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Pronunciation skills with Adrian Underhill: Overcoming common pronunciation challenges

Type: Article, Reference material

In the last article in this series, ELT pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill looks at common pronunciation problems and how to overcome these for the benefit of both your teaching and your students’ learning.

You and your and learners may feel that pronunciation presents many challenges. But I hope that my other articles in this series have helped you to feel more confident and optimistic, to see that there are many ways forward, and to see that pronunciation is less difficult and more interesting than you might think, because:

1. Pronunciation is simple when compared with the complexity of grammar and vocabulary because grammar and vocabulary both have so much content. There are hundreds of pages in a typical grammar book, while students need a vocabulary of several thousand words for a good intermediate level. Pronunciation, on the other hand, has approximately 44 sounds and when these are put together they are quite predictable, which is helpful or student and teacher.

2. Many of the perceived problems of pronunciation disappear when you realise that pronunciation, unlike grammar and vocabulary, is a physical activity. Therefore, it can be approached through physical awareness, and there are some very simple ways of doing this. It is more like learning a dance than learning algebra.


Until you (the teacher) know how you make sounds in your own mouth, pronunciation will remain a mystery to you and you will not know what to do to help a learner to change their pronunciation. But the good news is that knowing pronunciation in your own mouth is exactly the way to start and it liberates you to move forward and take your students with you.

In this article I will look at three typical challenges that teachers face, challenges that can be solved once you understand the ‘physicality’ of pronunciation. Here are three questions I have been asked recently:

1. How do I teach ’difficult’ sounds?

2. How do I locate word stress in a word?

3. How can a teacher facilitate the students’ understanding of the concept of word stress if it doesn’t exist in their mother tongue?

1. How do I teach ‘difficult’ sounds?

A great way to discover ‘new’ sounds is to start with a familiar sound, and make a small movement from there. This becomes easy when both teacher and learners can sense the position of the tongue in the mouth, especially the tip. These simple discovery activities are for both teacher and learners to do together. Let’s imagine in this case the student can already make the sound /f/. We can use this as a starting point to discover /θ/ think; /s/ sink; /ʃ/ shine; /ð/ this; /z/ zoo; /Ʒ/ pleasure.

The exact instructions that I use in class are written in italics (i):

1.1 Using /f/ to discover /θ/

‘Make this sound… /f/’ (e.g. four, off)

‘What two surfaces do you use to make the sound?’ (Answer: top front teeth, which lightly touches the bottom lip).

‘Check this out: feel the lip and the touch of the teeth.’

‘What is your tongue doing while you say /f/?’ (Answer: Nothing, it’s not involved)

‘Where is it?’ (Answer: Behind front teeth – out of the way)

‘Make /f/ again and while you keep saying it, very slowly put the tip of your tongue in place of your bottom lip.’

‘You will now have the sound /θ/’ (e.g. think, three, fourth)

Allow students to play with this movement for a moment, and then move on to the next discovery:

1.2 Starting with /θ/ to discover /s/ and /ʃ/

‘Say /θ/’ (e.g. think, three, fourth)

‘Now /s/’ (e.g. saw, sink, toss)

‘Now slide slowly from /θ/ to /s/. Notice how your tongue tip moves back just a little, from touching the teeth to touching the ridge behind the teeth.’

As before, allow students to play with this movement for a moment.

1.3 Extending the slide to discover /ʃ/

 Again slide from /θ/ to /s/ and then continue moving your tongue slowly back…. And you’ll find /ʃ/’ (e.g. sure, wash)

Do those three again, moving slowly between them, the tongue going back from /θ/ to /s/ to /ʃ/ and forward from /ʃ/ to /s/ to /θ/.’

Notice how the tip of your tongue moves back a few millimetres in each case, but it makes the difference of a whole English sound.’

Practise a bit until you can feel the muscle movement clearly.’

If you can feel your tongue moving, this is proprioception (the sense of which muscle is moving and how much).’

1.4 Starting with /ð/ to discover /z/ and /Ʒ/

If you do exactly the same three steps as above, but this time you voice all the sounds, then you can start from /v/ and discover /ð/ (for this); /z/ (for zoo); /Ʒ/ (for pleasure).

There are many more very simple connections between sounds, and as you start to do this you get to know the inside of your mouth and you become freer from the sounds of mother tongue and more able to find new sounds. You can hear me illustrating this on a Macmillan webinar ‘Teaching difficult sounds, with Adrian Underhill’. You could also have a look at the following article on my blog: ‘The problem of explaining sounds to learners on my blog’.

2. How do I locate word stress in a word?

Some teachers find they are not sure which syllable they are stressing, especially with words that they are used to. With words that you know or half know, or you have heard but not used, you can often recognise that it is wrong if you put the stress on the wrong syllable. In order to locate the correct stressed syllable, one thing you can do is deliberately stress each syllable in turn, and listen to the differences:

Predict (Wrong)

Predict (Correct)

Make sure that you ‘un-stress’ the other syllable each time you try this. Keep trying this with the same word, switching between the two versions, one of which is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. You can ask your students to attempt this too. The same principle can be applied to three syllable words, where there are of course three possibilities:

Reduction (Wrong)

Reduction (Correct)

Reduction (Wrong)

While you try stressing different syllables in a word, and un-stressing others, listen to the different energy distributions and feel the differences in your mouth, throat and lungs. Notice the vowel changes that go with each different stress arrangement, because ‘unstressed’ vowels are mostly reduced in English, so every time you put the stress somewhere else, the qualities of all the vowels are likely to change. The stressed one becomes clearer and energised; the unstressed ones become less clear and less energised. Frequently the unstressed vowels become /ǝ/, sometimes /ɪ/ or /ʊ/.

If you do this with each syllable in a word where you’re unsure of the stress, you’ll probably recognise where the stress should be. This is also a great way of learning word stress for your students and it opens up their awareness of stress, un-stress, and the corresponding energy placement. Please see question three for further advice on word stress.

3. How can a teacher facilitate the students’ understanding of the concept of word stress if it doesn’t exist in their mother tongue?

There are three ingredients of stress – volume, length, and pitch. Any of these on their own can demonstrate word stress, though they are often used in combination. First I get my students to play with each of those three variables independent of the other two, by playing a class game:

1. Start the game with the three words ‘Louder, Longer and Higher’.

With louder the students have to stress the syllable lou only by making it louder. With longer, they must stress the syllable long only by making it longer, and with higher, they stress the syllable high only by making it higher in pitch. This is not always entirely successful – which adds to the fun – but is nevertheless important in creating new awareness amongst students that they can hear with the ears and feel with the muscles. In class, the easiest variable to use is length, because students seem able to control it more easily. However, in real language it’s probably volume – which requires momentary lung pressure to produce it – that is in fact the main variable.

2. Find some three syllable words that they are learning or that interest them and we put these on the board.

3. For each three-syllable word, ask the learners to put the stress on each syllable in turn, so they really have the physical feel of intentionally energising a syllable (vowel). As before, they should un-stress the other two syllables each time. They should be able to see, feel and hear how this alters the acoustic quality of the word, with the wrong stress and un-stress in most cases making the word unrecognisable. If they can get the stress wrong deliberately it shows that they have learnt to identify the physical variable. It is necessary to experience both stress and un-stress otherwise they do not know that they have stressed it.

It is worth focussing on word stress when learning a new word, as it is part of the acoustic identity of that word. Word stress is given by the language, not by the speaker. So it’s not optional. Teaching word stress also gets the muscle memory active and there is evidence that one of the ways we remember and recall vocabulary is through the stress pattern. This is in contrast to sentence stress, where the stress is given by the speaker, in order to make the words carry their personal meaning. I prefer to call this ’speaker stress’. The physical mechanics are the same (pitch, length, volume), but the purpose of the stress is different.

For more information on different sounds, try the Macmillan webinar ‘Teaching difficult sounds, with Adrian Underhill’.

You can also read the following article on my blog: ‘The problem of explaining sounds to learners on my blog’.

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