How to introduce the pronunciation chart to your class

The phonemic chart (‘pron chart’) is to pronunciation what the whiteboard is to vocabulary and grammar: it is the essential workbench on which you work things out, experiment, analyse, clarify, check, test, gain insight, understand and create. However, the pron chart needs some introduction. It needs ‘putting into circulation’.

You can do this two ways: Through the front door by directly teaching the sounds on the chart, and making up words and phases, or through the back door, by making use of sounds and words occurring naturally in the lesson and showing them on the chart (“….by the way this is what you just said….”). Once the student (and you) know their way round the chart you can get on with using it to integrate pronunciation anytime in any lesson.

Here is a mix of front door and back door ways of introducing the chart: use all of them in any order and make more of your own.

1..Teach some of the sounds separately by saying them yourself, or by listening to them on a recording, or even my miming them. Have the students say the sound in isolation reasonably well, then indicate the sound on the chart

2.. Use a more opportunistic approach

When a student makes a sound, perhaps while trying to pronounce a new word, and you realise it is a sound on the chart,

– simply indicate that sound on the chart

– tell them “What you just said is this…”,

– revise that new sound a bit later

3.. When teaching new vocabulary

either write the word on the board in normal spelling,

then help the students to say it

– then ask them “How many sounds are there in that word?”

– they probably give slightly different estimates (eg 4, or 6 or 5. The point is they don’t have to be ‘right’ because the aim is for them to separate and identify the sounds in their ‘inner voice.’

– then get the class to call out the sounds separately and in order (At this pint don’t say the sounds yourself, but count them on your fingers for all the class to see)

– finally ask a student to come to the chart and point out the sounds on the chart

Or say the word (or listen to a recording or in a dialogue)

– then have the students say and practise it,

– then you point out the word on the chart

– then get one or two students to come to the chart and do the same.

When pointing out the sounds on the chart note these two rules:

– The person who is pointing on the chart is silent

– The rest of the class should call out whatever sound is pointed at, right or wrong, allowing the student to correct him/herself

4.. Working with vocabulary and dictionaries,

Give students some new words you want them to learn

– get them to find them in a dictionary

– and notice the pronunciation

– and say the words

– then one student leaves the dictionary behind and goes to the chart to point out the word in phonemes.

– if s/he makes a mistake

– call another student

-if she makes a mistake, give the pointer back to the first student,

– and so on til the word is correctly spelt.

5.. Finding example words for the vowels

– ask the students to draw an empty grid in their books, 4 squares wide and 3 squares deep. This represents the vowel grid containing the 12 vowels in the top left quadrant of the chart.

– they write the phoneme symbol in the top corner of each box.

– ask them to find one English word as an example for each vowel sound and write it in the correct box. They can do this for homework, or in pairs in class. – draw a big grid on the board and get everyone to come up and put their example words in the correct box in normal alphabetic spelling. Then you and the class can spend a few minutes checking them, seeing which words are in the right box, and which need to be moved to another.

6.. Simple sound game

– invite students in turn to say any sound in English (!)

– if in your opinion it is close enough, point to that sound on the phonemic chart

– if not close enough, point outside the chart and say (as a tease) “Sorry that’s not English….” And let them try it a little differently.

7.. Students’ names

– instead of using vocabulary items, ask students to say their own names, with an English pronunciation (as an English speaker might say it). You can help them.

– ask each to count the sounds in their name

– and then come to the chart and point out their name on the chart.

– this time of course everyone knows what sound the student is looking for, but still the same rules apply: the class say whatever is pointed at, wrong or right, while the person pointing does so silently, enabling them to hear what the class are saying and to correct if necessary

8.. Your familiar pronunciation exercises

– do your usual pronunciation activities (for example minimal pairs)

– identify the sounds you are practising on the chart

– require students to come to the chart and point out the sounds or words you are practising.

9.. Give class instructions on the chart

Sometimes give class your usual class instructions silently by pointing on the chart:

“Good morning!

“Please turn to page 45.

“OK here’s the homework etc.

“How do you spell this word…?


10.. Have a pron crib when you are starting out!

– if you are not sure of the sounds, copy the pronunciation key from the front of your learner dictionary

– keep it by you in class and consult it whenever you are uncertain

– after a while you’ll find you don’t need it

What ways have you found to introduce the pron chart to your students?

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15 Responses to How to introduce the pronunciation chart to your class

  1. Jeff says:

    Thanks for all of the great ideas here Adrian. Very useful PD session for my teachers in here. I think the chart is invaluable when introducing new vocabulary to students. As you said, having students guess how many sounds are in the word is great for awareness raising and reinforcing the pronunciation of new words.
    By introducing the chart from the beginning, students gradually learn both the phonemes and the functionality of the chart as a whole. this way, they don’t get overwhelmed by it.

  2. Thanks Jeff for these comments from your experience. If/when you get round to a PD session relating to this it would be interesting for all of us to know how you go about it and what other ideas come up from your teachers. Also, any tips on how you help teachers feel more attracted to dealing with pron close up?

  3. Milada says:

    Dear Sir,
    thank You for theese ideas and advices. I have been writing a diploma thesis on Phonetic transcription in lower-secondary school English classes. I have been searching for some material suitable for my thesis and this really helped me to understand this topic in practice. Could You tell me if I can find all these ideas in some of Your books? I would need to have some source to be quoted and in my opinion this is what I need. Thank You for the answer.
    Best regards.

  4. Hello Milada
    Yes, you can find these ideas and the thinking behind them in my book Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation published by Macmillan ELT. A fundamental activity in this approach is visual dictation, whereby students or teacher tap out the sounds of a word or phrase on the phonemic (Sound Foundations) chart, shown in the side bar. This induces students to think, feel and hear the sounds in a word, and then to be able to join them together in connected speech. The primary aim is NOT for students to learn phonemic transcription, but the by product is that they do, and very quickly too

  5. Deborah says:

    Hi Adrian,
    I recently watched (on you tube) your 1 hour lesson for introducing the chart to a new class. It was really interesting as I’m trying to incorporate the chart more seemlessly into my lessons and studying for the DipTESOL . My question is, how do I teach the introductory (chart) lesson when my classes have a rolling enrollment? – Within one class some students attend for 1/2 weeks, whilst others for some months. Clearly I can’t spend an hour introducing the chart on a weekly or fortnightly basis, neither can I assume that new students have a statisfactory phonemic awareness to ‘jump straight in’. Any suggestions you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

    • Hi Deborah. Thanks for raising this question. There are many teachers facing the problems caused by rolling enrolment, and it is easy to see the educational disadvantages of such a management system. One problem with new students joining a class every week is that they have not experienced the work the others did, and therefore cannot participate fully in the current work. This holds the class up, because the old students don’t need to repeat work, it wastes their time, and the new students can’t proceed unless that work is done. A familiar dilemma for the teacher. Familiar too is the awkwardness, impatience and undermining of class harmony.

      Now, I don’t think this is quite the problem is seems, so let me explain why, and then suggest what you can do about it. We see this as a problem if we see learning as a linear sequence. Like building a wall, you can’t lay the second layer of bricks until you have laid the first. And we can find evidence for this in our classes, where our thinking is also influenced by linear course book syllabuses and linear thinking. But supposing learning can be multi-directional and multi-layered, supposing the wall of learning can be started at multiple levels at the same time, supposing learning can beak out all over the place, with the bits gradually coalescing and reordering themselves into a whole…. Look at how siblings of different ages can play together for ages, each totally engrossed, each following their own agenda in interaction with the others who are engrossed in theirs, yet they are supposedly at different levels and at school would be in different classes.….. Now let’s return to the concrete example of working with the phonemic chart. First, I am not teaching the chart but introducing it, giving an experience of working with it. Second, this experience will be followed by multiple other experiences, even if there are no newcomers to the class. Third, every student makes a different sense of it at each exposure, none of them ‘learn what I teach’. Fourth, their different sense making is also transmitted between them as they watch and work and learn from each other. Fifth, and here is an important one, have you ever noticed how the child who has been absent for two weeks finds their way to catch up? Have you noticed how when one new student joins an already well established class, they generally catch up? Somehow the learning already done by the class is absorbed by the newcomer?

      So what would I do? I would have this in mind, and specifically I would use all of the ways 10 ways to introduce the chart outlined in my post above. And I would invent more as I went along. And I would see that any usage adds to the collective experience, so I would use the chart as much as possible. Every time I get the class to point to new words on the chart is at the same time another introduction to the chart.

      In this way constant usage, constant incorporation of the chart into every aspect of the lesson is vital for the continuing process of the never-ending introduction and familiarisation of the chart. My suggestion is, don’t expect or wait for the students to suddenly ‘get it’, but keep offering new experience, allowing each student to be at their own place with the chart, not at some common class level. It is actually possible to work constructively with a ‘mess’!

      Deborah, I hope you’ll have a chance to try this out, and make your sense of it and see if you can find your way forward. And please come back with your insights, which will certainly be of help to others!

      • Deborah Hobbs says:

        Hi Adrian,
        Thank you for your reply, which is proving to very useful. So much so to wanted to ask if it would be ok if I (International House, Bristol) quoted you and make reference to your 10 ways, in our Dip and Cert training materials?
        Kind regards, Deborah

      • Sure Deborah, please do use this, and refer to this blog, and ask your trainees in turn to try these things out in a spirit of inquiry and exploration, and to talk about what they find and to pass it on….and tell them your experience. I think the inquiry of the teacher, alongside their students, is as important as their certainty.

  6. Brenda De martino says:

    What do the diagonal lines and dash marks in the top right-hand corner of the phonemic chart represent? I have been asked this on several occasions and don’t know the answer!

    • Hi Brenda
      The dashes represent primary and secondary stress, so that when pointing out words on the chart one can indicate stressed syllables in the same way as a dictionary does. The diagonal lines refer to the intonation pattern over the utterance, and represent the five possible tones that form the basis of Discourse Intonation as described by David Brazil and others. Many teachers prefer to indicate intonation with their hands, or with lines drawn on the board. However, his device on the chart offers a concise way of indicating tones with the pointer.

  7. Hi Adrian I’m working on my thesis project for the University and I’m working on the use of Phonetics to improve pronunciation in ESL learners. I saw your video and this is righ what I want to do. I would like to know what theories did you use for your aproach because I’m collecting information for the theorethical framework. I would really apreciate your help.Thank you.

    • Thanks for this question Andres. I think it’s the kind of thing we should be asking each other more often. My learning and teaching ideas have been inspired by many people and experiences, and here is what comes to mind immediately:
      1.. The Subordination of Teaching to Learning, Caleb Gattegno. Part of an enormously wide approach to learning any subject. Was particularly evident in 60’s, 70’s, 80’s but as it was out of the received theoretical box people found it difficult to get hold of it without reducing it. Probably the predictable initial experience of any paradigm shift. As relevant as ever. To be brief, key inspirations for me were: Use of a pron chart (though colours instead of symbols, and no articulatory layout in my sense); The encouragement of the learner to find the sound internally, to establish some sort of inner criteria, rather than get there by copying a model; The resulting need for the teacher to develop skills to help the learner find sounds for themselves, to ‘see’ the learner’s moves; The notion of providing the least that is sufficient, and drawing out the learners’ inventiveness and innate creativity. Gattegno has a huge literature. Find more by googling Educational Solutions, or from a recently published summary How We Learn and How We Should be Taught by Young and Messum

      2.. Phonetics writers (eg Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, Catford’s a practical Introduction to Phonetics) for the insights for layout of the chart, for the methods of approaching sounds as outlined in my Story of Sounds on this blog and in my book. And many educational writers including John Holt and Earl Stevick, and so on.

      3.. Personal learning experiences such as: learning sign language; experience of proprioception through body related disciplines such as dance, Tai Chi and Alexander Technique; experience in 80’s of in-depth integration of learner dictionary work in all class work; experience as an improvising musician, and the importance of improvisation in teaching.

      I hope this provides you with a useful response…



  9. Pingback: Introducing the pronunciation chart at beginner level | Adrian’s Pron Chart Blog

  10. I was in Oxford in Oct 2012 when I heard and watched you present these ideas – really fun and engaging. My main issue is how to explain what happens in the mouth if the students aren’t yet au fait with the English of explanations: relax the sides of the tongue to allow air to escape. I’ve practised demonstrating to the wall (!) how to move, say, from an /n/ to an /r/ , using my fingers to yank parts of my tongue around to demonstrate what I’m saying. As I’m about to teach some elderly Japanese ladies,the actual difference between /r/ and /l/, they may be put off! Any ideas?
    Do you supply an internal diagram of the mouth? Or, have any other practical ideas?
    Many thanks

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