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Feb 2014

Should children learn to recognize the phonemic symbols?

As a native English speaker I never learnt the phonemic symbols at school. Did you? But I have come to firmly believe that children should. Why?

When I started teaching English in the German-speaking part of Switzerland I taught children from 7-13 and adult conversation classes. In the beginning my adult students didn’t contribute as much as they could have to the group conversations, and this puzzled me. They stumbled over some of the words they wanted to say, then they would say the word in German and I’d translate it for them. Meanwhile, my eager young students had 2 goals; to count to 20 and to read. The first we achieved quickly, but the second was a challenge. Even though they went home each week with a simple reader under their arm and I’d read each book with them individually before they left, I was worried about them retaining the pronunciation. Sure enough, reading the borrowed book for me again the following week they had forgotten some of it. English, as we all know, is not a phonetic language as is German their native language and it’s spelling is illogical in comparison. I could already hear them; “But why do the endings in ‘bear’ and ‘care’ sound the same but are spelt differently?” And I just knew I would have problems telling them about the ‘ough’ in ‘though’ or ‘through’, not forgetting ‘rough’ of course! So how could they or my adult students remember or learn how to pronounce a word when I wasn’t there to support them? This was when I realized that perhaps teaching them the International Phonemic Alphabet was the key. And it worked so well that I was encouraged to develop my materials and publish them.

From the very beginning it was obvious that my younger students had absolutely no problem learning to recognize the symbols and they could reproduce the sounds perfectly. They had no inhibitions either opening or moving their mouths to awkward positions enabling them to pronounce a phoneme perfectly. The LWP Phonemic Grid became the introductory 5 minutes of each class and they loved it, particularly if it was combined with our mimes for each phoneme and they were allowed to play ‘teacher’. It’s fun, easy to learn and very effective. The main ingredient throughout the printed and electronic series is ‘fun’. It has to be fun for you to teach and for your students to learn and retain what is taught. A large dash of simplicity, clarity and consistency make up the other ingredients.

Due to the consistent colour-coding throughout the printed and electronic series; blue for consonants, red for vowels, and green for diphthongs, the children will learn to recognize these as ‘sound’ symbols as opposed to the spelling of words in their normal course book. The comic ‘Phonemic Friends - Where did he come from?’ released last December illustrates this point using a story background.

For me, teaching the IPA means boosting my student’s confidence speaking English and the earlier a student learns it the better. As they progress through school, each time a student doesn’t know how to pronounce a word, they have the tools to find out how by using a dictionary and recognizing the phonemic symbols printed behind each word.

We all agree that children should learn the ‘sound’ of English; that their mouths should make the correct movements to produce the sound and also how important pronunciation is. By teaching them the phonemic symbols you are taking it one step further and teaching them the logic behind pronunciation.

As part of my research for this series, I observed a 4th grade primary school class during their English lesson. One of the students asked the teacher how to pronounce a certain word that was bothering her. The teacher told her and the child diligently repeated the pronunciation, but also noted something in her student book. I asked the child if I could see what she had written. She had neatly written the ‘sound’ of the word in her own native language just above it to enable her to remember it. However, the problem here is that her own native language doesn’t contain the same ‘sounds’ as the English language, so her pronunciation will be and was incorrect. I had also witnessed this with my own classes of students before I decided to teach them the phonemic symbols. I even remember doing this myself at the same age if I taxed my brain to think back that far!
If, even at that age, they want to code it into a language that helps them to remember the pronunciation, why not teach them how to do it correctly? Believe me, they’ll thank you when they reach secondary school level and have to prepare a classroom presentation in English! Even native speakers stumble upon words they can’t pronounce immediately. The IPA has also become the basis for learning other languages as well, and many of the dictionaries for modern languages use the IPA with some additional symbols unique to their particular language.


There is no age restriction on learning the ‘sounds’ of the English language. Which is all that you will be doing with young children. After this you will be teaching them to recognize the individual colour-coded symbols as used throughout our material and asking them to reproduce the sound that each of the symbols represents. Studies have shown that the earlier a student is exposed to the sound of a language, the better their future learning experience of that language will be. Pronunciation is the key to this. A child’s phonemic awareness is very high in comparison to most adult learners.

We are of the opinion that if you can engage your students in easy to follow material and fun activities the more successful their learning experience will be. The LWP Phonemic Grid is the basis of this series, drilling each phoneme twice within the example word. The goal of these materials is that the student, no matter what age, learns to recognize the phonemic symbols and the sound they represent. Therefore, if the user were to select one of the symbols from the LWP Phonemic Grid, the symbol takes over the first screen, the second screen shows the same symbol, an image supporting this symbol and the supporting word, written phonemically. The phoneme within this supporting word pulsates twice in sequence with the audio track and then finally, on the last screen the symbol alone is displayed, the sound repeated and the user is returned to the main phonemic grid again.

It’s amazing how many people I’ve met who’ve said that they have avoided the IPA like the plague. But that’s the pity really, because of all the parts needed to learn English well, the IPA works. You’ll never find yourself saying “Well sorry, that’s just the way it is in English” which happens often when we teach spelling and grammar. At this point someone will let out an indignant snort and flap their hands in the air or raise their eyes to the ceiling to vent their frustration with the English language. A language that has managed to make up it’s own set of rules as it’s developed over the centuries. That’s their frustrated moment and we share it with them too.

But if you teach them how to recognize the phonemic symbols and reproduce their respective sound correctly, your students will ALWAYS have good pronunciation and feel more confident about pronouncing new words. It’s like reading music notes to sing a new song. You may have a terrific voice, but if you can’t read music notes you’ll need a very good memory and a lot of practice!
say what you mean - webpage 2012

Say what you mean and say it well!




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