/ haʊ tuː / Adrian Underhill’s approach

Notes from the IATEFL PronSIG event, 2013

Adrian Underhill is a trainer and consultant working in a number of countries, with a particular interest in pronunciation.  He is the author of Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation and of the Pronunciation App (British Council ELTONS award for digital innovation 2012).

This is the second time I’ve seen Adrian speak and the clearer his method becomes to me the more I recognise its brilliance.  Adrian argues that if we try to teach pronunciation with the same cognitive approach with which we teach vocabulary and grammar, then pronunciation is not integrated and therefore learners are offered a reduced, or disabled, language product.  He terms this ‘the phonetic grip’: learners repeat in their own phonetic set what we tell them in our phonetic set.  But pronunciation isn’t cognitive – it’s physical – and therefore – much in the same way we might teach dance – we should help learners to re-access the muscles needed for our specific phonetic set.

For Adrian, pronunciation can be divided into 3 levels:

Level 1             individual sounds
Level 2             words
Level 3             connected speech

atomWhilst connected speech is the reason why we’re doing it, we can’t deal with connected speech properly without dealing with individual sounds.  The analogy he uses is that the sounds are atoms, the words are molecules and connected speech is the matter made up of the two.  (In my mind it’s a cake in which the ingredients come together to form the mix and eventually cake).

He also presents us with two problems with teaching pronunciation, and proposed resolutions:

Problem 1: Pronunciation is seen as endless and mysterious and 
lacks a thinking tool or map.

Resolution 1: Underhill’s phonemic chart: a complete map of the 
44 sounds

Problem 2: Pronunciation is cognitively taught when it should be 
physical, or it is taught by repetition which assumes the learner 
is free of their L1 pronunciation ‘grip’ (and further reinforces 
that grip if they are not)

Resolution 2: Reconnect with the muscles and teach pronunciation 
physically.  Develop PROPRIOCEPTION: the inner knowing or sensing 
of what the muscles are doing

We then went on to find and play with the ‘muscle buttons’ (lips, tongue, jaw, voice) that are our tools for pronunciation, and look at some of the discoveries we can make with these buttons, using what I call a ‘what’s this sound?’ approach – eliciting the sound from the learners rather than modelling.  Although this part of the talk is the practical teaching method that the theory above underpins, I won’t describe it here as you can read and see more on Adrian’s own blog and on you tube (links below).

I’ve always understood that with pronunciation we’re first and foremost teaching the sounds of English, and that the phonetic symbols are a useful label for identifying these sounds.  In my delivery of a comprehensive ‘phonemes’ lesson I’ll include a great deal of physical gesture and draw students attention to what is happening to the organs of speech – particularly with difficult sounds.  However, I have often begun with (commonly understood) words and then phonetic symbols as a way into finding the sounds, and often model and drill the sound to help students with pronunciation.

I’m now seriously reconsidering my approach to this and wonder if modelling the sound in the first instance could be more harmful than helpful.  Imitating or copying a sound is no guarantee of producing the same (or reasonably similar) sound – particularly when our attempts at production are usually coloured by the sounds in our first language.  Using the organs of speech (correctly), however, may give us a higher chance of success at achieving that sound.  I’m by no means suggesting that there is no place for modelling sounds or words in the EFL classroom – often it’s a quick and direct route to a result.  But just as we often elicit vocabulary, perhaps we should consider when it might be more constructive to elicit pronunciation – be it physically through gesture, or visually using the phonemic symbols (so long as students are familiar enough with them to know the actual sounds they symbolise).  When it comes to a more thorough introduction to the phonemes, I intend to familiarise myself more with AdrianUnderhill’s approach and try a more physical lesson that elicits the sounds through physical description and gesture.

Last year I worked with a higher level Iranian student who had a severe hearing impairment.  Her pronunciation of English sounds was remarkable, perhaps because of (rather than despite) the fact that in order to learn and recognise sounds she relied on lip reading – and therefore observation of what was happening physically – rather than hearing.  My partner has a friend who is completely deaf.  At times when speaking to her he used to ‘silence’ his voice, until she asked him not to as it prevented her from observing the vibrations made in his throat.




  1. hi Jade , I really have enjoyed reading your blog.. I am quite new to TEFL .. and I am interested in how you elicit a sound.. if you could let me know how to do this on
    ***email hidden*** I would be really grateful. Many thanks


    1. Hi Helen,

      Thanks for reading. Check out Adrian’s video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kAPHyHd7Lo which gives a really useful demonstration of how to elicit sounds.
      Beyond that it’s mostly a case of jumping in at the deep end and trying it for yourself.
      When I’ve done this with students I’ve rearranged the classroom into a semi circle of chairs, without desks, so that immediately students recognise that something different will be required of them. Then it’s a case of “Okay, look at me, what’s this sound…?” followed by mime and gesture. Once you’ve watched the video it’ll make more sense.

      Good luck! And let me know how it goes 🙂

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