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Language Teacher

The Language Teacher

Making Pronunciation Work for Your Learners

Adrian Underhill
International House Teacher Training, England

I was fascinated by the Marilyn Higgins, Michael Higgins and Yukiko Shima article entitled "Basic training in pronunciation and phonics: A sound approach" which appeared in the April 1995 issue of The Language Teacher (pp. 4-8, 16). I was particularly interested in their use of a pronunciation chart since I too use a chart, though mine displays IPA phonemic symbols. I thought the best way I could contribute to the discussion was to outline aspects of my approach in order to promote some debate.

I am also pleased to be attending my first JALT Conference this year and to be offering a Pre-Conference Workshop "Making Pronunciation Work for You and Your Learners," which will develop in more detail some of the material presented here.

Make Pronunciation Physical

One of my aims in teaching pronunciation is to get pronunciation work "out of the head and into the body." Though this is what I say, what I really mean is to make pronunciation a physical as well as a cognitive activity. First I help learners to stop thinking about pronunciation in the abstract by focussing them on the muscles that produce sound, rhythm and articulation. I use a number of simple and attractive activities that do this. Then I engage their minds in sensing, noticing and being fascinated by what their muscles are doing, and in how the movements of those muscles affect what they hear. Their emerging curiosity and engagement is quickly upgraded into awareness of the total interaction between muscle movement, sound production and aural perception. There is a link here between pronunciation work and coaching in sport, athletics, dance or movement.

In its broadest sense pronunciation (and articulation generally) represents the physical aspect of language because it is the muscular amplification of a minute impulse in the brain into a spoken utterance that vibrates the air. It is a highly sophisticated and unbelievably sensitive physical activity. And when we look at it this way we immediately find some quite different ways of studying it. By contrast, I feel that the mainstream way of approaching pronunciation teaching and learning is rather cerebral and disconnected, resulting in approaches that are either too academic (theoretical rather than experiential) or too much based on habit formation (leading to dull repetition of correctness at the expense of insight, curiosity, awareness).

There are a number of advantages to a physical approach:

  1. Activities that encourage conscious contact with articulatory muscles give learners a way of intervening in their own pronunciation. They find there are quite systematic things they can do to change the way they say a sound or stress a syllable once they start to become aware of how to contact the muscles that make the difference. Making conscious contact with the muscles is not new, since everyone did this as a baby when learning their first language.
  2. Muscles move, and movement can be visible. Deaf people in every language can lip-read by watching the sequence of muscular movements with their eyes. In fact the muscular movements of pronunciation cannot be heard at all, it is only their effect on the vibrating airstream that can be heard. (Imagine trying to learn T'ai Ch'i or gymnastics only by listening to the movement of the muscles of the demonstrator! You have to see it with your eyes to inform your muscles). As soon as we realise this we can introduce the visible aspect to pronunciation work.
  3. The movement of muscles yields an internal sensation, or feeling of movement, through the nerves in the tissue at points connected with the movement. Registering this internal sensation provides another "fix" on what is happening, that can feed the awareness of the learner.

So, in addition to hearing sounds with the ear, we can see movements with the eye and also feel movements through the internal sensation of muscles. We can also provide the learner with a more concrete point of conscious intervention -- the muscles. Thus we have a much richer web of information feeding back into the awareness of the learner and helping to promote conscious choices.

Here are some examples of activities suggested above:

Activity 1. Example of Working with what is Visible
I can give models of individual phonemes (and later of words and even short phrases) by miming them rather than by saying them. When I mime I make the muscular movements associated with the sound very clear, but without actually voicing the sound. Thus the students have to use their eyes, and their eyes inform their muscles as I invite them to try the sound. They say the sound aloud, and I invite them to listen to the differences between each person, in which I take a real interest myself. Then I indicate those which were nearer to my (albeit silent) model.

Activity 2. Example of Working with what is Tactile
When working with monophthong vowels, I take such front and back vowels as the learners can already manage, and help them to do a series of simple but powerful awareness raising activities. First I ask them to glide between /i:/ and /u:/ like this /i: i: i: i: ...... u: u: u: u: ...... i: i: i: i: ...... u: u: u: u:/. When this is more or less established I ask them to put the tip of the thumb on one corner of the mouth and the tip of the forefinger on the other corner. And again they make this glide back and forth. This gives them tactile feedback on the movement of the lips between the spread and the rounded position. Then I ask them to touch the forefinger to the front of the lips, and again make the glide. This time they get the sensation of the lips moving back and forward (pouted). Then, still with the same pair of sounds I ask them to touch the tip of the tongue (with finger or pen) while in the / i: / position and then to slide to the /u:/ position but without losing contact with the tongue. Apart from causing laughter, this gives them the sensation of the tongue moving forward and backwards in the mouth.

Later I establish a pair of high-low sounds such as /i:/ and /{:/ and in the same way help them to slide between the two. This time I ask them to place the forefinger on the bridge of the nose and the thumb on the point of the chin. As they slide between these sounds they get tactile confirmation that the jaw opens and closes, and that this movement is sufficient to produce a range of perceptibly different sounds.

From these four exercises they begin to discover for themselves that movement of tongue, lips and jaw enables them to make a whole range of perceptibly different sounds.

Activity 3. Working with what is Audible
So far I have not referred to the more usual approach in pronunciation teaching -- working with what is audible. This gains in precision from the supporting work with the visual, the tactile and the muscular. When I give a spoken model (whether of a sound, a word, or a phrase) I try to go against two of the firmly entrenched legacies of behaviourism. First I try to say the model only once, rather than repeating it several times, and second I try to leave a silent space (just two or three seconds) for conscious internal processing of the audible signal. Here is an example.

I give the model, let's say it's the vowel phoneme /ae / I say it once, clearly, making sure the learners see my mouth movement as well as hear the sound. I gesture that they be silent a moment, and that they try to keep hearing the sound, in my voice, internally in their "mind's ear." Then I ask them to say the sound aloud. Again I ask them to listen to each other and to notice the differences. Then if they need to hear the sound again I give it, once only. Giving a model once carries a more positive message than repeating it several times, and it also makes them more alert, which seems to make them more engaged. My aim is to see what they can do with one model, then if they need it to give another, and see what they can do with that.

This activity becomes quite natural to them since I often ask them to hold, and "replay" sounds and sentences in their heads. This natural but under-exercised human capacity develops very quickly, and becomes a powerful ally, not only in pronunciation learning, but in all aspects of listening, speaking, grammar and vocabulary practice.

So far I have tried to give an idea of how the muscular, the tactile, the visible, and the auditory can reinforce each other to thicken the web (or gestalt) of experience. I have also suggested that internal representation of sounds by learners can be used in the place of teacher repetition. The findings of my colleagues and trainee teachers seem to indicate that this can help to make pronunciation work more vivid and engaging.

A Chart

I have designed a phonemic chart that shows all the phonemes of the language being taught, and whose layout presents the symbols in a significant visual relationship to each other. Built into this design are references and indications as to how and where each sound is produced and many other clues that help learners to recognise, correct and recall sounds. Each symbol has its own box which can be seen as containing all the allophones of that sound. Sounds are selected for attention by simply touching them with a pointer.


Aims of the Chart

  1. To provide learners with a map of the sound system of the target language. Such a sound map can be used to identify sounds that the student has already explored, or knows well, and it can be used to identify sounds that the student has not yet explored or is uncertain about.
  2. To see all the sounds of the target language in one visual sweep. To reinforce the message that for practical purposes the number of different sounds is limited. ("The whole of the spoken language is here on this chart!")
  3. To provide a permanent reference. The chart is always visible at the front of the classroom, and can be referred to at any time in any lesson. Not only can the chart be used for pronunciation work such as changing and correcting sounds, syllable stress, linking in connected speech, comparing sound and spelling, (spelling problems can be exaggerated by not getting the pronunciation right in the first place), but it also has more general classroom applications such as correcting word endings and syntactical features, introducing new vocabulary, providing prompts silently by pointing instead of by speaking or writing on the board, and so on).
  4. To learn sounds not symbols. The aim of this approach is to enable learners to experience sounds and sound sequences in a personal and vivid way, and to use the symbols as memory hooks that can trigger that auditory and physical experience. Once you have the sound it is very easy to link it to the symbol.

Working at Three Levels

The first level involves work with individual sounds. At the second level we string the sounds together into words, adding the distinctive energy profile called wordstress. At the third level we string words into connected speech, adding the energy distribution of intonation, as well as the various simplifications of connected speech. All three levels are available, according to nature of the work that needs to be done.

Behind the teacher's set of technical facilities lies the teacher's set of psychological attitudes that can help or hinder the work in hand. Here are some of the questions that I like to keep asking myself while I am working with pronunciation: Can I find it in me to respond to classroom events in a spontaneous rather than a routine way? Can I be intrigued and curious about what may happen, and then delighted by what does happen - whatever it is? Can I be "a student of learning" even while I am teaching? Can I be on the same side of the learning fence as the learners themselves, so that while they are learning the topic I am learning about their learning?

The Pre-Conference Workshop

If you are interested in this kind of work then I cordially invite you to attend The pre-conference workshop and to explore these ideas in greater depth. Amongst other things we will study the significance of the layout of this chart, the mimes and gestures used for teaching sounds, and demonstrate a possible way of introducing this to a new class.


Higgins, Marilyn, Higgins, Michael, & Shima, Y. (1995). Basic training in pronunciation and phonics: A sound approach. The Language Teacher, 19 (4), 4-8, 16.

Adrian Underhill's workshop is sponsored by Heinemann ELT. Underhill is Director of International House Teacher Training in Hastings, England. His institute specialises in short courses for English language teachers from all over the world. He is author of Sound Foundations: Living Phonology and editor of the Heinemann Teacher Development Series of handbooks for teachers.

Article copyright © 1996 by the author.
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Last modified: March 25, 1997
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