As we saw in our last blog, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) can be a tricky thing for teachers to get familiar with. However, it does provide a valuable resource for pronunciation teaching. Depending on where your learners come from, they may or may not have had access to the IPA before. If not, there is no reason why they should spend hours learning the full set of phonemes at once - this is likely to overload them and there are probably more important things for them to focus on in their study.
There is value, however, in students being able to identify and work with specific sounds which are an issue for them. Many pronunciation issues are language-specific, so speakers of particular languages may share pronunciation errors with each other. In this case, a run-through of problem sounds and where they appear in words and phrases is helpful. Here are two ways of building awareness of students’ problem sounds using the IPA as a reference:
Hearing individual sound differences
Perhaps the most problematic issues with pronunciation happen when one sound in English is confused for another. Think of the famous confusion between /l/ and /r/ in Korean and Japanese speakers, or the lack of difference between the short /ɪ/ and the long /iː/ in Italian and Spanish speakers. A lack of clarity between these sounds can actually cause a barrier to understanding - many meanings are differentiated with just these two sounds: lead and read, light and write, lip and leap, fit and feet… without proper differentiation of these sounds in a speaker, meanings can easily get confused.
As a solution, when working on speaking skills, it is worth noting down some common errors in pronunciation during a class, and taking some time to refer to the IPA to show students where their common issues lie. By highlighting these problem sounds, showing them the transcribed words and confirming the difference in pronunciation through drilling and sound work, learners’ awareness of the importance of these issues can be raised, and they can start working towards more accurate speech in an informed way.
Working with minimal pairs (pairs of words which only differ in a single sound, such as the Japanese / Italian examples above) are another useful tool for working with specific sound differences. Choosing a list of real words which contrast by the use of the target sounds for these learners can highlight the difference more clearly, and form a useful basis for practice. Blind dictation activities work well for this, as do annotation tasks where either the teacher or a stronger student read out words, and other learners annotate the words on paper, using the target phonemes. Where does the sound appear? How does it sound? By highlighting the sounds visually, they become more ‘fixed’ than if they are just spoken out or drilled, and more focused work can be done as a result.
Hearing sound patterns
Another way of approaching pronunciation using the IPA is to focus on a selected set of sounds which appear in speech based on a pattern (rather than in individual words). The features of connected speech can be taught in this way, and the first step to working with these is to raise awareness of patterns of sound which can be applied in a range of different situations.
The closed set of ‘linking sounds’ which help to connect vowels across words can be taught as a discrete pattern. The sounds /w/, /r/ and /j/ appear between words which end and begin with vowel sounds. These follow a pattern which is not represented in the written forms of the words, for example, there is a linking sound between each of the following pairs of words:
The pattern here is that the connecting sound /w/ helps to link the vowels at the end of ‘two’, ‘go’, to’ and ‘no’ with the vowels at the beginning of ‘apples’, ‘away, ‘eat’ and ‘entry’. Collecting these examples of connecting /w/, dictating them to students and having them notice and write a /w/ where they hear it will raise awareness of this pattern. Once they can hear this, the pattern reveals itself: after vowels ending in a rounded lip shape (like /u:/ in ‘two’, /əʊ/ in ‘go’ and ‘no’, /ʊ/ in ‘to’), the /w/ sound can be heard to link to the following vowels in ‘apples’, ‘away’, ‘eat’ and ‘entry’. By writing the /w/ sound between words when they hear it, they are actively adding it into that position on paper when they notice it, which will make it more likely to appear in their speech.
A less restricted task would be to read out a longer paragraph containing /w/ insertion in a broader context, and asking students to add in the /w/s when they hear them. This series of tasks can equally be applied with other sounds which appear in connecting positions (such as /r/ and /j/), and other pattern-based features of pronunciation.
So the IPA doesn’t have to be used in full transcription tasks for students to integrate it into their study - taking key sounds one by one and raising awareness of how and where they appear, along with some paper-and-pen tasks with the phonemes can cement awareness of these features and generate more tangible tasks than simple drilling and error correction, which can be difficult for students to latch onto.
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.