IPA chart in the classroom: useful tool or confusing symbols? (Study of vowel sounds)

I started learning English ages ago, last century! 🙂

I have been an EFL/ESL teacher since 1995 and have always observed that pronunciation work is frequently set aside or even disregarded, in Adrian Underhill’s words:  ‘…pronunciation is the Cinderella of language teaching’.

As a learner, I remember very few teachers using the IPA chart in the classroom. It was a set of quite strange symbols that more or less resembled letters but they weren’t actually letters. It was kind of an alternative alphabet that didn’t make sense to me. My big question as a student was Why do these symbols exist? What for?

Many years later I became an English teacher myself and was lucky enough to have fantastic phonology tutors who clearly explained the reasons and origins of the IPA chart. There are several phonemic charts, I have been trained and taught Adrian Underhill’s chart (the most widespread).

As a teacher, I have always believed pronunciation work is basic given that the main aim of learning a language is to communicate effectively in the L2. However, curriculum constraints and time tables made it difficult to set pronunciation work in every class. Grammar and Vocabulary seemed to be far more important. What a big mistake!

My Trinity TESOL Diploma studies reaffirmed my convictions about the importance of phonology and provided me with tools to address pronunciation confidently and systematically.

Spanish learners have serious difficulties with vowel sounds, so I decided to examine this issue with my own learners: HOW CAN THE PHONEMIC ALPHABET AND UNDERHILL’S CHART HELP TO IMPROVE THE PRONUNCIATION OF VOWEL SOUNDS (MONOPHTONGS)?

I investigated how learners can improve their pronunciation, intelligibility and communication skills by becoming aware of individual phonemes and Underhill’s chart.

While exploring the idea of ‘learner training’ to foster students’ autonomy, I observed that the awareness of sounds and symbols clearly encourages independent learning; e.g., decoding the pronunciation of words in dictionaries.

I work at a little language academy in Ibiza, Spain. Most students are Young Learners, Spanish and Catalan speakers who attend class three hours per week.

I developed this project with two groups who were enthusiastic about pronunciation. My aim was to address their need for practical tools to understand and pronounce individual sounds effectively.

Objectives and Rationale. 

  1. To focus on the physical aspect of teaching pronunciation of individual sounds.
  2. To use the phonemic chart to help teaching individual sounds.

Rationale for Objective 1.

An area that particularly interests me is ‘The need for physicality’, which implies helping learners to locate the muscles needed to escape ‘the grip of their mother tongue phonetic set’ and find the internal ‘muscle buttons’ to press to get a different sound (A. Underhill, 2010).

The idea was to help my students locate the following “Muscle buttons”:

  1. Tongue (moving forward and back)
  2. Lips (spreading and back, rounding and forward)
  3. Jaw + tongue (up and down movement)
  4. Voice (voiced and unvoiced sounds)

Physicality and proprioception, the inner consciousness of what the muscles are doing, are closely related. Too often, students get the impression that pronunciation is merely about sounding good (M. Hancock, 2017). My idea was to help my learners start building up an experienced internal proprioceptive map (A. Underhill, 2014) which will hopefully allow them to control their muscle buttons and find their own intelligible accent.

The lack of many similarities between the two phonological systems makes pronunciation a difficult area for Spanish learners. In English there are twelve monophthongal vowels; in Spanish there are five and in Catalan, eight. The wider range of sounds in Catalan could be an advantage for its speakers (M. Swan & B. Smith, 2001), but an area that proved problematic is the variable length of vowel sounds in English (not a distinctive feature for Spanish vowels). Miscommunication episodes, e.g., ‘My mum is /θ3ːrˈtiːn/ years-old’,  ‘My new t-shirt was /ˈtʃɪp/’, led me to decide to work in this area; as Jennifer Jenkins suggests in “Global English and the teaching of pronunciation”, teachers can be selective about the sounds they help learners to focus on. 

According to Patricia Kuhl in “A new view of language acquisition”, the perceptual map of the first language constrains the acquisition of a second language; she mentions a critical period for language learning stating that after the age of seven, skills at acquiring a second language diminish. My learners’ youth constitutes an advantage for them because their articulators are not as fixed as adults’ articulators.

Rationale for Objective 2.

I was keen on exploring the view of Underhill’s phonemic chart as a mental map. Raising learners’ awareness of the chart’s meaningful layout, which actually tells us how and where the sounds are made, makes pronunciation concrete rather than ethereal or elusive (A. Underhill, 2010).

The main reasons why the use of the phonemic chart is useful and helpful in my context are:

  1. It is an effective tool for teaching and correcting errors.
  2. It fosters independent learning (effective use of dictionaries).
  3. Its layout is consistent with the phonemes’ physicality; neighbour sounds in the chart are neighbours in the mouth (Underhill, 2010).

Lexis and pronunciation are often acquired and retained better if learnt independently rather than fed by the teacher; therefore, my idea is to encourage independent pronunciation learning. Learners should be made aware of the importance of pronunciation and of which sounds help them to become more comprehensible in the English speaking world.  (N. Meldrum, 2004). 


I devised a series of lessons to pursue my objectives, with the wider aims of improving my learners’ pronunciation and autonomy by teaching the phonemic symbols and chart.

I introduced the pure vowel sounds by rows to avoid overloading students following Underhill’s approach:

  1. Miming and assessing students’ learning position (C. Tomlinson, 1995).
  2. Modelling and addressing the physicality of the sounds and their symbols in a student-friendly way (G. Kelly, 2000).

This has helped learners start developing a proprioceptive map.

Learners downloaded Macmillan’s interactive phonemic chart and Wordreference dictionary application onto their mobiles as learning tools.


  • By addressing the phonemes’ physicality, students immediately started thinking and sensing what happens in their mouths. They engaged in lively discussion during the tasks and frequently referred to their mobiles’ tools. Gestures and miming helped them discern the different sounds. Selfies proved helpful in the visualisation of the lips and tongue position (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2268843583427721&extid=Cp3EzpJcRzCBlafo).
  • Learners engaged enthusiastically. They especially enjoyed Underhill’s student-friendly terms of ‘big idiot’ for /ɜ:/ and ‘small idiot’ for the schwa, which proved an efficient mnemonics for the sounds and symbols. (https://www.adrianunderhill.com/2013/10/30/teaching-the-english-sounds-%C7%9D-and-%C9%9C%CB%90/)
  • Learners started gaining autonomy; they spontaneously used their charts and dictionaries to discover or confirm phonemes and the pronunciation of new words.
  • Enthusiasm and involvement levels were high. The physical aspect of pronunciation attracted learners’ interest and they actively discussed their viewpoints, especially their tongue’s positions.


  • There was a remarkable progress in these students’ pronunciation skills; they went from occasional encounters with the phonemic symbols to systematic and consistent exposure to individual sounds and the phonemic chart.
  • Relating the need for physicality and muscle ‘training’ to their own sport life (all these children practise sports) boosted their interest and it was an efficient way of connecting language learning to their personal lives. I was happy with the improvements in their physical awareness of the target phonemes. Despite there are still some difficulties with the ‘tongue button’, most of these learners are able to control the lips and jaw buttons rather accurately.
  • The technological tools proved helpful and useful. It is encouraging that most of these students are now fairly skilful; they spontaneously refer to their mobile applications to find out the meaning and pronunciation of new lexis. The rate of learners asking ‘What does … mean?’ has lowered significantly.
  • The level of engagement was varied, all learners actively participated in the lessons but some of them went even beyond fiddling with the full chart and devising pronunciation games by themselves.
  • Student-friendly terms like ‘big idiot’ and ‘small idiot’ lowered anxiety and demonstrated learners that although learning takes time, the classroom is a safe environment to experiment with language; playing and laughing make the learning process enjoyable (L. Patsko, 2015).
  • Far from being threatening, the phonemic chart proved motivating, the novelty factor and the meaningful layout helped aid as a memory hook for the physical position of the different sounds. 

My advice for EFL/ESL Teachers: Do not be afraid of teaching pronunciation, learn the chart, learn about its meaningful layout, and become aware of your own “muscle buttons” so you can pass on that knowledge. Address pron work as a PE instance that will make pronunciation engaging and fun!

Author: Lic. Ana Castro


Useful links:
Adrian Underhill: Teaching Difficult Sounds. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOOmZVBmBVQ
My Top Ten Pronunciation Tips: Physicality and Integration – by Adrian Underhill. https://www.oxfordtefl.com/blog/my-top-ten-pronunciation-tips-physicality-and-integration-by-adrian-underhill
Adrian Underhill’s blog. https://www.adrianunderhill.com/the-pronunciation-blog/
TEACHING VOWEL SOUNDS – Adrian Underhill. https://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil/videos/2268843583427721

Acerca de Ana

I have more than 25 years of teaching English experience. I am an English teacher, Teacher Trainer and Tutor. I specialise in Young Learners and teenagers but I also teach adults. I enjoy sharing experience ..

2 comentarios sobre “IPA chart in the classroom: useful tool or confusing symbols? (Study of vowel sounds)

  1. Leonel Quesada on

    I see eye to eye with you 100%. Your work is really interesting. I have worked hard for years to make teachers aware of the importance of this area. Thanks for sharing; keep up the good work.

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