By Steve Hirschhorn
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is the result of work by 19th and early
The IPA can be used to show how an utterance can be sounded or how an utterance actually has been sounded in a specific example. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the notion of showing how something might be pronounced because that’s where language teachers and students will find the most benefit. So, the IPA is a tool, often in the form of a chart (see fig 1), which teachers and students can use to guide pronunciation.
This chart, based on Adrian Underhill’s well-known chart and using my own IPA font, represents the sounds of English; there are other symbols which apply to other languages.
Let’s start by examining one of the major objections to using the IPA: it is said to represent a prestigious variety of English known as Received Pronunciation and therefore doesn’t represent “my” accent or “my” variety of the language. The chart above is a simple graphic denotation of
The phoneme doesn’t really exist, it’s just an idea so I, as a teacher, can invest the symbols of the chart above with almost any sounds I choose! Of
And now, to some advantages!
Most of us these days will be working towards a student-centred classroom in which teacher becomes a guide or facilitator to support students in their learning rather than the somewhat old fashioned idea of teacher as ‘giver of information’. As a guide then, we can expect to offer useful information which will enable students to arrive at their own conclusions within certain parameters. What I mean by this is that the information we provide will allow students to find a pathway to their own learning rather than simply to listen to the teacher and follow mindlessly. The same principles apply in teaching pronunciation. We know these days that no variety of English has automatic primacy and therefore we no longer drill students to try to reach some sort of native-like reproduction but rather, we work towards intelligibility.
The IPA chart
This being the case, pronunciation can be shown simply by pointing out the item needed, not saying anything at all but encouraging students to invest in their own learning by accepting the challenge to work it out.
In my experience of using a chart for the last 40 years or so, students love the challenge of doing that rather than simply ‘listen and repeat’.
As well as the chart itself, teachers can also use the IPA for a variety of additional purposes, amongst them: giving written instructions, setting homework tasks, jigsaw sentences in IPA, having students write notes to each other in IPA and writing classroom information such as ‘rules’ and so on. Indeed, the number of uses for the IPA is determined only by the imagination of the teacher and students!
But first, of course, students need to know what those squiggly symbols stand for!
There are many IPA charts around with words underneath each symbol to
Let’s imagine that a student sees this:
So I don’t use those lists but instead, I use techniques which originated in the practice of Silent Way, by showing how the sounds are produced, silently!
This process is simpler than it sounds here and much easier to show than to describe in words! I have used this technique with students of all ages and L1s and also with