25th June 2019

Teaching pronunciation: an introduction to the IPA

By Bryan Holmes

The IPA stands for the International Phonemic Alphabet and is used in ESL to address pronunciation issues by isolating difficult vowel sounds, consonants or diphthongs. Problem areas can then be addressed by identifying the manner (the way in which the sound is produced), place (position of the tongue, teeth, lips, etc.), and voice (use of the vocal cords). While some ESL instructors find the IPA intimidating, others see it as a useful tool.

What is the IPA good for?

The IPA is separated into three sections: monophthongs and diphthongs (vowels), and consonants. Traditionally the IPA is used for articulating sounds and pronouncing words accurately, most commonly when looking them up in a dictionary. A benefit in knowing how to use the IPA is that it promotes learner autonomy by giving them confidence when investigating an unknown word.

It is also used to address pronunciation issues and to distinguish differences between similar sounds, (e.g. voiced /z/ in ‘close the door’) and (e.g. unvoiced /s/ in ‘I’m close to my mother’) or (e.g. Lazy - voiced /z/; or lacy - unvoiced /s/).  Hence, importance needs to be placed on recognizing the differences between the way the learner produces the sound and the way it should be produced. It also provides an opportunity to address manner, place, and voice by separating problematic phonemes. 

How Should I use the IPA?

Essentially using the IPA efficiently requires instructors to have a clear indication of what pronunciation issues a learner may have. It is also dependent on factors such as what is the learner’s L1, language level, and if it is a variation or error. Errors which impede communication should be prioritized and addressed. They are either labeled segmental (e.g. phoneme) or suprasegmental (e.g. intonation/connected speech). However, it is most effective when the instructor highlights the physical changes required to articulate target sounds in terms of lip mouth and position/movement of the tongue. 

Another consideration to make: ‘ask yourself is it an actual error or variation?’. A variation is typically not considered an error (e.g. speakers of Irish tend to pronounce ‘three’ as ‘tree’), whereas errors that affect intelligibility or cause difficulty for the listener are errors. Once isolating the difficult phoneme and deciding if it is an error or variation, let’s look at ways to provide useful correction and practice. Below are some activities to address segmental errors (phonemes), and later will look at ways of addressing intonation (suprasegmental).

Segmental errors

Phoneme errors such as the /θ/ unvoiced /th/ or /ð/ voiced /th/ are often mispronounced. As many instructors have tried drilling without success it is usually the case because the manner, place, and voice (i.e. the mechanics that underlie accurate articulation) are not clearly demonstrated.

Activity one:  Pronunciation Maze using /z/ and /s/

Instructions:  Find a way from start to finish. You may not pass a square if the word contains the sound /z/. You can move horizontally (↔) or vertically (↕) only. (English Pronunciation in use pg. 17, 2003).

Activity two: Bingo

Instructions:  Give out the prepared cards Read out the words from the cards in random order. Tick off the words so as to avoid repeating them twice.  When the player completes a horizontal or vertical line they shout BINGO!. Lastly, have the winner read back the words and check. (Pronunciation Games Mike Hancock CUP, 1995)


Suprasegmental Errors

Intonation and Rhythm affect a learner’s fluency, as does features of connected speech. To put it simply, intonation and rhythm can indicate emotion or show emphasis, which marks the speaker’s attitude or feeling. Connected speech affects the learners’ ability to speak efficiently and helps the learner develop a more native style of speaking.  

Activity one: Practicing Linking

(Sound Foundations Adrian Underhill Macmillan, 1994)

1.  When a sentence comes in class that could be more fluent with better linking you can ask a learner to write it up on the board.
2. Ask the class to say each word separately.
3. Ask them to join the words together using the chart to identify any linking sounds, and putting the stresses or weak forms where they think appropriate.
4. Now ask them to write up the fully linked sentences in phonemic script for example:
/aɪ jɒftən gəʊ w aʊt ɪn ðɪj ɑːftənuːn/ or
/aɪ ɒfənn gɜː aʊt ɪn ðə ɑːftənuːn/

Activity Two: Intonation and grammatical structure.


1. Prepare or use a dialogue or short monologue.
2. Give learners a copy and read out the dialogue. Next re-read and have learners mark one the 5 English intonation e.g.  ↙ (fall) ↗ (rise) ↘↗ (fall rise) ↗↘ (rise fall) → (flat) or for more advance learners choose a few. Additionally, have the learners identify a feature of connected speech, such as juncture, assimilation, deletion, or intrusion.
Now take a breath, pronunciation and intonation does not have to be something to fear in your lessons. Finding a few tasks, learning the IPA (not in one go), and understanding aspects of intonation and connected speech will enhance and improve your learners pronunciation while developing fluency.

Considering a Trinity CertTESOL qualification? The introductory module of the CertTESOL course is now available as a standalone fully online course – the TESOL Starter course.

Bryan Holmes was a teacher trainer and a part time course director for the Trinity CertTESOL at English for Asia. His qualifications include the Trinity CertTESOL , MATESOL, and Cambridge DELTA. He has a special interest in phonetics and phonology and has been teaching for 10 years.