Learning the IPA with Proverbs

Steven G. B. MacWhinnie, Aomori Chuo Gakuin University

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: IPA, pronunciation, vocabulary
  • Learner English level: Intermediate
  • Learner maturity: High school and above
  • Preparation time: 10 minutes
  • Activity time: 5-10 minutes every class period
  • Materials: Blackboard, chalk, IPA reference sheet

Many students are concerned with their ability to correctly pronounce English. However, there is often little or no time spent instructing students on how to use the pronunciation guides in their textbooks and dictionaries. This activity is designed for multiple class periods. Over the course of a semester or a year, students will become familiar with the use of IPA, or alternately their textbook pronunciation guides.

Step 1: Download an IPA pronunciation guide. Alternatively, simply use the pronunciation guide from your course textbook or from a dictionary, although it will often differ from IPA. Decide if your goal is to teach students IPA or the pronunciation key from their textbook or dictionaries. You may wish to spend some class time explaining how to use the IPA guide you choose.
Step 2: Choose proverbs. These can be from memory or simply by searching the web for “English proverbs.” It is a good idea to use straightforward proverbs so that students will be able to understand them easily. When you choose a proverb, decide what IPA sound you wish to focus on during that class. That IPA sound should be reflected in the proverb you choose.
Step 3: Transcribe the chosen proverb into IPA. You may wish to print out your transcribed proverb beforehand, or, alternatively, you can write the proverb by hand on the board in class.

Step 1: At the beginning of class as students are coming into the classroom, have a proverb written in IPA on the board.
Step 2: Have students copy the proverb into their notebook and try to figure out each word by saying it aloud.
Step 3: Check that the students are able to say the word correctly, and, in turn, write each word in the proverb in their notebooks using both the alphabet and IPA.
Step 4: Have the students focus on the target IPA sound and, if desired, provide additional examples of words containing that sound. It is also helpful to explain or show mouth shape and tongue placement for difficult sounds.
Additional: You may wish to spend some time discussing the meaning of the proverb if it is not immediately obvious.

For this activity to be effective, it must be done every class period for an extended period of time. Students in my class were able to read and say words I wrote in IPA after spending a semester studying using this method. The use of proverbs helps to challenge the students by allowing them to engage with the content. The students weren’t simply memorizing symbols, they were applying that knowledge to a problem. The students were interested in the proverbs which gave them motivation to remember the IPA to expedite reading and to understand them. This activity can function as a simple warm-up or be extended to take up more time by discussing the meaning of the proverbs in depth as well as some discussion of similar proverbs in the students’ native language.

The appendix is available below