Pronunciation questions/observations from teachers on the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL

Inside versus outside knowledge of pronunciation

AU: Thanks everyone for posting your questions and observations. Many of you commented on the idea of inside versus outside knowledge of pronunciation. I think this is a useful distinction to make. I maintain, though you may not agree, that our mainstream methodology prioritises knowledge from the outside, knowing about, descriptions and cognitive formulations, over knowledge from the inside, ie (re-) connecting with the muscles that make the difference. Let’s pick up on some of the points you have made:

Jeff says: I try to better understand “pron” by repeating sounds and trying to feel the parts of my sound tract moving, by using my hands to feel the muscles in my throat, and by looking at my mouth in a mirror.  I then try to convey this information to my students via PPTs and drawings and by having my students go through the “feeling” process.  I should have them use a mirror as well.

AU: Yes, sensing the muscles in yourself is the important first step. And this takes you to the zone of inside knowing, and to the physical territory. And you the teacher can be discovering this at the same time in the class as the Sts, so that you are all exploring together. You don’t have to know to help your learners, you just have to explore with them. I do have a reservation about conveying this experience by ppt and drawings, because already that starts (at least in my hands) to become outside knowledge, taking us away from the physical zone. But as back up and as stimulus to internal discovery it can add a dimension of understanding. But the diagrams do not do the teaching….self-discovery does. If the first leads to the second that’s good

Bekka says: It’s all about the mouth and what’s happening there! I show my Sts diagrams, I tell them to imitate me. I show them the placement of lips and tongue. AU: Yes you’re right, and also as with Jeff, keep the focus on what’s happening inside. We have to beware of relying on intellectualising the physical.

Sam says: I think there’s a bit of both. Knowledge in the head is like knowing music theory – if you don’t have it you can still make music (or pronounce things), but if you do understand the theory then you increase your awareness of what you’re playing (or pronouncing) and you can expand your musicality. AU: Nice analogy illustrating the same thing, and putting it in perspective. As an improvising musician I can relate to this!

Grant says: Examining and recognising the muscles and the position of the tongue/lips I use with my own pron sound by sound. Considering the effects of the movement of these muscles, examining where the sound comes from. 

Studying the diagram of the throat/mouth (Kelly 2000 p4) to familiarise myself with the significant muscles and areas used to make sound. Also getting to know Underhill’s chart to locate these differences, hopefully making them more tangible  AU: Nicely put, the first bit is spot on for me. Maybe in your final two sentences you have moved from internal to external knowing? If you are using external knowledge in support of internal sensing that could be pretty good.

One thing you all might be interested in is helping students to find new sounds from sounds they already know, which becomes very easy when they have (re-)discovered the four basic muscle buttons. There’s a short video on it here. Click and then select video no 7 in the side bar. I like the simplicity and elegance of discovering new sounds by starting from a sound the learner can make, and just altering one of the muscles/buttons.

In response to the question: How do you go about “knowing” pron? With your head? With your body? …. Stephanie says By knowing how you physically make the sounds. Like the pronunciation ‘gym’ . Victoria says Pronunciation has always been very physical with me and I often use the words  micro gymnastics and physical analysis and experimenting when I’m talking about it. Examples might help. I go into my body and try producing the sound. AU: These are important ideas.  In a good gym we become intelligently connected to our muscles and each work on them at our own level. I have tried to propose insights for how to find each sound with simple and practical discovery exercises in the series The inside story of sounds and How to make sounds on my blog at

So a question for all of us is: How can we sense more precisely how we make, change and connect sounds ourselves, as a basis for helping our Sts do something similar?   Have fun on the inside!

The above is a small selection of online exchanges between teachers studying the online Trinity Diploma at Oxford TEFL and myself – shared with permission