In his latest article, ELT pronunciation expert Adrian Underhill looks at why we need to use the phonemic chart in our classrooms.


Why do we need the phonemic chart? What does it do that other things don’t?

Using the chart not only helps you do existing pronunciation activities with more insight, but it also enables a range of other activities that are not possible without the chart. Think of the chart as the whiteboard for pronunciation. Just as a normal whiteboard is a tool to focus on and draw attention to grammar and vocabulary, so the phonemic chart offers the same facilities with respect to pronunciation. You do not have to teach all the symbols, and your students do not need to memorize the chart. You simply access it by using it and by putting it into circulation in ways suggested in ‘Integrating pronunciation into your daily class work’.

The general aim for nearly all students is comfortable intelligibility, whether speaking or listening to others. The chart is not about learning phonemic symbols, but about learning sounds that will enable comfortable intelligibility. In my experience, students notice their success with pronunciation and the rest of their learning is fired up by it. It brings another part of the brain into the process of learning and retention.

Here are six unique advantages of using the pronunciation chart:

1. The chart shows all the sounds a glance

All the sounds are on one page, presented in one manageable structure. For students, this is the syllabus. There are 44 sounds, and many will be similar to students’ L1 sounds.

The advantages of presenting all the sounds together are:

  • While grammar and vocabulary tend to follow a linear syllabus, increasing in difficulty the more a student learns, the same cannot be said of pronunciation. All the sounds are equally important and need to be introduced from day one. Luckily, there is only one page of them, unlike the hundreds dedicated to grammar and vocabulary. That page is the phonemic chart. So all sounds need to be in circulation from the beginning, and students gradually improve as the sounds are attended to over time.
  • All the sounds need each other. Each sound helps define its neighbouring sound.
  • Seeing the symbols together can help the students discern each separate sound and connect with the specific muscles that help produce each sound. Again, the students do not need to learn the symbols or the chart, but rather the sounds and the ways they work together.

2. The arrangement of the chart tells you how sounds are made 

As you explore the chart you start to discover its geography. You find that the layout contains information about lip, tongue and jaw placement, voicing and much else. You find that neighbours on the chart are neighbours in the mouth, and that each vowel helps define the vowels around it. Thus, the structure of the chart encourages learners to feel the subtle differences between each phoneme, to help their ‘muscle memory’. Using the chart enables you to work on minimal pairs, trios, or fours in an instant, but always with the advantage that the whole system of sounds is in sight.

3. The ‘feeling’ of pronunciation: proprioception

The phonemic chart embodies a basic fact about pronunciation – it is a physical activity affected by muscles and the breath. Unlike grammar and vocabulary, which are taught in a fairly cognitive way, pronunciation is a physical, muscular activity, like teaching dance, where the teacher helps learners connect with muscles to do something other than their usual habitual movement. When learning pronunciation we have to use our inner sense of what our muscles are doing. This is not based on cognitive knowledge, but physical or kinaesthetic knowledge. A word I like is proprioception: a neurological term referring to an internal understanding of the relative position of neighbouring body parts and the strength of effort employed in their movement.

Skilful movements can become automatic, but first we must learn them. With pronunciation, this starts with internal attention to the muscles that make the new movements. The layout of the chart can help both learner and teacher become familiar with how their mouths move to create each sound. As a result, they can make the different sounds and hear the corresponding difference.

4. The chart enables seamless integration of pronunciation in class work

Pronunciation does not have to take up a lot of time. If you have the right tools you can include new pronunciation when introducing each new item of language. The needs of grammar and vocabulary dictate the language focus of a lesson, as well as informing the materials and activities. The chart allows constant attention to pronunciation at the same time. The chart means pronunciation focus and vocabulary, grammar and skills work can take place simultaneously. The chart does not simply to tell us how a word is sounded, but can also be used far more extensively and creatively to integrate pronunciation into all facets of classroom work.

5. Three levels

The chart shows the 44 sounds, and these can be applied on three levels. Level 1 is playing with the sounds in isolation. A lot of ‘roadside repairs’ take place during a lesson by attending to level 1. When you run the sounds together with the pointer to make syllables and words, including word stress as needed, you get level 2: the way you say a word in isolation. This can be called dictionary pronunciation. Then, when you run the words together and allow for intonation and stress according to the speaker’s meaning, you get level 3: connected-up speech. This is the aim of language learning, and work at each of these levels contributes to this. The chart enables you to move quickly back and forth between the three levels. And the interesting thing for students is to keep seeing how each level builds upon the level below. Keep in mind that each level of pronunciation applies to both listening and speaking.

6. Exploratory, creative

The chart is democratic. It gives everyone access to experimenting with and trying to understand and develop their proficiency with pronunciation. Anyone can come to the chart and, using the pointer, ask, ‘Is this how you say this?’, ‘If I say this sound then how is it spelt?’, or ‘How do you say this word in the text?’ Without the chart, the concept of pronunciation remains vague, and there is no tangible way for students to experiment, contrast or test out new or unfamiliar sounds. Learning pronunciation without a chart is like travelling without a map – you might be able to get where you want to go, but it will take a lot longer!

But once you bring the chart into circulation in the class, the whole business of learning pronunciation becomes visible, tangible, comprehensible, discussible, accessible, playful and no longer mysterious. Have fun with pronunciation. That sums it up. Be playful and playfully demanding and encouraging!

What accent should I teach?

Loosening the L1 grip

Integrating pronunciation into your daily class work

Adrian’s Pron Chart Blog