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Sound Foundations

Adrian Underhill
Macmillan Heinemann ELT, 1994
pp. xiii +210


Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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What's in a name?
All too often, a book grabs a title from a cute phrase within, or some general sense of the area it plans to cover. Sound Foundations, on the other hand, has found that magic phrase that says so much through so little.

Yes, it's a book about sounds: teaching practical phonology. Yes, it's a basic course: the foundations. But Adrian Underhill does more than that here. He presents a structure to help teachers understand the underlying elements in their own pronunciation, and to therefore be able to present the true foundations of presenting "sounds like English" training to language learners.

A different kind of "teacher training book"
Unlike most of the books on the market, this book really isn't conducive to use in a teacher-training program. In fact the book more closely follows that oft cited, yet seldom pursued, maxim "know thyself." As editor of the Macmillan Heinemann Teacher Development Series, Underhill writes the series prologue within his own title, including the advice "becoming a student of learning, your own as well as that of others.

The book is so good that those who choose not to use them can still benefit greatly from the training and tips within.

Chapters aren't filled with little quizzes or discussion points, but are filled with practical self-learning tasks. The first half of the book is dedicated to teachers discovering how they speak, so that they might then teach based on real awareness rather than textbook learning, hence Part 1 is titled "Discovery Toolkit."

The debate in teaching pronunciation
How many "approaches" are there in teaching pronunciation? I did a quick survey about four years ago, and the fourteen pronunciation coursebooks I looked at had little in common. Underhill points out the two most common directions for teaching "living phonology" (as he calls it): focussing on segmentals, and focussing on super-segmentals. Much of the current literature focuses on super-segmentals, with the argument that word stress and sentence-level intonation is far more important for comprehensibility than the individual phonemes. Sound Foundations, however, spends roughly half the time on the segmentals, with tidbits here and there of phonology theory.

In a pronunciation-specific course I tend to favor spending roughly half the semester working with phonemes, simply because it improves student confidence in an area where they believe they are weak. It is also consistent with the teaching of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which enables students to then utilize a dictionary for pronunciation purposes.

This focus is incorporated in Sound Foundations as Level 1 in both Part 1 and Part 2 (Classroom Toolkit). But as a "native speaker of English," I already am expert in how to pronounce these sounds, right? Well…

Teaching sounds production
Even those who do not teach dedicated courses in pronunciation typically deal with pronunciation issues within any given class period.

This book is perhaps best known for the chart that is the basis for much of the approach, particularly noticeable in Part 2. Underhill's chart is not a perfect representation of places of articulation, but rather is designed to help learner's discover opposites and (rough) intermediates. It actually incorporates three issues or more in the arrangement of consonants, though this is frequently overlooked by teachers (including myself) in lands where few consonants are troublesome.

While some teachers untrained in theoretical phonology might be aware of some of the subordinate considerations in the creation of phonemes, no book on the market has done as good a job of integrating these in language any novice teacher can understand, practice, and incorporate in their classrooms. The book is so good that those who choose not to use them can still benefit greatly from the training and tips within.

Pronunciation choice
The book and chart are written with Received Pronunciation ("proper English accent" à la BBC) as the focus. Those of us with other points of reference need to think through some of the issues a bit more carefully. I use a modified chart in my classrooms that reflects American English usage. Since most learner dictionaries are based on RP, however, I make sure to refer to Underhill's chart as well (and also a non-IPA pronunciation depiction common in many "Webster's" style US dictionaries).

Classroom Tips
Part 2 of the book (Classroom Toolkit) has the same three levels as Part 1: sounds, words, and connected speech. The brief introduction to this Part says it all: "The classroom toolkit is designed to help you develop trust and confidence in your creativity to turn classroom events into learning events, so that learners become their own resource, and their performance provides their own syllabus."

Underhill's approach is clearly identified through a number of statements, including: "Developing your own repertoire of non-verbal model-giving takes practice and curiosity, and the best place for that is in the classroom. Take pleasure in trying things out, and if possible involve your learners in discussing outcomes."

There are lots of neat ideas in here. It's the first time I've seen use of Cuisinaire rods clearly displayed in a book!

Sounding Out!
I find the first part on self-discovery far more useful than the second, which novice teachers might rely on more heavily. The wall chart must be purchased separately, and can be hard to find ­ that's my number one complaint! I only wish something slightly more "American" could be produced, to make it easier for folks like myself to incorporate this work into our own teaching.



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