Phonetics and Phonology

This is probably going to be one of the most complicated parts of the course because you are going to be introduced to a new alphabet (of sorts). It is important that you try to understand it because it can be really useful in the TEFL classroom, especially if your students are from Asian countries.

English is not like many other languages, it is not phonetic. This means you can have identical letters that produce different sounds, which especially applies to our vowels. For example read (I read every evening) and read (Yesterday I read 2 chapters). On the other hand, in English we have sounds that are spelt differently but end up producing almost identical sounds. For example, said and head. Written differently, but pronounced the same.

Here are some more reasons why English is difficult to learn phonetically:

  • Less than 5% of the world’s languages have 17 vowels sounds, English has 20;
  • Less than 8% of the world’s languages have the /th/ sound;
  • There are some rules for word stress but not one, general theme as in other languages;
  • English intonation is much more complex and varied compared to most other languages.

One method that has been established to help students learn phonetically is to teach and use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Rather than the actual alphabet that shows you how to write the word, the IPA has a symbol to represent each sound. Remember, even the same letters can produce a different sound. At the last count there are over 100 letters but there are less than 50 that are used commonly. Most of the letters chosen to represent each sound are connected to the Latin alphabet.

Most dictionaries will show the IPA symbols next to each word. This makes learning the phonetic alphabet a great tool for students because they can learn and practise at home, knowing that they are pronouncing the word reasonably well.

How to Teach the IPA

The skill to teaching the IPA is nothing special. Your students simply need to learn a list. It requires drilling and practice. The most important aspect is that you introduce the letters so the sound of each symbol is clear to the students. This is not so easy because many symbols have similar sounds and not every student has a good ear (good listening skills). To help yourself use simple words, the ones they have already learnt, as clear examples of each sound (similar to below). You have to make sure that you are teaching the standard pronunciation rather than your own, accented, pronunciation. For example:

Book must be pronounced as /bÊŠk/ and not /bu:k/ which is how someone from Manchester would pronounce it (boook)

Practice

Once you have taught the alphabet, your students need to practise to be able to get to grips with using it. The best way is simple translation. Either you provide the text and they translate it into IPA or you provide the text written in IPA and they translate it verbally or first written and then verbally. It’s hard to make it exciting but you can spice it up by using interesting texts, for example song lyrics, poems etc.

To be able to teach it, you need to know it. It’s possible that your students may ask you to write on the board how it is phonetically written if they are having problems pronouncing it.

It’s not black and white.

Although it was designed to make pronunciation black and white, sometimes there is more than one option because the 2 sounds are similar. The reality is that it is black and white if we all went around speaking RP or ‘Queen’s English’. We don’t, so we apply the general rule. If you think 95% or more natives would understand the pronunciation, then it’s good enough.

Phonetic phone numbers
A great exercise for your students to practise is phonetic phone numbers. You simply assign a sound to each number (writing it on the board) for example:
0 ʌ
1 É‘:
2 æ
3 e
4 É™
5 ɪ
6 ɜ:
7 É’
8 ÊŠ
9 É”:

Then, you get students into pairs, get them to write their phone numbers (or make up phone numbers) and translate it into the connected sound. Once they have done that they should repeat their phone number, in sounds, to their partner, who then tries to translate what they hear back into numbers. Each person in the pair has a turn saying and translating and then they review how close they were.

IPA Table of Vowels

Here is a reduced version of the IPA. Learn it and practise just as you would if you were the student, it will be part of the test!

Vowels

ÊŒcupluck
É‘:armfather
æcatblack
emetbed
əawaycinema
ɜ:turnlearn
ɪhitsitting
i:seeheat
É’hotrock
É”:callfour
ÊŠputcould
u:bluefood
aɪfiveeye
aÊŠnowout
eɪsayeight
oÊŠgohome
ɔɪboyjoin
eəwhereair
ɪənearhere
ʊəpuretourist

IPA Table of Consonants

bbadlab
ddidlady
ffindif
ggiveflag
hhowhello
jyesyello
kcatback
lleglittle
mmanlemon
nnoten
Å‹singfinger
ppetmap
rredtry
ssunmiss
ʃshecrash
tteagetting
tʃcheckchurch
θthinkboth
ðthismother
vvoicefive
wwetwindow
zzoolazy
Ê’pleasurevision
dÊ’justlarge