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.

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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