The Silent Way for Pronunciation

From the very name of the approach “The Silent Way” I dismissed it as I believe input (or exposure) is one of the three conditions necessary for successful language learning.

This exposure to what I’d classify as “comprehensible input” (from both the teacher and my classmates) is certainly one of the main reasons I attend group language classes myself, as a language learner. So I don’t like the idea of the teacher not being a source of input and listening practice for learners.

As a teacher, my classes are very student-centred and too much TTT has never really been a problem for me. However I do of course talk to my students.

How can “silent” and “pronunciation” go together?

You may be aware of Adrian Underhill’s way of introducing pronunciation. If you aren’t, watch his video. When I first saw him present this, I started to understand pronunciation in an entirely different way. I learnt how sounds were formed and how to show my students how to move their mouths into the right position for sounds they were struggling with.

Pronunciation is a motor skill. Pronunciation experts like Messum, whose webinar I watched as part of IATEFL #webconf17, say we don’t actually learn pronunciation by hearing and copying but that we need to learn how the mouth, tongue, lips and even body are used to produce the sounds of English.

Let’s revisit Underhill’s approach with this in mind.

You may or may not have realised he never says the sounds as he’s teaching them. He shows students how to position their mouths and the students themselves actually produce the sounds. He gives them feedback on their performance, whether it’s good or if not, feedback on how to improve. This (in my understanding) is teaching pronunciation the Silent Way.

In the classroom

I was sort of aware of this before, but perhaps not fully aware of the implications. I have definitely at some point said things like “learners can’t say what they can’t hear” (and vice versa). But I’m no longer sure that’s entirely true. If learners position their mouths correctly, won’t they produce more or less the right sound?

Of course, it is not easy to get learners to position their mouths correctly.

I’ve tried. I’ve used Underhill’s way of teaching the phonemic chart to three different groups: speakers of Vietnamese in 2015, speakers of Korean (and one Arabic) in 2016 and speakers of Spanish in 2017. I did initially try not to say the sounds myself but I have to admit I did sometimes say them. Habit! The most recent time I taught the chart, I definitely caught myself modelling too much and was aware of it at the time. However I’m pretty sure I was just thinking “oops, stop modelling” rather than considering the reasons behind it and why it’s so important to show rather than model.

Now I understand how the Silent Way can be used for developing pronunciation as a motor skill, the next time I teach phonemic sounds (or the chart itself), I’m going to be doubly conscious of this.

Over to you: How do you teach pronunciation, particularly the phonemic sounds?

References and Further Reading

This post was inspired by November’s IATEFL Web Conference 2017, realisations from Messum’s excellent session on pronunciation and reading I did afterwards.


Silent Way


  • Thornbury, S. (2015) Blog: S is for SLA (Second Language Acquisition)
  • Exposure, Motivation, Use:
  • Willis, J. (1996) A Framework for Task-Based Learning, pp.4-11

Images from Pixabay or my own work, unless otherwise stated.

7 thoughts on “The Silent Way for Pronunciation

  1. Nice to hear someone teaching pronunciation without just choral drills. I don’t go full Silent Way but you can’t hear what your learners are doing if you are modelling too much. I’m still thinking about making better charts for myself for smaller ranges of phoneme differences but for now I just chalk things up on the fly, including sagittal diagrams. These have helped my learners the most, I think.

    1. I drafted most of this post before my Module 1 exam in December where the Paper 2 Task 3 was discussing drilling… I made the connection in the exam and referred to this webinar, but had forgotten about that until now!

      I think on the phoneme level, the motor skill is paramount and in webinar I discovered for the first time that how motor skills apply to pronunciation on the intonation level. It’s a work in progress in terms of my teaching though. I haven’t yet thought about it at word level but I’m going to. Thanks!

      What do you mean by “smaller ranges of phoneme differences”? Phonemes that are similar or variations due to accent? Are these usually vowels or consonants?

  2. As I understand you, Marc, by “a smaller range of phoneme differences” you mean just a few phoneme contrasts to deal with at a time rather than all the 42 or so phonemes of the language at once as the Underhill and Messum & Young charts do.
    A lot of teachers beginning with Silent Way and similar approaches feel the same need to simplify the presentation – I know I did. Little by little I became familiar with the charts (Gattegno’s original spelling charts – even more items!) and realised that the need to simplify was my problem, not the students’.
    Be tolerant with yourself, Elizabeth. It’s having the criteria to evaluate your own teaching that’s important – making mistakes is as normal for teachers as for students.
    I have a blog where I write about teaching pronunciation (among other things) and also a site of interactive exercises for students. The exercises do treat a few phonemes contrasts at a time – not because I think they should but because I don’t know how to do better on line. Examples:
    (I’ve been having technical problems with my sites – please tell me if you spot any.)

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree teaching is an experimental process, being aware it’s what important.

      The metronome exercise looks especially interesting for learners who struggle with sentence level pron, like Vietnamese or Spanish native speakers. Shame I’m not teaching any of them these days!

  3. Elizabeth, I think that your description of teaching pronunciation by the Silent Way is fine. Another name for this is the ‘Articulatory Approach’:

    In case you or anyone else is interested, a TESOL EVO session on this approach, called ‘Teaching Pronunciation Differently’, is starting this coming Sunday, 14th January 2018. More information about the session and how to join can be found here:

    The session lasts 5 weeks, and it’s free of charge.

    1. Thank you, Piers, good to know I’m on the right track. I wasn’t aware the term “articulatory approach”.

      I’ve joined your course – looking forward to it!

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