Learning IPA


At the start of the academic year I set some resolutions for myself, and as we’re now a few months in, I thought I’d give you all an update on how things are going.

Learning Italian, I have to admit, has fallen by the wayside. I enjoyed the course, and have enough of a grounding in other languages to be able to complete the activities without too much difficulty. However, I found that I’d need to spend quite a bit more time studying to get the vocabulary to actually stick in my mind so that I’d be able to easily produce it rather than simply recognise it. I also found it difficult to find the motivation to catch up once I’d fallen behind with the course, which should be a lesson to some of my students who miss classes and/or don’t complete their homework on a semi-regular basis! I have been writing more, although still not as much as I’d like, and so this is something to continue working on.  My main goal, however, and one which I have actually been making headway on, was to learn and get to grips with IPA.

My first step towards learning phonetics has been simply to expose myself to the symbols as much as possible. Sandy Millin was first to point me in the direction of some great dresources, including the pictoral version of the chart from New English File coursebooks. As someone with a very visual memory I’ve found it much easier to associate the symbols with a picture (and a word) than simply with the sound that they make. I was already familiar with this version of the chart (having taught in several classrooms where the poster is displayed!), however OUP also has some extra resources online. There is a flash version of the chart (with recordings if you want to check pronunciation)  and also a fun online game to practise word stress – I can see myself directing students towards this in the future! They also have an App available on iTunes and Android, although it does cost a bit.

Sandy also shares some useful links on her resources for CELTA page – scroll down until you get to ‘Pronunciation’. I particularly liked the activities suggested by ELT Concourse . I’ve only done a few of them so far, but like the idea of jotting down random words in IPA from time to time. I can definitely see the appeal of making learning IPA a fun thing you do in a relaxed environment, not least because it removes anxiety about potentially getting it wrong!

Teresa Bestwick also had some helpful suggestions for me: writing shopping lists/lists of related words (eg. vegetables, clothes) using the symbols, and downloading an IPA keyboard for WhatsApp!


I still feel like I have a long way to go, but I am already feeling a lot more confident about using the phonemic chart in the classroom. From almost never using it, I’ve now started regularly including the symbols in my board work, and have found being able to use the alphabet a useful extra tool when correcting students’ pronunciation.


So, what have I learned about learning IPA?

  • Learn the vowel sounds (and consonant sounds your learners  struggle with) first. Back when I was training to become a teacher, I made the mistake of viewing IPA in the same way as a standard alphabet – where all the symbols are equally important and you can’t really learn only some of them. I realise now that I made my life far harder than it needed to be!
  • You don’t need to write whole words in  IPA. Another of my misconceptions about IPA was that if I was going to use it, I needed to transcribe the whole word. Teaching on my school’s Pronunciation course however has made me realise that if you’re trying to focus students on a particular sound – you only need to write those sounds.
  • Use it little and often. As I’ve gradually become more and more confident with using IPA, the most helpful thing I’ve found has been to use it.
  • Introduce your students to it too. Especially as I’ve been teaching mainly beginners this term, I’ve been a bit afraid to introduce them to IPA – some of them are only just getting to grips with the roman alphabet and I didn’t want to confuse them too much by bringing another alphabet into the mix. However, after some discussion with my senior teacher, I took the plunge, and I’m glad I did! Again, little and often has been the key: pointing out the differences between vowel sounds in ‘can’ and ‘can’t’, for example.
  • Don’t be afraid to check. One of my great fears behind using IPA in the classroom was that I would make a mistake. It’s taken lots of time (and lots of mental pep-talks!) but I’ve finally realised that IPA is the same as anything else: it’s better to admit that you’re not sure and to check your facts than it is to plough ahead and teach something that’s wrong! Worst case scenario: get your students to get their dictionaries/phones out and ask them to check themselves.


Did you set any new (academic) year’s resolutions? I’d love to hear how they’re going!



One thought on “Learning IPA

  1. Hi Elly,
    Glad to hear it’s going well, and thanks for the links back to my blog. Not sure if you saw this when I shared it on facebook the other day: http://www.adrianunderhill.com/2016/10/05/the-phonetic-english-joke-book/ Might be a fun way to get a bit of extra practice 🙂
    I’ve found a similar thing with the FutureLearn Corpus course. I got behind, and now I can’t be bothered to go back and catch up. For your Italian, you could try memrise: http://www.memrise.com/courses/english/italian/ Can’t remember if I recommended it before 🙂
    Good luck with continuing with these aims!


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