Professional Teacher
Phonemic charts - worth the trouble?

Students - have you seen the English phonemic chart?  Have you learnt it all?  Do you find it useful?

The phonemic chart is a collection of real English letters, faux (false) letters and random squiggles (funny shaped lines) that have no meaning outside of the context of this chart.  It provides a kind of "code," which serves as an aid to correct pronunciation.

Teachers - how useful is this chart really?  How long does it typically take to teach a class of students this "alphabet'?

I can see two potential advantages:

1) After a student has become completely familiar with this phonemic chart then they can look up a word in a dictionary and understand how to pronounce it, without having to hear somebody say the word.  But I would think that most students do not tackle a reading comprehension exercise by looking up every word that they do not know in a dictionary.  Anyone beyond beginner level would surely rely on the words that they do know and try and divine the meaning of most unfamiliar words via context, only looking up the words where the context did not reveal the meaning.

2) Whilst they are sat in a language lesson, this code can be used as an aid to pronunciation.

But....... I have to say that I have studied various foreign languages and never been shown any kind of phonemic chart whilst in the process of studying them.  I understand that many other languages have a closer correlation between spelling and pronunciation than English does but, still, I find it odd that - if these charts are so vital - I had never ever seen one until a few weeks ago when, having become a Community Tutor here at italki, I decided to start reading lots of books about teaching.

Speaking of context and words that people already know.. why can't we illustrate pronunciation using words that a learner will already know?  For example, today a learner wanted to pronounce the word "cellulite."  If they knew the phonemic alphabet, and if I did, then I could have used that to show the pronunciation.  But because they were above beginner level, I was able to show the pronunciation of this word by using three words that they already knew "sell-you-light.," and they pronounced the word perfectly, having had no idea how to pronounce it before.

All thoughts appreciated....................

Oct 1, 2016 7:52 PM
Comments · 9

I'm a firm believer in IPA, because it analyses sounds in terms of how they're produced in the mouth. Pronunciation is not theoretical, it's physical. What do your lips do? What does your jaw do? Where is your tongue? These are all totally relevant questions. As humans we all have the same mouth structure, yet our languages differ enormously in how our mouths are used.

To give a simple example, if a learner asked me what the difference is between "live" and "leave" I'd point out that the vowels are different: live  is /lɪv/ and leave is /li:v/. When you say /ɪ/ the tongue is further back, and when you pronounce /i:/ the tongue moves forward. This is not theoretical mumbo-jumbo! Even a child can feel the difference in how their tongue moves.

I'd follow that with minimal pair exercises comparing /ɪ/ and /i:/, such as:





etc. etc.

IPA is all about exploring your mouth, it's definitely not something invented by some nerdy academic to split hairs. I highly recommend you Youtube Adrian Underhill, his videos are incredibly useful, accessible and practical guides to teaching English through the IPA. I've learnt a lot through him.

October 3, 2016
Thank you very much to both of you for your well thought out comments.
October 1, 2016

Yes, I have. I've learnt them since long ago. I have tried many times to know them by heart but I haven't succeeded yet. I even sticked  a phonemic chart on my closet but I still face some problems to know them all. I don't face any problems with the single vowels, the voiced and unvoiced consonants but it's not easy to recall the diphthongs.


October 1, 2016

Several of my Spanish language partners and I have used this site which to me is better than a simple phonetic chart.  It does not just have a phonetic chart, but it shows animations and videos of just what the tongue and mouth does.  The site includes an English section and a Spanish section and another language or two.  My partners and I have used it to compare and help each other become aware of the different ways vowels and consonants are pronounced in English.

I have found IPA phonetics extremely helpful and am glad that I became aware of it within the first few months of having people to talk to in my target language.   I was introduced to it by a training program called the ¨Mimic Method.¨ I asked them if this material that was part of their free introductory e-mail course was acceptable to share on a forum and they told me I could as long as I gave them credit.  This link gives you an idea of how using the phonics chart can be helpful in explaining and ¨tuning¨ improved pronunciation.

October 3, 2016

We used them all the time in school (the 1980's). They were very useful. You write up the word, the phonetic, and the translation in glossary lists and - well, cram, I guess.

Can't say I ever saw a "chart" though, it was just the letters, like an alphabet, exemplified with simple words like "hat", "hut", etc.

Without the IPA, in combination with the teacher playing loads and loads of tapes of guys talking in Estuary English, I sure don't know what kind of English pronunciation I might have picked up. As of now, well, it's a bit undecided at the moment as there's been a certain amount of influx in the form of US TV serials over the years.

I might add the IPA was introduced very early on, might have been before the age of 13 because I can't really remember when I learned to read those letters, but it sure was before seventh grade (i.e. before age 13).

October 3, 2016
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