Adrian Underhill and the Sounds of English

Adrian Underhill's Phonemic Chart

Adrian Underhill’s British English Phonemic Chart

Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart has been something I’ve admired for a while… from a distance. It’s something I felt I should have a better handle on and something I wanted to become more familiar with. Instead, however, I found reasons and justifications not to and, knowing a bit about ways to help learners with pronunciation, I got by without it. Or, at least, I thought I was getting by. I hadn’t realised just how wonderfully clever and useful the chart was and that although the symbols in the chart are taken from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it is not about phonetics, it’s about phonemes – the sounds of English.

So, this weekend, thanks to SATEFL, Macmillan English and Adrian Underhill, I was enlightened. As Adrian took us through the sounds on the chart, showing us how they are organised according to how and where the sounds are made, and how the sounds relate to each other, there were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of realisation around the room. I won’t reproduce all that we discovered here. There are better sources for that and I’ll post a few links at the bottom. I just want to share some of what I took from the workshop: Making pronunciation physical, visible, audible!

This approach to pronunciation is an approach of awareness, helping learners (and teachers) to understand how the sounds are made physically and how aspects of that physicality distinguishes one sound from another.

Pronunciation is the physical aspect of language. If we see grammar and vocabulary as being a 2-dimensional matrix, pronunciation provides the 3rd dimension giving language body and volume. Language learners may know how a word should sound, they may hear it correctly in their head, perhaps even in their own inner voice. However, what they know about the language differs from what they can do with that language because they don’t yet know or haven’t yet mastered how to use their muscles to produce the correct sounds. We learn how to speak at a very young age, just as we learn to walk or pick things up, and these physical actions became automatised. Using the phonemic chart, as Adrian suggests, we can help learners to reconnect with the muscles used for the physical actions of producing sounds, and by doing so enable them to better engage these muscles to manipulate the sounds.

The chart serves as a map of where to find the sounds in the mouth. For instance, if we look at the consonants in the bottom half of the chart, the sounds on the left are made nearer the front of the mouth than the sounds on the right. Try it! Read the sounds from left to right while paying attention to how you physically produce the sounds and how that changes as you move from left to right. Similarly, with the vowels in the top left quarter, the higher they are in the chart, the higher the tongue is when you say the sound.

By using the chart, and by moving between sounds on it, we can help learners become aware how the muscles are used in different ways to make different sounds and help them locate what Adrian describes as the muscle buttons: the tongue, the lips, the jaw and the voice. Then, rather than simply trying to imitate what they hear using the muscles in the same way as they do to speak their first language, language learners are in a better position to be able to change how they physically produce sounds.

While I knew about the physicality of pronunciation, and how the use of tongue, lips, voice etc made the difference, I hadn’t realised just how good a resource Adrian Underhill’s Phonemic Chart is. This is something that can be introduced to learners on the first day – not to teach them the phonetic symbols but to help them to reconnect with the muscle buttons they need to be able to manipulate in order to make the sounds. As Adrian pointed out, “You can’t have a sound syllabus. You need them all now.” and also that, “You need all 12 vowels because they each define what the other isn’t.” And, here they all are, in the chart!

If you ever get the chance to see Adrian present live, go! In the meantime, there’s his blog,, which contains and links to a wealth of information and resources.

There’s quite a nifty wee Sounds app.

Onestopenglish has an interactive phonemic chart.

And, there’s also Adrian’s workshop introducing teaching pronunciation using the chart which has been made available on YouTube.

12 Responses to Adrian Underhill and the Sounds of English

  1. eflnotes says:

    hi carol,
    the phonemic chart by underhill is indeed very useful and it took me a while to understand it as well. for example in dictionaries there is a ‘i’ sound which is not on the chart and it represents the sound between i: and I.
    although as you say pronunciation is about muscle memory , it is also about decoding and the website has some great resources on “pronuciation as listening” (HT @teflerinha) which i find my students have issues with. another aspect of the decoding issue with some of my sts is accents.
    thx for the post.

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Many thanks for that link, Mura. I’ll have a look through the resources. That’s a good point about pronunciation being important for listening. We need to be able to identify and distinguish sounds, understand them as words, recognise stressed syllables etc, and make sense of what we’re hearing, so it makes sense that work on pronunciation will help listening skills.

      Thanks for your comment,

  2. I had a similar ‘aha’ moment when the chart was explained to me. Brilliantly simple, isn’t it? Seems to be a bit of a zeitgeisty thing happening around pronunciation at the moment, which is great. Too often overlooked, and seen as just the icing on the cake

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Brilliantly simple it is! And, it IS good that there is more happening around pronunciation. I had thought I was giving it enough attention but realise now that I haven’t been. My enthusing to my family about my discoveries yesterday was met with, at best, bewilderment so it’s good to be able to write about it here.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. Sandy Millin says:

    I’m going to share this on the Delta website as there are a lot of people grappling with phonetics at the moment. I love teaching pronunciation, and find it really helps the students – they have a lot of aha moments too 🙂 The book Pronunciation Games is really useful, as is the English File phonetic chart – at least for remembering the sounds. Adrian’s chart is great as a map, and I like to use the two together.

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi Sandy! Many thanks for your comment and for sharing the post. I hope it will be useful. Have you seen Phonetics Focus from Cambridge English Online? That might be another useful resource for people grappling with phonetics.

      I really enjoy pronunciation work too. Hopefully having a better understanding of the chart will make that work more effective. It’s good to hear that you’ve found it useful and that your students have their own aha moments! Great! 🙂

  4. sueannanSue says:

    Hi Carol. I love Adrian’s chart and we have one on the wall in every classroom. They get used all the time. It is such a sensible layout that it really helps my Tesol trainees to understand what’s going on too. The phoneticsfocus is great for the fun element it brings to repetition.

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