Not just a pretty picture: getting physical with the phonemic chart

Since spending two weeks of summer in Cambridge at a course run by the great Adrian Underhill on all things pronunciation, I’ve been working hard to incorporate his phonemic chart into regular pronunciation practice with my learners. It’s up on the wall in so many classrooms worldwide, but generally ignored.

If you’re one of the few who don’t have one, download one below and print it out – don’t miss out!

Phonemic chart pdf

Sandy Millin’s post last weekend on her first teaching jobs and what she thought the chart was when (pre-CELTA) teaching in Paraguay reminded me of this, and it pushed me to write this recap on the chart and what a brilliant tool it can be when properly understood and used:

I assumed it was just another pretty picture, like the other posters in the classroom. A couple of months later I found out it was actually Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart – Sandy Millin

So let’s take a tour around the phonemic chart and remind ourselves how much fun pronunciation practice can be when learning is physical, not just cognitive. This can be a revolutionary resource for pronunciation practice, sadly underused at present due to a lack of understanding and/or coursebook attention.

As Adrian said on the course, here are the 44 phonemes of English English; this is the first and last page of the textbook:

phonemic chart

Not sure of the sound each symbol represents? Check here.

Step 1 – Proprioception

The neurological ability of the body to sense movement and position – Collins Dictionary.

Using the phonemic chart effectively is all about being aware of the positions of four ‘pronunciation buttons’:

LIP SHAPE – Forward? Back? Wide? Round? Spread?

TONGUE – Up? Down? Curled? Pushed against teeth? Between teeth?

JAW – Open? Closed?

VOICE – Off? On (larynx vibration)?

four buttons2

The key to developing effective proprioception? Questions, questions, questions! What shape are your lips making? Can you feel where your tongue is? Is your jaw open or closed? Put a hand on your throat – is your voice on or off? Any error with a sound can be fixed not by overthinking it, but by experimenting with adjusting one or more of these four buttons until the desired sound is produced. Trial and error.

The Vowel Sounds

Tongue forward ———————————————-> back

Jaw closed




Jaw open


In Mouth Gym Part 2, back in spring, I wrote about how to train the mouth to produce the sounds based on tongue position. During the course with Adrian, we added several techniques:

  • Contrasts – i: u: i: u: i: u: i: u: Tongue forward and lips spread THEN tongue back and lips forward. Get you learners to feel it for themselves and tell you these differences.
  • Index finger on nose, thumb on bottom of jaw and feel how it opens from i: to e to æ.
  • Act! Have some fun! ə (shwa – everyone’s favourite!) – the idiot’s sound. Switch every button off and make a noise. It’s impossible to look intelligent when doing this. ɜ: – the long idiot’s sound. Can anyone look clever when making this sound?
  • ɒ – You have a satsuma in your mouth – make space (tongue back and down, lips forward)! Enough said.
  • Use the chart on the wall – point, get learners up to point. Gesture to show long and short sounds, clown around a bit. Make pronunciation practice dynamic and fun.

The Diphthongs


  • Made up of two sounds – a + ɪ = aɪ.
  • Point at sound 1 on the vowel section, then sound 2. Sound 1, sound 2, sound 1, sound 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1 2, 1 2 faster and faster until the two sounds blend perfectly and voila, a diphthong is born.

The Consonants


  • The top two rows exist in pairs, with the positions of three buttons exactly the same: lips, jaw, tongue.
  • The difference? On the left, the voice is OFF; on the right, the voice is ON. Put your hand to your throat and feel the vibration when the voice is ON.






The TH is a tough sound to make for many Latvian and Russian speakers here in Riga, as it doesn’t exist in their language. Tip: find f by biting down on bottom lip, put tongue where bottom lip is and feel the TH.



  • The bottom row of consonants? Miscellaneous! Focus on the four buttons and the sound will be made though.
  • Finding the r: Option 1. ð — z — ʒ — r (tongue going further and further back). Option 2. n — r (tip of the tongue moves down slightly to let some air through).

Other activity ideas

  1. Students have a copy of the chart and map out words or sentences for a partner by pointing at the sounds.
  2. Students pick a word and describe the physical movements happening to pronounce that word: My tongue starts behind my bottom teeth and my lips are spread to make the i:, the tongue stays where it is but the lips become a little rounder and the voice is on to make the z…(describing ‘easy’).
  3. Students mouth words to each other – this focuses on the importance of lip shape in certain sounds.

The Takeaways

  • The phonemic chart is a fantastic tool for training pronunciation, and is vastly underused.
  • Four buttons make any sound – jaw, tongue, lips, voice. Proprioception is key.
  • Pronunciation is a physical skill, so it should be taught physically.
  • DO – Use the chart to stress the physical differences in making the sounds.
  • DON’T – Get obsessed with the symbols. They are useful as a vehicle, but they aren’t the objective (forget CELTA and Delta woes scripting out pronunciations).
  • Have fun with the phonemic chart – point, gesture, challenge. Make learning sounds experiential and enjoyable (vs. call and repeat zzzzZZZZZ).
  • It can also be used to teach word stress and connected speech.

Do you use the phonemic chart in lessons? If so, how? Please leave a comment below!

2 thoughts on “Not just a pretty picture: getting physical with the phonemic chart

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