Our phonemic friend
English Teaching Professional, 47, November 2006.
Richard Ostick – SQM and Director of Studies, Kingsway English Centre, Worcester
Richard Ostick laments the apparent demise of the phonemic symbol chart.


Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the IATEFL Conference in Cardiff last year. So, to see what I had missed, I trawled through the list of presentations. I found that I had missed such delights as ‘Sexing up ESP teaching’ and ‘Reflection and reflexivity’ (which sounds painful!). However, as usual I was surprised, or I should say, not surprised, to see only a handful of presentations dedicated to an area of language that is central to successful and effective communication: pronunciation.

Approaching pronunciation

This, sadly for our learners, seems to be the case with most new coursebooks too. I recently picked up some sample copies at a conference in London. I was really pleased with their shiny covers, up-to-date illustrations and attention to collocation, but was dismayed at the lipservice (usually in the form of a ‘pronunciation spot’ in the review section of a unit) given to such an essential part of language learning. However, after closer inspection of the IATEFL presentation titles I realised how much the different aspects of pronunciation could and/or should have been contained within the delivery of many of the topics. There is pronunciation to be found in everything and this is how pronunciation should be approached in our day-to-day teaching. As teachers, we need to adopt this approach in our work. One useful way to do this is by systematically teaching our learners the phonemic symbol chart (see page 43). We are required to have an in-depth knowledge of such things as the tense system, and so should also have an in-depth knowledge of the individual sounds that make up the language we teach. There are, of course, other areas of pronunciation that are important. Intonation, for example, is a vital area for successful communication but it can be difficult to teach as it is very intuitive and context-bound. However, the phonemic chart is something that is both tangible and teachable. It is our friend and should be our learners’ pal too.

Learning the chart

Learning the chart may crop up in a little more depth if they go on to take further courses, but they tend to forget about it unless they go on to do a masters in EFL, EAP or applied linguistics! For this reason, I feel it should be something that teacher trainers should instil in trainees from the very beginning. There are numerous reasons why the chart is an invaluable tool for both learners and teachers:
•It helps in effective and productive recording of new vocabulary.
•It highlights the spelling/pronunciation dichotomy and helps learners to identify patterns, tendencies and exceptions.
•It helps learners to use dictionaries effectively.
•It raises awareness of individual problems.
•It provides a visual stimulus for correction.
•It helps learners to become more autonomous.
•It raises awareness of English phonology.
•It provides a stepping stone and a shortcut to teaching/learning other areas of pronunciation such as word stress and aspects of connected speech

The most important reason for integrating the phonemic chart into our teaching is that it is simply not included in a lot of materials that learners may come across throughout their learning career. I do understand that it has its shortcomings, including the fact that there are many sounds in accents and dialects that are not represented. However, it is simply a tool or model to help learners become more effective communicators and if we believe pronunciation is important in the learners’ quest for this, then we need to apply the model, or use the tool, to do so.

Teaching the chart

Here are some helpful hints for teaching the chart.
•Start with the alphabet. Point out the vowels. Ask how many letters there are (26) and how many sounds (45).
•Point out the importance of pronunciation and the difference between spelling and pronunciation: Write on the board I read the newspaper and ask a student to read it aloud. Then add the word yesterday. Ask them to read the sentence again. Point out the difference in the pronunciation of read.
•Tell the students that if they know the chart, they can say every word in the dictionary!
•Use hand gestures and just mouth the sounds to try to elicit each vowel sound. A gorilla impersonation is great for the /Ÿ/ sound.
•Elicit example words containing the sounds to write in their own copy of the chart.
•For the consonants, a useful prop is a remote control to ‘turn down’ the volume on the unvoiced consonants. Also, ask students to put their hands on their throats to feel the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants.

Teaching the phonemic chart is not an easy task to undertake, nor will the learners learn it instantly. However, through daily reference to individual sounds whenever they arise, a learner undertaking an intensive English course should be able to refer to the chart competently within a reasonably short space of time. I work in a school that specialises in short courses and at the end of the first day of each course there is a special lesson to introduce students to the phonemic chart. It is vital to keep this lesson light-hearted and fun, but to assure the students that it is more likely to be an error in pronunciation that will cause communication difficulties than an error in grammar.

From experience in the classroom and teacher training I have found that students often pick up and use the phonemic chart much more quickly and confidently than trainee teachers! This reflects on how useful students find it and how quickly they recognise its importance in their own learning development.


Richard Ostick has taught in both Czech Republic and Spain. He is Director of Studies at the Kingsway English Centre in Worcester, UK and is interested in all aspects of pronunciation, autonomous learning, and teacher development.


This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional, Issue 47, 2006