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.


 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 // to /s/ and then continue moving your tongue slowly back…. And you’ll findsure, 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).

Teaching difficult sounds, with Adrian UnderhillThe problem of explaining sounds to learners on my blog

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


Pre (Wrong)

Predict (Correct)





all the vowels


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

volume, length, pitch

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.

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’.