• Tom Garside

How to use the International Phonetic Alphabet 1 - Transcribing speech


The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an essential tool in teaching pronunciation. Drilling words and phrases one by one can teach these pieces of language individually, but this may not enable students to appreciate where certain sounds appear in new words, or how to break tricky chunks of language down to work on individual sounds that cause them issues.


A key skill for language educators, and one which is developed on comprehensive initial training courses such as the Trinity CertTESOL, is phonetic transcription. The ability to quickly display the words you are teaching in phonetic script opens up pronunciation for examination in a more detailed way. So how can you develop the skill of phonetic transcription?

**If you want to know more about the IPA and how it is often presented to learners, see our Youtube video on understanding the IPA.



  1. Separate sound and spelling


The English spelling system, is very irregular. Unlike many languages, one spelling pattern in English can be pronounced in many different ways, and one sound can be represented by many different spellings.


An old puzzle says that in English, we spell the word 'fish' as follows: GHOTI. We use the last sound in 'enough', the second sound in 'women', and the 'ti' from 'ambition', and it makes dhoti - fish! This shows the lack of connection between sound and spelling in English.


Take the words ‘bred’ and ‘bread’, for example. These different vowel spellings sound exactly the same. Conversely, the spellings ‘read’ and ‘lead’ can be pronounced in different ways depending on the word being spoken (is ‘read’ in the present or the past? And is ‘lead’ a verb or a noun - the type of metal?)


By using the IPA, we can quickly differentiate spelling from sound, by showing the sound-by-sound transcriptions: /liːd/, /led/, /riːd/ and /red/, where the phoneme /iː/ represents the long sound, and /e/ shows the shorter sound.


When transcribing words sound by sound, it is also important not to get distracted by the spelling yourself. When you want to break down a word, look at the word and say it to yourself, then look away from the word. Say it to yourself again and focus only on the sounds in the word. Slow down and break down the sounds in the word.


For example, try sounding out the words ‘woman’ and ‘women’. Remember, look away from the word and break it down, and you should come out with two quite different vowel pronunciations:


/w ʊ m ə n/ and /w ɪ m ɪ n/


This level of difference is much harder to process when looking at the written forms, due to the irregularities that we take for granted when we say these common words.



2) Be careful of your vowels

When you look at the full set of phonemes on the English IPA, you will probably recognise most of the consonants, as they look like the letters which they commonly sound like - /t/ for the letter t, /b/ for the letter b, etc. (with a few exceptions).


Vowel phonemes, on the other hand, are not so straightforward. The Underhill IPA (commonly used in the ESOL classroom due to its simplicity). English only has 5 vowel letters (6 if you include the letter y), but the IPA contains 20 vowel sounds. This shows the huge range of sounds which are formed from only a few spellings.


The main difference in vowel phonemes is between monophthongs (single sounds) and diphthongs (‘double’ sounds), represented by one or two vowel sounds acting as single phonemes (think ‘cap’ - monophthong /æ/ vs. ‘cape - diphthong /eɪ/).


Hearing diphthongs can be tricky (especially if you are focusing on spelling, as above), so slow right down when you are sounding out a word, and restate it a few times. Eventually you will develop an ear for vowels which sit together.

3) Always think about word stress


All words with more than one syllable contain stress. One or more syllables in any multi-syllable word are pronounced more strongly than others. This is an important aspect of English, as not all languages have the same system of stressed and unstressed syllables. Unstressed syllables in English tend to contain reduced vowels, which take on a smaller, shorter and less effortful sound than strong syllables.

Reduced, or weak vowels are more often than not represented by a single sound: schwa /ə/. Schwa is never stressed, so should never appear in a strong syllable (one of the golden rules of pronunciation), and as there are more weak syllables than strong syllables in English speech, schwa is also by far the most common sound in the English language.

4) Listen out for connecting sounds

When teaching phrases and sentence pronunciation, where several words are pronounced together, be careful to listen for what happens at the boundaries between words. When we jump from one word to another (without leaving a gap or space - we. don’t. leave. Spaces. Between. Words. In. Natural. Speech) sounds can blend together, disappear or intrude in different ways according to a complex system of rules.


These features of connected speech affect the way in which we say words together, and therefore how they are transcribed, for example, in the phrase ‘the end’, a sound intrudes between the two vowels at the word boundary. Say the phrase quickly - can you hear it?


Part of the art of transcription is to hear what is really spoken, not what we think we are saying according to spelling, or other knowledge about the words and phrases we speak. Be totally objective and trust your ear for the sounds that you and others produce when you speak.


Phonetic transcription does not come quickly, but with practice on short words building to longer words and phrases, it becomes more intuitive with time and eventually you will develop an ear for the sounds of English, allowing you to work with it quickly and effectively in the classroom.

Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.


If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.

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