mouthing (moving the articulators with no breath and no voice), and whispering (adding the breath but no voice) we give ourselves six possible ‘magnifications’ to explore and bring variety to pronunciation of sounds, words and word order..

  1. Inner ear (listening inside to what has just been heard)

  2. Inner speaking

  3. Mouthing – with no sound

  4. Whispering – adding breath, but no voice

  5. Private voice – adding voice, but speaking only for self

  6. Public voice – for others to hear (sadly this is the only voice magnification recognised by current received methodology)


The failure of the “pronunciation slot”

Pronunciation is everywhere, in everything, all the time, already integrated in all four skills. When reading silently most learners subvocalise, which itself has a pronunciation.  When writing learners compose in the internal voice before writing. This too has a pronunciation.

Thus, every lesson is a continuous wall-to-wall pronunciation lesson, even silent reading and writing. No need for ‘pron slots’ or special materials. Practice opportunities are already everywhere. Draw all pronunciation practice from the material already in circulation for grammar and vocabulary activities that has learners’ attention invested in it, rather than introduce new unconnected material.


The failure of correction

Correction often means ‘the right words in the right order’.

The problem is once you’re ‘correct’ you hit a ceiling… Yet there are many improvements that could be made. 

So, instead of focussing on correction, focus instead on upgrading

Upgrades include correction but take you further. They improve whatever’s offered: mistakes included, and invite the best each student can manage.

Upgrades are spontaneous differentiation. You don’t need a mistake to do an upgrade. Everyone learns from upgrades of others.

“That’s correct … but it’s not right...”

I find there are two steps to upgrading. These are some interventions I use.


Step 1: Helping learners look at what they have said.

How many words …?

What is the second word?

How many syllables? Say them, Where is the stress?

How many sounds?

What is the second sound?

Is a sound missing/Is there a word missing?

You need another word…Take a word out…

Can you change anything?

Does that feel right to you?

Is that how you want to say it?


Step 2: Helping learners upgrade what they have said.

Change the word order?

Now join the words together …

Say it slower …

More clearly…

Say it faster …

Say it with interest!

Practise it in your head, get it ready...

Whisper it, 

Make it a question, 

Does that say how you feel?

The words are correct, but say them in English!

Everyone: find another way to say this.


The failure of connected speech

Beyond the bits and pieces of grammar and vocab lies connected speech. But is connected speech the end point of learning a language? Isn’t the real destination the experience of expressing oneself, in the world, from the heart, which includes connected speech? Do our “communicative activities” really do this?

The suggestion here is to have a performance piece on the go during every lesson. This might be a shorter or longer phrase or sentence, perhaps even a short paragraph. This is probably the same piece for all class members though not necessarily, and would be taken from the material being learnt or practiced, or from something that occurs spontaneously in the lesson. But it contains some vocabulary and grammar being learnt.

The performance piece is a kind of receptacle that brings together the various insights being learned in the lesson. Its purpose is to give learners the experience of bringing a piece of language to the highest performance level they can, beyond their own experience and expectation, with the resulting confidence that they can do this again and again.

A second kind of performance piece is one which is developed over several lessons or weeks or a semester. This might be a short poem, perhaps 12 lines or so, or a short story, perhaps 100 words. One illustrative class example might be developed in the class, but each student would have their own poem or story to develop, using a few minutes of class time here and there, and culminating in a class poem or story festival taking maybe for a whole lesson.


Five steps to a performance piece

These steps are carried out by the class, probably with the full text in view on a white board as a class workspace where members can come and make changes and try things out.


Find and mark the sense groups – intuitively

These are adjustable and are likely to become tone units, though mostly I do not use such terminology.


Mark all stressed syllables

Distinguish word stress (given by the language and not negotiable) from speaker stress (which is the choice of the speaker, according to their meaning and self expression, and is negotiable)


Find unstressed syllables – esp /ǝ/

This is most important as so many vowels when unstressed actually change their sound. This comes as a great surprise to many learners, esp. when they find it is not just a nicety but essential. My learners love to go on a “schwa hunt” and to identify all /ǝ/ in a sentence. We may include /ɪ / in the hunt.


Connect words inside sense groups

Join the ends to beginnings of words making the necessary adjustments and adding in linking sounds /j / /w/  /r/


Feel your meaning

Rehearse with intonation, enjoy it. This 5th step requires the scaffolding of steps 1-4, which takes practice. But as the scaffolding start to feel secure, then, at last, self expression and intonation begins to enter. hear I call it. ‘speaking from the heart’. And I invite people to experiment with saying it in different ways.

This is a kind of simple form of drama, bringing language and learning to life.


Playfulness: engagement and joy

Asking learners to say a sound is first and foremost an invitation to play a game, not to learn better pronunciation which is a result of playing. The impetus to play is not some distant aim of reading or sounding like a native (though this is not excluded). Rather a game is entered with joy and attention. This is a natural and human orientation to learning. Lack of playfulness, joy and ease is itself a failure resulting in a reluctance to experiment, and a feeling of being judged by self or others. So, invite play… A couple of examples



I see drama as the bringing to life of a human exchange. For me drama does not require any dramatic skill other than willingness to play and an intention to enjoy the language and bring it to life, with resulting engagement, affect, and joy. Everything in a language lesson can be transformed by drama

”Please get it wrong again..."

This is a great trick. I use it all the time. It makes behaviourists turn in their graves.

When a learner has corrected or upgraded a piece of pronunciation or word stress or word order or grammar, I ask them to make the original mistake again, and then the correct version again, so they take ownership of the choice, and hear and feel the difference. 


Parting word

Probably most of what I have said here chimes with your own experience at least to some extent. In any case, please experiment with these ideas in your own ways, talk about it and be part of a change in pronunciation teaching.


Please check the Pilgrims f2f courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims online courses at Pilgrims website.

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