The Oxford TEFL Blog

Pronunciation: 3 practices to question and 3 practices to explore

Adrian Underhill

Adrian Underhill is series editor of the Macmillan Books for Teachers, author of Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation and an adviser in the development of the new Macmillan English Dictionary. He has been a teacher and trainer for many years and was director of the International Teacher Training Institute at International House in Hastings until 1999. Now, he works is a guest tutor on our blended Trinity DipTESOL course, as an international ELT consultant, trainer, author, school consultant and as a conference speaker.


See what’s going on, try something different, learn from it.

That’s my teacher development mantra. It applies to everything, everywhere!

Let’s start with the first bit: To follow our road to becoming the best teachers we can be, we need to question our beliefs and hidden assumptions. especially assumptions we have taken on board without realising, which, if left unseen, can skew our questions and actions.

But becoming aware of one’s assumptions is not easy, especially if those assumptions come as taken-for-granted hand-me-downs embedded in the conventional wisdom/s of our professional discourse. In this blog post I’ll try to illustrate this by highlighting three areas of pronunciation teaching that I believe contain assumptions that are misleading, perhaps keeping us stuck – as they did me – causing our development road to curve back on itself. This belongs to “see what’s going on” in the mantra.

In the second part of this post I’ll suggest three corresponding practices to explore, part of “try something different” in the mantra.

1. See what’s going on.

Challenge 1: We pay lip service to pronunciation as a physical activity, yet we approach it cognitively. Thus we confuse know-about with know-how.

Grammar and vocabulary are presented to learners through cognitive descriptions and problem solving activities. We see this in the way course books present well-crafted cognitive puzzles in which the student has to search, find, match, answer, identify, manipulate, transform, solve and so on, in order to apply the rule (deduction) or discover the rule (induction).

So here’s the question: do we over-apply this cognitive approach to pronunciation? Isn’t pronunciation primarily a muscular, neuro-motor activity? Surely pronunciation is the coordination of several sets of muscles around the mouth (plus breath and voice muscles) making it less like learning grammar and vocabulary, and more like learning the choreography of a dance? Pronunciation is primarily a know-how rather than a know-about.

Perhaps in our teacher preparation we place more trust in the act of going outside ourselves to learn about pronunciation (eg from books and linguists), rather than inside ourselves to sense and feel our own muscular know-how in action, which would show us how we can help our learners do the same? And even if we do go inside ourselves and register our muscular movements, do we do so in a cognitive ‘describing’ way rather than sensing and feeling the movements through our proprioception? In other words, do we unwittingly prioritize know-about over know-how?

Cognitive description certainly provides a useful schema for teachers but it cannot be the primary learning approach for our students, and therefore not the primary teaching approach either, just as a book on the description of dancing or skiing cannot be the primary way to learn dancing or skiing.

Challenge 2: We act as if learners can repeat their way out of a habit.

Our L1 habituated muscles and neurology can only get us as close to a new L2 sound as our L1 neuro-muscular grip allows. There is no point in practising what is in effect an L1 muscle configuration in the hope that it will transform into the L2 sound, which requires a letting go of that L1 grip.

What is needed is a slight shift in the muscle configuration that releases the L1 neuro grip. But this can only be initiated consciously and deliberately be re-connecting with the muscles. Then new sounds become possible. Once a better approximation is found then it is worth practising it, because being outside the L1 habit range it is unfamiliar, and requires a new habituation.

So here’s the question: What happens when you are asked to repeat a muscular coordination (ie a sound) that you haven’t yet got? Don’t you have to find the new setting first? But how do you release the muscles from their L1 habit range?  You can’t repeat your way out of a habit from inside the habit! So to unhook from my mother tongue habit I first have to make conscious contact with the muslcles that are needed for the change, to find them in my body map, to get behind the habit and steer the muscles in another direction, even while initially uncertain what that direction is.

Challenge 3: Are we failing to integrate pronunciation fully with the rest of classroom activities?

If you glance at a coursebook you may get the impression that pronunciation is an add-on, attended to in the weekly “pron slot”. Yet pronunciation is in everything we do, in every part of every lesson. In every language activity pronunciation of some sort is being rehearsed by every learner – even when they are silent.  In speaking and listening there is obvious rehearsal and consolidation of pronunciation, and when reading silently there is an internal subvocalisation which itself has a pronunciation, and when writing most learners subvocalise the words and phrases while assembling them internally, and again while writing them down. In all these cases the inner voice is active and it has a pronunciation.

Thus every part of every lesson is already a pronunciation lesson from the first moment to the last, even if the teacher never teaches or corrects pronunciation. The only variable is whether by default the learners apply L1 pronunciation to the new L2 language, or whether L2 pronunciation is put into the mix.

A question here is “Once we realise that pronunciation is taking place in every moment of every lesson, does this not open up a whole new pronunciation adventure playground that allows integration of pronunciation into every class activity?”

We may help ourselves if we let go of the idea of a linear, sequential syllabus for pronunciation. We clearly need all the sounds to be in circulation from the first moment of the first class, all of them influencing each other, and all of them gradually getting better together, some requiring more attention than others.

2. Try Something Different

Here are three areas for exploratory and reflective practice loosely arising from the three challenges above. Trying things differently and trying different things is itself a great way to see what’s going on.

Exploration 1: Teaching pronunciation physically.

We can intentionally enable learners to get behind their L1 neuro-muscular habits by re-connecting, consciously at first, with the muscles that make the difference. Thus learners gradually escape the grip of L1 habit and become able to ‘request’ their muscles to do something different. We all have the ability to sense our muscles internally, kinesthetically, and to ‘know’ their position, movement and force. (This is referred to as ‘proprioception’ – vital to learning any new physical skill).

In the case of learning pronunciation there are four sets of muscles to reconnect with. We can reconnect with the first three muscle sets by working with vowels:

    1. Lips (spreading + back, or rounding + forward)
    2. Tongue (moving forward and back)
    3. Jaw + tongue (moving up and down).

These three muscle sets together form the resonant shape and volume of the mouth. Each vowel has a ‘setting’, and if you change any of the three muscle settings you can feel and hear the vowel change.

It only takes a couple of sessions for learners to initiate a direct connection with these muscles, to develop their sensed and to know the terrain. These insights then transfer across to consonants, at the same time adding the fourth muscle set: 4. Voice (on/off to make voiced or unvoiced sounds).

(I say 4 muscles sets, but later when working with energy distribution – stress, unstress, intonation – across words and connected speech I add a fifth: 5. Abdomen, breath force for stress, unstress, connected speech).

Exploration 2: Use a proprioceptive map.

One of the problems is that we teachers do not give students a self orienting “physicality map” of the mouth territory which could enable them to familiarise with what’s going on in the mouth. More than that, we ourselves may not know what’s going on in our own mouths. We may know-about it from our conceptual studies, but we may not have direct proprioceptive know-how which can make it difficult for us to really help ‘on the ground’.

Learners say things like “pronunciation seems mysterious, kind of endless, floating in the air. What is it? How much is there? Is there a ‘map? How do I hang on to it?”.

Good questions. You can hang on to grammar and vocabulary by writing it down. But you can’t write pronunciation down. Phonemic symbols only work once you have a muscular and acoustic experience of a sound. Only then can a symbol become a mnemonic for that experience. So the only way you can hang on to a sound is in the muscles of your body and in your ear, with all of the connecting neurology. The same way as you can only hang to the experience of dance with your body.

Sound foundations chart

There are several sound charts around. Try them out. They are not the same and do not do the same job. Explore the differences. I designed the Sound Foundations chart as a geographic map, a visual, kinesthetic thinking tool. In one glance it shows:

  • All sounds, for all words, and all connected speech,
  • How and where the sounds are made. Their physicality. The 4 muscle ‘buttons’
  • How sounds shape each other, and are all needed from the beginning.
  • That integration is natural
  • And since the symbols are handwritten it looks user friendly.

But remember, the chart does not do the learning. Just as a map does not do the travelling The chart does not teach the sounds, but it helps make sense of the L2 sounds as they are encountered, linking them into a single system where each sound helps define the others, and showing on one piece of paper the totality of what needs to be done.

Exploration 3: Coach rather than teach.

Coaching is essentially about starting from where the learner (participant, client) is, not from where the teacher or trainer is. For decades it’s been widely applied in sport, and more recently in management, life skills, teacher development and so on. Having described pronunciation as a motor skill, as a ‘know how’, then the sports sense of coaching fits us well. When coaching, the teacher interventions “Repeat after me” or  “Watch me and do as I do” or “Here’s a description to put in practice” are replaced with “Let’s find out where you are, and give you the tools to work from there”. Coaching is a different relationship with a different attitude.

The coach has the constant back-of-mind question “Where are you now, where do you want to get to, and what do you need in order to get from here to there? It focuses on the “something” the learner does to herself, rather than the “something” the teacher does to the learner.

Here is an example of pronunciation teacher-as-coach:

I hear the learner mistake which she cannot self correct. I connect with my own mouth and find as close as I can the (mistaken) sound that she is making. Then I find in my mouth the sound she is aiming for. So I have these two mouth positions. Then I move or slide slowly from the first to the second. I do all this visibly and audibly to the whole class (not just the student in question) so they can hear this sound change and see whatever is visible of my mouth. This shows me how I move from here to there, and gives us all insight into how to try this.

When coaching, I ask questions all the time rather then giving orders, eg “Where is the tip of your tongue when you say that sound?” rather than “Put the tip of your tongue here.” Such questions begin the process of reconnecting with the muscles, and may not be accurately answered by the learner until she has reconnected sufficiently with the muscles. But the process begins.

So, when coaching, students find or discover sounds, rather than being told or given sounds. And they explore through questions eg: “Where is your tongue? Is it touching your teeth? Is it moving or still? How many sounds in that word?”

When you coach, you see better what is going on. The aim is to consciously connect with the muscle/s so that you (as the learner) can (consciously) get the muscles to move differently. At the beginning, you (as the learner) may think you have moved a muscle and yet the sound doesn’t change. That’s because either you haven’t moved the muscle, or maybe you have but other muscles have automatically compensated to prevent you from making a sound that your neuro-physiology does not recognise, thus keeping you in the zone of your familiar habitual sounds. I’m sure you often see this when a student contorts their face, only to produce the exact same sound they are trying to avoid!

To round up

Some training and development programmes are rigorous in insisting we surface our assumptions and get free of (inevitable) limited thinking. Recently, I watched some Trinity DipTESOL phonology interviews and was impressed by how the interviewers gave candidates opportunities to describe why they do what they do, and to acknowledge different perspectives.

Seeing what’s going on in our classes and in ELT at large, and trying different things is essential for each of us in our own unique development. And this includes challenging our own assumptions and those of others, and testing them out in the class. So, give yourself full permission to understand and challenge as part of becoming the best teacher you can be.

See what’s going on, try something different, learn from it. And enjoy the process!

If you would like to obtain an advanced qualification in ELT and learn from our expert tutors, including Adrian Underhill, you could consider our Trinity DipTESOL course – now available online. Get in touch with us to find out more or apply here.

If you are looking for a way to gain more confidence integrating pronunciation into your classes, or improve your knowledge and practical classroom skills in this area, you could consider our One-to-One Teaching Pronunciation course with expert tutor support.

For more articles, resources and tips on teaching pronunciation, check our Adrian’s blog here.

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