In my Cinderella article and in the comments that followed we have referred to these two ideas, so here are a few notes on what I mean by these terms, and some practical activities.

In my Cinderella article and in the comments that followed we have referred to these two ideas, so here are a few notes on what I mean by these terms, and some practical activities. Your comments welcome, as ever.

Adrian Underhill's phonemic chart

1.. Chart as Mental Map

What does this mean?

For me a mental map is something that:

- Gives a cognitive/mental understanding of the territory (what the subject matter consists of) and the journey (what has to got to be done).

- Presents it all in one gestalt, showing the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole.

-Offers a worktable, an experimenters bench on which sounds can be worked out, exercised, compared, played with, recognised, confused, put into sequences and words, taken apart again, during a lesson.

-Makes pronunciation concrete rather than ethereal or elusive.

- Can be used in every lesson whenever the link to pronunciation helps the learning (and I maintain that almost every aspect of language is linked to pronunciation, we can’t even think without evoking pronunciation, and if we don’t also study it, then we simply think in our mother tongue (default) pronunciation.

- Has a geography, a layout that is meaningful and actually tells you HOW and WHERE the sounds are made. Most pronunciation charts are lists, in that they have no geography. The only chart I know that provides a map is the Sound Foundations chart used on this website.

And what can I do?

- Learn how the layout relates to HOW and WHERE sounds are made. There are thee main zones: Vowels in the top left, laid out to show approximate tongue/mouth positions (left is front of mouth, right is back, top is top and bottom is bottom of the mouth); Diphthongs top right, in three columns according to the second element of each; Consonants in the bottom half, with the first row (stop sounds) laid out from front of mouth (at left) to back of the mouth at right, fricatives arranged in similar manner, then the three nasals bottom left, again laid out from front to back. The remaining 5 sounds also have a logic which I won’t discuss right here. Visit my guided tour of the chart video at the link below.

-incorporate this layout into your teaching, first just to help yourself, and gradually reveal it to your learners as they become ready for it.

2.. The Physicality of Pronunciation

What does this mean?

Pronunciation (I include stress and intonation) is the physical aspect of language. Attending to physicality means connecting with the muscles that make the differences we want. Once teacher or student has insight into this the mist lifts and it becomes clear precisely what has to be done to say the new sounds and to connect them together in acceptable ways. Physicality means teaching this movement, just as a dance teacher works with movement. In fact learning dance is a rather useful, larger size, illustration of learning pronunciation. And the dance teacher may have studied dance theory but her main source of immediate inspiration is the movement she herself makes, and when she sees this she can even help her students to be better then her.

The other more subtle aspect of physicality is that it is not just for speaking. Deaf people watch it in their ‘listening’.  We may feel it internally when we hear language internally in the ‘mind’s ear’, or when we rehearse internally something we want to say, or perhaps when we just think language.

And what can I do?

As I said in the Cinderella article, my first task with my new learners is to help them to connect with the muscles that make the pronunciation difference, to locate the internal buttons that trigger the muscle movements. At the beginning I help them find FOUR buttons which enable them to get around the mouth and 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)


Here is how I do this. Again, the video links below may help you. When working with monophthong vowels I ask them to glide between front vowel /i:/ and back vowel /u:/ like this /i: i: i: i: ...... u: u: u: u: ...... i: i: i: i: ...... u: u: u: u:/.

Then 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 (spread) and forward (rounded).

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. In addition to the laughter this causes, this gives them the sensation of the tongue moving forward and backwards in the mouth.

Later I establish the pair of front high-low sounds /i:/ and /a/ 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 first 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. These simple awarenesses form the basis of the toolkit that will enable them to make all the sounds of the new language, as well as the characteristic simplifications, reductions and energy distributions of connected speech.

While doing this I find it helpful to distinguish mime, making visible what I do to make a sound from gesture, 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.  

In my next article I will describe a range of activities for giving models of sounds, and some ways of using the chart while teaching vocabulary.

Meanwhile, please if you can visit these demonstrations.

  • 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 illustrations from my pronunciation workshop with teachers go here:


Hi Adrian
It's really interesting to read about your approach, especially the physicality of teaching pronunciation. I'm just wondering though if we really need to be teaching this to all our learners? Do you think a Spanish learner who's using English a few times a month needs to produce all the different vowel sounds on your chart??
Would be interested to know what you think.

Thank you, Adrian, for the explanation of your idea of pronunciation and how it can be brought to the student's consciousness. I graduated (forty years ago) from the programme of EFL and literature at the University of Vilnius. We spent three months in the first year at the University practising the different positions of the tongue, the lips, the teeth and the palate required to pronounce acceptable English. This was something close to what you do as you explain your chart and resort to the physicality of pronunciation. Our practice gave us the feeling of the physical complexity of English as a foreign language, set a lofty goal in our studies in so far as pronunciation is concerned and gave the foundation on which we stood as we continued to improve in our studies. This is very important and this provides a context for culture in EFL. Perhaps it is not necessary to centre so much on the pronunciation is a person uses English but rarely for very specific purposes, as one of the commentators has said. Students in the humanities, though, should not be allowed to get away easily with any English they happen to pick. I have a feeling that the culture of dedicated studies in EFL is gone now and this is because pronunciation and literature have been neglected.Thank you

Hi Steve Good question, thank you  …  no, I don't mean to say that a learner needs to learn all the sounds or should do. What I want to say is: 1.     That they can do, and it becomes much more possible if the teacher works with the physicality and the mental map for themselves (whether native or non-native English speaker teacher) and subsequently with their students, or both together.   2.     That playing with pronunciation in non-repetitive and non-mechanical ways, having pronunciation in play throughout all language activities, enables new forms of engagement with vocabulary, phrases, connected speech, internal and external voicing, spelling, rhythm, memory, and so on.   3.     That engagement with pronunciation has a major and most satisfying impact on skill and confidence in listening.   4.     That we have created all sorts of blocks to pronunciation through inappropriate teaching and learning, and made the whole thing rather devoid of fun and success. I know that for your Spanish learners there may be a bit further to go because they have fewer mother tongue vowels, but still they can have an insight into all the sounds, and that could be pretty interesting and useful and engaging. And even if they don’t master them all, a field of possible learning opens up and they see that perhaps they could….   5.     I wonder if we make all these excuses for our students when the problem lies in the way we teach it and think about it. I'd be interested to know what you think about this Steve

  Hi Debris, and thanks for these comments. As I said to Steve I am not saying we should attend to pronunciation, I am saying that we miss much more than we realise by avoiding it. What I am proposing is similar to what you did at University if it involves simple physical activities which take about 30 minutes to learn (and thereafter is integrated gradually), and perhaps different to what you did in that I do not ask for abstract or theoretical learning, but get students to apply it immediately in the ordinary classroom activities of learning English, like teaching dance rather than tthe theoryy of dance. I claim that this makes things look easier, not more complex, and that it makes things look immediately more possible for the student. I think language becomes more difficult without pronunciation. I resonate with your feeling that the sense of dedicated studies might be disappearing, but I am also saying that in this age of mass learning, certain kinds of pronunciation work could be right there at the core of what we do, making all of language more accessible…. Am I overstating my case? Perhaps I'd better stop!

Hi Steve,
When I was reading Adrian's blog, the same question popped up. I teach Argentinian students and it's true that I encourage them to be intelligible and understood.
There are some sounds that may interfere with the message our students are trying to put across. The I and I: are two of many other challenging sounds for a Spanish speaker to produce.
What I'm trying to do is to focus on the sounds which don't exist in the Spanish language. It's really raising a lot of awareness.
Hope it helps you too.
If you have some spare time and are ready to read my blogs, I'd love to get your feedback.
Cheers! Georgina

Thank you Debris for adding your insights to this worthwhile blog.
I go along with you 100%, "it is not necessary to centre so much on the pronunciation a person uses English but rarely for very specific purposes"
I've got a student who's going to be relocated to the US and we came to the conclusion that some of his sounds were interfering with his  communication.
That's why we needed to go for activities connected to diction, etc.
Cheers! Georgina

Hello Adrian,
I love your article, esp the allusions to dancers you made (now, I'm joking, it's just that I'm an amateur dancer in my free time)
I neglected to teach pronunciation all my teaching life. I mean, yeah, I pointed out sounds that were problematic and carried out some drilling but I failed to apply it immediately in the ordinary classroom activities of learning English.
As I was telling Debris, I'm teaching an Argentine student who's going to be relocated to the US and I found to my astonishment I couldn't get what he was trying to say to me because his sounds where not right.
I started to teach him the theory of sounds, pronunciation and diction, which has helped me to point out things he mispronounces. The value I find in your blog is the way you try to promote teaching pronunciation rather than tthe theory of it.
When pronunciation becomes a part of the language as a whole (very gestalt like), it no longer feels like a hindrance but rather an invaluable part of it like gerunds, for ex.
I can't wait to put your ideas to the test. Thank you so much for guiding us in our quest to become better teachers.

 Hi Georgina Good to hear that you are a dancer! As you reflect on your experiences of learning dance, do you find connections with learning the (inner) dance of pronunciation that could have practical insights for your students….? Theory is odd stuff isn’t it? On the one hand it is simply the back end of practice, ways of thinking and talking and recharging and supporting and making sense of and reflecting on practice, the perfect partner for practice, yet on the other hand it can become separated from practice, with a remote life of its own that does not fire up practical artistry. Nothing wrong with the second, though a lot of formal learning seems to be preoccupied with it when it’s often the first that we really need. And this has happened to pron, which I think is one of the reasons we don’t do it well. And language kind of collapses without pron….. You’re left picking your way round piles of learning with all its physicality drained out….. I’m curious to hear more about your sense of the gestalt of language….PS Ive been enjoying your blogs. Thanks

I couldn't agree more "language kind of collapses without pron….. You’re left picking your way round piles of learning with all its physicality drained out"
My knowledge of the gestalt theory is just based upon the many talks I've had with my psychologist friends and also with my course on NLP.
It'd be impossible to separate language into the many bricks that make it up. When I was a kid growing up in Argentina, my parents decided I could take some "formal lessons of English" (my dad's language). We did all sorts of drilling and grammar. I stopped communicating fluently because I became to self-conscious and my listening skills became weaker (I'm talking about the early 80s, we seldom listened to a tape and rarely dealt with pron).
I was fortunate to have a grandfather whose mother tongue was English. I could learn English without really realising it was English. He modelled words for me to copy and it was lots of fun. We just engaged in iddle conversation and he assisted me whenever some challenging point arose.
At my grandpa's home I embraced English as a whole as opposed to the "brick by brick" acquisition I got at my language school.
In my own teaching today, I try to expose learners to language as a whole (I've started putting your ideas about pron to the test!). We deal with chunks of language in context of language use and I find it difficult to stick to the syllabus only.
The Gestalt perspective on growth [Perls, Hefferline & Goodman, Book Two] puts learning right at the centre of human life, and tells us that, in the broadest sense, living, growing and learning are inseparable. And I go along with those lines.
We cannot help learning. We do it from the earliest days of life. The qualities that encourage learning - curiosity, a need to experiment, motivation to learn about the new - are an inherent part of us. It'd be a shame not to take advantage of that and to focus only on bits and pieces of the language that we consider is useful for our learners.
Most of my learners are happy to dive into the English language and to try to find out what it's all about regardless of their age and level.

"I know I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only provide an environment in which he can learn." [Rogers 1965]
I feel flattered by your comment on my being a dancer. I just dance to have fun. Many thanks for sharing your insights into teaching.

 Thanks Georgina for your thoughts on language learning and gestalt etc. It is interesting that a gestalt, which we might think of as a unified system that is more than the sum of its parts, can be seen at different levels of magnification. It can be part of still larger systems, and yet also it can contain subsystems. It depends on where you draw the boundary. So the ecosystem contains weather systems and rain forests and human bodies, and humans have organisations which contain teams and families which are more than just their members, and languages which contain grammars which are so complicated and that even the latest and fattest grammar books cannot contain it all, and pronunciations which work with aural and oral pathways and muscles, which in turn have subsystems like the vowel system of any given language. Take for example the top left quadrant of the pronunciation chart above. You can see the twelve vowels arranged approximately according to where they are in the mouth and to tongue, lip and jaw positions. The vowels all affect each other since they divide up the available space between them, and each one limits and bounds the ones next to it, although the boundary too is flexible. In the end, although you can separate vowels temporarily for examination and practice, they have to be put back into the pot with all the others, and learned as a set, physically and aurally.It seems that we are still in the grip of a piecemeal teaching approach which relies on our undoubted capacity for reductionist thinking and learning things a bit at a time but misses out on our equally marvellous capacity for holistic and intuitive sense making. It seems extraordinary that we can teach a class two vowels in this unit, and two others in the next unit, and some more (or are they same ones, we don’t know since we don’t see them side by side) in unit 5, and by unit 17 we…. etc etc. And I guess your contrast between the “brick by brick” and the “Grandpa” methodologies shows the same kind of thing...!