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Teaching with the International Phonetic Alphabet

  • Teaching with the International Phonetic Alphabet

The following blog post was written by Tanya Yaunish, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement. This blog is part of a three-part blog series that focuses on the teaching of pronunciation in the Youth in Transition program at the CEIIA.

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)?

The International Phonetic Alphabet is “a notational standard for the phonetic representation of all languages” (IPA Home, 2017) provided by the International Phonetic Association, which started in Paris in 1886. This alphabet gives a written form for all sounds found in human language and avoids problems like silent letters or letters with more than one sound that you might find in a written language.

What are the benefits of using IPA in an English language classroom?

  • creates a standard for pronunciation among learners and instructors
  • helps learners understand how each sound is correctly pronounced
  • emphasizes the difference between sound and spelling
  • helps with other pronunciation activities like syllable identification and placing stress or intonation       

Challenges associated with using IPA in an English language classroom:

  • requires instructors and learners to learn a new script
  • causes confusion as some IPA symbols overlap with written English letters
  • lacks consistency between English dialects and instructor use
  • seems old-fashioned to some instructors and its use has lessened over time

So, should I use it?

When deciding whether to use IPA in the classroom or not, each instructor must decide based on these factors:

  • How comfortable am I with IPA?
  • Are my learners ready to understand its purpose?
  • Can I use IPA to develop fun and engaging learning activities or will it be more work than it’s worth?

Using IPA is not for every instructor or every cohort of learners, but when it fits, it can be a fun and easy way to improve your learners’ pronunciation and their use of the language. 

Learn more about how to include pronunciation in your ELL classroom with our resource: Making it Clear: A Guide for Teaching Pronunciation.