How phonemic charts can help you teach English pronunciation

Phonemic charts

Clear and confident pronunciation is one of the keys to clear and confident oral communication. Unless students are able to correctly pronounce words and phrases in their target language, they will struggle to make progress and to be understood.

However, in many languages (particularly English) there can be significant differences between how a word is spelt and how it should be said. Confusingly in English, letters of the alphabet also often sound different depending on the word they are in. The use of a phonemic chart can help learners by showing the sounds that they should make when saying particular words. This blog post explores how phonemic charts can be used by educators to support English language learners and provides some inspiration for its use in language teaching classrooms.


What is a phonemic chart?

As illustrated below, the phonemic chart brings together a set of symbols that represent all the sounds in spoken English. It identifies the 44 phonemes used in ‘standard’ English – a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in any language.

The 44 different phonemes include 12 vowel sounds, eight diphthongs and 24 consonants. It will be immediately apparent that there are more phonemes than there are letters in the English alphabet (26 letters, but 44 phonemes). However English language learners need to be able to clearly pronounce all of them to be able to communicate effectively.

The symbols on a phonemic chart are drawn from the International Phonetic Alphabet (in short, IPA). They map sounds to where and how they are produced in the mouth. The chart enables educators to demonstrate what learners’ lips, tongue, teeth and jaw should do and look like as a sound is uttered.

The symbols will be familiar to many learners as they feature in most dictionaries, where a phonemic transcription is provided to show how a word sounds. But in order for this to be effective students do need to know the phonemic alphabet and the specific sounds that correspond to the different symbols.

There are several versions of the chart for the common varieties of spoken English, but the most widely-used was created by Adrian Underhill. Through his teaching and research, Underhill discovered that “pronunciation has the potential to transform the quality of students’ learning through the simple mediation of an ‘intelligent’ phonemic chart.” It is now widely used across the globe to help students focus on the muscles that shape key sounds.


How can I start using phonemic charts?

The best starting point is to help students to learn all 44 symbols and the sounds they represent. As such, it is important to stress that the symbols represent sounds and not letters, despite the fact that many take the same form, i.e. /b/, /f/, /m/, etc. 

It’s also important to emphasise that learning all of the sounds and symbols is an achievable task – in fact the majority are pretty intuitive. Within the 44, there are 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds and the vast majority of the latter (except 7 or 8) sound exactly as students might expect.

The vowel sounds are undoubtedly more complicated although they can be learnt physiologically, by finding (and repeatedly practising!) the mouth position used to produce them in speech. Writing on the Language Point Teacher Education blog, Tom Garside identifies that there are 12 monophthongs (single sounds) and eight diphthongs (double sounds) so suggests trying to get students to work through each in turn. Again the chart is specifically designed to help students understand how to produce each phoneme by confirming the appropriate mouth shape and length of sound required.


Why use the phonemic chart in your teaching?

As with every pedagogical process, there are dissenting voices who question the benefit of using such a complex system for converting speech into symbols. Those voices also criticise the repetitive nature of pronunciation practice, arguing that students have plenty of other work to tackle before achieving English language fluency. Yet there’s clear evidence that pronunciation is one of the most needed and least effectively taught areas of English, so using a standard system from which to learn and teach pronunciation is a huge benefit.

This is particularly important for English language learners as it has one of the lowest sound-to-spelling correspondence levels of any language – ie. how words look on paper varies significantly from how they sound when spoken. Unsurprisingly this can cause significant challenges for learners from different language backgrounds, who need a reliable, predictable and systematic way of assigning sounds to letters and patterns of speech. 

In a blog post for the British Council, Nicola Meldrum also identifies the following benefits for students / teachers. The phonemic chart also:

  • Enables students to make better use of their dictionaries.
  • Gives the teacher a fast and effective tool for teaching pronunciation and for correcting errors.
  • Helps students to learn the correct pronunciation of new vocabulary. 
  • Supports teachers to be selective about the sounds they help their learners to focus on. 


Using the phonemic chart in your classroom

There’s no getting away from it – practice, practice, practice lies at the heart of any successful classroom intervention to improve students’ pronunciation whether you use the phonemic chart as a support or not! One common formula for this includes three simple stages which can be replicated across any activity:

  1. Model pronunciation – the educator begins by demonstrating what sound is required and explains how it can best be produced.
  2. Controlled practise – students attempt to recreate those sounds in a carefully planned activity either working on their own or more commonly in pairs.
  3. Free practise – students have scope to practice forming the sounds and identifying different ways or words in which they are used.

Detailed plans for activities such as odd one out, rhyming pairs and student dictation can be found here. Whilst lesson plans featuring chinese whispers, dictionary games, phoneme races, shopping trips and creating wall charts can be found here

Our other blog posts on teaching pronunciation, assessing your students’ pronunciation skills, and automatic pronunciation grading for developing your students’ fluency and speaking skills may also help and support your classroom practice.


How can Sanako products help educators to develop pronunciation skills?

Whatever lesson activity you decide to use, language teaching technology tools can play a vital role in building your students’ English language pronunciation skills. In particular, Sanako’s language teaching tools help educators to:

  • Boost your students’ confidence in speaking a foreign language with Sanako Connect’s Automated Pronunciation grading.
  • Provide authentic speech models for students, who then record their own voice for comparison and receive immediate feedback.
  • Create specific pronunciation tasks using a wide variety of media including sound files, text, presentations, videos and/or web pages.
  • Invite students to assess tasks and supporting resources by simply clicking on a unique URL link. No login details are required, so there’s no data privacy or data storage issues for educators to worry about either!
  • Create groups of students to conduct conversation / pronunciation practice simultaneously. Teachers can listen in, give feedback in real-time and even record the individual group discussions for review.
  • Provide detailed and time-coded feedback: A piece of audio feedback can be carefully placed next to specific points of the student’s recorded oral submission where their pronunciation needs attention.


If you’d like to find out more about how Sanako’s dedicated language teaching solutions could transform your approach to teaching pronunciation skills, please contact us now to arrange your FREE demo!

Call to action image with a button and a product screenshot