Teaching pronunciation with phonemic symbols

Phonemic symbols represent the sounds of the English language. 

Teaching pronunciation with phonemic symbols - pronunciation article

Using them can be a valuable tool to improving your students' pronunciation.

  • Why use phonemic symbols?
  • Is it important for teachers to know the phonemic symbols?
  • Is it difficult to learn phonemic symbols?
  • What is the best way to learn phonemic symbols?
  • Which phonemic symbols are the easiest to learn?
  • Don't I need to have a perfect English accent in order to use phonemic symbols?


Why use phonemic symbols?
The alphabet which we use to write English has 26 letters but (British) English has 44 sounds. Inevitably, English spelling is not a reliable guide to pronunciation because

  • Some letters have more than one sound
  • Sometimes letters are not pronounced at all
  • The same sound may be represented by different letters
  • Sometimes syllables indicated by the spelling are not pronounced at all


Here are a few challenging questions to put to your students:

  • How do you pronounce gh in 'enough', 'through' and 'ghost'? (like f in fun, not pronounced, like g in got)
  • How many syllables are there in 'chocolate'? (2)

The letters of the alphabet can be a poor guide to pronunciation. Phonemic symbols, in contrast, are a totally reliable guide. Each symbol represents one sound consistently. Here are five good reasons why students should know phonemic symbols.

  • Students can use dictionaries effectively. The second bit of information in dictionaries for English language learners is the word in phonemic symbols. It comes right after the word itself. Knowing phonemic symbols enables students to get the maximum information from dictionaries.
  • Students can become independent learners. They can find out the pronunciation of a word by themselves without asking the teacher. What is more, they can write down the correct pronunciation of a word that they hear. If they cannot use phonemic symbols for this, they will use the sound values of letters in their own language and this will perpetuate pronunciation errors.
  • Phonemic symbols are a visual aid. Students can see that two words differ, or are the same, in pronunciation. For example they can see that 'son' and sun' must be pronounced the same because the phonemic symbols are the same. They can use their eyes to help their ears and if they are able to hold and manipulate cards with the symbols on, then they are using the sense of touch as well. The more senses students use, the better they will learn.
  • Phonemic symbols, arranged in a chart, are part of every student's armoury of learning resources. Just as they have a dictionary for vocabulary and a grammar book for grammar, so they need reference materials for pronunciation: the phonemic symbols and simple, key words that show the sound of each symbol.
  • Although speaking a language is a performance skill, knowledge of how the language works is still of great value. Here is another question to ask students: How many different sounds are there in English? Usually, students do not know. Phonemic symbols on the wall in a classroom remind them that there are 44. Even if they have not mastered all of them, they know what the target is and where the problems are. The chart is a map of English sounds. Even with a map, you can get lost but you are better off with a map than without one.

Is it important for teachers to know the phonemic symbols?
To be frank, yes. Every profession has specialist knowledge that is not widely known outside the profession. If you are a doctor, you will be able to name every bone in the human body, which most people can't do. If you are a language teacher, then you know phonemic symbols, which most people don't. Students can learn these symbols by themselves and one day you might meet a student who asks you to write a word on the board using phonemic symbols. It is best to be prepared.

Is it difficult to learn phonemic symbols?
Absolutely not. 19 of the 44 symbols have the same sound and shape as letters of the alphabet. This means that some words, such as 'pet', look the same whether written with phonemic symbols or letters of the alphabet. That leaves just 25 to learn. Compare that with the hundreds of different pieces of information in a grammar book or the thousands of words in even a small dictionary. It is a very small learning load. Moreover, it is visual and shapes are easy to remember. Anyone who can drive is able to recognise more than 25 symbols giving information about road conditions. Even if we go beyond separate, individual sounds and include linking, elision and assimilation, there is still a limited and clearly defined set of things to learn.

What is the best way to learn phonemic symbols?
Most native-speaker teachers of English learn grammar from the textbooks they use when they first start teaching, because they are unlikely to have been exposed to any formal study of English grammar. They learn by teaching, which is a very effective way of learning. It is possible to learn phonemic symbols in the same way. You just need to keep one symbol ahead of the students.

Which phonemic symbols are the easiest to learn?
The consonants are the easiest, because most of them have the same form as a letter of the alphabet (17 out of 24). Therefore, it is best to start by teaching students a large number of consonant symbols and a small number of easy vowel symbols such as /e/ and /i/. Note, however, that the sound /j/ represents the initial sound of 'yellow', not the initial sound of 'judge'. Experience shows that students are very likely to make mistakes with the symbol /j/, so it needs special attention.

Don't I need to have a perfect English accent in order to use phonemic symbols?
Not at all. It is true that the 44 phonemes in British English are based on the sounds of Received Pronunciation, an accent which is not frequently heard nowadays. Most native-speaker teachers do not have this accent but still use phonemic symbols. When the symbols are arranged in a chart, each one occupies a box. This indicates that the real sound that you actually hear can vary up to certain limits, depending on the influence of other sounds and on individual ways of speaking. There is not just one perfect way to say each sound - there is an acceptable range of pronunciations. Think of the pieces in a game of chess. They can vary considerably in size, shape and appearance but we can always recognise a knight because it behaves like a knight and not like a king. The point is that words such as 'ship', sheep', 'sip' and 'seep' should sound different from each other, not that each sound is pronounced exactly like the sounds of RP. Learning phonemic symbols will help students to understand the importance of length and voicing. Simply knowing that the symbol : indicates a long sound can be very helpful.

There is no end to our study of grammar and vocabulary but phonemic symbols are limited, visual and physical. They may seem challenging at first but it is like learning to swim or ride a bicycle. Once you can do it, it is easy and you never forget.

Alan Stanton, teacher trainer and materials writer


Submitted by averma on Mon, 04/19/2010 - 14:55


Very helpful to understand the importance and get an overview.

Submitted by apiz_craze on Wed, 07/21/2010 - 06:53

In reply to by averma


Me too..usually i start my phonetics classes with vowels and diphthongs..i want to try this new way of teaching!

Submitted by suman sharma on Wed, 03/23/2011 - 05:45



Thank you very much for letting me such oppertunities to have the idea to teach phonemic symbols. I am feeling quite easy to teach and my students are also learning very interestingly. 

Submitted by Gulshan Huseynli on Sun, 05/22/2011 - 06:22


I am an English language teacher in Azerbaijan. In our education system all language teachers work with phonomic symbols. We can't imagine learning english without these symbols because we are not native speakers. My students also can't read new words without phonemic symbols. They always ask for phonomic symbols when they are introduced to the new words. Phonomic symbols help them to look  up for new words  in the dictionary themselves because they can read the words with the help of new words. Thank you for this article.

Submitted by akganup on Wed, 08/27/2014 - 08:29

In reply to by hayderose


It is imperative for the teachers of English phonemic symbols.Pronunciation for clear communication is the need of the hour.RP may not be as valid as it had been decades ago.But we need to know syllable division and look up pronunciations ,given in standard E to E dictionaries for clarity ,verification and authenticity,C-VA.

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