Is pronunciation the Cinderella of language teaching?


I have suggested that pronunciation is the CINDERELLA of language teaching in that it has been neglected, and become disconnected from other language learning activities. However I claim that if we pay attention to this Cinderella we will find something truly magnificent in terms of engagement for learners, impact on the rest of language learning, and enjoyment.

Two ways to reconnect with pronunciation teaching…

1. Students and teachers need a MAP in order to have a clear mental concept and sense of direction.

2. Pronunciation needs to be PHYSICAL. While grammar and vocabulary may somehow take place “in the head,” pronunciation is the physical aspect of language. It manifests through the body, like football or kung fu. Pronunciation is like an extraordinary dance, which has sequence, coordination, grace and beauty.

Regarding the MAP:

This phonemic chart provides the MAP because information about WHERE & HOW sounds are made is embedded in it. This chart is not just a list like some other charts. The arrangement of sounds on this chart tells you about how to make them. And … the chart also becomes a worktable, a place to enquire and experiment, and where mistakes can become successes.

Regarding making pronunciation PHYSICAL:

This approach has a methodology to enable you and your students to discover and connect with the muscles that make the difference, to locate what I call the internal buttons. So, you can start by discovering and engaging the muscles that change the sounds. And this changes everything. And also since muscles work by moving, we gain access to the visibility of pronunciation.

In summary

In summary I am proposing that by using a mental map and by making pronunciation physical we can demystify pronunciation, bring it in from the cold, and relate to it fully and profitably.


Your comments ….

Do you think that pronunciation teaching is in any way the Cinderella of language teaching?

Do you have techniques or tricks for using the phonemic chart, or for making pronunciation physical?

I’m looking forward to our conversation….

My next post will discuss The first pron lesson with learners.

Meanwhile you can explore my guided tour of the phonemic chart at <>

And extracts from my pronunciation workshop with teachers at

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11 Responses to Is pronunciation the Cinderella of language teaching?

  1. Pronunciation can be a welcome Cinderella. At present I am teaching beginners using the New English File title. Frequent, small exercises of listen and repeat, classifying word lists under different phonemes, stress and rhythm drills, minimal pairs of voiced/voiceless and long/short monophthongs, and etcetera, are sprinkled throughout the units. They provide a relief for students struggling with the grammatical, lexical, or other skills development in the unit. The activities also put all students on a level playing field due to L1 interference (mixed nationalities giving different errors but there are plenty to choose from and several in common).

    At least physical in part, I like the minimal-pair code game where students practise listening to their partner spell out a word using an alphabet of minimal-pair code words (for example A = lear, B = rear, C = road, D = load, E = grass, F = glass, etc).

    I also have a train game that I learnt from my CELTA course that I adapt depending on the needs of the students. Mostly this is a listening and exposure to the phonetic symbols activity rather than speaking though.

    There are plenty more great activities we use in Timesaver Pronunciation Activities by Bill Bowler.

  2. Thanks for this Vernon. I quite agree with you about the level playing field provided by pron work. Students can appear entirely correct in the grammatical, lexical or semantic content of utterances, but with pron and fluency there is nearly always something else they can usefully attend to, whatever their ‘level’, with the added bonus that they further practice the language while ‘looking the other way’. I like these activities you refer to, and I find that bringing the chart into them helps ground the activity.

  3. Hi Adrian, I think it depends on the L1. I used to do a lot of pronunciation work in Vietnam. In fact, we had whole classes designed only for it.

    However, I’m not a fan of the phonemic chart. I feel it’s simply another alphabet for learner’s to memorize. I think it’s more important to show which letter combinations tend to make which sounds. Students need to be able to produce and hear sounds. These functions are connected I think. The more you produce a sound yourself, the more you learn to be able to hear it. Hearing sounds is the major problem for Vietnamese learners as their brains generally doesn’t recognize consonants at the ends of words. The same thing goes for words. Most students never use contracted forms like “I’d” and so they never hear them in conversation. If they start to produce it, it increases exposure and recognition and enables them to hear it.

    With Turkish learner’s their aren’t many pronunciation issues and these are usually simply corrected merely by modeling. Ultimately learner’s need to know how to produce words as a whole and then how they link in sentences. I think breaking it down into sounds is simply too reductive unless the learner is having trouble only with a specific sound.

    However, I do really agree with you on making it physical. This is so important. I spent tons of time with Vietnamese learner’s modeling tongue position, use of air, area of throat, lip shape, vibration, etc. That helped my students out a lot.

  4. Adrian Underhill says:

    Hi Nick, good to hear from a non-fan of the chart! …. and thanks for the useful points you raise. I agree that it’s important to work with which letter combinations make which sounds, and also that once you can make a sound with your mouth you start to hear it differently and more acutely. This is an interesting reversal of the old direct method dictum ‘listen then speak’, that the ear informs the mouth, which it certainly does, but so too does the mouth inform the ear. Both are needed for optimal learning and I would like to see more attention to the second in both methods and materials. I too have had the same interesting experiences working with Vietnamese learners and actually a lot of fun trying to break the circle “you can’t hear what you can’t say and you can’t say what you can’t hear”.

    Responding briefly to another point: I think it is important to distinguish between the uses of the chart, and teaching the symbols. I would not do the latter, in fact I’d be happy using a chart which had numbers or colours instead (though actually symbols make sense since dictionaries use them and that gives learners a degree of autonomy). What I think is important about the sound chart is not so much the symbols, but that it shows all the sounds at once, as one gestalt, and their relation to each other. No more surprises. And in the heat of the lesson it offers a worktable for assembling words, sorting out endings, dealing with differences where they matter, dealing with mis-hearings, and I think enriching vocabulary learning.

    It would be good to hear from others about preferences for and against the chart, and I’d love to know more Nick about your work with the physicality of pronunciation.

    • Hey Adrian, thanks for the reply. I’ve of course been familiar with your work for a while now and will be avidly following your blog. Although I’m not a fan of working with the chart so much, pronunciation is something rarely discussed and so I’m excited to see some other perspectives. Henrick Oprea over at Doing Some Thinking also has an interest in pronunciation work, so you could check out his blog too.

      Maybe a post on the physicality of teaching pron would be interesting. I’ll write something up and link to you at some point in the next two weeks.

      You are so right on the Vietnamese circle. I spent nights thinking about it sometimes, lol.

  5. Leahn says:


    I think pron is definitely the ‘Cinderella’ of ELT. She hardly ever gets to go to the party so to speak. I have to admit that in the first ten years of my teaching I managed (more or less)to avoid any kind of direct pron work in class. I loved learning more about pron on my Dip course and it really helped me as a teacher to learn about how sounds are produced and where. I like the chart for me personally as a teacher it’s a great reference point that can help me help students produce more accurate sounds in English. Just discovered your blog so hope to pass by again.


  6. Thanks for your comments Leahn. I like your simple story about avoiding pron work for 10 years (like not inviting C to the party!) and then finding that you loved it as soon as you started to learn about it. Because I find a lot of teachers say their training did not leave them with a simple system for understanding cognitively with their mind and physically with their body, how and where sounds are made, and therefore how you change them. This is a pity since it is such a simple physical / bodily process, no more complex than a dance or a sport, that can bring vitality and motivation to learning. And language deprived of its physical aspect loses its integrity. We need pronunciation and the awareness it gives us for thinking, reading, remembering, writing, vocabulary ….. never mind speaking.!

  7. Caterina Pavesi says:

    Hi Adrian, Hi everybody!!
    here I am with an update on my work with the chart in the “labs” at the university where I teach. Although I agree with those who say that teaching the symbols is not very interesting and pretty sterile, the symbols are exactly what I have to teach students – part of their written exam is the transcription of 20 words (from IPA to normal script). This is the reason why I started following Adrian’s Blog. What I used to do before was focus on one symbol per lesson and then ask them to practise. This year I decided to follow Adrian’s approach as it seemed much more sensible and I think they can learn more in this way. I have introduced all the sounds together and exploited the learners’ knowledge, I have also explained the physical movements/changes in the mouth/lips/tongue.
    I had a couple of problems that I’d like to discuss:
    1) learners cannot differentiate /i/ and /i:/, they make the same sound, just change the length, a similar thing happens with /e/ and /æ/, here they make almost the same sound. I’ve tried selecting some students as models, but they tend to change the sound when I ask them to repeat it… it’s all very confusing…
    2) they cannot make /ŋ/, I’ve tried to explain what happens in the mouth and what the tongue does…
    Finally, there are some students who just keep their mouth shut and give me quizzical looks… guess they are shy… or perhaps they think I’m totally crazy…
    Can you give me some advice?

  8. Hi Cat

    It’s good to have your update! Thanks. I’ll try to make some comments that may be of help…. The following works for me, but we all do things differently so just see what happens, and let me know so we can talk some more.
    1. Remember it is not the symbols we are teaching, but the sounds, the positions, the mouth postures and movements. We are teaching the dance, not the name of the dance. However, once students can more or less discriminate that sound, and they have a sense of its muscular position, and they can find it in their mouth, and they can hear it with some discrimination, then they begin to give that sound an existence of its own. At that point is can be quick and easy to offer the symbol because they have something internal to relate it to. It is no longer a name for something they haven’t got, but a name/symbol for something they have got.
    2. Expect them to ‘forget’ it. It always happens so use it. And help them get it back. Each time it comes back a bit quicker, until it stays.
    3. When you say you have “…explained the physical movements/changes in the mouth/lips/tongue…” I assume you mean that you have demonstrated, got them to watch, and most importantly got them to find these four ‘buttons’ in their own mouths… (ie: tongue forward/back; lips spread/rounded; jaw and tongue higher/lower; and voice on/off).
    4. You say “….learners cannot differentiate /i:/ and /I/ and they make the same sound, just change the length…” OK. If you have already helped them to begin to discover the four internal buttons just mentioned then try this: have them say /i:/ and /u:/ a few times and guide them to notice the inner posture. Then start with /i:/ and slowly move to /u:/ in one long drawn out sliding sound. This means the tongue moving back and the lips rounding. Do it several times and also and from /u:/ back to /i:/. Then do the slide /i:/ to /u:/ again but stop at different places along that slide, freeze whatever sound is there (it’ll be a bit different for each person) and listen to these in between sounds. The point is to see how the movement of tongue and lip produces a spectrum of sounds between /i:/ and /u:/ and to give learners a way of changing the vowel sounds at will, a way of escaping from the grip of mother tongue. Now start to play with the first movement away from /i:/ where the lips begin to lose their spread and the tongue begins to move away from the front, and the muscle tone generally relaxes…. And you are more or less at /I/ Help them see that movement in you and find it in themselves. As they find a sound that is distinct from /i:/, help them to notice what they are doing and to contrast it with /i:/ . Gradually /I/ comes.
    5. Of course there are other ways, eg if you find they are saying /I/ well enough in a word, then slow the word down and take the sound from there. Or try saying the sound once clearly yourself, and the students do not repeat, but they simply listen to it in their inner ear, their mind’s ear, for a couple of seconds, and then say it aloud. You have to practice this routine as at first they may be used to blurting the sound aloud after the teacher.
    6. To get to /ŋ/ you can have them say /g/, first quickly, then slowly. When you slow it you notice that it has two components, the stop (voice and air stop, blocked at the back by the tongue) and the release. Next step is to freeze in that first position, the stop, and the next is to maintain that stop while releasing the air through the nose instead of through the mouth. Ie the tongue remains blocking the airflow though the mouth. Like dance steps, this sounds much more complex than it is! But if you find this in your own mouth it’s easy to help them.
    7. And you say “they tend to change the sound when I ask them to repeat it….” Absolutely they do, and this is a real help, because I then say “Oh! You changed it!” or “Say the first one” or “Say the other one” or to the class “Can you hear the difference?”. They are always losing the sound and reverting, so use that fact as an opportunity to help them to notice what is going on, and to ask them “Can you hear the difference?”

    Anyway, mess around with this lot and see what happens! And we’ll talk about /e/ and /æ/ next time…. Good luck Cat!

  9. Michael Grinberg says:

    Hi again Adrian!
    Ok, here comes the biggest request of my own, but I guess other practicing teachers might join me.
    Why on Earth would you even think of teaching pron?
    How would you motivate learners to pay more attention to it?

    What interests me most is how to deal with pronunciation problems that don’t impede understanding that much. I’m a Moscow-based NNS teacher of English. Most of my students have a thick Russian accent, but they rarely make mistakes that prevent others from understanding them (or do I fail to notice these?). When I start doing the pronunciation activities from your webinar even with my best-motivated students, they start looking at me like at a crazy. They will never sound like native speakers anyway, so why do they need this time-consuming pron work? They would definitely prefer something practical, like drilling the functional language or learning vocabulary. At the same time, deep in my heart, I keep feeling that pron is just so important for language learning in many ways.
    Here are some things I’ve noticed so far:
    1. Learners who are good at pronunciation are often good at other things such as grammar or vocabulary. This leads me to a hypothesis that if you somehow ‘cure’ pronunciation problems, this will produce a ‘ripple-effect’ on learning in general.
    2. Pronunciation is somehow related to the problems of identity, acceptance and social distance. People with thick Russian accent would often tell jokes about American or British people, probably even calling them ‘AmerikOsy’ (a pejorative name for Americans). They would never identify themselves with the target culture.
    3. On the contrary, whenever you have an English-speaking ‘idol’, a model to follow, this produces a series of positive effects on language learning. You start to borrow chunks of language together with their pronunciation, you try to reproduce the target intonation and rhythm, your speech becomes more idiomatic; in a word, you start paying attention to different aspects of language, not only to basic vocabulary and grammar.

    If you’re now considering different topics for this blog, I would be extremely grateful if you cover these questions in detail: why is pronunciation important, what are the ‘bridges’ leading from pronunciation to other areas of the language and how do you motivate language learners to do more pronunciation work?

  10. Adrian Underhill says:

    Thanks Michael
    These are great questions for new topics, blog posts and conversations. I’ll take one/some of these up in some new blog posts in the the next few days. Meanwhile if anyone else would like to comment on these questions it will help us get going

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