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My Top Ten Pronunciation Tips: Physicality and Integration – by Adrian Underhill

Adrian Underhill

Adrian 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.

I suggest that today’s pronunciation methodology fails in several key respects: It is over reliant on repetition, it treats pronunciation as a cognitive (rather than physical) activity, and it is linear rather than holistic. This is why pronunciation is not and cannot be integrated into the rest of classwork.

I propose that physicality offers the basis for a different mindset that opens up a new territory of learning activity. This allows a solution to the objections to repetition, the use of a holistic pronunciation syllabus, and a way to integrate pronunciation into all ongoing class activity.

Pronunciation is a physical activity.

Our current methodology prioritises both repetition after some sort of ’model’, or cognitive abstraction through descriptions and representations of the physical movements. Both can be helpful as a backup, but lack power as a main approach.

The former emphasizes repetition as the remedy for habit, but you cannot repeat your way out of a habit. First you need the insight into something new and different from your previous habit, then the practice becomes worthwhile. But repetition needs to be smart repetition, where each repetition learns from and is changed by the one before. This is better referred to as iteration.

And the latter emphasizes knowing from outside when what is required is knowing from inside, that is a physical, kinaesthetic, sensing of the movements in the mouth, lungs, breath, and the resulting acoustic impact. This is physical knowing, embodiment, and the more you can do this the more you can help learners do the same.

Our methodology has taken a cognitive problem solving approach to learning grammar and vocabulary, and over-applied this to pronunciation where it fails our learners since pronunciation is primarily a physical activity, having more in common with teaching dance than with teaching grammar. The dance teacher’s job is not just to ‘show’ me the samba, but to help me find the muscles that will enable me to do it. Here’s how I do it for pronunciation:

Teaching L2 pronunciation physically

This means getting behind the L1 muscular habits and reconnecting with the muscles that make the pronunciation difference. A simple and practical way is to focus on the four sets of muscles that we need to reconnect with:

1) Lips (which spread and move back, or round and move forward)

2) Tongue (which moves forward and back, and also curls)

3) Jaw (which moves up and down altering the space inside )

4) Voice (turning the vocal cords on/off to make voiced or unvoiced sounds)

When you reconnect with these four sets of muscles (I refer to them as muscle buttons 1, 2, 3 and 4 since everyone likes pressing buttons) you are poised to enter the sound system of almost any language on earth. I say reconnect since everyone has already made these muscle connections when learning their first language/s, after which the muscle movements and postures necessarily became habituated. But with further languages we have to remake the muscle connection in order to get behind those habits and make different ones.. You cannot build new sounds on habits of old sounds. This is why repetition is poor as a main method.

OK, you probably get the picture – adopting physicality as the starting point opens up a new territory of learning activities and awareness. So here are my top ten Pronunciation tips for physicality and integration.

1. Discover the four muscle buttons

Make these four connections to the “muscle buttons” in the first two or three lessons with every new class, regardless of language level. All four muscle sets come into play when working with vowels, as is shown in the vowel box (top left on the Sound Foundations chart A, detail in diagram B) and once the learners are playing with these four muscle variables they find they have the basic tools to go outside the grip of L1 habits and enter a discovery zone of possible new sounds. It does not mean the new sounds are suddenly correct; they need plenty of fine tuning over the coming weeks.  But learners recognize and are thrilled by this immediate ability.



The vowel (monophthong) quadrant of the chart

Front and back refer to whether the tongue is front or back in the mouth, and high and low refer to whether the tongue is higher or lower in the mouth, which also corresponds with the jaw being more closed or more open. Experiment and see if you can relate the position of the vowels on the chart to their position in your mouth as you say them. Remember too that neighbours on the chart are neighbours in the mouth, and learner confusions naturally occur between neighbouring sounds.

2. Use proprioception

Crucial to the process of finding new sounds (those not in our L1) is our capacity for ‘proprioception’, a term from neurology referring to the process of feeling or sensing which muscles we are using and how much force we are putting into them. This is vital when learning the muscular coordination of any physical skill, knitting, typing, a musical instrument, acrobatics, dancing or speaking a new language. (It is surprising that the term proprioception, or the concept by any name at all, is absent from our current methodology).

3. Teachers, find the student ‘error’ in your own mouth first

A technique I use is to find in my mouth the incorrect sound the Student is making so that I can feel where they are starting from, and what they are currently doing in terms of lips, tongue, jaw and voice (let’s call this position A). Then I find the target sound that we want in my mouth in the same way, which shows me the mouth posture the St needs to get to (call this position B). Then I slide from position A to B and immediately sense the movement the St needs to make. And if I do this slide from A to B not just for myself but aloud in front of the class, as if I am discovering it for myself on the spot, they all get an insight into what has to be done. Sometimes they solve it just by watching and hearing me doing it and trying it at the same time. It might go like this

T to a St: OK, let me find that sound you are making. It’s like this …(position A)

– Now. let’s see, the sound we want is this (position B) like this…

– So, now, how do I get from A to B  …. Let me see

Then I slide from A to B: Ah, it’s like this …., and I do the slide, A to B both slowly and more quickly.

This insight can help Students to solve the problem, and gives me the insight into what they need to do, physically, and there and then, not by recalling theory books I have read before, though that can certainly assist (it is the inner, muscular book of my own mouth that I need to read) This leads to the next tip:

 4. Teachers, learn your own mouth!

Primarily from the inside, using your proprioception. It’s easy, and there aren’t many key variables (essentially, there are only four things that move – as indicated above). It only gets complicated when your primary knowledge is linguistic theory in the absence of internal proprioception. The more you can sense what you are doing internally as you make different sounds, how you move one or another articulatory muscle, and how that affects the quality of the sound, word or connected speech, the more you can help your learners to loosen the grip of their mother tongue pronunciation. Here are three things you can do:

  • Every time you invite a student to practice a sound or word, don’t only listen, but do it yourself internally at the same time so you can find the internal movements the student is looking for or having problems with.
  • Experiment sometimes with saying a new word very slowly, one sound at a time but each sound moving and merging into the next, so nothing is separate, but everything is slow. This reveals the inner ‘choreography’ of lips tongue and jaw, and helps you and your students to sense and feel the movements. None of this is revealed in repetition practice.

Knowing your way round your own mouth is more important than having a so-called ‘good pronunciation’,or being a native or non-native speaker teacher. If you don’t know what you are doing in your mouth you are restricted in the ways you can help a student – or yourself.

5. Other accents of English

First: Teach your own pronunciation, teach how YOU speak. Don’t ‘worry’ about your accent. World Englishes are full of accents. Invite Students to use your pronunciation AND at the same time expose them to other world accents of English.

Introduce this by asking students to imitate different accents of their own first language. Do this playfully, getting the students to notice the very small differences they make in their mouths to change the sound. In doing this they are already escaping from their personal L1 grip. Make it clear that you give no greater value to one variety or another, and that different accents exist in English throughout the world and within single countries.

Invite them to name and playfully mitate some well-known international English accents (US, British, Indian, Australian etc). Play examples from YouTube.

Encourage them to move around in these accents for fun and to talk about it. Invite them to find English accents online that they like, that they find clear, or difficult. Ask them to find a personal ‘hero’ (singer, actor, star, sports person etc) who speaks some English (need not be a native speaker) and to learn to imitate just one of their phrases – eg from a movie –  then to try it out in class. Have fun.

The more they do this with their voice the more they will educate their ear to hear the distinctions when listening to different accents outside the class. You can access a lot of accents on YouTube.

6. Start with an L1 vowel sound:

Invite the St to choose and say any vowel from their L1. For example it might be their L1 version of /e/. Invite Sts to notice and be aware of lip, tongue and jaw position. Get them to whisper the same sound, which also helps the process of noticing. Then get the St to change the sound to make a small noticeable difference. Use instructions like, “change it”, “go back to it”, “change it less”, change it more” Get the St to raise a finger as soon as s/he notices the sound is no longer quite the same.  Help Sts to experiment with small movement of 1) the lips, 2) the tongue, 3) the jaw 4) any combination.

Transfer this awareness to L2 (English) using an L2 vowel sound eg /a:/ so that the learners are making small alterations to the L2 sound, connecting the auditory change with a movement in their lips, tongue or jaw position. Again you can use instructions like “change it”, “go back to it”, “change it less”, change it more”. And in this case when the sound is close enough to the target the class is using you can say “Yes that’s it”, “Say it again”,  “Now say the wrong one again”, “Now the right one, and feel the difference”. Sts soon start to connect with the muscles that make the difference (the 4 buttons) and to see that they can change a sound at wil

7. All the sounds of a language are needed from the beginning.

You can have a linear syllabus for grammar and vocabulary, but it doesn’t really work for sounds. All sounds are in circulation from the first lesson. Luckily there are only 44 of them. Of course you can still focus on one sound at a time for a few moments, but during the first few lessons – at any level – you need to get all sounds into circulation. This does not mean all sounds get full attention right away, or that they are gong to be perfect. Some sounds have to wait. The point is that all sounds are in circulation, and all are candidates to work on when opportunities arise, often during vocabulary work or when practising grammar forms. Each sound helps define the sounds around it. They all gradually improve together. “Correctness” emerges. It is a systems quality. The sounds are one connected system, not 44 isolated blobs. Navigating the system is one reason I always use a sound chart, as long as it has a ‘geographic’ layout (which quite by chance, my Sound Foundations chart does…)

8. Pronunciation is already everywhere – and in everything!

Language is represented and heard internally all the time and during all 4 skills using the inner ear which can continue to hear things internally after they have been heard only once externally , and the inner voice which practices and rehearses before speaking. The inner ear and inner voice both have pronunciation, and so pronunciation is being rehearsed through every minute of every lesson even if you never teach it! Internal representation of pronunciation is a continuous and unstoppable event, in all four skills and in grammar and vocab work. BUT unless you intentionally exploit this fact, that constant internal rehearsal will default to L1 pronunciation.

Therefore, every lesson is a pronunciation lesson from beginning to end. This holds the key to full integration of pronunciation. Every moment spent on practising vocab or grammar gives an opportunity to surf the preferred pronunciation on the top of the activity. So as soon as the Student has the grammar and the words in the right order, I can say:

– Now join the words up

– Where do you want to put the stress?

– So give some energy to that syllable,

– Speed it up and keep the stress.

– Slow it down and keep the stress

– Make it sound English!

– Sound like you mean it!

And they continue to rehearse the vocab and grammar while attending also to the muscles that make the sounds. This brings the physicality of pronunciation to the cognitive activity of sentence structure enriching the memory hooks in the brain synapses. You don’t need any extra pronunciation materials, just exploit the copious grammar and vocabulary activities in your coursebook.

9. Don’t repeat after me!

Instead of repeating new sounds or words aloud after the teacher gives a model, the St is invited to listen to the teacher’s model. Then listen to it again internally using their own inner ear. And only then to say it aloud. We have the capacity to retain things we hear, and to ‘replay’ them internally, as if on an internal repeating loop, This internal replay can catch qualities of the original pronunciation that get lost if repeated aloud immediately, because the L1 habits of the speech muscles obscure the bits they cannot manage.

Allowing this moment of internal listening allows a sort of internal ‘tasting’ of the word or phrase, which gives an expectation of the sounds and energy distribution, and better informs the voice when the Student says it aloud a couple of seconds later. Another benefit is that when you listen internally to the model you become clear immediately which bit of it you are less sure about, and when the teacher gives it a second time the St is receptive to it in a slightly different way . So the sequence I often use is like this:

– Listen to this (word /phrase / sentence) but don’t repeat aloud

– I then give the model

– Now listen to it again internally, in your inner ear.

– Can you hear it? Let it repeat….

– I then ask Would you like it again? They usually nod yes

– So I say it again, just a little differently so it is fresh but not surprising

– Now say it aloud but just for yourself

– And then I invite some Students to say it aloud individually in the conventional way.

10. Get ready to say it… but don’t

And the speaking version might go like this. When the class are individually, and silently, formulating a response to a question, I may say:

– Find the words you want in your inner voice

– Don’t answer aloud yet…

– Join the words together

– Practice it silently in your inner voice

– Where will you put the stress, How do you want to say it …..

– Make it sound really nice….? Practise it ….

– Get ready to say it….

– Now say it aloud just for yourself…

– Now let’s hear some of you

The first time they say it aloud is just for themselves individually, to notice the difference between how they said it in their inner voice and in their outer voice, and perhaps to be surprised by the difference. Learners generally find that the word/phrase sounds better inside than when said aloud. This is because internal hearing is not so much subject to the L1 muscular habits of the voice. So they get a little shock Oh! that’s not as good as when I said it inside. But….now they go back inside for a moment, and try it again. Already they are starting to develop personal criteria rather then rely on the teacher for evaluation. You can try this for yourself with a language you are learning

I also call this the anti blurt device, since during the internal assembly and rehearsal of the response Sts notice and correct one or two of their own slips, and so make fewer unnecessary mistakes when they say it aloud.


You can start to integrate pronunciation by making every grammar or vocabulary activity also a playground for pronunciation. The former is largely a cognitive activity, the latter is largely a physical activity. The two together enrich the memory synapses and establish a more interlinked set of memory ‘hooks’ with a more complete set of recall associations. As soon as a word or phrase from any exercise is offered with the right words in the right order, refrain from saying “good” or “correct”, simply ask the learner now to upgrade the pronunciation, or the stress, or the word connections or the clarity or the speed or the slowness or the manner of speaking, and so on. This is a good example of iteration, saying things again but adding a new level of attention while continuing to rehearse the form. In this as in everything, playfulness is crucial. Have fun!


  • My blog adrianunderhill.com has a section The Story of Sounds which guides you to feel and sense from inside what you are doing with your lips, tongue and jaw for each sound
  • You can follow this on my series of 3 minute videos on YouTube 
  • My British Council video talk on Proprioception in learning new sounds, words and connected speech is available here as a series of 5 x 5 minute videos.

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 Online Group, Online One-to-One or Face to Face Teaching Pronunciation course.

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

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