Published 15th June 2018

If you hear the abbreviation IPA, do you think of beer or cricket? If you do, then this is for you. In the TEFL world, IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s a very useful tool to have at your disposal in the EFL classroom, but you need to know what it is to be able to use it!

If you hear the abbreviation IPA, do you think of beer or cricket? If you do, then this is for you. In the TEFL world, IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s a very useful tool to have at your disposal in the EFL classroom, but you need to know what it is to be able to use it!

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

The IPA is a system of phonetic notation created by linguists to be able to represent the different sounds of languages. When we teach English as a Foreign Language we are concerned with the sounds, or phonemes, which make up the English language. Thus the IPA we deal with has 44 sounds. These are all the sounds in English. The IPA is a useful tool when it comes to teaching pronunciation.

How is the IPA organised?

The IPA can look confusing, but it’s not as difficult as you may initially think. The chart has not been designed randomly – there is a purpose to the layout of the chart. The sounds on the top half of the chart are vowel sounds. (Note: vowel sounds, not vowels). This section can further be divided into monopthongs on the left and dipthongs on the right. The bottom section of the chart shows consonant sounds. The two dots which you can see on certain sounds show that that particular sound is a long sound. The position of the sounds in the chart is dependent on their place and manner of articulation. If you say the sounds out loud in order you will notice that they can be placed on a continuum.

How do I teach the IPA in the classroom?

There are different schools of thought on this. It’s not really necessary for your students to sit down and study the IPA. However, it can be useful for them to get to know what the symbols represent so you can utilise them when teaching pronunciation. To do this, simply introduce the symbols as they come up in the lessons and re-use them regularly to familiarise your students with them. It makes sense to do this with the most common sounds.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to know the IPA. But again, you don’t need to spend your weekend learning all the different symbols. Instead, you should familiarise yourself with the sounds over time.

How is the IPA useful for our learners?

The next obvious question is to ask why our students need to know the IPA in the first place. Firstly, consider those sound-spelling correspondences are quite tricky in English. Being able to identify the sound that a particular spelling sequence corresponds to is invaluable. Then remember that any time a learner looks up a word in the dictionary they will find the phonetic transcription of the word. Knowing the IPA will help them be able to pronounce the word properly.

Knowing and understanding the International Phonetic Alphabet is one of the first steps a TEFL teacher should take to be able to teach English pronunciation well. Introduce it into your lessons and your students will benefit even in their learning outside the classroom.