Pronunciation - the poor relation?

The point I want to make is that pronunciation teaching has been neglected and that we have all lost out through this. 

Pronunciation - the poor relation? - pronunciation article - guest writers

In spite of the development of interesting teaching materials by various people it remains the poor relation of language teaching, poorly related to the rest of what happens in the language classroom. I want to suggest two reasons why I think this is, and two corresponding ways of overcoming this and moving forward. In the second article I will pick up on the practical side of this and explore a strategy for action in the classroom, for laying the foundations of a mutually enriching integration of pronunciation with the rest of language. I intend to keep the concerns of NNS (non native speaker) teachers very much in mind, though I hope this will apply to pretty well everyone.

Is pronunciation the Cinderella of language teaching?
While much has changed in the last few decades in how we teach grammar, vocabulary, collocation, context and meaning I suggest that pronunciation is still rooted in an essentially behaviourist paradigm of listen, identify, discriminate and repeat. This is not wrong, simply insufficient, and so for most students and probably most teachers pronunciation remains a mysterious zone where the rules are not clear and it is difficult to make progress, or even to know if you have. Teachers do their best to integrate pronunciation but for many it remains a supplement to the main diet of most lessons, often relegated in lessons and course books to 'pron slots'.

I light-heartedly refer to pronunciation as the Cinderella of language teaching to conjure up a journey from neglect and separation to inclusion and integration, because my experience is that as we explore the two problems and develop solutions something remarkable can happen in terms of engagement for learners, impact across the 'whole' of language learning, and the feeling of enjoyable, do-able progress. So, what are the two problems and the two ways forward?

The need for physicality
The first problem I identify is that we do not sufficiently embrace in our teaching the physicality of pronunciation. While grammar and vocabulary can somehow take place in the cognitive realm, pronunciation is the physical aspect of language and needs teaching as a (subtle) physical discipline involving the muscles of articulation especially in throat and mouth. We give models but students can’t locate the muscles they need to change the sound they are making, to escape the grip of their mother tongue phonetic set. In short, they can’t find the internal buttons to press to get a different sound.

When you teach gymnastics or dance there is a focus on connecting attention to finely tuned muscular movements. In the case of pronunciation too we must help students to reconnect with the muscles that make the difference. So, my first task with my new learners (beginners, intermediate or advanced, teacher or student, native or non-native English speaker,) is to help them to (re-)discover the main muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. At the beginning I find it enough to help them identify four such buttons (physically, not just cognitively) which enable them to get around the mouth and consciously find new positions of articulation. These are:

  1. Tongue (forward and back)
  2. Lips (spread/back and rounded/forward)
  3. Jaw + tongue (up and down)
  4. Voice (on or off)

This is the basic kit for navigating round vowels and diphthongs, and it transfers well to consonant sounds with the addition of relatively easy landmarks such as teeth, lip and palate. Learners experience a liberation once they develop conscious contact with these four movements and can start to move themselves, clumsily at first, around the territory which is conceptualised on the chart/map and actualised in the mouth. And there is a bonus, which is that muscles work by moving and much of that movement is visible. That’s why deaf people in every language can see what their friends are saying. So if we start to teach to this visibility of pronunciation we can enrich and support the physicality still further. It’s like learning to dance by watching it: the eyes can inform the muscles direct, without a need for cognitive explanation.

The need for a mental map
The second problem is that many students and teachers do not seem to have a clear mental concept and sense of direction. They lack a mental map to guide them through this unknown pronunciation territory and to complement and help conceptualise the physicality. For me the phonemic chart substitutes such a map for the mysterious and fearful void that many navigate by at the moment. The chart I use is different from most in that it provides a map, mental scaffolding and more:

Adrian Underhill's phonemic chart

It is a map with a geography, containing embedded information on WHERE & HOW sounds are made. And it is a MAP not a LIST of phonemes.

The arrangement of sounds on this chart tells you about how to make them.

The chart itself becomes a worktable, a place to enquire, diagnose and experiment, and where sounds connect into words, where mistakes can initiate successes.

The whole pronunciation syllabus is there in one single gestalt. The chart is always visible, and it is finite.

Just to illustrate briefly one of the information strands threaded into the chart: look at the chart and you can see the twelve vowels in the vowel box in the top left quadrant. The left side of that box represents the front of the mouth. The right side represents the back. The top of the mouth is the top of that quadrant and the bottom is the bottom. So straight away you can see the high and low vowels, and the back and front ones, and the central pair. And the neighbours in the chart are more or less neighbours in the mouth too. Now look at the first two rows of consonants just below, and again the front consonants are at the left, and the back ones are at the right. And generally speaking front sounds are the ones that are more visible! Neat isn’t it? Well there is much more in there, but this is what I mean by a map, and this complements the physicality which I will discuss next time, but which you can preview at the link below.

In conclusion
I am proposing that by using a mental map and by making pronunciation physical we can make it purposeful and engaging, and lay the foundation for learning an integrated whole. I look forward to your views and questions.


  • For a guided tour of the chart and introduction to the physicality go here and you’ll see it in the 2010 archive section about halfway down the page.
  • For extracts from my pronunciation workshop with teachers go here:



Submitted by besherry on Wed, 10/06/2010 - 16:21


I think the reason pronunciation is neglected is because of the different accents with which people speak the English language. For example both Australia and the United States have English as their main language yet they pronounce various words differently.

Also speakers of another language who learn English in their adulthood may never learn to pronounce certain words correctly.


Thanks for your comments. I wonder if you mean that teachers don’t teach pronunciation because there are different varieties with different accents, so they don’t know which one to choose for their class? Or do you mean that if the chosen model is different from the T’s own pronunciation then they may not feel confident to go ahead?


It is a complex area. With all the varieties and accents of English there is plenty of scope for confusion about what to teach. For example the class materials may illustrate different pronunciation from that used locally. In general someone has to take a decision on which variety to teach, and perhaps it will  be the variety spoken by the teacher.  But then whatever is chosen the next challenge is that through  materials and resources and movies and music the learners encounter a whole range of other accents. Perhaps the best way to help learners deal with all this is to teach pronunciation in such a way that they actively learn one form, while being exposed to, and playing with other forms, so that they get used to understanding different pronunciations, and also to finding that they too can influence their own pronunciation. The advantage of teaching one form is that it highlights the existence of other forms. Personally I go one further and have the learners experiment with other accents, not to acquire the accent, but to acquire the confidence that they could, and to enable their ear to hear it comfortably whenever the need arises. I wonder how you deal with pronunciation, given the points you make, in your classes…?

Submitted by EFT Tapping - … on Fri, 10/08/2010 - 10:13


In my previous life, as a reading teacher to learning-disabled students, I taught sounds using photos of mouths.  They showed the lip and tongue position (as much as possible) for all the consonant sounds.  The method, Lindamood-Bell, had a name for each sound. For example, the sound p was called a "lip popper" since you pop your lips to make it.  And all of the sounds that can be either voiced or unvoiced, such as f/v, were called "quiet" and "noisy."  

Thanks to your interesting and informative article, I see that I can put my former teaching to good use in the ESL classroom - and I look forward to it!


Yes exactly! Put your former teaching to good use! I have had a look at the Lindamood-Bell website, and I can see there are ideas, techniques and approaches which have relevance for us language teachers. I think that in language teaching we can make good use of many such feeder fields (eg teaching the deaf) where people have gone into specific learning challenges to see what the leaner actually needs. Quite often we can import, maybe with modifications, certain techniques. But also we can import into language teaching the awarenesses behind the techniques, because that is what it’s about, not really the technique, but the insight that the technique has been designed to bring about.

What can Lindamood-Bell offer once you adapt its awarenesses to your ESL classroom? Have fun with the exploration!

Submitted by aulia_adz on Fri, 10/08/2010 - 10:23


To me it is not necessery to teach with the pure accent or dialect but then enough if it just a simple pronunciation.First learning to the beginners is quite blur to themselves so we must familiarise them with their own mother tongue language as for not jot- them- out on their first lesson.


Thanks Aulia. Yes I agree it is a very good strategy to start with something they can already do, namely that they can pronounce their own language. They can make all the muscle movements of tongue, lips, jaw and voice, and they can do this in perfect coordination. One simple and effective exercise is to have the class say a word in their own language (in a monolingual class they take the same word and do it together. In a multilingual class they each have different words), and then:

1.. Get them to say it aloud, at normal speed together

2..Then again, but slower, and then slower, and slower

3..Then get them to say it sound by sound, with a stop between each. This may require agreeing which bits constitute a separate sound

4.. Identify the separate sounds and perhaps say them in a different order to demonstrate how they can be moved around. Now they are playing with separate sounds

5.. Get them to notice and perhaps exaggerate what they do in their mouths to make the different sounds. Draw attention to tongue, lips etc

6.. Finally put the sounds together again and speed it up until the normal word is produced.


Such activities can help to grow awareness of sounds, of the muscles that shape them, and the fact that they can be joined into a single flow that makes words. Then when they start to do this in the new language they can see pronunciation is not just something strange about the new language, but it happens in their own!


Is this the kind of thing you are referring to Aulia? How do you familiarise students with their own mother tongue?

I do agree with you and your steps.

I'm very insistent with my students' pronunciation; and teach them as you've said. I consider it a very useful and clear way of learning the sounds and their articulation.

We work, not only with me speaking to them but also with some recordings that I've used while I was studying.

Some days ago, I was speaking with some friends (who are native speakers of the language) and they told me that my pronunciation was too refined up to the point of being unnatural. I've talked to an excellent teacher of phonetics and she told me that it's fine, as we have to be models, anyway it's good to expose our students to different accents so as to get to know that ours is not the only way of pronouncing.

What do you think? In the Teacher Training Collage we have been taught RP English, but of course it's not the only accent, and specially not even the most common one... should we still insist on it? and be called, as it happened to me, too refined?

Thank you very much



Hi Agustina

Much has been said about what ‘model’ to teach our students. The view I take on this, but which I am ready to change, is that if we have an essentially behaviourist view of learning, that you build up a response pattern through much use and repetition and that this becomes a new habit which you can’t really access to alter the ‘settings’, then it start to matter a lot what model you use that will become that habit. This is what I call a black box approach, you don’t know what goes on inside, but you can gradually through repetition alter what comes back out of the box, though you cannot directly access it or even really reflect on what is going on. And I contrast this with an approach based on awareness, where in the case of pron you constantly develop the connection between attention and muscles and breath and the resulting sounds such that the learner has insight into what they are doing, can intervene in what they are doing, and can develop (some) choice in what they are doing.

If we have this awareness/insight view of learning then it matters less what model is used by the teacher, because we expect teachers and materials and films and the internet to expose the learner to multiple models in their listening. And we expect that learners find, because it is part of our teaching, what internal buttons (muscles) to press to change the quality of sounds, and so to find that they have some choice about how their new accent develops. And the teacher can say things like, “OK, can you say it like me….? And “Can you say it like that guy in movie….?” And “Can you say it like Lucia (another teacher….?” And “Can you say it like your mother….?” And “Ok, so how would you like to say it ….?” This is when pron start to really fire up a language class. (As you’ve guessed I use the term pron to include all aspects of sounds and connected speech)


What we want for our students is confidence, clarity and comfortable intelligibility, and a teaching approach that liberates them to move around in the realm of accents. The limiting factor is not the brain, it is the teaching approach. However you speak, RP or anything else, give them lots of variety as well, and when you play other accents you too can be a learner and have fun along with your students.

Not sure if this corresponds to your question… so I’d better stop!

Submitted by laureen on Fri, 10/08/2010 - 15:36


I am delighted to have the possibility of interacting with Adrian Underhill. Thanks to your "Sound Foundations" I had the chance to succeed and enjoy the phonology examination I had to take for the Licentiate Diploma in TESOL!

I agree that pronunciation is usually neglected, but I feel that on many occasions it is due to the lack of confidence we teachers have or the feeling that pronunciation "is not that important, and there are so many other areas we need to cover". But I'm sure many people will agree with me on how nice it is to have learners with nice pronunciation! 

I feel the word "awareness" is a key word in all this and that pronunciation has to do with all aspects of the language, not just to speaking as some might think.  If learners are not aware of, for instance, the fact that native speakers include intrusive or linking sounds in their speech, they might not fully understad the listenig material the teacher gives them.  If we don't read something adequately with the right pauses we might fali to understand the text.... and how many times do our Spanish speaker students confuse too and to, can't there be a lack of awareness of pronunciation of those words which then might lead to their misspelling the words?
Just a few thoughts to contribute to the discussion!
Cheers from Uruguay!!!!!



Thank you Laura for your contributions. So glad you found Sound Foundations useful and that you passed and ENJOYED your phonology exam!


I think your reference both to teachers’ lack of confidence, and to the pressure of the rest of the syllabus are significant factors in the marginalisation of pronunciation that is characteristic in some or many places. Taking your first point, it seems to me that both non native and native teachers lack confidence, albeit in different ways and perhaps for different reasons. But in general (and I am generalising) I have found that neither group really understands or makes full use of the deep physicality of pronunciation. Once a teacher has insight into this the mystery begins to dissolve because it becomes clear precisely what has to be done, and the target pronunciation can be spoken, and thought, and felt physically, and seen as movement, and heard externally and heard internally in the ‘mind’s ear’, and learnt as part of a vocabulary item or a chunk  I’ll try to say a bit more about this in a blog shortly.


And I’d like to add a thought in respect of your second point and the rest of your response. Teachers have so much to ‘get through’ that naturally they focus on what is tested for certificates, and since perhaps pronunciation is less tested, so it is less taught. There is always something more urgent than than pronunciation. And this is counter to the view that language is a system, that the integrity of language is maintained only when all its features are present, and that each feature manifests in some way in all other features. I think both views can be overstated, nevertheless I wonder if teachers and trainers and syllabus and materials writers appreciate how much more difficult we might be making language learning when its integrity is weakened by the absence of attention to pronunciation and  physicality that should permeate everything.

Submitted by Sean Banville on Fri, 10/08/2010 - 16:20


Hi Adrian

I couldn't agree with you more - Pronunciation is very much the Cinderella of language teaching. Nowhere is this more evident than in course books. The dearth of activities and the almost total lack of communicative activities that focus on pronunciation is startling, especially when the biggest-selling courses state they cover communicative pron. in their introductions and back-cover blurbs.

I had planned to write a blog post on this myself tomorrow on my blog. You might want to check out my Master's dissertation on how Cinderella-like pronunciation is:

"What is meant by communicativeness in EFL teaching? An evaluation of the pronunciation component in a sample of elementary level course materials, with proposals for improvement incorporating a Discourse Intonation approach."

Best wishes,

Sean Banville


Thanks for your contribution to this conversation Sean. I have been looking through your dissertation today, and I have found it very interesting. I would like to recommend it to all readers of this blog interested in the (lack of) place of pronunciation in (so-called) communicative teaching and who might have a few minutes to spare. If nothing else the tables which analyse pronunciation activities in some well known course books are quick to glance at and immediately raise interesting questions. And Sean, for those readers who do not have the time, would you care to attempt a one sentence definition of what you mean by communicative pronunciation? I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but it could be a very relevant theme to feed into the current Cinderella conversation…..?

Submitted by nicroseper on Sat, 10/09/2010 - 08:22


I consider myself to be a fairy godmother in this context as I have been actively raising awareness of sounds in my classes for a while now. I think the key is that it is not about teaching pronunciation. I make no attempt to correct how learners sound (in terms of accent), only to make them aware of how to produce the sound.

I agree with what you say about physicality. I use my hands a lot to show where the tongue is in the mouth and I exagerate hugely to show how to make vowel sounds and where they are made (as described in Sound Foundations). The students think its funny and even though they might be shy to do it themselves, it helps them to understand.

I teach beginners and this year, I am going for 'pron practice' right from day one and it is already reaping benefits. One of these benefits is that it helps learners to notice the letters and words more. I then get questions about the 'silent' R in a lot of words because I am from the south of England and don't say the R but it gives me the opportunity to talk to them about accent and assure them that it is not wrong if they say the R. For example, "start".

To my mind, the main benefit is not for production but in improving listening. Students hear better because they are aware of what they are listening for.



That’s lovely! If there’s a Cinderella of course we should be on the look out for fairy godmothers! You are the first … pleased to meet you! It is interesting what you say and I want to be clear: Do you equate teaching with correction? And therefore you mean no correction? Or do you mean that you do not teach pron and also you do not correct but what you do is raise awareness? There are important ideas in here.

I like your mention of hands and mouth and exaggeration etc. I find it helpful to distinguish mime, by which I mean making visible what I do to make a sound (noting that some sounds are more visible than others, and that exaggeration is useful but one needs to be careful) and gesture, which are other movements, usually with the hands, which show the place, or indicate the length or the amount of energy, or whether the sound is nasal, or whether the voice is ‘on’ or off’ etc.  So I and my students very quickly get used to both mime and gesture.


I am always banging on about pronunciation already being implicated in almost every other aspect of language, and therefore already integrated with the rest of language …. it is only our funny teaching method that ‘dis-integrates’ pron from the rest. And a good example of the integration is in just what you imply, the strong link between spelling and pronunciation. When someone sees a word, it is quite likely that they say it internally and that already requires internal pronunciation, which if not done in the target language will be carried out in the mother tongue phonetic set. Pronunciation is going on all the time inside the mind. External pronunciation might be only a fraction of the overall use of pronunciation, most of which is internal and is exercised whenever we read and when we think or prepare or rehearse. Or, as you say at the end, when we listen, and that may even be just as important as the speaking….


So thanks FG! Now next question is….are there any handsome princes around?

Submitted by Neli Kukhaleishvili on Sat, 10/09/2010 - 14:06


 Dear Adrian !

Yes, pronunciation is Cinderella   with  respect to other skills . I think it is so because many think it is impossible to acquire British  or  American accent and so , it's not worth spending your time on it. Though I think teaching pronounciation is not necessarily    about being able to copy the accent.

But  teaching to pronounce  the sounds correctly  not  to mispronounce  them is vital . It  is the same if you confuse  present with past . Your point  of physicality is important  as children have to be aware of the organs they need to be able to use. I am interested in    how    we can use the mental map at the lessons for the children to be involved in the teaching learning process.

With best wishes, Neli Kukhaleishvili



Hi Neli. Thanks for the points you have made. And I do agree with you so much that there is much more to pron than learning to copy another accent (so ‘correctness’ does not have to mean sounding like someone else), and yet there is still something called ‘mispronouncing’ which can disadvantage us. As we all know there is a big debate these days about what English is correct. We seem to be moving from a prescriptive to descriptive view of language, in other words language is what people say, not what they ought to say. In the case of pronunciation, what is the model or models, to be used for a class, or in a course book? And there is also a much bigger question, which is How can we teach pronunciation so that students not only appreciate and comprehend different accents, and know that they can, but can to some extent exercise choice in their own spoken accents?

In the next few days I will post a blog looking further at practical activities relating both to the mental map, and to the practice of physicality.

Submitted by Sean Banville on Sun, 10/10/2010 - 16:45


Hi Adrian - the post I put on my blog yesterday about the scant attention given to communicative pronuciation:

Best wishes,


Submitted by Adrian Underhill on Tue, 10/12/2010 - 16:26

In reply to by Sean Banville


Thanks for the link Sean. Just had a look at your blog, and I find what you say it interesting and relevant. I recommend it to others

Submitted by dafanter on Tue, 10/12/2010 - 04:35


To me it is not necessery to teach with the pure accent or dialect but then enough if it just a simple pronunciation.

Thank you. I think you have put it well. And so the question we need to ask is "What is a simple pronunciation?"

Do you mean one that is easily and widely understood...? And which may  be clearly influenced by the mother tongue, but not so much as to cause any difficulty?

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.