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.

The letter p is unvoiced, and production of the sound is from the mouth; but b is “voiced,” and production of this sound is from the mouth and the throat.

The IPA is a system for representing phonetic sounds with symbols. We read the chart below from left to right: place, manner, and articulation practice. In other words, what are the placements of our lips, teeth, tongue, and throat as we form these sounds? This is important because letters in English can have different phonetic sounds or no sound at all. Therefore, spelling is not a reliable source for pronunciation. Let’s take “c” for an example in the words catch and nice. The “c” sound is different in each word, and “tch” has yet another sound. The IPA helps us to differentiate these sounds.



Orthography Language Meaning
voiceless labiodental stop Greek σάπφειρος   [ˈsap̪firo̞s̠]   sapphire
voiced labiodental stop Sika Allophone of /ⱱ/ in careful pronunciation.
p̪͡f voiceless labiodental affricate Tsonga N/A         [tiɱp̪͡fuβu]   ‘hippos’
b̪͡v voiced labiodental affricate Tsonga N/A         [ʃileb̪͡vu]      ‘chin’
ɱ labiodental nasal English symphony   [ˈsɪɱfəni]   ‘symphony’
f voiceless labiodental fricative English fan          [fæn]      ‘fan’
v voiced labiodental fricative English van         [væn]      ‘van’
ʋ labiodental approximant Dutch wang      [ʋɑŋ]       ‘cheek’
labiodental flap Mono vwa        [ⱱa]        ‘send’
ʘ̪ labiodental click Nǁng ʘoe         [ʘ̪oe]      meat

Let’s take two common pronunciation issues:

f           voiceless labiodental fricative           English            fan       [fæn]   ‘fan’
v          voiced labiodental fricative               English           van      [væn]   ‘van’

Both are labiodental fricatives:

labiodental  /ˌleɪbɪəʊˈdɛntəl/

pronounced by bringing the bottom lip into contact or near contact with the upper teeth, as for the fricative “f” in English fat and puff.

No matter how many times we repeat the words fan and van, it will not help our students to understand or distinguish the physical characteristics of sound production unless we help them to physically reproduce the mechanics. We can easily do this by having them place their top teeth over their bottom lip. To produce the voiceless “f” sound, have your students simply blow air through their teeth. To produce the “v” sound, first have your students put their hands on their throats, then demonstrate the voiced vibration. Help your students to distinguish between the two sounds, and encourage them to exaggerate the vocalization; they can always scale back once they get used to differentiating the sounds.

We have only discussed a small section of the IPA. However, this small sample should give an idea of how the IPA works and how we can help our students using this pronunciation tool. Most of our students are hardworking, self-motivated individuals. Helping them to help themselves and others with pronunciation is well worth the extra time and effort.

If you enjoyed this article and would like more information, please email. If there are parts of this article you would appreciate having expanded on, let us know. Hearing from you is always helpful and inspiring.

A nice guide to blends is one created by Randy Stark, Reno, Nevada, 1999.

A few helpful references for understanding and utilizing the IPA characteristics are:

John Caine lives in New York with his wife and children. While he holds a Master of Education and post graduate certifications, his first love has always been writing and inventing stories. He is an award winning poet, has written for several magazines, is the author of Waldo and the WackosThe Story of Pig and GiraffeLa Historia de Cerdo y Jirafa, In the Time of Big Trains and My Name Sir? As well as being a published author, he also teaches and and does public speaking.