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8 Things I Learned on Adrian Underhill’s ‘From Pronunciation to Storytelling…’ Course

The Bell Team
Written by the Bell Team

Ever wondered what attending one of our Teacher Development Courses is like? Hear first hand with our guest blog by James Egerton who attended 'From pronunciation to storytelling: a complete approach to comfortable intelligibilityat our Bell Teacher Campus.

Bell Teacher Campus classroom

I’m just back home in Riga after a fortnight at Bell Teacher Campus, Cambridge, where I took the ‘From pronunciation to storytelling: a complete approach to comfortable intelligibility’ course with Adrian Underhill along with 13 others from around the world.

Other teacher courses were running at the same time, and our 21 weekly core course hours were supplemented with other workshops, talks and plenaries with other ELT dons such as Chaz Pugliese and Silvana Richardson.

It’s always a danger going to courses and conferences, getting giddy with the new ideas for a while and then dropping back into old routines. The length of this course presents another danger (I experienced the same with the IATEFL conference in 2015): such a saturation of ideas that later on it’s difficult to recall just one, let alone put any into practice. So now’s a good time to sit down, go through my notes and draw out some key lessons to start running with. So what are the main points I take away?

1) The phonemic chart is more than a wall decoration

This picked up from where I left off at IH Toruń’s teacher training day in March, where Adrian’s plenary brought his chart to life (yes, he invented it). Used correctly, it’s NOT about learning symbols and writing out sentences in phonemes (how I miss Delta Module 1), but using proprioception to feel what’s happening in and around the mouth to make the correct sounds. The chart is laid out as a map to support this discovery (I’ll be back on this in detail in a future post – the first Mouth Gym session can expect company very soon). So when I’m back in class in September, the chart’s going up at the front of the room. I’ve even bought myself a telescopic pointer!

2) Drilling isn’t the most effective way to teach pronunciation

I say, you repeat, but the ears aren’t necessarily in tune with the mouth. If you don’t understand the intricate positioning and movement of the four ‘buttons’ (mouth, jaw, tongue, voice) to make the sounds, how can you recreate the sound? It’s like hearing a recording of a four piece band and trying to play the tune back instantly.

Instead, by teaching pronunciation physically rather than cognitively, we can teach students exactly what each of the four ‘instruments’ are doing, have them experiment and experience themselves, and use the chart to demonstrate. This doesn’t mean that modelling has no place; but learners need to know how to produce the sound themselves.

3) Pronunciation is in everything, so we should be teaching it with everything

Speaking? Obviously.

Reading? You pronounce the words internally.

Writing? As you read it back…(see above)

Grammar and vocabulary? Remembering structures and words often comes back to our internal voice sounding them out in our heads.

So after introducing the phonemic chart bit by bit, it should be used to complement everything else we do in class. There are many more activities we can do with pronunciation other than drilling, as I’ll get to in another post.

4) Native speaker = better teacher?

I’ve written about this before, but it will still be the case in September that learners specifically request a native speaker over a local one. Two nuggets from this course:

1 – The vast majority of the teachers at the Bell Teacher Campus had a first language other than English, and were giving up part of their summer to improve their teaching skills. Commitment and enthusiasm should be well above passport on a learner’s teacher shopping list (or an employer’s, for that matter).

2 – Just because we (native speakers) know how to do something, it doesn’t mean we know how to teach it. It’s more important to be aware of how we make certain sounds, and I hope all of my course mates feel ready to share that in their teaching now, no matter what their mother tongue.


Bell Teacher Campus Classroom

5) Don’t take concentration for granted

It was the first time since Delta Module 2 in August 2015 that I’d been a behind-the-desk learner for longer than two consecutive days…and despite having the honour of being taught by one of the most captivating trainers in the ELT world in Adrian Underhill, it wasn’t always easy!

I was more switched on some days than others, when although still interested I was just plain mentally exhausted. Unlike me in Cambridge, many of our younger learners come to lesson after a long day at school and not voluntarily, so it’s no wonder they get lethargic. We could even expect it and be proactive, such as planning in plenty of small group work and moving around (these both woke me up during the course!)

6) Be present

This is for life inside and outside the classroom. Adrian spoke about this in his workshop on developing empathy and mindfulness, but more importantly, he demonstrated it throughout the course, whether in the classroom or in the pub on group excursions.

It’s easier said than done, but valuable communication is about complete focus on who you’re speaking with, leaving all other distractions out of mind (including putting your phone away!) Teaching is at its root a shared communication between teacher and learner(s), so being present in turn improves teaching practice.

How? Eye contact (not creepy), focus, putting your attention onto the speaker rather than waiting to be enticed. Oh look, my girlfriend just got in from work, started chatting and I’m glued to my laptop writing this. A long way to go!

7) Be behind your words

Again, a lesson for life, not just for teaching. Expressing yourself effectively is paramount in anything: explaining something in class, giving a presentation, buying a bus ticket, making small talk in a queue. The list goes on!

Adrian gave us many tips on how to speak from the heart rather than the head and attracting listeners’ attention, particularly during the second part of the course on storytelling. Here are a few simple ones:

1 – Speak slower than you think, and “get lippy” (exaggerate lip movement a little!)

2 – Pause for effect – leave people space to think, let your words sink in.

3 – Stretch out the stressed words in the sentence.

8) Lead (and learn) by example

The final words of this post should go to the one and only Adrian Underhill himself:

Don’t waste energy trying to persuade others who appear not to be interested. Start with a learning group of one, be enthusiastic, keep it up, and leave the door open for others to join you”.


With thanks to James for his permission to reproduce his blog. To read more from James visit: 

Keep learning and developing on one of our teacher training courses.

The Bell Team
Written by the Bell Team,
Bringing you up-to-date information and useful insights from Bell, so you know exactly how we can support you - when the time is right.