How the International Phonetic Alphabet
Can Help Us Teach Pronunciation


Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

How can we teach students to begin mastering the art of pronunciation autonomously? There is a very helpful tool that can be utilized in classrooms, one we may not be familiar with or may not have thought of using: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This resource is especially useful when helping students with consonants.

Here is what the IPA gives us to help us distinguish consonant sound formation. At first look you may ask, as I did, what does all this mean and how can this help me? One good reason to understand the IPA is that many dictionaries use the IPA symbols. So let’s take a minute to understand how to interpret this chart. First, see how it’s organized.

IPA chart

(Wondering what pulmonic means? Of course you are, you teach English. The Wikipedia definition is: A pulmonic consonant is a consonant produced by air pressure from the lungs, as opposed to ejective, implosive, and click consonants.)

Most languages have only pulmonic consonants.

The IPA helps us with three important areas: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing.

The basics are: In order to make sounds, we need to manipulate the structure of our mouth, tongue, teeth, and throat. We produce different sounds by manipulating our mouth, tongue, teeth, and throat to various places to induce some type of obstruction in the airflow. The various obstructions help produce the various sounds.

Place of articulation has two categories: Active and Passive Articulators. These are listed on the chart as Bilabial, Labiodental, Dental, Alveolar, Postalveolar, Retroflex, Palatal, Velar, Uvular, Pharyngeal, and Glottal Consonants. These various airflow obstructions are all listed at the top of the IPA chart. Thank goodness not all of these are needed in the English language! But, we should be aware that these do exist in other languages, some of which may be the native languages of our English language learners.

Next is manner of articulation, which is listed on the left-hand side of the chart. This tells us how much airflow is being obstructed. Near total obstruction is listed at the top and a minimal amount near the bottom.

Let’s start with the second from the top, nasal, because many of us have used exaggerated examples of nasal. If we say the word nasal, we are diverting the air totally from the throat directly through the nose to produce the “n” sound. Nice! Now try “m.” You’ll notice that some of the air flows into the closed mouth before exiting through the nose. The tongue, lips, and teeth are positioned differently: meditate, moving, muscles.

Now let’s try plosives. Plosives stop the airflow altogether and allow pressure to build up and then be released in an “explosive” manner. English has six plosive consonants: p, b, t, d, k, and g.

Finally, we have voicing. Voicing is the differentiation between similarities of place and manner. For example, let’s take the consonants p and b. We produce both consonants using the same place and manner structures. However, p and b are differentiated by the production of a non-vibrated p and a slightly vibrated b. Try it. Say both consonants and feel the difference in your throat. In class, have your students try the same exercise. Continue reading

J is for Jokes

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It felt like hours.

The joke my student was trying to tell perhaps took no more than three or four minutes, but it involved many clarification moves on my part (“I’m sorry, do you mean …?”) and repair moves on his part, hesitating, saying the wrong word, and then backing up to explain (“I mean ….”). At the end of it all, the disjointed story (“Oh, before that, I meant to say ….”) coalesced into an anecdote he’d read about a diner receiving a free meal at a restaurant after finding a cockroach in his soup. Afterward, the apologetic server humbly escorts the diner to the door and helps him with his coat when, unfortunately for the diner, a bottle full of cockroaches spills from the coat’s pocket.

I smiled weakly and nodded, but the student was far from finished; he felt compelled to explain the obvious: the bottle meant that the diner doubtlessly made a regular practice of obtaining free meals by this same deception. I nodded again, then gently steered the conversation back to the topic of the class.

Plateaus of language learning ascend from a base of knowing a few words and phrases, to asking yes/no and simple information questions, to using language to learn more about language (“How do you say ____ in English?”). Above those plateaus tower the mountains of dreaming in the target language and making jokes.

In part, jokes are challenging because they may violate some or all of Grice’s (1975) four maxims of how to best share information, summarized below:

Quantity—be concise
Quality—be accurate and truthful
Relation—be relevant
Manner—be clear, brief, and orderly

In the case of my student, there were several impediments to his telling the joke successfully. I suspect he hadn’t mentally rehearsed the story in English and was translating on the fly, so he was not concise. He did not have all the necessary vocabulary items at his disposal, so he was not accurate. In a conversation one expects a speaker to be truthful although in a joke the opposite is often true. But the context—or setup—usually needs to establish the fact that a joke is to follow, as with a well-known opening phrase like, “Three ____ walk into a bar and ….” This is akin to recognizing that the phrase “Once upon a time” signals the start of a fairy tale.

Alternatively, a joke might be introduced with a phrase such as, “Have you heard the one about ….” But the student did neither, so there was nothing to indicate that my class or I should suspend disbelief and understand that an untruthful story was being told for amusement. In the context of the classroom where the joke was delivered, I would have expected the student’s talk to focus on the learning of English as a second language, so it didn’t appear relevant. And because he rambled, he wasn’t clear, brief, or orderly.

However, many forms of jokes can be exploited in various ways in the language classroom. Continue reading

G is for Games

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

“Why are they playing games and not learning something?”

Games are among the most misunderstood pedagogical strategies in the teachers’ toolbox. Parents, other teachers, and administrators can misinterpret students’ enjoyment of games as having fun at the expense of more serious and productive learning. But the opposite is often the case; the casual competitive nature of games suppresses students’ self-consciousness and helps them focus and learn more than during other classroom activities.

However, to be fair, sometimes teachers play games in the classroom without a perfect understanding of the benefits that games carry and the ways in which they can be tailored to better address student needs. In such cases, teachers may only use games as filler activities, as a way of keeping more able students busy while others catch up. Alternatively, games might only be used at the end of a class when there is extra time left.


Because games are inherently motivating, they are useful as a reward or a break from other classroom activities. Some games add excitement, such as kinesthetic ones that require students to stand up and participate as a group. An example is Simon Says, in which students have to listen carefully and follow a leader’s directions as long as they are prefaced with the words, “Simon says (touch your nose).” If the words Simon says aren’t said by the leader, students have to remain stationary or find themselves out of the game.

The pedagogical purposes of Simon Says-type games are usually to encourage discrete listening and also to reinforce language students have already learned around actions related to identifying body parts (touch your knees), types of motion (shake your head; close your eyes), and actions (sit down; stand up). As with most games, there are opportunities to tailor the game to the target vocabulary students have recently covered. Reinforcement through a game is important because it stores the information in another part of the brain. Beyond reading, writing, listening, or speaking, the kinesthetic aspect helps make the vocabulary more memorable. Continue reading

Maximum Benefit, Minimal Prep:
A Quick Song-Based Lesson

2013_Heyer_SandraSandra Heyer

Song lyrics are sometimes difficult for English language learners to comprehend; in fact, some song lyrics are difficult for even native speakers of English to comprehend! (Consider, for example, this line from a Credence Clearwater Revival song: There’s a bad moon on the rise, famously misheard as There’s a bathroom on the right.) That doesn’t mean, though, that a song can’t be a valuable learning tool in the classroom. One way to create a successful song-based lesson is to focus on an aspect of the song that is accessible to English language learners and build an activity around that feature. To do that, you start by examining a song’s lyrics to find a feature you can exploit. (For activities that target one aspect of a song, please see the archived articles in this newsletter or my website, Songs and Activities for English Language Learners.)

For the activity described here, there is no need to give a song that level of scrutiny (although, as always, you will want to make sure the language and content are appropriate for your classroom). All you need is a recording of the song and copies of its lyrics. The simplicity of this lesson, however, doesn’t mean that your role as teacher is any less important. You help students identify which new words are critical to getting the gist of the song’s meaning (and which are not), as well as which new words are worth memorizing. This activity works best if students know at least two-thirds of the words in the song.

Create a Minimal-Prep Song-Based Lesson in 4 Easy Steps:

  1. Students listen to a recording of the song without the lyrics. As they listen, they jot down about five words in the song that they are sure they know. (They do not write down words like the or and.) When the recording is finished, students volunteer their lists of words, and you write them on the board. More often than not, collectively students will come up with the song’s key words. Ask students to guess what the song is about.
  2. Students read the song’s lyrics. You clarify the meaning of new words that are critical to understanding the song, impressing on students that they do not need to understand every new word. Identify which new words are worth memorizing.
  3. Students listen to the song a second time while reading the lyrics.
  4. Students listen to the song a third time, without the lyrics, or they watch the song’s official music video online. (Preview the video first to be sure it’s appropriate for your classroom.)

Sometimes during the course of the lesson, one of the song’s features might pop out at you. You might, for example, notice that it has a chorus that is easy to sing or speak, tells a story that students could summarize, or has a topic that students could personalize with Draw-Write-Share. Then you could, if time allows, expand the lesson on the spur of the moment.

Example: A Minimal-Prep Lesson on the Song “Fight Song”
This song by Rachel Platten debuted last February and has steadily climbed the pop-music charts. Because of its popularity, clear lyrics, and upbeat theme, it is a good choice to bring into the classroom. Continue reading