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

Teaching Consonant Blends, Digraphs, and Trigraphs

Professor John Caine
SUNY, Suffolk Community College

More than any other request, my students ask me to help them with pronunciation and vocabulary. After my first few semesters, I realized that a key factor in helping them was to start with consonant blends.

A consonant blend (also called a consonant cluster) is a group of two or three consonants in words that makes a distinct consonant sound, such as bl, br, cl, cr, dr, fl, fr, gl, gr, pl, pr, qu, sc, sk, sl, sm, sn, sp, st, sw, tr, and tw, We can group these into “l” and “r” blends, which are the most frequent and convenient to categorize.

A digraph is a single sound, or phoneme, that is represented by two letters. A trigraph is a phoneme that consists of three letters.

Consonant digraphs include ch, ck, gh, kn, mb, ng, ph, sh, th, wh, and wr. Some of these create a new sound, as in ch, sh, and th. Some, however, are just different spellings for already familiar sounds. Some consonants have “silent partners”: for example gh is a different spelling for “f” and mb is “m” while wr is still the “r” sound.

Sometimes reframing the concept in familiar terms lowers the affective filter encouraging self-scaffolding. Our goal is to encourage students to use the language they’re learning, and making the language fun to use is a great way to do that. Blends are fairly straightforward because they keep their phonemic structure. But sometimes helping students to vocalize these blends can be daunting. Teaching decoding helps them recognize and form new words.

But, there are so many blends and digraphs in English. Where to begin? Ah, the one reliable go-to connection for teaching—food. This is something familiar, something students can relate to, and something they can practice using since they come in contact with these items every day. Continue reading

E is for Error

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Coming home one afternoon from my job teaching English to university students, I found my four-year-old son prancing around the kitchen with a beach towel cape around his neck, fighting evil superheroes with a wooden spoon. “Spencer,” I said, “How was your day?”

“Good,” he replied. “I swimmed with Mommy.”

“No!” I sternly reprimanded him. “The verb swim has an irregular past tense verb form!”

No, of course I didn’t say that. It’s not the language or the attitude one uses with a four-year-old. Instead, I employed what is called a recast: “Oh, you swam with Mommy.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “I swam with Mommy.”

Spencer’s use of swimmed is a common but intriguing utterance that gives us an insight into childhood language acquisition. It is highly unlikely that he had ever heard the construction from either his parents or his articulate seven-year-old brother. It’s possible he might have picked it up from one of his four-year-old friends but, more likely, it was an illustration of a young and flexible mind’s ability to generate grammar rules and then apply them in conversation. In this case, Spencer is likely to have intuitively noticed the pattern of regular past formation with ‑ed, in words such as walked (but not run/ran), talked (but not speak/spoke), and napped (but not sleep/slept). He then naturally—and experimentally—applied the formula to the word swim.

But was the resulting utterance a mistake or an error?

Mistakes and errors seem like interchangeable terms but, in linguistic terms, they are quite different. Even the most competent native speakers make countless mistakes in the course of a day’s speech. Often referred to as slips of the tongue, these mistakes tend to be mispronunciations or grammatical lapses that native speakers immediately know are wrong. We mispronounce words when we’re tired, or interrupted, or are speaking more quickly than the speed of thought; our brains and tongues are not in sync.

Similarly, grammatical lapses often occur because we begin saying one thing, and then our thoughts are diverted and we end by saying something else. Typical of this type of mistake are subject-verb agreement issues (Give me one or two apple—I mean apples.). Other common errors are article mistakes (I want the book—I mean, a book.), or preposition mistakes (Get in—I mean on—the bus.). Self-correction is so common that it has its own linguistic label: repair.

In texts and emails, we tend to ignore such problems as the products of stumbling fingers, and in other computer-based writing, our errors might be automatically corrected. In speech, we tend to self-correct unless our message is urgent and/or obvious mistakes are unlikely to interfere with meaning. If the listener knows what was meant, it’s most usually the polite choice not to correct the speaker. On the other hand, a speaker’s mistake that seems like an important point or one that throws the conversation into ambiguity, sometimes prompts a listener to ask for clarification. In the sentence “While I was in Germany, I went to Brussels.” might prompt the listener to query, “Did you mean Brussels or Berlin?” In this case, it might have been a slip of the tongue and the speaker did mean Germany’s capital, Berlin, or perhaps it was about going on an international trip to Belgium’s capital of Brussels.

But what about errors? Continue reading

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Teaching Short Stories

Alexandra_LoweAlexandra Lowe
ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College

The following blog post was written by Alexandra Lowe and originally published by TESOL International Association on June 3, 2015. It can also be accessed through the TESOL website.

At the recent TESOL International convention in Toronto, I was privileged to attend an outstanding workshop entitled “10 Tips for Teaching Short Stories” by Sybil Marcus, an inspiring teacher from the University of California, Berkeley. Presenting excerpts from two short stories, she showed us how she uses stories to teach critical thinking skills, style, grammar, and vocabulary, and to lay the groundwork for classroom debates and writing assignments. Sybil’s approach to teaching ESL skills through short stories sounded so compelling to me that I dashed back to my own classroom as soon as the conference was over to try it out.

One of the short stories she showcased in her workshop was Daniel Lyons’ “The Birthday Cake” (.doc). The story features two immigrants—an old, embittered woman from Italy and a young single mother from the Caribbean—who find themselves locked in an unexpected conflict. The story subtly raises challenging issues of attitudes toward immigrants, single parenthood, aging, isolation, and death.

The story was an immediate hit with my high-intermediate, low-advanced students. When we discussed an issue central to the story—whether the old woman was justified in her contemptuous response to the young woman’s plea for a special favor—my students were as bitterly divided as the two protagonists themselves. Even students who were normally shy and reluctant to speak in front of the whole class launched into a passionate debate over the merits of the old woman’s behavior. And what was particularly fascinating was the discovery that the battle lines among my students were drawn in unpredictable ways—students whom I would have expected to sympathize with the plight of the young mother were surprisingly hostile to her.

One bonus of this particular short story is that it is written almost entirely in dialogue, as if it were the script for a short play for three characters (the two women, and a man who finds himself entangled in their conflict).  So, naturally, I put my students into small groups of three and asked them to practice acting out the dialogue. After giving them the opportunity to practice their lines with three different sets of partners, I asked for volunteers to act out the story in front of the whole class. It was one of the highlights of the semester, as some of my shyest students threw themselves into their roles, displaying acting skills and abilities no one would have suspected, while some of the more outspoken students were able to “ad lib” additional theatrical lines for their character. Continue reading